Second Look at Postfix and Dovecot on Ubuntu 9.10

Second Look at Postfix and Dovecot on Ubuntu 9.10 by David Whelan it would be an understatement to say that I am a relative newbie on Linux and Ubuntu. There are a couple of servers and applications that I feel very comfortable with but most of my experience with the operating system and environment is through trial and error until I reach a stable plateau. Once I hit that sweet spot, I tend to stop. Part of reaching that point is finding relatively easy solutions to my needs, one of which is a solid e-mail server that supports Web mail. I have documented my experiences before on this site, looking at full e-mail servers like Axigen, Mailtraq, and Surgemail, which I am currently running. It is clear, though, that I am sidestepping a “come to Jesus” moment when I need to buckle down and figure out how to use Postfix and Dovecot. This is where I am now.

First off, if one of the full servers works for you, I would definitely consider it.  Axigen has a fantastic interface, both for administration and end user.  But they only provide a one year free license and that is not enough for me.  Surgemail has a perpetual 5 user free non-commercial license, which does meet my needs.  But it always feels a bit rough around the edges.  It has been a work horse for me but I am needing to support a few new domains for e-mail hosting and Surgemail doesn’t scale for free.  Both run on the latest versions of Ubuntu, though, which is more than can be said for Zimbra and other free servers.

This brings me back to the beginning, to Postfix and Dovecot.  Postfix is the mail transfer agent (MTA) that comes by default with Ubuntu.  It is a black box for me, since I am used to doing all of my e-mail server configurations through a Web interface.  Dovecot layers on top of Postfix, and provides IMAP support, among other things.  Once these two applications are in place and configured, you can send and receive e-mail, either from within Postfix or using an external e-mail client like Mozilla’s Thunderbird, Gnome Evolution, or Microsoft Outlook.

Hurdle One:  Web Administration

This was not as hard as I expected, once I stumbled upon Webmin.  It is not an e-mail administration front-end, but fronts for a number of different services on Ubuntu.  Once installed, though, you can configure Postfix and Dovecot without recourse to the command prompt.  You can access the config files directly if you have to through Webmin.

No question that Webmin is an enabler for me.  I could have spent the time learning about Postfix and Dovecot and digging through manuals, online tutorials, and other support documentation.  Webmin shortcut that for me and I was able to send e-mails and receive error messages almost right away!

First hurdle jumped.

Hurdle Two:  Web Mail

The other thing I really want is Web mail.  It allows me access when I don’t feel like loading up an application or when I am accessing my mail away from my primary computer.  One reason I had veered towards the all-in-one e-mail servers is that they came with Web mail.  Postfix and Dovecot do not offer any Web mail options.  Like many things in Linux and Ubuntu, though, there are modular pieces to drop on to of your Postfix + Dovecot environment to get Web mail.  These include

Squirrelmail seems to get the most press with Ubuntu users, but I think the interface looks pretty poor.  I have not selected the one I plan to use but I am leaning towards AtMail or Roundcube.

Second hurdle jumped.

Next Steps

I have Postfix and Dovecot running but am having some issues sending and receiving due to incorrect authentication settings.  I am not too worried, for now, because (a) my Surgemail implementation is working fine and (b) I would rather have authentication issues that block improper e-mail rather than have an open relay where anyone can send anything.

Due to some external projects that require me to have reliable e-mail right now, I am postponing moving on fixing Postfix, since I have to bring Surgemail offline to bring Postfix up.  Once I have that configured, I will use Mozilla’s Thunderbird to access my e-mail until I get my Web mail configured and running.  Then I can retire Surgemail and start to work on my other e-mail domains.

And, finally, I will be using the Ubuntu community e-mail servers rather than putting my faith in the continued availability of long term free licensing for home users from commercial providers.

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David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.