SMTP by default uses TCP port 25. The protocol for mail submission is the same, but uses port 587. SMTP connections secured by SSL, known as SMTPS, default to port 465 (nonstandard, but sometimes used for legacy reasons). Although electronic mail servers and other mail transfer agents use SMTP to send and receive mail messages, user-level client mail applications typically use SMTP only for sending messages to a mail server for relaying. For retrieving messages, client applications usually use either POP3 or IMAP. Although proprietary systems (such as Microsoft Exchange and IBM Notes) and webmail systems (such as Outlook.com, Gmail and Yahoo! Mail) use their own non-standard protocols to access mail box accounts on their own mail servers, all use SMTP when sending or receiving email from outside their own systems.
SMTP is part of the application layer of the TCP/IP protocol. Using a process called “store and forward,” SMTP moves your email on and across networks. It works closely with something called the Mail Transfer Agent (MTA) to send your communication to the right computer and email inbox. SMTP spells out and directs how your email moves from your computer’s MTA to an MTA on another computer, and even several computers. Using that “store and forward” feature mentioned before, the message can move in steps from your computer to its destination. At each step, Simple Mail Transfer Protocol is doing its job. Lucky for us, this all takes place behind the scenes, and we don’t need to understand or operate SMTP.
History of SMTP
Various forms of one-to-one electronic messaging were used in the 1960s. People communicated with one another using systems developed for specific mainframe computers. As more computers were interconnected, especially in the US Government’s ARPANET, standards were developed to allow users of different systems to email one another. SMTP grew out of these standards developed during the 1970s. SMTP can trace its roots to two implementations described in 1971: the Mail Box Protocol, whose implementation has been disputed, but is discussed in RFC 196 and other RFCs, and the SNDMSG program, which, according to RFC 2235, Ray Tomlinson of BBN invented for TENEX computers to send mail messages across the ARPANET. Fewer than 50 hosts were connected to the ARPANET at this time.
Further implementations include FTP Mail and Mail Protocol, both from 1973. Development work continued throughout the 1970s, until the ARPANET transitioned into the modern Internet around 1980. Jon Postel then proposed a Mail Transfer Protocol in 1980 that began to remove the mail’s reliance on FTP. SMTP was published as RFC 788 in November 1981, also by Postel.
The SMTP standard was developed around the same time as Usenet, a one-to-many communication network with some similarities.
SMTP became widely used in the early 1980s. At the time, it was a complement to Unix to Unix Copy Program (UUCP) mail, which was better suited for handling email transfers between machines that were intermittently connected. SMTP, on the other hand, works best when both the sending and receiving machines are connected to the network all the time. Both use a store and forward mechanism and are examples of push technology. Though Usenet’s newsgroups are still propagated with UUCP between servers, UUCP as a mail transport has virtually disappeared along with the “bang paths” it used as message routing headers. Sendmail, released with 4.1cBSD, right after RFC 788, was one of the first mail transfer agents to implement SMTP. Over time, as BSD Unix became the most popular operating system on the Internet, sendmail became the most common MTA (mail transfer agent). Some other popular SMTP server programs include Postfix, qmail, Novell GroupWise, Exim, Novell NetMail, Microsoft Exchange Server and Oracle Communications Messaging Server. Message submission (RFC 2476) and SMTP-AUTH (RFC 2554) were introduced in 1998 and 1999, both describing new trends in email delivery. Originally, SMTP servers were typically internal to an organization, receiving mail for the organization from the outside, and relaying messages from the organization to the outside. But as time went on, SMTP servers (mail transfer agents), in practice, were expanding their roles to become message submission agents for Mail user agents, some of which were now relaying mail from the outside of an organization. (e.g. a company executive wishes to send email while on a trip using the corporate SMTP server.) This issue, a consequence of the rapid expansion and popularity of the World Wide Web, meant that SMTP had to include specific rules and methods for relaying mail and authenticating users to prevent abuses such as relaying of unsolicited email (spam). Work on message submission (RFC 2476) was originally started because popular mail servers would often rewrite mail in an attempt to fix problems in it, for example, adding a domain name to an unqualified address. This behavior is helpful when the message being fixed is an initial submission, but dangerous and harmful when the message originated elsewhere and is being relayed. Cleanly separating mail into submission and relay was seen as a way to permit and encourage rewriting submissions while prohibiting rewriting relay. As spam became more prevalent, it was also seen as a way to provide authorization for mail being sent out from an organization, as well as traceability. This separation of relay and submission quickly became a foundation for modern email security practices.
As this protocol started out purely ASCII text-based, it did not deal well with binary files, or characters in many non-English languages. Standards such as Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) were developed to encode binary files for transfer through SMTP. Mail transfer agents (MTAs) developed after Sendmail also tended to be implemented 8-bit-clean, so that the alternate “just send eight” strategy could be used to transmit arbitrary text data (in any 8-bit ASCII-like character encoding) via SMTP. Mojibake was still a problem due to differing character set mappings between vendors, although the email addresses themselves still allowed only ASCII. 8-bit-clean MTAs today tend to support the 8BITMIME extension, permitting binary files to be transmitted almost as easily as plain text. Recently the SMTPUTF8 extension was created to support UTF-8 text, allowing international content and addresses in non-Latin scripts like Cyrillic or Chinese.
Many people contributed to the core SMTP specifications, among them Jon Postel, Eric Allman, Dave Crocker, Ned Freed, Randall Gellens, John Klensin, and Keith Moore.
SMTP at work.
SMTP provides a set of codes that simplify the communication of email messages between email servers (the network computer that handles email coming to you and going out). It’s a kind of shorthand that allows a server to break up different parts of a message into categories the other server can understand. When you send a message out, it’s turned into strings of text that are separated by the code words (or numbers) that identify the purpose of each section.
SMTP provides those codes, and email server software is designed to understand what they mean. As each message travels towards its destination, it sometimes passes through a number of computers as well as their individual MTAs. As it does, it’s briefly stored before it moves on to the next computer in the path. Think of it as a letter going through different hands as it winds its way to the right mailbox.