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IBM's Secure Mailer

Kyle Dent

Wietse Venema, probably best known as the developer of SATAN and the TCP Wrapper security tools, has now created Secure Mailer. In December of 1998, IBM released Secure Mailer as open source software providing a new, freely available alternative to the nearly universal Sendmail program. The program, more commonly known in open-source circles as Postfix, attempts to be fast, easy to administer, and secure. One of the primary goals of Postfix is to be widely implemented in order to make the most significant impact on the performance and security of Internet email overall.

Sendmail by some estimates handles nearly three-quarters of all email on the Internet, but it has had a bit of a checkered past with a history of security problems. A scan through the CERT Advisories quickly turned up more than a dozen Sendmail incidents. Although Sendmail developers have made a lot of progress in bringing it up to date for an environment that was unimaginable when it was originally created, Postfix offers a solid alternative that is inherently more secure.

Good Breeding and Impeccable Manners

In addition to tighter security, Postfix offers several advantages over Sendmail while maintaining a high level of compatibility with it. The Postfix Web site claims that it is up to three times faster than its nearest competitor. (There are several other Sendmail alternatives, such as qmail and various commercial packages.) It is designed to be robust and behave well under stress. For example, runaway conditions that might occur during error handling are diminished because the software pauses before sending error messages or terminating with a fatal error. It operates under a "no thundering herd" policy when delivering mail to other hosts. Initially, Postfix will make only two simultaneous connections. If the deliveries succeed, Postfix will slowly increase connections up to a configurable limit. It will also detect whether the receiving host can no longer handle the load and decrease the number of connections.

In processing its own queue, Postfix implements a few other policies to make it a well-behaved software package. The queue manager sorts messages by destination and processes deliveries in a round-robin fashion to hit all destinations in the queue. Postfix will only make simultaneous deliveries to the same host when it does not have messages for other destinations waiting. If a message cannot be delivered, the queue manager marks it with a time stamp. With each repeated delivery failure, Postfix will wait longer each time before wasting resources trying to deliver a message to a host that is not available. The queue manager also maintains a short-term list of unreachable destinations.

We Can Still Be Friends

Postfix is designed to be compatible with Sendmail to make migration easier, and to make the change transparent to users. In fact, you can continue to use Sendmail in conjunction with Postfix, allowing the new mailer to replace specific mail functions as needed. Postfix continues support for /etc/aliases and delivery to any of the standard mail directories as well as to a specified file or command. It also respects user.lock files and will obey $HOME/.forward directives. Basically all the aspects of Sendmail are present except one significant one --

Sendmail makes extensive use of rewriting rules to ensure that addresses are in the correct form and to select the correct mail delivery agent for a message site. Administrators can also use them to customize delivery for their networks. The Postfix Web pages say that there is not yet support for rewriting rules; rather, Postfix uses a rewriting table. In my opinion, Postfix should display this fact as its most prominent feature and not suggest support for any rewriting rules in the future. Only a handful of sites would ever need the full power of Sendmail's rewriting rules, and even fewer systems administrators understand the black art of rewriting rules well enough to make reasonable modifications. If you do in fact modify Sendmail rewriting rules, Postfix is probably not an option for you. However, you should look at the address mapping table feature to see whether it can support your requirements.

Defensive Mailing

Overall, Postfix is written to be a highly secure network application. It employs multiple layers of defense. All of its processes run at a fixed low privilege, and most can be run within a chrooted environment. Sendmail is the classic monolithic program, and it runs with root privilege. These two facts are largely the reason for the severity of Sendmail's security problems. If a vulnerability is discovered, the possibility that it will allow root access is high.

It is quite possible that Postfix has security bugs, but because of its design, whatever vulnerabilities might exist will be very limited and possibly not even exploitable over a network. Its modularity provides flexibility and also security. There are various processes that perform specific tasks. There is a separate process to send mail and receive mail and to deliver mail locally. Systems only run the processes they need. If a process is not running, it is necessarily not vulnerable. Another side effect is that each process is insulated, so that, for example, the local delivery agent has no communication with the network. If a vulnerability is discovered within local delivery, it cannot be exploited from outside that host.

Some additional security aspects are that Postfix programs do not run under a user process, thereby eliminating exploits that involve signals, open files, the environment, and other process attributes that might be passed from a parent to a child. Postfix relies on the security notion of trust or lack of it. Postfix processes do not even trust each other. Contents of queue files or IPC messages might have been tampered with; therefore, each process tries to use only its own information in taking security-sensitive actions.

Some other security lessons learned from Sendmail (among others) and incorporated into Postfix are that there are no setuid programs, no /tmp race conditions, no remote data in shell variables or shell commands, and no fixed-length string buffers. Memory is allocated dynamically for buffers and strings, and long lines of messages are broken up into sequences that are reconstructed upon delivery.

Installing Postfix

After you have downloaded Postfix, it is a simple matter to uncompress the bundle and compile it. On my system, I had to add one option for the compiler, which was easily accomplished by editing a straightforward make file. The INSTALL file that comes with the distribution lists supported systems. The normal UNIX platforms are all there. For most systems, compilation should be as simple as going to the top-level directory and typing make. In my case compilation was less than a minute, and after I corrected the makefile, reported no errors.

The INSTALL file offers three options for installing Postfix:

1. Send mail only, without changing an existing Sendmail installation.

2. Send and receive mail via a virtual host interface, without changing an existing Sendmail installation.

3. Replace Sendmail altogether.

I opted for the third choice. Documentation is available on the Postfix Web site and also comes with the distribution as HTML files and man pages. The INSTALL file provides instructions for installing Postfix after compilation is complete.

You will need root access on the machine where you are installing the package. As root, create a directory for Postfix.

# mkdir /etc/postfix

Then execute the following commands from the Postfix source directory:

# chmod 755 /etc/postfix
# cp conf/* /etc/postfix
# chmod 644 /etc/postfix/*
# chmod 755 /etc/postfix/postfix-script*

This will create the configuration directory for Postfix. The path /etc/postfix is hardcoded but can be overridden by setting an environment variable MAIL_CONFIG.

You will also need to create a spool directory for Postfix.

# mkdir /var/spool/postfix
# chmod 755 /var/spool/postfix

Finally, you will need both a commands directory and a daemons directory. These paths are configurable in /etc/postfix/ You can place them anywhere that makes sense for your system. I chose the recommended /usr/sbin for commands and /usr/lib/postfix for daemons. If you are replacing an existing Sendmail installation, you will want to rename the Sendmail program, because the Postfix distribution includes a binary called Sendmail. After moving your Sendmail program out of the way (e.g., mv /usr/lib/sendmail /usr/lib/sendmail.orig) execute the following from the Postfix source directory:

# cp bin/* /usr/sbin
# mkdir /usr/lib/postfix
# cp libexec/* /usr/lib/postfix

You can copy the included man pages into place or adjust your MANPATH environment variable as necessary.

Now, you need to replace the previous Sendmail installation. First, you will need to move mailq and newaliases so that Postfix can assume their functions. Assuming your programs are in /usr/bin, execute the following:

# mv /usr/bin/mailq /usr/bin/mailq.orig
# mv /usr/bin/newaliases /usr/bin/newaliases.orig
# chmod 755 /usr/bin/newaliases.orig /usr/bin/mailq.orig

# ln -s /usr/sbin/sendmail /usr/bin/mailq
# ln -s /usr/sbin/sendmail /usr/bin/newaliases

Create an account that will own the Postfix queue and most of its processes. The account should be set up so that no one can log in using the userid, and it should not have a shell. Use your normal tools to create the account. The /etc/passwd entry should resemble the following:

postfix:*:45128:45128:Postfix Mailer:/dev/null:/dev/null

Next, there are certain mandatory configuration options to set, and you can set any others as appropriate for your system. Postfix parameters work like environment variables. Edit the file /etc/postfix/ The default file is well documented. If you are following the above installation, set each of the following as shown:

queue_directory = /var/spool/postfix
command_directory = /usr/sbin
daemon_directory = /usr/lib/postfix
mail_owner = postfix

For myhostname and mydomain name, use your own host and domain names, but be sure to set them because they are used as the defaults for other configuration options. Also, be sure to select (uncomment) the correct mydestination line from the default configuration file.

You can get more configuration information from the online documentation or from the HTML directory in the Postfix source directory. You should certainly familiarize yourself with most of the configuration options to decide which settings are important for your environment.

In addition to configuration changes, you have the option of running most of the Postfix processes within a chrooted environment. This is an excellent security measure that will add another layer of protection from someone trying to penetrate your system. The steps for creating a chroot are a bit tricky, and they vary from platform to platform. Also, the chroot will depend on how your binaries were compiled. The Postfix distribution does include some help in the examples/chroot-setup directory, but these are a bit skimpy and probably do not provide all the information you will need. You will have to investigate the documentation for your system and experiment. From a security point of view, this is well worth the effort.

There is another security decision you will have to make regarding Postfix's submission mechanism, that is, the attributes on directories used for mail spooling. Postfix offers two options. The first uses a world-writable, sticky (1733) directory for messages. Because it is world-writable there is no need to run any program with special privileges (setuid or setgid), and the mail files themselves are not world-writable or otherwise accessible to other users.

There is a possibility that a local user could do some small damage. For example, it would be possible to create a hard link to a mail file so that it is not removed when Postfix deletes it. Or, a local user could copy or hard link some system file to the directory to try to have it delivered as mail. Postfix does take steps to prevent this (remember, trust no one), so the likelihood that this would work is significantly diminished. However, if you have a lot of local users on the mail system, and your own security policies would not permit world-write permissions, Postfix offers an alternative. You can set the directory permissions more restrictively (1730) and install an additional program, called postdrop, provided to run setgid. You will have to create a special group that has no members and set the mail spool directory's group to the unique group you created. Postfix will automatically run postdrop when it detects that the spool directory write permission is restricted.

You will need to copy the correct script into place to enable one of the submission modes. On my system there are many mail accounts, but very few local users (only administrators), so I chose the first option. From the /etc/postfix directory, type:

# cp postfix-script-nosgid postfix-script

Once you have selected your submission mechanism and you are satisfied with your configuration, you can start your Postfix daemons:

# postfix start

The first time you start the application, you will see warning messages as it creates its various directories. If you make any changes to configuration files, you should reload Postfix:

# postfix reload

Although the distribution does not provide an installation script, handling it manually is quite simple and perhaps provides a better understanding of the program as a whole. In addition to the configuration discussed above, there are a number of other options that deal with virtual hosting, antispam, resource controls, and address manipulation.

One issue that might affect your decision in considering a switch to Postfix is that there is not yet any commercial support for the product. If you now have support from your system vendor, or if you have contracted with a third party for Sendmail support, you will probably be on your own for the near future if you run Postfix. On the other hand, Postfix provides a stable and secure mail system that is easy to set up, yet provides most of the flexibility of Sendmail. It is a new application that has not had much experience in the real world, but based on its design and initial performance reports, it is an application that has tremendous promise and is probably worth an investment of some time to investigate its potential for your site.


About the Author

Kyle Dent is the founder and owner of SeaGlass Technologies, Inc. a company specializing in secure Web hosting/development and Internet/security consulting. He can be reached at:


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