How to setup free own mail server

If there is a need to create your own email server for your company or personal use for free (it’s actual for small businesses) so this information gives the point of interest. As a result, the mail can be sent over the world via your free mail server for the domain.

Why could we make our own email server?

Pros

  • Our own mail domain

    Sending a company’s mail from its domain is a good idea to be business attractive. E.g. sales@mycompany.com.

  • Unlimited users

    We can create as many users as we want without extra pay.

  • Unlimited targeting

    Unlimited target addresses while sending mail. In external paid services we have to pay per user.

  • All the data is under our control

    Nobody will be able to see our internal business conversation.

  • Transmission control

    Some public mail servers couldn’t send mail to some domains, e.g. protonmail.com due to country limitations. Hosting your own email server gives us the ability to manage such limitations.

Cons

  • Support effort

    Yes, this is the same headache as establishing our own web server such as keeping the service online, administration, etc.

  • Manual setup

    Special knowledge is required to set up all properly. But, if you are ready for this, we will give it in this article.

  • Probably sending limitations

    Some static address ranges can be blacklisted. But there is a solution to avoid this.

There are three main steps to establish and set up a self-hosted mail server.

Setting up IP and DNS

Ensure public static IP, public domain, and PTR record

These are the main requirements to run your own email server.

  • Public and static IP address

    The IP address of our own email server should be public and the same in time. Ensure it from your hosting or internet service provider.

  • The domain name points to the IP

    DNS record of the public domain name of our own mail server should point to that IP address. It can be managed under the DNS settings of your domain name provider.

  • The IP points to the domain name

    Further, the back DNS record (named PTR) must point our IP to the domain name of our own mail server. You can ask your hosting or internet service provider to set up it to your public domain name. It can be easily checked by your IP via a special online checker like this, or Windows’s ‘nslookup’ tool and ‘host‘ command in UNIX-based systems.

Configure DNS MX record

A mail exchanger record (MX) specifies the mail server responsible for accepting email messages on behalf of a domain name.

So, we need to point domain name of our self-hosted mail server that will process mail of our main domain. E.g. if our domain is mycompany.com, the mail server is mail.mycompany.com, then the DNS record for mycompany.com will be:

Type

Host

Value

Priority

TTL

MX

@

mail.mycompany.com

10

1 min

where:

  • Priority is used when our domain has more than one mail server.
  • TTL can be set to any preferable value and the lowest value is used to apply DNS changes as soon as possible while setting up our own email server.

Configure DNS DKIM record

DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) is an email security protocol that attaches an encrypted digital signature to an email. The receiving server verifies it with a public key to ensure the email hasn’t been tampered with.

So, we need private and public keys. It can be generated by an online tool like Power DMARC Toolbox – DKIM Record Generator, or by OpenSSL commands (provided for Windows):

  • Create private key

    openssl.exe genrsa -out private.key 2048

  • Create public key from private

    openssl.exe rsa -in private.key -pubout -outform der 2>nul | openssl.exe base64 -A > public.key.txt

And our DNS record will look like this:

Type

Host

Value

TTL

TXT

selector._domainkey

v=DKIM1; k=rsa; p=public_key

1 min

where:

  • selector – self-chosen identifier e.g. ‘mysrv’ that will be used in our mail server application.
  • public_key – our public key encoded by base64 algorithm.
  • TTL has the same meaning as in the previous paragraph.

Configure DNS SPF record

Sender Policy Framework (SPF) is an email authentication standard that checks the sender’s IP address against a list of the domain owner’s authorized IPs to validate incoming email.

Our DNS record will look like this:

Type

Host

Value

TTL

TXT

@

v=spf1 a mx include:relayer_name -all

1 min

where:

The handy SPF record online generator can be used.

Optional DNS stuff

Some fields are not necessary but nice to have.

  • DMARC

    Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting, and Conformance (DMARC) record enables our hosted own email server to declare a policy on how other email servers should react to inauthentic messages.

  • BIMI

    Brand Indicators for Message Identification (BIMI) is a new standard created to make it easier to get our logo displayed next to our message in the inbox. Additionally, BIMI is designed to prevent fraudulent emails and aid deliverability as well.

  • TLS-RPT

    TLS Reporting (TLS-RPT) gives daily aggregate reports with information on emails that don’t get encrypted and fail to deliver.

  • MTA-STS

    Mail Transfer Agent Strict Transport Security (MTA-STS) is a new standard that aims to improve the security of SMTP by enabling domain names to opt into strict transport layer security mode that requires authentication and encryption.

All these records except MTA-STS can be generated via Power DMARC Toolbox. Configuration of MTA-STS is similar to Google and finally can be checked by Hardenize.

Choosing and running a mail server application

Check that your hosting allows installing other software. If so, any appropriate email server application can be used. E.g. there is a free hMailServer for Windows that provides all needed functions with minimum resource usage. For UNIX-based systems, there are many free email servers such as Exim Internet Mailer or iRedMail.

You are welcome to put another good software in the comments below. Detailed choosing of such software deserves a separate article.

