Which layer uses SMTP protocol?

The ability to send emails easily is an essential part of using the internet and computers. But how exactly are emails transferred between a client and a server? The answer lies in application layer protocols like SMTP.

Which layer uses SMTP protocol?

SMTP stands for Simple Mail Transfer Protocol. It is an application layer, host-to-host protocol used for delivering emails reliably and securely.

How Email Works: SMTP Protocol

Before diving into which layer SMTP belongs to, it is useful to understand what SMTP does and how email works:

Sending an Email

When you send an email from a client like Outlook or Gmail:

  • The email client connects to your company’s or ISP’s mail server using SMTP and sends the email content.
  • The mail server then uses DNS to look up the recipient’s mail server.
  • It then connects to the destination mail server using SMTP and transfers the email.
  • The recipient mail server receives and stores the email until the recipient downloads it into their email client.

So SMTP is used twice in this process:

  1. Between your client and your local mail server
  2. Between the two mail servers

Receiving an Email

When you receive an email:

  • Your mail client (Outlook, Gmail, etc.) contacts your mail server and asks if there are any new emails for you.
  • If yes, the mail server transfers those emails using SMTP or protocols like POP3 or IMAP.
  • Your client then receives, processes and displays the emails to you.

So in essence, SMTP is the protocol that facilitates the transfer of emails between mail servers.

Key Takeaway: SMTP is the standard protocol for sending emails between servers reliably and securely on the internet and internal networks.

OSI Layer for SMTP Protocol

Now let’s explore the OSI layer for SMTP protocol:

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Application Layer Protocols

Protocols like HTTP, SMTP, POP3, IMAP, operate at the Application layer, which is Layer 7 of the OSI model.

The application layer interacts with the software applications that users work with. Application layer protocols focus on exchanging data between programs running on different hosts.

Some key responsibilities handled at the Application layer:

  • Data formatting, encryption, and compression
  • File handling, email (SMTP), file transfer (FTP), virtual terminals (Telnet)
  • Web browsing (HTTP), multimedia communication

Since SMTP aims to securely transfer email messages between different mail servers, it operates at the Application layer.

Why is SMTP an Application Layer Protocol?

The core objectives of SMTP fall perfectly into the application layer:

  • SMTP defines a textual format for email messages to be exchanged
  • It handles user authentication via login credentials
  • It takes care of bouncing back emails if delivery fails
  • It communicates via ASCII text which allows people to read SMTP conversations
  • Lastly, its application-to-application, server-to-server nature makes it a true application protocol

All these capabilities clearly demonstrate that SMTP serves application layer functions.

Key Takeaway: The SMTP protocol resides at the Application Layer (Layer 7) of the OSI and TCP/IP networking models.

TCP/IP Model and SMTP

The TCP/IP model is the other network communication framework widely used in conjunction with OSI.

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As visible above, the TCP/IP model also contains four layers:

  • Application
  • Transport
  • Internet
  • Network Access

Here is how SMTP maps to the TCP/IP model:

  • Application Layer – High-level protocols like SMTP, HTTP, FTP, DNS operate here.
  • Transport Layer – Protocols like TCP, UDP work on this layer. SMTP utilizes TCP for reliability.
  • Transport Layer – Protocols like TCP, UDP work on this layer. SMTP utilizes TCP for reliability.
  • Internet Layer – Responsible for logical transmission of packets over multiple networks via IP protocol.
  • Network Access Layer – Consists of physical network components and protocols.

So again, it is evident that SMTP belongs to the Application layer even in the TCP/IP model, since its core focus is to enable email communication between two application entities – the sending & receiving mail servers.

The transport layer TCP protocol provides the actual transmission channel over which SMTP conveys emails reliably.

Key Takeaway: SMTP operates at the Application Layer in both key network models – OSI and TCP/IP.


In conclusion, SMTP or Simple Mail Transfer Protocol is an application layer, ASCII text-based protocol for transmitting emails between mail servers over TCP/IP networks and the internet.

It operates at the topmost Application Layer in both the OSI 7 Layer and TCP/IP reference models. Though simple in nature, SMTP enables critical email services securely over both LAN and WAN networks globally. And amidst various old and new email protocols, SMTP continues to remain the standard for reliable internet mail transfers for foreseeable decades.

