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Email Explained

November 22nd, 2017 at 12:00 UTC

It’s always good to explain anything using an understandable and relatable analogy.

In our first article we use the Mail Man analogy, to explain how email tranmission functions and how emails arrive at the correct recipient. You may find this familiar as I have previously composed and inserted this analogy into various providers knowledge bases before.

Mail Man Analogy

Consider how to formulate a normal letter that you take to the mail office or put in a mail-box. Think about the steps completed before that.

Writing a letter

  • Initially a human grabs a piece of paper and begins writing the letter. Most letter writing standards stipulate that when writing a letter, you should write your own name and address on the right-hand side of the letter and the intended recipient on the left-hand side.

  • You then continue with the letter and once finished, the letter is placed into an envelope.

  • You seal the envelope and then write the intended recipients address on the front of the envelope so the postman knows where the letter is to be sent.

  • A lot of people also write their own sending address on the back or elsewhere on the envelope so that if for some reason, the mailman / postman can’t find the person at the recipients address, the post office will know who to return the envelope back to.

That’s it, that’s the exact same way emails are structured.

  • We compose the email in our mail client (Paper and Pen) this is called MIME data (Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions)

  • Your mail server puts the email into an envelope with the recipients address on the front of the envelope and the original sender on the back or elsewhere on the envelope and this is called envelope data.

Route

The next part is how the envelope is delivered to the recipient defined on the front of the envelope.

  • The mail company needs to find the best route to the recipient addressed on the envelope.

  • The mail company looks up the correct route to take to the recipient’s address.

  • The mail man finds the recipients address but can’t find a mailbox, so knocks on the door.

  • Someone answers the door and the mail man says “I got an envelope for this address, do you want it”?

  • The person standing at the door says “That depends on who sent it first”!

  • The mail man shows the sender details on the back of the envelope and says “Some company called Spam Filter Reviews and their approved sending address is IP: 104.131.20.95"

  • The person at the door says, “That’s fine, I know them and yes that’s their sending address”

  • The person standing at the door then says “Who is the envelope addressed to”?

  • The mail man looks at the front of the envelope and says “Ms Jo Smith”

  • The person at the door says, “OK that’s cool, Jo does live here and the person who answered the door takes the envelope for Jo and signs the mail man’s delivery receipt.


An image of a postman leaning on a mailbox

So that is virtually the same as how email finds its destination and is transmitted.

Some context

  • Once you have composed your email and your mail server puts the email into an envelope its ready to be delivered this is called the SMTP protocol connection.

  • Your mail server looks up the correct route to take to the recipient’s address by looking in a global address book database called DNS (The Domain Name System) "The mail company looks up the correct route to take to the recipient’s address."

  • Your mail server finds the correct recipient server address but the recipient server doesn’t have an open-door policy and won’t just accept all emails so the recipient server asks who sent the envelope."The mail man shows the sender details on the back of the envelope and says “Some company called Spam Filter Reviews and their approved sending address is IP: 104.131.20.95""

  • The sending server tells the recipient who the sender is by looking at the envelope and the recipient mail server says “yes I know that Spam Filter Reviews exists at that sending address, that’s fine”

  • The recipient server asks who the envelope is addressed to and if the recipient server is happy it accepts the envelope details.

This is the end of the envelope data and now the sending server is free to send the contents of the letter contained within the envelope and once finished the recipient server provides the sending mail server with a protocol receipt or handoff. We call this a 200 receipt and this confirms that the destination server has accepted the email and it is now the destination servers responsibility to perform all further actions. e.g.: putting the email into the users mailbox.

Image depicting emails flying through the air as envelopes

Exceptions to delivery

Sometimes the recipient server can say that they looked up the envelope sender and the envelope sender does not reside at the address specified on the back of the sending envelope and the real envelope sender has also left a global note, that anyone sending envelopes on behalf of the sender should only be sending from the correct address and nowhere else, so all recipients should reject envelopes from the sender that do not match the correct address, so the recipient mail server should stop all further correspondence and tell the mail man / sending server to send the email back to the original envelope sender, this is called envelope sender TXT / SPF checking

Sometimes the recipient mail server can say that the intended recipient defined on the envelope doesn’t live / exist at the address anymore, maybe because they moved on / no longer work there and the recipient server will tell the sending server to return the envelope back to the envelope sender (return to sender). The recipient server issues a 500 protocol response.

Sometimes the recipient mail server can be very busy or experiencing problems and when the Mail Man comes knocking, it simply says "I’m too busy, come back later and try again", when this happens the recipient server issues a 400 protocol receipt and this instructs the sending server to try again at a sending servers defined retry period.

There are many reasons why a recipient mail server could decide not to accept the details provided from an envelope, but if any recipient mail server refuses to accept the envelope details, the recipient mail server must provide the sending server with a reason why and instruct the sending server to return the envelope back to the original sender with a basic reason for rejection, much like if your mail is returned to you from the mail man. These are called hard rejections where the recipient server issues a 500 protocol response. The original sending server then collates a message and returns details of its inability to deliver the email back to the original envelope sender

All the above happens just by inspecting the envelope details, without looking inside the envelope at the email/letters content. It is only when the envelope details are accepted by a recipient server does the sending server transmit the data contained within the envelope; if the envelope data is refused the sending server never transmits the full contents of the letter contained within the envelope.

Pause: November 22nd, 2017 at 13:00 UTC

Next Topic: How and where do cloud antispam email filters fit into the Mail Man analogy



January 3rd, 2018 at 11:00 UTC

Where do Cloud Filters fit in ?

In our Mail man analogy we said, "Your mail server looks up the correct route to take to the recipient’s address by looking in a global address book database called DNS (The Domain Name System)".

