After I published Wanted: Virtual Personal Email Servers I got lots of feedback. This is an edited summary of a particularly interesting one, from John of, reproduced with his permission. My comments and answers are at the end of this page.

John’s comments

Marco, the Virtual Personal Email Server (VPES) that you recently asked for already exists, but not for end users. There are many pseudo-all-in-1 solutions. To solve your needs, I’d begin with ebox, a small business distro, and maybe look at Amahi for a home inclined distro. There’s always the Perfect Setup series to install a panel-based server setup like we all see on hosting ISPs.

Zimbra for a VPES?

The most user friendly free email management interface with all the bells and whistles that also supports virtual hosts is from Zimbra, but the setup is a bear and the system requirements are huge for what it provides. A simple, small Postfix, Dovecot, squirrelmail setup will easily run in 256MB of RAM and 1.5G of disk. It will require very little CPU. Zimbra won’t install on less than 1GB of RAM and it uses 30-50% of 2 CPUs even when it isn’t busy. I’ve been running 3 virtual email domains on a single Zimbra host (Xen virtualhost) for almost 2 years. You get much more than you’re asking for with the free Zimbra - enterprise calendaring is the main thing that I needed. I doubt an end user could install, configure and run Zimbra. It is too complex. There are pre-built Zimbra virtual appliances (Marco: like this?), but I’ve never tried any of them - search them on Freshmeat. There are other competitors to Zimbra, but if you want MS-Outlook calendaring, none are free, including Zimbra.

VPES DNS configuration and management

Setting up Postfix, Dovecot and Squirrelmail is relatively easy. The DNS configuration gets complicated since so many DNS providers have different interfaces, so scripting that would have to be limited. Further, each existing provider probably has contracts that prevent reselling services without joining their “network”.

The issue with a 1-minute solution for private email domains is that there are 3 parts to the problem and they should all be performed separately, by different service providers. Only GoDaddy or another registrar/host/DNS/SSL provider would be able to make it happen with just a few clicks almost immediately. I suspect, those suppliers have little desire to enter a low profit market like vanity email domains. There is too much higher profit work still to be done for them.

About selling VPES hosting

I (John) spent 20 min earlier today considering whether I could make any profit creating an easy setup script with a fairly low monthly price point. For me, it wasn’t possible to do and compete with Google business hosting at $50/user/year. Yahoo! does it for $35/yr for 1 user or $10/month for multiple users. You probably need to bring your own registered domain and DNS provider to them.

BTW, the laws for email metadata retention are different in the EU than in the USA. In a previous job, I performed system design work to allow the company (a very large ISP/telecom) to meet EU mandated law enforcement access to email logs. The required data was date, time, to, from, subject and mail server interactions, but not the body of the email. The laws are less clear in the USA, but any data can be subpoenaed. If you do not have the data, then you cannot provide it.

Marco’s answers

First, a bit of context

In case this wasn’t clear yet, personally I have already solved my own VPES needs almost two years ago, by manually setting up my own email server for all my email and purchasing a domain name also for this purpose. With the exception of Zimbra, my current setup is very similar to what John suggests and I am quite happy about it. So at this point I don’t personally need any “system integrator”, and I am not interested in offering such a service myself, because I have already solved my own needs and I have nor skills nor interest to become a real sw developer or hosting provider.

The point of my first VPES articles here and at the Stop! was to stimulate developers and hosting providers to look at the potential of this market, because there are many people who would use a wrapped-up interface (and pay for it) but wouldn’t do everything manually as I did. Please also see my comment about Citadel and other packages falling short of being a complete VPES.

Speaking of VPEs price and DNS issues…

I do know (cfr the “Is your DNS clean” box of my “Build your own email server with Postfix” tutorial) that there are parts of the VPES puzzle that, as things are today, can’t be put inside a 1-click, do-it-yourself package. Probably DNS handling and domain name registration could be part of the services offered by a VPES hosting provider, for a one-time fee.

I also know that a VPES is not, today at least, something that could cost less than 35 or even 50 USD/year. On one hand I feel/hope that creating demand will bring prices down. On the other, I am not that concerned about price, and I don’t think that a potential VPES provider should try to compete on price with Yahoo, Gmail and friends. Not initially at least.

I am paying more than 100USD/year right now because I value and want the advantages that full email control gives me. My point is that there already are today millions of people that WOULD pay 100USD/year or more for the same freedom and control… if only somebody would spare them of ever looking at a command prompt.

When I set my email server up by myself, I didn’t do it to save a few tenths dollars a year. This is (until price structures won’t change, at least) about freedom, privacy and control, not having a vanity domain after the @ of one’s email address. I was forced to do it by myself, because the only offers on the market where:

  1. Gmail, Yahoo etc… <=50 USD/year

  2. some “email hosting providers” that wanted ~120150 USD/year but would NOT provide all the features I’ve listed and would not be flexible

  3. Hire a consultant to do everything per my specs, which would have costed me some thousands dollars.

but if somebody had offered me a real VPES virtual box… I’d have bought it at ~150USD/year. Besides, who says that a virtual box must only be for one person? A whole family may very well do with one, until the kids are old enough to pay and manage their own by themselves. Ditto for small businesses. What do readers think?