Key Takeaways:

  • SMTP allows sending emails between servers using Application Layer logical connections.
  • It uses TCP transport connections to transmit SMTP commands and email data.
  • According to OSI Model, SMTP works at the Application Layer (Layer 7).
  • Even in TCP/IP Model, SMTP belongs to the Application Layer.
  • Though simple in nature, SMTP powers global email services reliably and securely.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q1: Why is SMTP needed for sending emails?
A1: SMTP is needed as it standardizes how mail servers communicate to send and exchange emails reliably over the internet. It handles authentication, formatting, sending & receiving failure issues.

Q2: Where does SMTP operate in comparison to protocols like POP3 and IMAP?
A2: SMTP handles only server-to-server email transmission. POP3 and IMAP come into play later to retrieve emails stored on servers to your personal devices and email clients.

Q3: Can SMTP operate on its own without TCP or other transport protocols?
A3: No. SMTP needs to be carried over TCP or other transport connections in order to transfer data between networks.

Q4: Which layers of the OSI model handle creating packets?
A4: The Network and Data Link layers of the OSI Model deal with forming network packets, addressing and interconnections between devices.

Q5: Does SMTP provide encryption for emails?
A5: By itself, no. Regular SMTP transfers emails as plaintext. Secure extensions like SMTPS (SMTP over SSL) encrypt the data and session.

Q6: Can I use SMTP to send emails from my laptop directly?
A6: No. To send mails directly yourself, you need user email agents that in-turn utilize SMTP to talk to their respective mail servers.

Q7: Where is SMTP configuration done – Server or Client?
A7: SMTP settings like ports, TLS, authentication, etc. need to be configured primarily on the sending & receiving Mail Servers and not client devices.

Q8: Does SMTP operate only over TCP?
A8: Primarily, SMTP uses TCP which provides more reliable packet transfers compared to UDP. Though technically it can use UDP just like many Layer 7 protocols, that occurs rarely.

Q9: Which SMTP server port number is most commonly used?
A9: Port 25 is reserved and most commonly used for SMTP traffic. For SSL/TLS connections, ports 465 and 587 are often utilized as well.

Q10: Can protocols besides SMTP be used for email?
A10: Yes, protocols like Sendmail and IBM Notes support proprietary mail transfer capabilities, but SMTP remains the standard.

Q11: Where is an SMTP gateway normally located – private or public zone?
A11: SMTP gateways like that of Google Mail Servers are located in the public zone of a network connected to ISPs and external mail infrastructure.

Q12: Does SMTP define how email messages should be formatted?
A12: Yes. SMTP specifies how various components like header fields, message body, attachments etc. need to structured in an standard email.

Q13: Can SMTP transmit binary data files?
A13: No, SMTP transfers only textual and character data. For binary data exchanges, MIME extensions need to enabled over SMTP transactions.

Q14: Which companies/entities assign port numbers to protocols like SMTP?
A14: Port assignments are governed globally by the international body IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority).

Q15: What capabilities are offered by the SMTP “STARTTLS” extension?
A15: STARTTLS enables encryption by upgrading a regular SMTP session into an encrypted SSL/TLS session for secure transfer of emails.

Q16: Where would application protocols like HTTP, FTP, DNS appear in the OSI Model?
A16: Like SMTP, all these higher level application protocols belong to the topmost Application Layer or Layer 7 of the OSI Model.

Q17: What is the main functionality of the Session Layer per OSI Model?
A17: The Session layer handles establishing, coordinating and ending sessions between applications and presentation layer entities.

Q18: Which OSI Layer takes care of hardware addressing and routing?
A18: Physical and Data Link (Layer 1 + Layer 2) layers map to hardware connections and network device addressing functions.

Q19: How is a bit different from a byte?
A19: A byte represents 8 bits. A bit is a single 0 or 1. Bytes form the basic data units used by protocols across various layers.

Q20: Should SMTP traffic be allowed from the public Internet to mail servers?
A20: Yes, that access is precisely required to allow global clients and external servers to deliver emails. Firewalls should allow SMTP inbound while securing other ports.

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