15.2. Email Program Classifications

In general, all email applications fall into at least one of three classifications. Each classification plays a specific role in the process of moving and managing email messages. While most users are only aware of the specific email program they use to receive and send messages, each one is important for ensuring that email arrives at the correct destination.

15.2.1. Mail Transport Agent

A Mail Transport Agent (MTA) transports email messages between hosts using SMTP. A message may involve several MTAs as it moves to its intended destination.
While the delivery of messages between machines may seem rather straightforward, the entire process of deciding if a particular MTA can or should accept a message for delivery is quite complicated. In addition, due to problems from spam, use of a particular MTA is usually restricted by the MTA's configuration or the access configuration for the network on which the MTA resides.
Some email client programs, can act as an MTA when sending an email. However, such email client programs do not have the role of a true MTA, because they can only send outbound messages to an MTA they are authorized to use, but they cannot directly deliver the message to the intended recipient's email server. This functionality is useful if host running the application does not have its own MTA.
Since Red Hat Enterprise Linux offers two MTAs, Postfix and Sendmail, email client programs are often not required to act as an MTA. Red Hat Enterprise Linux also includes a special purpose MTA called Fetchmail.
For more information on Postfix, Sendmail, and Fetchmail, see Section 15.3, “Mail Transport Agents”.

15.2.2. Mail Delivery Agent

A Mail Delivery Agent (MDA) is invoked by the MTA to file incoming email in the proper user's mailbox. In many cases, the MDA is actually a Local Delivery Agent (LDA), such as mail or Procmail.
Any program that actually handles a message for delivery to the point where it can be read by an email client application can be considered an MDA. For this reason, some MTAs (such as Sendmail and Postfix) can fill the role of an MDA when they append new email messages to a local user's mail spool file. In general, MDAs do not transport messages between systems nor do they provide a user interface; MDAs distribute and sort messages on the local machine for an email client application to access.

15.2.3. Mail User Agent

A Mail User Agent (MUA) is synonymous with an email client application. MUA is a program that, at a minimum, allows a user to read and compose email messages. MUAs can handle these tasks:
  • Retrieving messages via the POP or IMAP protocols
  • Setting up mailboxes to store messages.
  • Sending outbound messages to an MTA.
MUAs may be graphical, such as Thunderbird, Evolution, or have simple text-based interfaces, such as mail or Mutt.