Wanted, Virtual Personal Email Servers

2010-05-24 » DNS, dovecot, Email, GPG, postfix, spam, squirrelmail, VPES

(update 2010/05/29: here’s another article about VPES legal, management and economics issues)

The way email is normally used today has several serious limits that I recently explained in another article. I also pointed out that one of the biggest obstacles to personal email management is lack of user demand for Virtual Personal Email Server (VPES) software and hosting packages. A VPES may run into any computer in your home or in some external datacenter, but that is another issue. Here I only want to look at the software side, that is to explain what are, in my opinion, the technical requirements and features of the perfect VPES. You are welcome to add your own in the comments and, if you’re a hosting provider already offering VPES, to add a link to your offer in the same way.

Web hosting providers only offer… web packages

Today, hosting providers (including those who “sell” virtual machines with full root access) offer packages that are optimized for easy set up and management of websites: bandwidth, virtual RAM, disk space and therefore price of those offers are only dimensioned for people who want to publish online some content. The only choice you have is between “cheap but slow and small website and “very expensive, but very big and fast website, plus some intermediate offer of the same kind. However, email hosting has different characteristics than web hosting: for example, it is not a real time service, so it has lower CPU, bandwidth (and probably disk space) requirements than most websites, but it must not relay spam and must block what the user (not its delegates or any third parties!) considers spam. So, even if turn-key VPES software packages already existed (see next paragraph) one obstacle to their large scale deployment is lack of corresponding hosting offers: sure, you could buy a (Virtual Server dimensioned for) web hosting account and use it for your VPES, but it wouldn’t be an efficient use of your money, just underutilization of something built and sold to do something else. Besides, even 10 Euro a month, that is the starting price for many reliable hosting packages, would be too expensive for many users.

Where is my email control panel?

Let’s now see what a VPES should be and look like. There’s very little or no software to develop to build it. All the free software necessary to run a VPES already exists today and is usable without being a programmer! I already run my own email server, and to do it I never had to write, modify or compile any software program: I only had to read a few tutorials in order to give the right value to some configuration options.

This said, in order to build my own VPES, I had to manually edit configuration files in a character terminal. I’m perfectly fine with that, but it is a fact of life that many people who’d like to have a VPES and pay a few bucks for it, will simply refuse to work in that way. Even if they have no problem whatever to set the same options through a web form.

Therefore, the other big obstacle (=business opportunity) to real personal email management is the lack of Linux-based distributions that are VPESs, that is distributions that contain all and only the software needed for a VPES plus an integrated web-based interface to configure all its parts. Something like this already exists today, as the screenshots in this tutorial on Postfix configuration with Webmin prove: what’s missing is bundling everything together so that you go from installation to a configuration panel like that without intermediate steps, and never needs to use anything else for configuration.

VPES software and feature list

Here is a list, by no means complete. When present, package names in parenthes indicate what I use on my own server, but you’re welcome to suggest alternatives. Just keep in mind, however, that the typical VPES user couldn’t care less of debating whether PostFix is better than Exim, or even to know which MTA server is actually running under the hood:

Software components:

  • MTA server: this is the program that actually receives your email from the Internet and forwards your messages to the Internet (Postfix)
  • Imap server: manages the mailboxes that contain received email, serving their content to the webmail or mail program chosen by the user (Dovecot)
  • Webmail interface, to read and write email from any web browser (Squirrelmail)
  • Backup utility to duplicate configuration info and mailboxes on other computers
  • Backup restore utility
  • Antispam system (SpamAssassin, bogofilter)
  • DNS configuration interface to set up the domain name part of your desired email address(es) and email identification functions like SPF or DKIM
  • Web interface to check if the server looks like a spam source
  • OpenSSL to encrypt web connections, with web interface to generate a certificate
  • database to store user and domain names
  • web based interface to manage user and domain names
  • password strength checking utility
  • GPG to digitally sign and/or encrypt email
  • Calendaring and address book functionality for each user of the VPES
  • Webmin or similar to manage through a web browser all of the above plus updates of software and antispam rules
  • Apache web server to run all the web interfaces mentioned above

Configuration

  • secure default configuration: no open relay, default set of SpamAssassin rules enabled, enforcement of secure passwords, only crypted HTTP connections allowed, mandatory SMTP authorization, software updates possible with signed packages from trusted sources…
  • support for multiple virtual domains, so one VPES can be used both for you @yourfamily.com, your.son @yourfamily.com, you @yourbusiness.com and so on
  • (why not?) wrapping everything in a virtual machine (a-la TurnKey Linux) so the whole thing can be installed in a snap even on Windows or Mac system or in the cloud.

What else? Please tell!

I am sure that the lists above are incomplete and that they can be improved. Your contributions are welcome, just register to add them in the comments or send them directly to me. What matters is to start serious discussion on how to build a really integrated VPES entirely out of Free Software. I also welcome general feedback about making Personal Email Management really popular, especially because it could (should?) become the email part of the Freedom Box.