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Managing E-Mail Delivery (211.2)

Candidates should be able to implement client e-mail management software to filter, sort and monitor incoming user email.

Key Knowledge Areas

  • Understanding of Sieve functionality, syntax and operators

  • Use Sieve to filter and sort mail with respect to sender, recipient(s), headers and size

  • Awareness of procmail

Terms and Utilities

  • Conditions and comparison operators

  • keep, fileinto, redirect, reject, discard, stop

  • Dovecot vacation extension


Procmail is a email filtering utility that may be used for preprocessing and sorting of incoming mail. It can also be used to sort out email from mailinglists, to filter spam and send auto-replies. Procmail configuration is based on a file placed in the user's homedirectory. It is rarely run from the command line (except for testing purposes) but it's an autonomous program which is normally invoked by MTA's (Mail Transport Agent) like Sendmail or Postfix.

Procmail follows the following scheme for reading its configuration (it reads both): /etc/procmailrc, ~/.procmailrc

Be careful using the system-wide /etc/procmailrc. It is usually read and processed as root. This fact means that a poorly designed recipe in that file could do serious damage. For instance, a typo could cause Procmail to overwrite an important system binary rather than use that binary to process a message. For this reason, you should keep system-wide Procmail processing to a minimum and instead focus on using ~/.procmailrc to process email using individual accounts.


Dovecot Sieve is a scripting language that may be used to preproces and sort incoming email. It can also be used to sort out email from mailinglists, to filter spam and send auto-replies. To use sieve it should first be configured on the email servers. In this setup postfix is used to deliver email to the Dovecot local delivery agent. In the file the mailbox_command option should be configured to use the local delivery agent.

    mailbox_command = /usr/lib/dovecot/dovecot-lda -a "$RECIPIENT"

The next step is enabling sieve support in dovecot. In the configuration file 15-lda.conf the following options should be configured:

    lda_mailbox_autocreate = yes

    lda_mailbox_autosubscribe = yes

    protocol lda {
      mail_plugins = $mail_plugins sieve

The configuration option: lda_mailbox_autocreate enables dovecot to create a mailbox if this action is initiated by a rule in sieve. The option: lda_mailbox_autosubscribe subscribes a user to a specific mailbox if this is initiated by an auto created action for a specific mailbox. The option: mail_plugins enables the sieve scripting module in dovecot. The configuration file 90-sieve.conf needs the following adjustments:

    plugin {
        sieve = ~/.dovecot.sieve
        sieve_dir = ~/sieve
        sieve_default = /var/lib/dovecot/sieve/default.sieve
        sieve_global_dir = /var/lib/dovecot/sieve

The sieve configuration option is the location where users can save their sieve rules. The sieve_dir configuration option is the directory of a user which can hold multiple sieve scripts. The configuration option sieve_default is used to execute a default sieve script. If a user has a personal sieve configuration file in its home directory then the global configuration file is overruled. The option sieve_global_dir identifies a global directory to contain multiple global sieve scripts. After configuration the services should be restarted with service postfix restart and service dovecot restart.

Sieve syntax

The sieve syntax is easy to understand. It consists of three basic parts: Control, Test and Action commands. The control command controls the flow of the code. They affect how the commands will be carried out. The test command will be used in conjunction with control commands to specify a condition that could lead to an action. The action command will be executed after a condition is evaluated to true. You can also use single-line comments starting with a "#" and multi-line comments starting with "/*" and ending with "*/" to clarify sieve rules. Example:

    # comment
    require ["extension"];

    /* This is multi
       line comment */

    # if -> control command
    if <condition> { 
       stop; #end processing

Sievevacation extension Sieve also offers an auto-responder functionality by using the vacation> extension. Below is an example shown that uses the vacation extension.

    require ["fileinto", "vacation"];

        # Reply at most once a day to a same sender
    :days 1
            :subject "Out of office reply"
    # List of additional recipient addresses which are included in the auto replying.
    # If a mail's recipient is not the envelope recipient and it's not on this list,
    # no vacation reply is sent for it.
    :addresses ["j.doe@company.dom", "john.doe@company.dom"]
        "I'm out of office, please contact Joan Doe instead.
    Best regards
    John Doe";

The "vacation" extension provides several options, namely:

  • :days number - Is used to specify the period where addresses are kept and not responded to (in days).

  • :subject string - Specifies the subject line attached to any vacation response.

  • :from string - Specifies an alternate to use in the From field of vacation messages.

  • :addresses string-list - Specifies additional email addresses to the recipient.

  • :mime - Specifies arbitrary mime content. For example to specify multiple vacation messages in different languages.