Reversely: That means any system or sender, sending an email to your domain (or your email address) will first need to check in the Global Address book that is DNS (The Domain Name System) for the correct route to your mail server. The record that defines the correct route are called Mail Exchanger records; you may know these as MX records.

So that means, if you want to protect your Mail Server from malicious mail sent to you, all you need to do is put something in between the sender and your own Mail Server. We do that by telling all senders, that the correct route to your Mail Server is through a third party system.

You can achieve this by simply changing your MX records (Mail Exchanger Records) to point at the third party system instead of directly at your own Mail Server.

If your new protective barrier / provider is any good, they will filter all the junk mail out, by quarantining and sending only the clean stuff directly to your Mail Server. Again if your provider isn’t doing it correctly, maybe it’s time to switch and try a different solution.

Service Comparisons


4.9

SpamTitan

SpamTitan
4.8

SpamExperts

Experts
4.4

MX-Relay

MX-Relay
4.4

EveryCloud

EveryCloud
4.8

Hornet Security

Hornet Security
4.0

MailGuard

MailGuard
4.4

Manage Protect

Manage Protect
3.2

SpamHero

Hero
3.5

MX Guarddog

MX Guarddog
4.0

Spambrella

Spambrella
4.4

Email Laundry

Email Laundry
4.0

FuseMail

FuseMail
2.9

MX Guardian

MX Guardian
4.0

Proofpoint

Proofpoint
4.0

MessageLabs

MessageLabs
4.0

MimeCast

MimeCast

Tips and Advice


Although we provide a full system breakdown, in an easy to read icon format, the data of which is usually, initially obtained through online resources, we tend to update our ratings by performing a 'Real Time' set up emulation. That means we simply hit the businesses Website and sign up for a free trial.

During the Trial period, we then either confirm any functionality that the company has announced or discredit it; but you can well imagine that some core hosted distributors, pretty much detest our Website as we are non-provider influenced and we simply say it as it is for the benefit of our readers and consumers. Inevitably, that means some companies immediately decline our ability to assess their product in real time. Now we can only speculate why that is the case, but again its simply not transparent or helpful for customers attempting to source information.

Tip 1: Our tip for you is to allow yourself plenty of time; make sure you test at least 4-5 vendors. Think about what you really need from a solution, do you really need all the functionality bells and whistles or do you just need accurate filtering.

Some of the most popular, well-known core hosted global organizations, implement virtually the same algorithms as the less well-known businesses, the only difference is that the big boys have more advertising resources and more control panel features. As an example, we have awarded some organizations with a functionality rating of 2.8, 3.0, 3.5 and others with 4.9 and 5.0, but in our experience the functionality rating has virtually no correlation with the quality of filtering and that means, some organizations that have received a lower functionality rating, have just as accurate filtering qualities and algorithms as the giants in the sector.

So make sure you allow yourself plenty of time to assess the global market, outline your feature requirements and importantly, test and evaluate as many services as you can using free trial opportunities and don’t decide on the first positive experience as you may have many more when trying out other services.

Tip 2: Don't sign up to a service without extensively trialling the product as we note in some of our reviews, that not all hosted solutions, allow you to trial the service before signing a contract, which in our opinion is quite scandalous in today’s market place. To use an analogy, it's like wanting to buy a specific automobile, but the sales people say that you can’t test drive it, so you really don’t know what you’re getting, how is the performance and how does it stack up against the rest.

Tip 3: Be careful not to assess a products worthiness by the accuracy of the published filtering capture rate. This is important; Most businesses tend to stipulate that the system has an amazing junk capture rate, usually around the 99.9%.

When you see this claim, take a step back and read the small print. We can tell you that some of these claims are partially true, but most of these claims are slightly misleading, in that the publicised high capture rates only refer to previously known junk signatures. That means, if you open your mailbox and you see that 200 junk emails have arrived within the last 10 minutes, you can be pretty sure that your service provider will tell you that it’s because the signatures were of a previously unknown entity, so just make sure you ask the question about the capture rates and what they apply to. So be advised that, junk signatures morph literally every minute and that’s since the beginning of electronic mail transmission, so most junk mail that arrives in your mailbox is going to be claimed as a previously unknown entity and if not then maybe it’s time to change systems.

What’s a spam filter?


A hosted spam filter is conceptually an array of MTA's (Mail Transfer Agents - Mail Servers) with corresponding rules engines acting as a protective security barrier, that intercepts your mail traffic before cleansing, quarantining, archiving etc and passing clean, solicited items onto your own mail server or mailbox.

Hosted anti-spam filters can only intercept and therefore function, if your domains DNS MX records (Mail Exchanger Records) point firstly at the 3rd parties system mail servers. Once directed to a hosted filter, depending on the provider, a multitude of different actions can be initiated by interrogating the email, such as archiving, advanced threat protection, link analysis, email attachment analysis, sandbox executable runtime emulation, etc.

Why is it important?


Email threats are ripe and cause millions of dollars in infrastructure damage each day. Staying one step ahead of security threats is paramount. Many hosted services offer reassurance of network continuity to your business through accurate email filtering and quarantining, should your organization be the target of malicious mass spam attacks, Phishing attacks, CEO fraud, Blended attacks and Whaling campaigns.

Functionality differs quite substantially depending on which particular security vendor is chosen, but the ultimate goal of all vendors is to protect your network from unsolicited, malicious email and offer compliance before passing clean mail onto your own network environment.

Choosing the right or best hosted filter fit for you or your organizations requirements, both legal requirements, email security requirements and functionality requirements is sometimes a delicate balancing act and that’s where our comparisons can help.