For Windows, we recommend using hMailServer due to its correlation with our principles of small and effective software.

Initializing

When the software is chosen and installed, it’s a time setting up your own email server application.

  • Domain and users

    We should add users of our free mail server for the domain. They can be added or removed at any time.

  • Security

    To provide an appropriate level of security we should add an SSL certificate for our domain. SSL configuration can be checked here.

  • Message signing

    Next, DKIM should be configured. We need to add the private key and selector obtained above. Also, header and body methods should be set to ‘relaxed’, signing algorithm should be set to ‘SHA256’ for compatibility with modern mail transmission checking.

  • Spam protection

    Finally, don’t forget to set up antispam checking by special blacklist hosts such as spamhaus.org to protect our mail server users from spam messages.

E-mail protocols

We should set up three e-mail protocols that are needed to send and receive mail.

SMTP

SMTP is used to receive incoming and send outgoing mail from/to other mail servers. And it allows our domain users to send their messages.

  • 25 port

    This port is required to manage incoming connections from other mail servers. The secure method should be set to STARTTLS.

  • 587 port

    It is needed for the mail clients of our own mail server. The secure method should be set to STARTTLS.

  • 465 port

    It can be needed for the legacy mail clients of our self-hosted mail server. So, the secure method should be set to SSL/TLS.

POP3, IMAP

POP3 and IMAP are used by separate mail clients like Outlook on PC or any mail client on our mobiles. It allows our domain users to manage their messages.

The 993 port should be used for secured IMAP connections and 995 for POP3. The secure method should be set to SSL/TLS (not STARTTLS) to be compatible with most clients.

The ports 143 for IMAP and 110 for POP3 can be set as well but they are not recommended for use due to their insecurity.

Checking

So, when all is set up, we can test our own email server by sending an email to somebody from our users’ list. Additionally, some email application has self-diagnostic like hMailServer that shows the work-ready status of all subsystems (see below).

hmailsrv-diag

Now, it’s time to check sending to an external address.

Gmail.com account

If we have a Gmail.com account, we can also send a test email to our Gmail address. Then open our email in Gmail webmail, click ‘show details’.

Graphical user interface, text, application

Description automatically generated

If there is ‘signed-by: our domain’, our DKIM signature is well configured. If there is ‘mailed-by: our domain’, our SPF is OK.

Then, ensure passed verification status of our sending in the raw headers.

Gmail web message headers

Also, in Outlook we can see the same headers in the message properties.

Gmail outlook message headers

Special online services

There are a lot of online services that can check email sending. Below are some of them.

  • This service allows testing email server configuration such as DKIM and SPF by sending the email to provided generated mail address. We need just to follow the on-screen instructions and the test results will be displayed there.

  • Provides the same functionality as the previous service. The test results will be sent to the sender’s address.

  • To test message sending here we need to send a special message to tester@email-test.had.dnsops.gov. The test results will be sent to the sender’s address.

  • This service provides only lite checking of all attributes, but it has the handy tools listed above.

So, if all are configured correctly but our server exists in spam blacklists we should whitelist our own mail server. See below.

Whitelisting your own email server

So, if all mentioned above are tuned correctly, other email servers still could mark messages as spam and reject them. It happens when the IP (or its range) of our domain is included in some blacklist. The most often reason for that is some neighbor IPs were used to send spam messages.

Whitelisting in most known sources

So first, let’s check IP (and domain if necessary) online for existence in any blacklists. E.g. it can be checked in any online checker that can be found via search. E.g. MXToolBox does checking in the most popular blacklists. And we recommend checking it in multirbl.valli.org too due to it shows many blacklist sources and show trust of each one.

Then, we should sequentially look at each result item and read recommendations on how to whitelist our IP in a particular blacklist source. But not all of them can allow to do it for free, for example, UCEPROTECT ® -Network.

Whitelisting in particular mail servers

Some servers like Outlook have their own blacklists. The checking is easy – your mail server app will notify you about failed delivery in the mail client. Most mail servers provide unblock URLs in the response. So, we need to go by such URLs and follow the instructions like this.

Bypassing blacklists

If some official blacklist doesn’t allow whitelisting or someday mail stops sending to a particular email domain – don’t panic – we can use external SMTP relay services. They allow use them as gateways or proxies while sending mail.

  • We recommend using it as the cheapest – it allows sending 20K emails for free per month and has a low cost for extra sending. Peculiarity: CC and BCC fields haven’t been supported yet.

  • It’s another good service that allows sending 9K emails for free per month with a limit of 200 per day. Peculiarity: embedded e-mail tracking can’t be turned off.

In each service, we should register and get approve of our mail server domain. After approving, each one provides instructions on what should be adjusted to our DNS and our own mail server application setting. For DNS it’s a DKIM, SPF, and DMARK settings, for application is an SMTP relay server address, port, and credentials.

Conclusion

So, now we can use all benefits of running your own email server. We hope that this material will help you reach your goal most efficiently. If you have any questions or suggestions according to this theme welcome to the discussion in our comments or via our email.

Leave a Reply