Sunday, March 04, 2007

From Gentoo+Postfix+Courier to Debian+Exim+Dovecot

Ok, let's say -- hypothetically, of course -- you chose Gentoo for your home email server a few years ago. You found one of Gentoo's great docs on setting up Postfix, Courier and SpamAssassin. You accepted all the reasonable default options during the install, and things seemed to work great.

Over time, you began to take the little email server for granted. Oh sure, you'd occasionally login and "emerge" some security updates, but the dang thing just worked. Why bother it?

Of course, entropy is a cold bitch, and "for granted taking" turned to neglect. After a while, you began to forget all the arcane portage commands, having to use rpms at work and happily experimenting with Ubuntu's adopted dpkg on your desktop. In the beginning, spam was under control, but it's a constant battle, and forgetting your distro's packaging commands won't exactly help you in that fight.

And then terror struck: the Gentoo maintainers decided to release a portage update that was incompatible with the version running on your little email server. And at that precise version did your server remain for the rest of its life. The prospect of recompiling your entire system was just too much to bear. You decided it was a good time to look for another distro, maybe in a couple weeks or so, when you're not so busy...

Well, a couple of weeks turned into a couple of years. And over that time, you came to realize the benefits of the maildir storage format over the traditional mbox one, the latter being one of those reasonable defaults mentioned above. More importantly, you began to appreciate apt/dpkg as "portage without all the compiling", and you became aware of Debian's reputation for server stability.

One day when the spam/ham ratio was particularly high, you decided the time had finally come to switch the ol' home server from Gentoo to Debian. You decided you'd build a new box, transfer the family email over and convert it to the Maildir format. Just because you're a total dumbass-glutton-for-punishment, you also decided to switch MTA's (Postfix to Exim) and IMAP daemons (Courier to Dovecot). "Why the hell not?" you wondered.

Um... I'm not sure I can keep up the hypothetical perspective any longer. I'm thinking you were seeing right through it, anyway. Sorry.

So you -- I mean, I -- found a cheap Dell P3 on Ebay for $33+s/h, installed Debian Etch, and then fired up aptitude...


By default, Debian installs exim4-daemon-light, which is fine for most purposes, but exim4-daemon-heavy is required for integration with most spam/virus detection packages and, despite its name, it's really not that heavy.

# aptitude install exim4-daemon-heavy

Configuring Exim is easy enough, though it took me a while to grok the split vs non-split formats. I wasted a lot of time googling for docs/howtos: I wish I had just started with /usr/share/doc/exim4/README.Debian.gz like the maintainers suggest. I don't know why Google results seem so much more glamorous than the packaged docs.

I went through the normal routine:

# dpkg-reconfigure exim4-config

I chose non-split, mail sent by smarthost, received via SMTP, and accepted mail for *.internal.domain;internal.domain;external.domain. Your -- my? -- domain names will differ, of course. I chose to relay mail for my local network, set the name of the outgoing smarthost, hid the local mail names making only my external domain visible, and made sure to set Maildir as my delivery format.

I then created user accounts for all my family members, and sent them some test mail from a box configured to relay outgoing mail to my new server. In addition to testing the above config, it also caused the Maildir structures to be created in the users' home directories. Easy-peazy-lemon-squeazy.

Something else cool: I can add entries to /etc/aliases and exim will pick them up immediately without restarting or rerunning newaliases or some such. I do that for extended relatives so I don't have to remember their real email addresses, only their alias, e.g. Let me know if you want one.


So delivery is working. Now I need an IMAP server for retrieval.

# aptitude install dovecot-imapd

Configuring Dovecot was simple: I just needed to enable plaintext logins (I'm not exposed to the bad ol' Internet) and the imap protocol. Here's a diff of my changes to /etc/dovecot/dovecot.conf:

< protocols =
> protocols = imap
< #disable_plaintext_auth = yes
> disable_plaintext_auth = no

After saving those changes, a restart is required:

# /etc/init.d/dovecot restart


Now comes the hard part: how to move my email from the old server to the new one? After googling a bit, I came across a utility called mb2md, but its interface is a little weird, seemed to expect files to be in certain places, and seemed more geared toward a single user rather than a group. Somewhat discouraged, I restarted my search, and came across imapsync. This discovery simplified my approach: instead of copying mbox files (both spooled and saved) from the old server to the new and *then* converting them, I could simply encapsulate the format differences behind the IMAP interface, i.e. imapsync allows me to copy email from one IMAP server to another, irrespective of the underlying formats of each! Neat-Oh!

Installing imapsync is easy:

# aptitude install imapsync

Using it takes some practice. Fortunately it provides a --dry option for just that purpose. Here's an example of my Courier-to-Dovecot imapsync incantations for a particular user. I needed to invoke it twice: once for the main inbox, and again for the categories of saved mail I kept beneath the ~/mail directory on the old server:

imapsync --host1 oldbox --user1 jim --password1 oldpass \
--host2 newbox --user2 jim --password2 newpass \
--folder INBOX
imapsync --host1 oldbox --user1 jim --password1 oldpass \
--host2 newbox --user2 jim --password2 newpass \
--include "^mail/.+"

The nice thing about imapsync is that it's a true sync. You can run it multiple times and it only copies over what's changed. This allowed me to be pretty sloppy about when I actually updated my firewall to send SMTP requests to the new server.


Ok, so we've (we, as in me, not you) accomplished a lot. The only thing remaining is to reject viruses and spam. ClamAV will handle the viruses:

# aptitude install clamav-daemon

To integrate with Exim, two changes to /etc/exim4/exim4.conf.template were required. I set av_scanner to this:

av_scanner = clamd:/var/run/clamav/clamd.ctl

And uncommented these lines (presumably put there by exim4-daemon-heavy):

malware = *
message = This message was detected as possible malware ($malware_name).

After running update-exim4.conf, restarting exim and sending a fake virus (as described here), I noticed some "lstat() failed" errors in the mainlog. Smells like a perms problem. To fix that, I did this:

# adduser clamav Debian-exim
# /etc/init.d/clamav-daemon restart

SpamAssassin, er... greylistd

At this point in our story, I expected to tell you how easy it was to integrate SpamAssassin with our (my) new setup, but frankly I haven't done it yet.

Instead, I discovered greylisting. This has eliminated 95% of my spam. For this reason, I'm holding off on SpamAssassin integration for the time being.

The greylistd package provides a convenient script that completely idiot-proofs exim4 integration:

# aptitude install greylistd
# greylistd-setup-exim4 add

Simple, huh?


That's it. We're done. Whew!

Now I have a stable home email server that I can actually update and try to secure. Sweet.

1 comment:

Eduard said...


Thank you for your page.
Recently I setup a homemade e-mail server and wrote a full detailed tutorial that you can find in

using Debian Squeeze, Postfix, Dovecot, SASL, Spamassassin and Squirrel (and a Google account for SMTP relay).

I wish it is helpful to someone.