Electronic mail, commonly called email or e-mail, is a method of exchanging digital messages across the Internet or other computer networks. Originally, email was transmitted directly from one user to another computer. This required both computers to be online at the same time, a la instant messenger. Today's email systems are based on a store-and-forward model. Email servers accept, forward, deliver and store messages. Users no longer need be online simultaneously and need only connect briefly, typically to an email server, for as long as it takes to send or receive messages.
An email message consists of two components, the message header, and the message body, which is the email's content. The message header contains control information, including, minimally, an originator's email address and one or more recipient addresses. Usually additional information is added, such as a subject header field.
Originally a text-only communications medium, email was extended to carry multi-media content attachments, a process standardized in RFC 2045 through 2049. Collectively, these RFCs have come to be called Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME).
The history of modern, global Internet e -mail services reaches back to the early ARPANET. Standards for encoding email messages were proposed as early as 1973 (RFC 561). Conversion from ARPANET to the Internet in the early 1980s produced the core of the current services. An email sent in the early 1970s looks quite similar to one sent on the Internet today.
Network-based email was initially exchanged on the ARPANET in extensions to the File Transfer Protocol (FTP), but is now carried by the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), first published as Internet standard 10 (RFC 821) in 1982. In the process of transporting email messages between systems, SMTP communicates delivery parameters using a message envelope separate from the message (header and body) itself.
A typical sequence of events that takes place when 'A' composes a message using her mail user agent (MUA). She enters the e-mail address of her correspondent, and hits the "send" button.
-Her MUA formats the message in e-mail format and uses the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) to send the message to the local mail transfer agent (MTA), in this case smtp.a.org, run by A's internet service provider (ISP).
-The MTA looks at the destination address provided in the SMTP protocol (not from the message header), in this case bob[at]b.org. An Internet e-mail address is a string of the form [email protected]
The part before the @ sign is the local part of the address, often the username of the recipient, and the part after the @ sign is a domain name or a fully qualified domain name. The MTA resolves a domain name to determine the fully qualified domain name of the mail exchange server in the Domain Name System (DNS).
-The DNS server for the b.org domain, ns.b.org, responds with any MX records listing the mail exchange servers for that domain, in this case mx.b.org, a server run by B's ISP.
-smtp.a.org sends the message to mx.b.org using SMTP, which delivers it to the mailbox of the user B.
-B presses the "get mail" button in his MUA, which picks up the message using the Post Office Protocol (POP3).
That sequence of events applies to the majority of e-mail users. However, there are many alternative possibilities and complications to the e-mail system:
1.Al or B may use a client connected to a corporate e-mail system, such as IBM Lotus Notes or Microsoft Exchange. These systems often have their own internal e-mail format and their clients typically communicate with the e-mail server using a vendor-specific, proprietary protocol. The server sends or receives e-mail via the Internet through the product's Internet mail gateway which also does any necessary reformatting. If A and B work for the same company, the entire transaction may happen completely within a single corporate e-mail system.
2.A may not have a MUA on her computer but instead may connect to a webmail service.
3.A's computer may run its own MTA, so avoiding the transfer at step first.
4.B may pick up his e-mail in many ways, for example using the Internet Message Access Protocol, by logging into mx.b.org and reading it directly, or by using a webmail service.
5.Domains usually have several mail exchange servers so that they can continue to accept mail when the main mail exchange server is not available.
6.E-mail messages are not secure if e-mail encryption is not used correctly.
Many MTAs used to accept messages for any recipient on the Internet and do their best to deliver them. Such MTAs are called open mail relays. This was very important in the early days of the Internet when network connections were unreliable. If an MTA couldn't reach the destination, it could at least deliver it to a relay closer to the destination. The relay stood a better chance of delivering the message at a later time. However, this mechanism proved to be exploitable by people sending unsolicited bulk e-mail and as a consequence very few modern MTAs are open mail relays, and many MTAs don't accept messages from open mail relays because such messages are very likely to be spam.