Why SMTP needs a way of communicating partial success for message delivery

September 3, 2008

As illustrated in yesterday's entry, one of the problems of the (E)SMTP protocol is that after a SMTP server has accepted all of the message's destination addresses and gets to see the actual message, it has no way to tell the client that the message was delivered to only some of those addresses. This decision made perfect sense at the time that SMTP and then ESMTP were being created, because back then most of the plausible per-address problems could be detected at RCPT TO time and if not, well, you could just send a bounce message. These days it is now an inconvenient limitation and ESMTP could really use an extension that added more smarts to the process.

As shown yesterday, you can sort of fake it by selectively deferring some RCPT TOs, forcing the sender to break the destination addresses up into chunks of your choice (the ultimate version of this is to only accept one destination address per transaction). The problem with this is that the 'reject without enabling dictionary scanning' case is actually the simple one, because you know before you see the message body what the real answer for each address is; this lets you make an immediate decision about how to force the sender to break up the addresses.

Consider a politically complicated environment, where some people just want their email tagged, some people only want to reject email that is all but certain to be spam, and some people are willing to reject more widely. Here you don't know how you want to group the addresses until you've seen the message body, by which time it's too late.

While you can force the sender to split the addresses into groups by the type of filtering (if any) that the person has opted in to, the problem is that this forces the split on every email message, even the ones that don't need it, which makes things increasingly complicated and inefficient (and you are relying on mailers reacting sensibly, where by 'sensibly' you really mean 'the way you want them to'). One unwelcome effect is that users will probably get even their good email more slowly, as legitimate sending mailers get confused by your forced retries.

(Of course, this just brings up the thought that ESMTP could also use an extension to let the server advertise the recommended retry interval on any temporary failure. Increasingly the server has very definite ideas about this; either it wants you to retry very fast, or it knows that there is no point in you retrying before, say, half an hour because you'll just get another temporary failure. Some servers even put this sort of information in the text portion of their 4xx replies, which is at least very useful for sysadmins as we try to figure out why outgoing email to somewhere is being delayed.)

Written on 03 September 2008.
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Last modified: Wed Sep 3 23:56:25 2008
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