[2021-05-16]

ISPmail guide for Debian 11 “Bullseye”

christoph-haas

Stop using public freemail/cloud services like G**gle Mail. This is a complete and free guide that teaches you how to set up and run your own mail server. At the end of the guide you will have your own fully featured mail server based on open-source software using a cheap (virtual) server. And you will have learned all about the various components, protocols and technologies.

This guide is free. There is no catch. I am publishing this guide without any commercial interest. My motivation is to get more people away from centralized email services. The internet wasn’t meant to run on services offered by only few monopolistic companies. People have become lazy and stopped caring. But running your own server must not become a forgotten art. As IT managers blindly follow the hype to put everything into the “cloud” we sysadmins get stupider by the day. If the trend continues only few people will know how to run a mail server while everyone else is degrading into stupid consumers. Don’t let that happen to you.

So what will the mail server cost you? The only recurring costs you may face are for running your mail server and for renting a domain. Cheap virtual servers are usually available at around $5 / 5€ per month and have enough space to run a mail server for your friends and family. The software being used is completely free and open-source. You can even sell your service if you like. After all it is called “ISPmail” (ISP = internet service provider). Are you a sysadmin and your organization needs a mail server for a few hundred users? Go with this guide. It has been battle-tested by thousands of other sysadmins and constantly evolved over the last 20 years.

What your mail server can do

  • Receive emails on your domains.
  • Filter out spam. (We will not deal with detection of Wind*ws malware though.)
  • Send emails out to any other servers/domains on the internet. Connections will be encrypted when possible.
  • Add automatic cryptographic signatures (DKIM / Domain Keys) to outgoing emails to prove that you are the owner of your domain.
  • Store as many emails for as many email addresses as you have disk space. Set limits (“quotas”) per user. The only limit is the size of your disk.
  • Let your users fetch email using IMAP or POP3 and send email through your servers using SMTP.
  • Allow users to manage server-based filter rules. Distribute incoming emails to different folders. Forward copies. Or send out-of-office notifications.
  • Provide a webmail interface so users can access their emails securely from any location using a web browser.
  • Mitigate brute force attacks.

What you will need

  • Linux experience. Preferably a Debian-derivative. No godlike skills required. But know your basics: navigating through the file system, editing files, watching log files and having basic understanding of DNS and SQL (SELECT, INSERT, rows, columns).
  • Time. 2 hours to 2 days.
  • server that runs with Debian Bullseye. 1 GB of RAM and a 20 GB disk/SSD is fine for your friends and family. Rent a cheap virtual server. Or use a decommissioned laptop. Other Linux distributions likely come with other versions of the software and have different configurations and paths on disk. It will work but you will need to deviate from this guide.
  • Your server needs to have a public IP address that does not belong to a range of typical ISP customers. You usually can’t operate the mail server from a dialup IP address at home because those IP ranges are blacklisted by most other mail servers. Make sure that your IP address is not blacklisted before you start. If you rent a virtual server from your favorite hosting company you probably won’t have any problems.
  • An internet domain (or several) to receive emails for. You need to be able to set A, MX and TXT records for that domain.
  • Patience. We will proceed slowly and after every step ensure that are still on track. Don’t hurry and skip parts even if they appear confusing at first. If you get lost just submit your question at the bottom of any page throughout this guide and help is on the way. Or join the chat channel.

What this is not about

If you just want to have a working mail server and do not care how it works then this guide is not for you. Check out ready solutions like mailinabox or iRedMail. Running a mail server requires technical understanding. And that’s what the ISPmail guide is for. Experience from giving support to other sysadmins shows that most problems appear because some detail in a complex setup goes wrong and they have no idea how to fix it. Email has evolved a lot over the past 40 years. Go with ready solutions if you like. But I have a feeling that we meet again. And you will probably not save time either taking the easy route. This guide tries to follow the mantra:

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.
(Albert Einstein)

Ready?

The whole tutorial is split into several pages. Please use the links on the right side to navigate through the pages. Let’s go.

20 thoughts on “ISPmail guide for Debian 11 “Bullseye”

  • 2021-11-20 at 21:30
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    Nice! Just at the right moment. Few ours earlier it was not there and i thought whether I should try the Debian 10 guide on Debian 11. Reloaded now and it was there πŸ˜‰ Thanks

    Reply
  • 2021-11-20 at 22:56
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    @Nomsis. Nice timing. I wasn’t even sure how to announce that the new guide is online. πŸ™‚

    Reply
  • 2021-11-24 at 12:21
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    Awesome and just in time πŸ™‚ Thanks indeed for your great work. I appreciate that very much.

    Reply
    • 2021-11-27 at 17:50
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      I find it tricky (beyond acceptable) to run different processes within the same Docker container. For testing I started with a Vagrant box and later deployed on a cheap virtual server. If you are interested in scaling or dockerisation maybe Kubernetes is an option. That however will require that you are willing to jump through piles of burning catfood. πŸ™‚

      Reply
      • 2021-11-29 at 15:21
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        FYI, I’m pretty sure mailu uses different docker containers. K8s just seems overkill for just setting up a small mailserver. I was interested in docker because of the isolation, but it seems like its not worth it for the humongous headache. Also, what comment system do you use?

        Reply
        • 2021-11-29 at 15:27
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          Simple VMs seem a good level of abstraction. πŸ™‚ The web site runs on WordPress with a little customisation and plugins. It’s not ideal for writing structured documentation but having a search index, comments and a little automation helps.

          Reply
  • 2021-11-29 at 03:59
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    From the beta warning- If you get stuck or find something that does not make sense **tough** then please do not hesitate to post a comment on the respective page.

