May Contain Blueberries

the sometimes journal of Jeremy Beker

There is much discussion on the internet about the wisdom of running one’s own mail server and it includes much valid criticism. There are significant security concerns beyond the normal amount of maintenance of any system. For reasons varied and irrelevant here, I have chosen to do so for over 15 years.

The aspect of doing so that is often not discussed when compared to using commercial services such as Gmail is that one has to deal with spam entirely on your own. This is difficult for (at least) 2 reasons. The obvious being that it is a hard problem to deal with, the not so obvious is I only have 2 users of my mail server, so I don’t have the ability to allow my users provide input in identifying spam.

For many years I have relied on tools such as Spamassassin to try to identify spam once it has reached my mail server. I also make use of various blacklists to identify IP addresses that are known to deliver spam. I use Mailspike and Spamhaus.

This is the situation I was in up until this past weekend. Hundreds of emails a day would slip past the blacklists. Spamassassin is very good but it was still allowing around 5% of those messages to reach my inbox. And the problem seemed to be getting worse.

In the past, I had used greylisting but I eventually stopped given the main side effect of that system; messages from new senders, legitimate or otherwise, would get delayed by at least 5 minutes. This is fine for most emails, but for things like password resets or confirmation codes, was just too much of an inconvenience.

What I wanted was a system where messages that are unlikely to be spam make it right through and all others get greylisted.

My boss mentioned a solution that he implemented once that decided to greylist based on the spam score of the inbound emails. This allowed him to only greylist things that looked like they might be spam. Unfortunately, looking at the emails that were slipping through my existing system, they generally had very low scores (spammers test against Spamasassin).

So, I pursued a different solution. Several services provide not only blacklists but also whitelists that give a reputation score for various IP addresses around the internet. I chose to use the whitelist from Mailspike and DNSWL

I implemented a hierarchy:

  • Accept messages from hosts we have manually whitelisted
  • Reject messages from hosts on one of the watched blacklists
  • Accept messages from hosts with a high reputation score
  • Greylist everything else

When I enabled this ruleset, I thought I had broken things. I stopped getting any email coming into my system. It turns out that I had just stopped all the spam. It was amazing.

In the two days I have been running this system, every legitimate email has made it to my inbox. I have seen 10-15 messages get through the initial screens and been correctly identified as spam by Spamassassin. (In the early stages I had a few messages make it to my inbox but I realized that was because I trusted the whitelists more than the blacklists. I.e. hosts were listed as both trustworthy and sending spam. As the Blacklists seem to react faster, I decided to switch the order as shown above.)

You can look at the graphs to see when I turned the system on:

This first graph shows the number of messages that were accepted by my server (per second). You can see that the number dropped considerably when I turned on my hybrid solution. Since messages were getting rejected before they were accepted by the system, there are less messages for Spamassassin to investigate.

This can be seen here, where the number of messages identified as spam also went down because they were stopped before Spamassassin even needed to look at them.

If you run postfix and would like to implement a similar system, here is the relevant configuration section from my

smtpd_recipient_restrictions = permit_mynetworks,
    check_client_access hash:/usr/local/etc/postfix/rbl_override,
    permit_dnswl_client[ 18..20 ],
    permit_dnswl_client[ 0..255 ].[ 2..3 ],
    check_policy_service unix:/var/run/postgrey.sock,

So, overall this has been a resounding success. I hope this helps some of you out there with the same challenges.