  • :handle string - Tells sieve to treat two vacation actions with different arguments as the same command for response tracking

  • reason: string - The actual message


    require "vacation";
    if header :contains "subject" "lunch" {
           vacation :handle "ran-away" "I'm out and can't meet for lunch";
    } else {
           vacation :handle "ran-away" "I'm out";

Control commands

The control commands in sieve are the basic if, else and elsif control statements. If the test condition is evaluated to true then the associated action will be executed. In the control statements the following tagged arguments can be used: :contains, :is, :matches, :over, and :under as shown in the upcoming sieve examples. The require control command is used to declare optional extensions at the beginning of a script (e.g. fileinto) and the stop command ends all processing of the script. Example:

    require "fileinto";
    if header :contains "from" "lottery" {
    } elsif header :contains ["subject"] ["$$$"] {
        } else {
            fileinto "INBOX";


    if header :contains "subject" "money" { 

Test commands

The control commands as stated in the previous section can support different test commands, namely: address, allof, anyof, exists, false, header, not, size and true.

With the address command you can only test if an email adres is in the header. If the to header contains "John Doe \<john\>", then the test would evaluate to false. If the to address contains "john\" then the test would be true because only the address is evaluated. Example:

    require "fileinto";

    if address :is "to" "" {
       fileinto "john";

The allof command is a logical "AND" meaning all conditions should be evaluated to true for further action. Example:

    if allof (header :contains "from" "Bofh", header :contains "to" "abuse")
        fileinto "spam";

The anyof command is a logical "OR" meaning ANY condition should be evaluated to true for further action. Example:

    if anyof (size :over 1M, header :contains "subject" "big file attached")
        reject "I don't want messages that claim to have big files.";

The exists command tests if a header exits with the message. All headers must return true for any action being executed. Example:

    if exists "x-custom-header" 
        redirect "";

The false command simply returns false.

The header command tests if a header matches the condition set by the argument and evaluates to true. Example:

    if header :is ["subject"] "make money fast" {

The not command should be used with another test. This command negates the other test for the action to be taken. The example below means that if the message does NOT contain "from" and "date" then the discard action will be taken. Example:

    if not exists ["from", "date"] 

The size command is used to specify the message size to be higher or lower than a specified value in order to evaluate the condition to true. The command accepts tagged arguments :over and :under and you can use M after the specified value for megabytes, K for kilobytes and no letter for bytes. Example:

    if size :over 500K {

The true command simply returns true.

Action commands

The action commands are being executed after a test command is evaluated to true or operate on their own. The action commands are: keep, fileinto, redirect and discard. The keep action commands causes the message to be saved in the default location. The fileinto action command is an optional command and can be used by using require "fileinto" control command in the beginning of the script. If the test command is evaluated to true then the message is moved into the defined mailbox. Example:

    if attachment :matches ["*.vbs", "*.exe"] {
        fileinto "INBOX.suspicious";

The redirect command redirects the message to the address that is specified in the argument without tampering the message. Example:

    if exists "x-virus-found" {
       redirect "";

The discard command causes the message silently deleted without sending any notification or any other message. Example:

    if size :over 2M { 

Mbox and maildir storage formats

Mbox and maildir are email storage formats. Postfix and Dovecot support the two email storage formats where maildir is the recommended format.

Mbox format

Mbox is the traditional email storage format. In this format there is only one regular text file which serves as the user's mailbox. Typically, the name of this file is /var/spool/mail/<user name>. Mbox locks the mailbox when an operation is performed on the mailbox. After the operation the mailbox is unlocked.


  • Mbox format is universally supported

  • Appending new email is fast

  • Searching inside single mailbox is fast


  • Mbox is known for locking problems

  • The mbox format is prone to corruption

Maildir format

Maildir is the newer email storage format. A directory maildir is created for each email user, typically in the users' home directories. Under this maildir directory by default three more directories exist: new, cur and tmp.


  • Locating, retrieving and deleting a specific email is fast, particularly when a email folder contains hundreds of messages

  • Minimal to no file locking needed

  • Can be used on a network file system

  • Immune to mailbox corruption (assuming the hardware will not fail)


  • Some filesystems may not efficiently handle a large number of small files

  • Searching text, which requires all email files to be opened is slow

Recipe differences between mbox and maildir for procmailrc

Before copying the recipes from this page into your procmailrc file, remember to adapt them to your particular maildir/mbox format, taking into consideration that the name of maildir folders end in \"/\". You do not need to lock the file when using maildir format (:0 instead of :0:).

In mbox the format is:


While in maildir it would be: