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SMTP hosting is a standard part of many hosting packages. It enables you to send mail and can be customized to help you manage your site’s official communications from simple email to mass promotional mailings.

The Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) is perhaps best known to users of a certain age as “the sent mail server.” This technology has been around since the early ‘80s, when guidelines were developed to allow communication servers a quick and consistent method for sending electronic mail. While more intuitive and secure alternatives are currently in development, for most denizens of the Internet, SMTP is the gold standard for getting one’s message into the electronic ether.

At its core, SMTP is simply a set of instructions used by servers (whether your own or those of your Internet Service Provider (ISP)) to determine both how to send mail, and who may send it. It was developed in response to threats of widespread e-mail “spam.” While it remains disturbingly easy to send spam anonymously, most hosts have configured their SMTP servers to provide much greater security than the now-infamous open relay configuration. This security includes, in part, automatic virus scanning on outgoing messages, filters limiting access to outgoing mail servers to customers only, and the inclusion of a traceable Internet Protocol (IP) address linked to message senders.

Should you choose to use your host’s SMTP servers, you’ll still most likely receive a custom SMTP server configuration using your hosted domain. This means email you send comes from [email protected] rather than [email protected] or [email protected] and lends an air of professionalism to your messages. And because your messages are still identified by other systems as originating from the “safe” server of your host, they’re less likely to be regarded as suspicious by anti-spam security systems on other servers.

Why Use SMTP With a Web Hosting Account

In order to send email, you can use the SMTP server provided by your Internet Service Provider (ISP), or you can use the one provided by your web host. For normal email purposes, either will suffice. There are a few specific advantages to using your host's SMTP for business purposes:

  • Sending from your domain email address adds a professional image to your emails, and will give your customers confidence
  • If the sender's domain matches the source of the email, it's less likely to be flagged as spam
  • If you need to send large quantities of email, your ISP will almost certainly reject your messages, so your host's SMTP server is the better option

Some hosts prefer you to use your ISP's SMTP server and will set their rate limit low to discourage heavy use. The rate limit is the number of emails that can be sent over a specific period. Sometimes, you can purchase additional 'credits' so that you can send mail to more recipients during that period, but this is a clumsy way round the restriction if you frequently send a lot of emails.

Dedicated SMTP Hosting

In some cases, your host may offer a SMTP service that's not suitable for your needs. For example, the host may limit the size of message you can send, or use the host to send out large numbers of email marketing messages to a mailing list. If that's the case, you can opt for separate SMTP hosting that's separate to your web hosting account.

If you decide to buy dedicated SMTP hosting, check the provision carefully:

  • Check the uptime guarantee: similar to web hosting, SMTP hosts should provide 99.9% or higher
  • Ensure there's dedicated support for your SMTP service
  • Make sure you can send a reasonable quantity of email, and ensure there's room to grow as your email marketing list grows
  • Look for additional features like autoresponders and email forwarding
  • Check the mailing list product to see if there's a limit to the number of people you can add

How Not to Spam

There's one problem with SMTP, and that's the danger of misuse.

Originally, SMTP was an open relay by default. An open relay can be used by anyone on the internet, and this was very useful when email servers passed emails from server to server in a relay configuration, as they did in the 1980s. As the web matured, the open relay method left SMTP servers wide open to abuse. A spammer could use an open relay to fire out thousands of emails without trace, causing untold spam problems and distributing viruses far and wide.

Since the mid-1990s, security features have been implemented to curb the use of SMTP unless the user is authenticated. Open relays are actually illegal in the United States, and email providers are required to authenticate the person sending the email. Many hosts, particularly dedicated SMTP hosts, will bundle some kind of virus scanning and spam protection in to the price.

If you're accused of spamming, and you end up on blacklists, you may be granted respite after around four weeks of a spam-free period. To ensure your emails actually reach their recipients, use our email deliverability checklist.

Accessing Webmail

Don't forget that many hosts offer webmail along their normal email services. Webmail allows you to access your domain email from a browser, and you can choose from a range of email clients depending on the features you need. Examples include:

  • RoundCube
  • Horde
  • SquirrelMail

Because the majority of hosts include SMTP as part of their services, most users probably won’t require a separate SMTP host unless they want to maintain their own outgoing email server or have concerns about maximum file size and port configuration offered by their ISP’s SMTP servers.

