Is SMTP still used?

Mail servers and email clients use SMTP to send and receive emails. Despite being decades old, SMTP remains widely used due to its simplicity and interoperability. Understanding SMTP helps diagnose email delivery issues.

Is SMTP still used?

The SMTP protocol

Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) is an application layer protocol responsible for transmitting email across the internet. Some key points about SMTP:

  • Developed in 1982 along with the broader internet suite for email, FTP, etc. It predates the World Wide Web.
  • Communication occurs over TCP port 25. SMTP traffic is usually not encrypted.
  • Designed for simplicity over security. There is minimal authentication and anyone can spoof a sender address.

Here is a typical flow for sending an email via SMTP:

  1. The email client connects to the mail server over port 25
  2. The client issues EHLO/HELO to introduce itself
  3. Mail server responds with success/error code
  4. Client provides sender, recipient, email content
  5. Server issues OK/error after checking email validity
  6. Email accepted and queued for delivery

Despite lack of built-in security, SMTP remains entrenched due to email infrastructure depending on it. Authentication and encryption have been retrofitted via extensions.

Is SMTP still widely used?

Yes, SMTP is still the fundamental protocol that drives email delivery across the internet. Reasons it remains deeply embedded:

  • Billions of emails sent daily. Email arrived long before the web and remains the backbone of business communication.
  • Backward compatibility. New protocols build on top of SMTP to retain compatibility with SMTP infrastructure.
  • Simplicity and interoperability. SMTP’s simplicity allows easy mail exchanges across networks and vendors.

Gmail, and all major email services use SMTP for sending outbound and receiving inbound emails.

Supporting protocols and technology

While SMTP handles underlying mail transmission, supporting protocols bolster security and functionality:

  • SMTP with SSL/TLS encryption – StarTTLS and SSL encrypt connections over port 25 or 587
  • SMTPS – Secures entire session over port 465 instead of post-connection upgrade
  • SMTP Authentication – Uses AUTH to implement sign-in before sending emails
  • SMTP extensions – Features like 8BITMIME, SMTPUTF8 add support for attachments, encoding etc.

On the backend, techniques like treating IPv6 as IPv4 and running dedicated MTAs like Postfix, Sendmail, or Exchange optimize mail delivery from servers.

So in summary – SMTP remains the universal standard for email while additional protocols and technologies enhance features and security.

Diagnosing email delivery issues

Understanding basics of SMTP helps diagnose issues:

  • Verify connection settings – Double check ports, encryption, and authentication
  • Check SMTP banners – Error codes on connection indicate server issues
  • Confirm MIME structure is valid – Invalid formats lead to rejection
  • Review SMTP transcripts – Logs detail full request/response sequence
  • Test individual clients vs server – Isolate issue to client or server side
  • Check DNS, spam filters, greylisting – Delivery may fail at other stages

Careful inspection of the SMTP conversation highlights exactly where emails get blocked or bounce during transit.

MTA-level improvements

For managing high volumes, tweaks like SPRF records, MTA-STS, and MTA-based DKIM optimize deliverability at the server level by authenticating legitimate outgoing mail. Large websites depend on these optimizations for their transactional emails to reach user inboxes reliably.

So in summary, deep SMTP monitoring combined with server-side deliverability controls counter modern spam filters for business-critical email.

Key Takeaways

  • SMTP remains the standard protocol for email transfers due to backward compatibility and simplicity
  • Additional security and functionality gets retrofitted via SMTP extensions like STARTTLS
  • Understanding SMTP flows helps diagnose email delivery issues down to exact failure points
  • MTA-level improvements ensure inbox placement for large-scale transactional emails


In conclusion, SMTP is very much alive as the core email protocol with decades of infrastructure relying on it.

Billions of emails get delivered via SMTP daily by mail clients to mail servers. Developers need to view email holistically – while SMTP handles transmission, vital components like DNS, spam filtering, and authentication influence deliverability.

Modern techniques secure and optimize SMTP for performance at scale without altering the base protocol. Email as we know it wouldn’t function without the venerable SMTP.

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What port does SMTP use?
    SMTP traditionally uses port 25 for unencrypted connections. Ports 465 or 587 are also used with SSL/TLS encryption enabled. 
  2. Is SMTP insecure?
    Yes, by default SMTP has no encryption or authentication mechanism, making it insecure. Security gets retrofitted via extensions like STARTTLS. 
  3. Does SMTP use TCP or UDP?
    SMTP uses TCP as the transport layer protocol beneath it. TCP enables reliable, ordered data transfer crucial for email delivery. 
  4. What are common SMTP status codes?
    Some common SMTP codes are 220 (Service ready), 250 (Requested mail action completed), 550 (Mailbox unavailable) 
  5. Can I use Gmail’s SMTP server?
    Yes, Gmail allows users to relay mails via SMTP after enabling “Less secure app access”. Requires authentication before use.
  6. What is the difference between SMTP, IMAP and POP3?

    SMTP handles sending emails. IMAP and POP3 handle receiving and storage of incoming mails on the client side.           

  7. How do I perform an SMTP trace?
    SMTP tracing monitors a complete mail transaction and logs the communication between clients and servers for troubleshooting. 
  8. What is a HELO message in SMTP?
    HELO initiates a connection by introducing domain name to server. Server responds back confirming identity. 
  9. What is the SMTP ENVID command?
    ENVID requests the server ID and domain name from the receiving system after connection. 
  10. How does SMTP over SSL work?
    SMTP over SSL wraps the TCP socket with SSL encryption before any SMTP commands are sent for secure data transfer. 
  11. What is SMTP authentication?
    SMTP authentication requires clients to login with username & password before sending mails rather than allowing anonymous relaying. 
  12. What is MTA-STS?
    MTA-STS allows domains to enforce Transport Layer Security (TLS) for their incoming mail streams. 
  13. What is the difference between SPF and DKIM?
    SPF verifies sender IP addresses, DKIM cryptographically validates if mails have been tampered during transit. 
  14. What is greylisting in SMTP?
    Greylisting temporarily rejects unrecognized incoming SMTP connections to mitigate spam and improve security. 
  15. What is Multi-tenant Architecture?
    Multi-tenant architecture consolidates and shares computing infrastructure across organizations with isolation and customization for each tenant. 
  16. How does throttling work in SMTP servers?
     limits number of connections accepted per client IP to conserve resources and improve performance of SMTP servers. 
  17. Why use SMTP relays?
    SMTP relays provide temporary message queueing during outages. They also offload tasks like encryption, authentication etc from main servers.

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