Some Facts About SMTP - Simple Mail Transfer Protocol

Sending Email
Sending Email. Andy Andrews / Getty Images

Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) is a standard communication protocol for sending email messages on business networks and the Internet.  SMTP was originally developed in the early 1980s and remains one of the most popular protocols in use worldwide.

Email software most commonly uses SMTP for sending and either the Post Office Protocol 3 (POP3) or Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP) protocols for receiving mail.

Despite its age, no real alternative to SMTP exists in mainstream usage.

How SMTP Works

All modern email client programs support SMTP.  The SMTP settings maintained in an email client include the IP address of an SMTP server (along with the addresses of either a POP or IMAP server for receiving emails). Web-based clients embed the address of an SMTP server inside their configuration, while PC clients provide SMTP settings that allow users to specify their own server of choice.

A physical SMTP server may be dedicated to servicing email traffic only but is often combined with at least POP3 and sometimes other proxy server functions.

SMTP runs on top of TCP/IP and uses TCP port number 25 for standard communication. To improve SMTP and help combat spam on the Internet, standards groups have also designed TCP port 587 to support certain aspects of the protocol. A few Web email services, such as Gmail, use the unofficial TCP port 465 for SMTP.

SMTP Commands

The SMTP standard defines a set of commands - names of specific types of messages that mail clients to the mail server when requesting information. The most commonly used commands are:

  • HELO and EHLO - commands that initiate a new protocol session between client and server. The EHLO command requests the  to respond with any optional SMTP extensions it supports
  • MAIL - command to initiate sending of an email message
  • RCPT - command to provide one email address for a recipient of the current message being prepared
  • DATA - command indicating the start of transmission of the email message. This command initiates a series of one or more follow-on messages each containing a piece of the message. The last message in the sequence is empty (containing only a period (.) as a termination character) to signify the end of the email.
  • RSET - while in the process of sending an email (after issuing the MAIL command), either end of the SMTP connection can reset the connection if it encounters an error
  • NOOP - an empty ("no operation") message designed as a kind of ping to check for responsiveness of the other end of the session
  • QUIT - terminates the protocol session

The recipient of these commands replies with either success or failure code numbers.

Issues with SMTP

SMTP lacks built-in security features. Internet spammers have been enabled to exploit SNMP in the past by generating huge amounts of junk email and having them delivered via open SMTP servers. Protection against spam has improved over the years but are not foolproof. Additionally, SMTP does not prevent spammers from setting (via the MAIL command) fake "From:" email addresses.