    I think you meant **though**??

    I’ve been following your guides for several years and have been running my own email server. Thank you for such a thorough guide and for the privacy, security, and independence it provides. I do like to think that I learned a few things about postfix and dovecot along the way.

    I’ll test out the guide in a VM and let you know if I spot anything.

    Reply
    • 2021-11-29 at 15:26
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      Thanks, typo fixed.

      Reply
  • 2021-12-10 at 15:02
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    Hi Christoph,

    thank you very much for the tutorial! May I ask some advice?
    I don’t want to expose my e-mail server to the outside world because it’s only used for family purpose. So i would need to receive mails from an external POP Mailserver and also for the outbound I would need to use a “smarthost” since I do have changing IP’s. How hard is it to add these functionalities to your proposed setup?

    Regards
    Udo

    Reply
    • 2021-12-10 at 15:28
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      Moin Udo. Not hard. I suggest you install and configure “fetchmail”. It will frequently (e.g. once a minute) get the emails from the POP3 server and deliver them locally to your ISPmail server. If your server is on a dynamic (and therefore likely blacklisted) IP then you will need an SMTP server where you can send your emails. If your internet provider does not offer anything like that (or restricts it to certain sender email addresses) then something like https://serversmtp.com/ may help you. If it’s just for your family maybe you qualify for their free plan with 6000 mails/month.

      Renting a VM (e.g. Hetzner) may make things a bit easier though.

      Reply
  • 2022-01-07 at 20:12
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    This looks like just what I need, but I suspect some additional feedback is needed before getting started…

    I have a functional Debian 9 server running postfix which needs to be upgraded to Bullseye. It supports IMAP, POP3 and WebMail, runs DKIM, and uses spamassassin and clam AV. Purchasing new hardware is probably not an option as it isn’t physically necessary – the server has a 6th gen i7 with lots of RAM and lots of free disk space.

    I am trying to determine the cleanest upgrade path on the same hardware, with as little down time as possible, and would appreciate thoughts and recommendations on how best to approach this challenge.

    Reply
  • 2022-01-10 at 19:48
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    As is made clear in the “Migrating from a…” documentation, a “from scratch” installation is the preferred method. This is especially important since you’re advancing two Debian versions and the underlying tools have changed (ie. MySQL to MariaDB). Spamassassin, last used in the Debian 8 configuration, has been replaced by rspamd. The encryption schemes have changed as well. Making all of these changes to an old installation would be a formidable task.

    An i7 with lots of ram certainly isn’t necessary. Anything that supports AES-NI is probably sufficient. My backup server runs on ten year old i5 machine with 2GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive. My main server runs on a $7/month VPS.

    The question is whether or not you can afford to have your current server down for the time it takes you to install, configure and test the new setup.

    Reply
  • 2022-01-12 at 03:40
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    Hi Christoph,
    Thank you for your excellent email server setup guide, and that you keep it up to date.

    I got my email server up and running on Buster about a year ago, based upon your guide. I am now planning to create a new virtual machine to setup based upon your email guide for Bullseye. I had some issue with getting the Buster email server running on my home server, however with perseverance I managed to get it working. The main issue was the nuances associated with my home server setup that required minor deviations from your guide to get working. Also after a few months of operation the Roundcube web mail stopped working and I have never got around to fault finding as I was intending to update to Bullseye anyway.

    It is interesting to see how many old websites and blogs with such instruction setups have not been updated since 2016-2018. It seems like many people have lost interest or perhaps they have moved to another medium.

    On my home server I run my webserver (raw html, that I do not update much anymore), wiki server (based upon Dokuwiki), Cloud server (based upon Nextcloud) . I also use the home server as my NAS. I originally use Ubuntu on my server, but am slowly migrating to Debian, as Debian seems meaner and leaner than Ubuntu :-). The past couple of years I have also been primarily using Manjaro Linux for my home desktop machine. However I still use Windows on my home machine on occasion and solely for work on company laptop.
    I also run my own separate Linux based router using nftables, with Wireguard remote access.
    I have played with IPv6 however as my home ISP only provides a static IPV4 address I am not currently using IPv6.

    Reply
  • 2022-01-14 at 19:10
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    harshness – thank you for the reply. If doing an in-place upgrade, I may throttle back and stop at Buster for now, saving Bullseye for another time. It looks like that should keep me current for a couple of more years. As you said, the downtime required is a big concern. Ideally I’d be able to do a new build offline, then find a way to port it to the current hardware. While pondering that I’ll be plowing thru the release notes on Buster…

    Reply
  • 2022-01-15 at 04:47
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    Thank you Christoph. This will be the third edition of this guide that I’ve used to build my mail servers. It’s very much appreciated

    Reply
  • 2022-01-24 at 21:37
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    Thank you for such great work and understanding. Many companies so desperately use the cloud services and even forgets that one server has more then enough capacity to run 3-5 services for free.

    However the arguments I heard was, that hiring professional dev-ops is expensive and practically they can’t guarantee that internal team will be able to ensure stability compare to clouds.

    Regardless the remarks above I am happy to tell I am using your tutorials since ~2012 and they always worked great for me.

    Reply
  • 2022-02-11 at 11:00
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    I wonder if it makes sense to setup dovecot as submission server and let postfix just do the mta part.

    Reply
  • 2022-03-16 at 06:18
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    Thank you very much for this very detailed and up-to-date guide. I really enjoyed reading it and learned a lot.

    Have you ever thought about creating a container based deployment out of this guide? Having this guide’s setup packed in a docker-compose file or Kubernetes Helm chart would be awesome.

    Reply

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