Those who send out email “blasts” or a large number of newsletters might also be drawn to a separate SMTP host, as many ISPs block what they regard as suspiciously large quantities of outgoing email. As always, its best to check with your host for specific details on what limits may be in place, and what options and services are available.

SMTP Hosting Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is SMTP?

    SMTP stands for Simple Mail Transfer Protocol. It is the standard way to send email messages.

  • When and how did it originate?

    SMTP’s forerunners date back to the 1960s and 70s when electronic messages were sent on mainframes of the day. Eventually, standards began to develop, especially in the context of the government’s ARPANET, the forerunner to today’s Internet. SMTP was officially outlined by Jon Postel in RFC 788 in November 1981.

  • How does it work?

    SMTP lives up to the “simple” in its name. At its heart, SMTP is a very simple protocol designed to do one thing and to do it well: send an email. When your email client sends an email it opens a connection to an SMTP server and sends a series of text-based commands. These commands include identifying who the email is being sent from, who the recipients are and the email data or body. For each command sent, the email client waits for the server to respond with either an “Ok” or an error. Once the data has been transmitted to the SMTP server, your email client quits or closes the connection.

  • How secure is SMTP?

    When SMTP was first invented, what we now know as the Internet was so small that many of the computer operators knew each other. The origins of the Internet were also in the academic and government worlds. Hence, security was not a top concern. Not only were security issues not factored into the original protocol, but servers were also configured to relay messages in an effort to make the protocol work as reliably as possible. As the Internet grew and moved more within the realm of commercial use it quickly became apparent that security needed to be addressed. For example, the open relay policy that existed in the early days quickly became a top target for spammers, who used the relay functionality to send out mass emails. As a result, many SMTP servers, and the software that powered them were adapted to add layers of security. Most servers now require login credentials before sending an email. Many more also require that the connection between email client and server be encrypted via SSL or TLS to help protect the login information being transmitted, as well as the contents of the emails.

  • What ports does SMTP use?

    In networking terms, ports are the entry and exit access points in a computer’s operating system (OS) that data flows in and out of. An OS can have tens of thousands of ports, but there are a number of them that are reserved for specific kinds of traffic. For Internet servers acting as SMTP servers, ports 25 and 587 are reserved as the ports that outgoing mail is sent through. Of the two, 25 was the first to be used, with 587 being added later.

  • Why was port 587 added?

    Because port 25 was the original port used for SMTP, spammers and malware creators have a long history of abusing that port and relaying emails through it. As a result, port 587 was added as a standard SMTP port and is now considered the preferred port by many companies, Internet providers and standards bodies.

  • What is the difference between SMTP and POP3 or IMAP?

    Whereas SMTP is strictly for sending email, POP3 and IMAP are both protocols to receive email. POP3 existed first, being established as a standard in 1988. The predecessors to POP3, POP1 and POP2 respectively, were established in 1984 and 1985. To this day, POP3 remains in widespread use thanks to its reliability and simplicity. IMAP was created in 1986, largely in an effort to address some of POP’s limitations. Whereas POP3 is an excellent choice for individuals who only have a single device, IMAP excels for individuals who have multiple computers or devices and want their emails synchronized on all of them. Together, these three protocols form the backbone of the modern email market.

  • What alternatives are there to SMTP?

    SMTP enjoys virtually no competition in today’s market. There are some third-party, proprietary solutions. These alternatives, however, are very specific and usually only work within a company’s own network. In terms of widespread use, no alternative to SMTP has ever been developed or gained real traction.

  • Does my email client support SMTP?

    Almost certainly. Because of its widespread use, virtually every email client in existence supports SMTP as a means of sending an email.

  • Where do I find the SMTP settings for my Internet or email provider?

    Your Internet service should provide you with the necessary information to set up your email client to send and receive email via their servers. For many popular email services, such as iCloud, Gmail, Outlook.com and Yahoo, many email clients will be able to auto-configure the necessary settings with only your username and password.

  • What do I need to know about SMTP on my own self-hosted domain?

    Self-hosting means that you use a hosting company to host your domain name. This gives you the ability to have a custom email address, such as [email protected] Virtually every hosting company offers SMTP services as part of their hosting plans, and many companies offer email-only plans for individuals who want a custom domain but do not need a website. The one thing you should verify is any restrictions that the hosting company places on the number or size of emails that can be sent through their servers.

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