Why run your own mail server?
First, The Consultant
Recently I was working with another "consultant". I've
deliberately put that in quotes because this person really lacked
the skills to do the job he was doing, but for political reasons I
had to refrain from pushing him out of the way and taking over. His
lack of basic knowledge was frustrating, but I gritted my teeth and
kept my comments friendly. It wasn't easy.
Anyway, part of what he was doing was configuring a router. I
had to hold my breath as he explained that he always left the
default password unchanged because "it's easy to remember". After
he left, and with the permission of the owner, I changed that. It's
just this funny idea I have that a router sitting on the Internet
ought not to have a password that is known by a few million people
and published on hundreds of websites. I'm funny like that.
We had other fun interactions while he was there, such as his continued attempts to
ping 192.168.2.1 from a 192.168.1.0 subnet with no gateway, but
that's techy stuff that you don't need to understand. Let's just
say that he had no business doing ANYTHING with a router. Yet here
he was, and I had to put up with it.
What I needed him to do was include some port forwarding.
Specifically I needed him to forward TCP port 25 to a machine
inside the LAN. Of course he had no idea what I meant and was
staring rather stupidly at the packet filtering screens of the
router setup. You don't have to understand what that means either,
or why I needed it, or even why it was wrong for him to be looking
at packet filtering. Just follow along and eventually I'll get to
the point, I promise.
"Why do you need that?", he asked, still staring helplessly at
the packet filtering stuff.
"Because the mail server is now behind your router and the
outside world still needs to talk to it", I said. Honestly, I was
not at all sarcastic. I was tempted, yes. But I was nice.
"Why on earth would he have a mail server?"
The "he" referred to was, of course, our mutual customer who
kept looking nervously at me because he knew very well that I
wanted to throttle this person.
Our router technician continued:
"I just have people pop their mail down from their ISP. It makes
a lot more sense".
OK, we've established that I already had a low opinion of this
person's technical qualifications. For a second or two, I wasn't
quite sure how to answer. On the face of it, it's a naive question.
Yet, as I thought about it, I realized that anyone who DOESN'T run
their own mail server might very well wonder the same thing. So, I
gave him a respectful and intelligent answer, and that answer,
after this long lead in, is what the rest of this article is
Indeed, why would you run your own mail server? Obviously it
must cost more, at least for small companies with just a handful of
mail accounts. You have to buy hardware, and probably mail server
software itself, and you have to maintain it, and feed it
electricity. It seems like a dumb idea, right?
Nope. It's actually a very good idea, and here (at last) are
some of the reasons why.
Mail gets to you faster
(I'm going to simplify some things here. The techies in the
audience will get upset, but they still will understand that what
I'm telling you is true)
When someone sends mail to firstname.lastname@example.org, their mail program
either connects directly to wherever.com, or it passes it off to
somebody else's mail server which then connects directly to
wherever.com. If YOUR machine is wherever.com, it gets there right
then. But if wherever.com is hosted by someone else, yes, it gets
THERE immediately but that doesn't mean that YOU can get it.
Consider your typical large ISP like AOL. How many email
messages do you think land at AOL's servers every second? An
unimaginable number. Computers are fast, but they can only do what
they can do: AOL may take minutes or sometimes even hours before it
can process your mail and put it somewhere where you can get
Now consider your smaller ISP, the type that is more likely to
be hosting mail for wherever.com. They are not AOL, so they don't
get clobbered with the millions of emails AOL gets, but on the
other hand, they don't have the resources of AOL either. Their
computers aren't as big, aren't as fast, and they don't have as
many of them either. So it still may be minutes or hours before you
can get that email message.
If you are running the mail server for wherever.com, outside
mail comes directly to you, with no waiting. It's usually ready for
you to read in seconds, because you don't get millions of emails a
day. If by chance you do, it will still be ready faster than it
would if stored elsewhere (unless you have woefully undersized your
Now to satisfy the techies: if wherever.com is not immediately
available, the sending machine will employ some sort of back-off
algorithm where it will try again after ever increasing periods of
time and eventually give up. This can also delay the receipt of
your mail. If you have a "flaky" internet connection, that delay
could cost you more delay time than you would get from the worst
Faster internal mail
Mail sent within your organization arrives at your mail server
NOW. It's ready to be picked up and read by the recipient almost
instantly. If you use an ISP, mail goes out to them first, and then
comes back to you - eventually.
If you are trading emails with big attachments inside your
company, you really appreciate this. You can wait a long time for
an ISP to process a big attachment. Also, if your internet
connection speed is less than ideal, that email can take extra time
going out and back in, and affect other mail and browsing.
Not so if you run the server. Mail arrives at LAN speeds, is
processed quickly, and that's the end of it. No waiting, no affect
on Internet access at all.
No per user mailbox charges
Most ISP's charge you per mailbox, or for a group of 10 or less
etc. The charge is pretty small nowadays, but it is an offsetting
cost. With your own mail server, you can have as many accounts as
you want, whenever you want.
No waiting to add new users
When you control the server, you add and delete users yourself.
Some ISP's let you do that now, but not all, and it isn't always
instant even if they do let you. And again, they will limit you
somewhere as to how many users you can have.
Aliases and lists
With your own server, it's easy to have "tony_law" be the same
as "tony_lawrence" and the same as "boss". It's easy to make groups
(addresses that send the mail to multiple people) too. Some ISPs
are better than others in this regard, but none are like
controlling it yourself.
For example, it's easy to have "tony_law"'s email also copied
off to "email@example.com"- nice for people who want to get their
work email at home, too.
Printers and faxes and other special emails
You may need someone like me to do this kind of thing, but
without your own server, you probably can't do it at all. With your
own mail server, you can have email addresses that do special
- Automatically print out on a printer
- Automatically get archived somewhere on CD
- Send a fax
- Send back requested documents to the person who sent the
Serve as a sales lead queue
- Or whatever you can imagine
I often use email to transfer data between computer programs,
for example when a program on one machine needs to send data that a
program running somewhere else needs. It's simple, reliable, and
easy to do (if you have your own mail servers of course).
Virus and spam
Some ISP's offer virus scanning and spam control nowadays, and
most of them price it pretty reasonably. But when you run your own
server, you get full control over this kind of thing.
Whenever mail is stored somewhere else, you have at least the
possibility that someone else can look at it or copy it. That may
not be important to you, but if it is, you definitely want your own
Really, this is what it's all about. It's like riding the train
vs. driving your own car. Owning vs. renting. That kind of thing.
If you own the mail server, you control it. You can set and more
easily enforce usage policies, you can automatically add legalese
to every outgoing message, you can automatically store every
incoming message or scan them for trigger words and so on. You are
For a mailserver that I like, see http://aplawrence.com/Kerio.
By the way, our helpless technician didn't seem to appreciate
much of this. That's OK, it's a big world and there's room for all
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© 2012-03-27 Tony Lawrence