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Best Practices

Hosting Your Own Email Might Not Be A Good Idea

By Ciara Noonan | 4 minute read

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, self-hosted email has been in the news recently. Politics aside, a
number of recent articles have encouraged ordinary users to take the plunge and mitigate the privacy and security implications of third-party email hosting by building and managing their own email service.

I’m sure these writers have their hearts in the right place, but the consequences of thousands of non-technical people taking it upon themselves to host their personal email are likely to be catastrophic, both for the users and for the wider email system.

Self-hosting email is certainly possible. The tools are freely available. Everyone has access to the open source software used by web hosting companies and dedicated email providers. But setting up a server with the right software is not the same as successfully using it to reliably and securely send and receive email.

MailChannels exists because even highly experienced and educated system administrators run into problems with email hosting. We solve a particular problem – that of spam removal and mail delivery; but that’s not the only thing that should discourage non-technical users from self-hosting email.

Don’t Do This At Home

I’ve seen articles that encourage users to host email using their residential internet connection and a home server. As noted security pundits have loudly proclaimed, that’s a bad idea and it almost certainly won’t work anyway.

Firstly, most residential ISPs block the ports used by email. They didn’t always block these ports, but because so many home-hosted email servers were compromised and became massive sources of spam, ISPs acted to protect their networks and their reputations. This difficulty will stop you sending email.

Secondly, even if you could send email from a residential internet connection, the likelihood is that no one would receive it. Most residential IPs are already on spam blocklists for the reason we’ve discussed. Email providers subscribe to spam blocklists and they’ll simply reject any mail sent from an IP on those lists.

What About Hosting In A Data Center?

So, home hosting is off the table, but what about using a server hosted in a data center.

Email is complicated. To the average user it looks simple — you type an email and click send. However, email is an exceptionally complex and antiquated system — some of the software components were designed decades ago. Configuring all these components — mail transfer agents, mail delivery agents, SMTP, IMAP, and POP servers, spam filters, malware scanners, SSL certificates, and much more — is difficult and error prone. Setting up your own email is akin to rebuilding the engine of your car — it’s possible, but it’s probably smarter to go to a professional.

But, let’s say you do get email up and running. You give your family email addresses on your server. One of them uses the same password on a forum somewhere. The forum is hacked and your email account is compromised. The attackers use the email account to send spam. Your IP ends up on a blocklist and every email account on the server is now useless.

Blocklisting is not an unusual story – it happens all the time. It even happens to the most experienced email providers, which is why they use our cloud email relay service to stop outbound spam and make sure legitimate email is delivered.

What’s the right answer for you?

If you’re intent on hosting your own email because of privacy and security concerns, I don’t want to discourage you. However, I do want you to understand the reality of hosting email on today’s internet.

If you choose to manage your own email hosting, it will be time consuming, have a steep learning curve, and — unless you use a service like MailChannels — is quite likely to be fruitless because spam blocklist providers will happily add your IP to their lists with the smallest provocation.

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