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<H1 ALIGN=CENTER>Design Notes On Fetchmail</H1>

These notes are for the benefit of future hackers and maintainers.  
The following sections are both functional and narrative, read from
beginning to end.<P>


A direct ancestor of the fetchmail program was originally authored
(under the name popclient) by Carl Harris &lt;;. I took
over development in June 1996 and subsequently renamed the program
`fetchmail' to reflect the addition of IMAP support.  In early
November 1996 Carl officially ended support for the last popclient

Before accepting responsibility for the popclient sources from Carl, I
had investigated and used and tinkered with every other UNIX
remote-mail forwarder I could find, including fetchpop1.9,
PopTart-0.9.3, get-mail, gwpop, pimp-1.0, pop-perl5-1.2, popc,
popmail-1.6 and upop.  My major goal was to get a header-rewrite
feature like fetchmail's working so I wouldn't have reply problems

Despite having done a good bit of work on fetchpop1.9, when I found
popclient I quickly concluded that it offered the solidest base for
future development.  I was convinced of this primarily by the presence
of multiple-protocol support.  The competition didn't do
POP2/RPOP/APOP, and I was already having vague thoughts of maybe
adding IMAP.  (This would advance two other goals: learn IMAP and get
comfortable writing TCP/IP client software.)<P>

Until popclient 3.05 I was simply following out the implications of
Carl's basic design.  He already had daemon.c in the distribution, 
and I wanted daemon mode almost as badly as I wanted the header
rewrite feature.  The other things I added were bug fixes or
minor extensions.<P>

After 3.1, when I put in SMTP-forwarding support (more about this
below) the nature of the project changed -- it became a
carefully-thought-out attempt to render obsolete every other program
in its class.  The name change quickly followed.<P>

<H1>The rewrite option</H1>

MTAs ought to canonicalize the addresses of outgoing non-local mail so
that From:, To:, Cc:, Bcc: and other address headers contain only
fully qualified domain names.  Failure to do so can break the reply
function on many mailers.  (Sendmail has an option to do this.)<P>

This problem only becomes obvious when a reply is generated on a
machine different from where the message was delivered.  The
two machines will have different local username spaces, potentially
leading to misrouted mail.<P>

Most MTAs (and sendmail in particular) do not canonicalize address headers
in this way (violating RFC 1123).  Fetchmail therefore has to do it.  This
is the first feature I added to the ancestral popclient.<P>


The second thing I did reorganize and simplify popclient a lot.  Carl
Harris's implementation was very sound, but exhibited a kind of
unnecessary complexity common to many C programmers.  He treated the
code as central and the data structures as support for the code.  As a
result, the code was beautiful but the data structure design ad-hoc
and rather ugly (at least to this old LISP hacker).<P>

I was able to improve matters significantly by reorganizing most of the
program around the `query' data structure and eliminating a bunch of
global context.  This especially simplified the main sequence in
fetchmail.c and was critical in enabling the daemon mode changes.<P>

<H1>IMAP support and the method table</H1>

The next step was IMAP support.  I initially wrote the IMAP code
as a generic query driver and a method table.  The idea was to have
all the protocol-independent setup logic and flow of control in the
driver, and the protocol-specific stuff in the method table.<P>

Once this worked, I rewrote the POP3 code to use the same organization.
The POP2 code kept its own driver for a couple more releases, until
I found sources of a POP2 server to test against (the breed seems
to be nearly extinct).<P>

The purpose of this reorganization, of course, is to trivialize 
the development of support for future protocols as much as possible.
All mail-retrieval protocols have to have pretty similar logical
design by the nature of the task.  By abstracting out that common
logic and its interface to the rest of the program, both the common
and protocol-specific parts become easier to understand.<P>

Furthermore, many kinds of new features can instantly be supported
across all protocols by modifying the one driver module.<P>

<H1>Implications of smtp forwarding</H1>

The direction of the project changed radically when Harry Hochheiser
sent me his scratch code for forwarding fetched mail to the SMTP port.
I realized almost immediately that a reliable implementation of this
feature would make all the other delivery modes obsolete.<P>

Why mess with all the complexity of configuring an MDA or setting up
lock-and-append on a mailbox when port 25 is guaranteed to be there on
any platform with TCP/IP support in the first place?  Especially when
this means retrieved mail is guaranteed to look like normal sender-
initiated SMTP mail, which is really what we want anyway.<P>

Clearly, the right thing to do was (1) hack SMTP forwarding support
into the generic driver, (2) make it the default mode, and (3) eventually
throw out all the other delivery modes.  <P>

I hesitated over step 3 for some time, fearing to upset long-time
popclient users dependent on the alternate delivery mechanisms.  In
theory, they could immediately switch to .forward files or their
non-sendmail equivalents to get the same effects.  In practice the
transition might have been messy.<P>

But when I did it (see the NEWS note on the great options massacre)
the benefits proved huge.  The cruftiest parts of the driver code
vanished.  Configuration got radically simpler -- no more grovelling
around for the system MDA and user's mailbox, no more worries about
whether the underlying OS supports file locking.<P>

Also, the only way to lose mail vanished.  If you specified localfolder
and the disk got full, your mail got lost.  This can't happen with 
SMTP forwarding because your SMTP listener won't return OK unless
the message can be spooled or processed.<P>

Also, performance improved (though not so you'd notice it in a single
run).  Another not insignificant benefit of this change was that the
manual page got a lot simpler.<P>

Later, I had to bring --mda back in order to allow handling of some
obscure situations involving dynamic SLIP.  But I found a much simpler
way to do it.<P>

The moral?  Don't hesitate to throw away superannuated features when
you can do it without loss of effectiveness.  I tanked a couple I'd
added myself and have no regrets at all.  As Saint-Exupery said,
"Perfection [in design] is achieved not when there is nothing more to
add, but rather when there is nothing more to take away."  This
program isn't perfect, but it's trying.<P>

<H1>The most-requested features that I will never add, and why not:</H1>

<H2>Password encryption in .fetchmailrc</H2>

The reason there's no facility to store passwords encrypted in the
.fetchmailrc file is because this doesn't actually add protection.<P>

Anyone who's acquired the 0600 permissions needed to read your
.fetchmailrc file will be able to run fetchmail as you anyway -- and
if it's your password they're after, they'd be able to rip the
necessary decoder out of the fetchmail code itself to get it.<P>

All .fetchmailrc encryption would do is give a false sense of
security to people who don't think very hard.<P>

<H2>Truly concurrent queries to multiple hosts</H2>

Occasionally I get a request for this on "efficiency" grounds.  These
people aren't thinking either.  True concurrency would do nothing to lessen
fetchmail's total IP volume.  The best it could possibly do is change the
usage profile to shorten the duration of the active part of a poll cycle
at the cost of increasing its demand on IP volume per unit time.<P>

If one could thread the protocol code so that fetchmail didn't block
on waiting for a protocol response, but rather switched to trying to
process another host query, one might get an efficiency gain (close to
constant loading at the single-host level).<P>

Fortunately, I've only seldom seen a server that incurred significant
wait time on an individual response.  I judge the gain from this not
worth the hideous complexity increase it would require in the code.<P>

<H2>Multiple concurrent instances of fetchmail</H2>

Fetchmail locking is on a per-invoking-user because finer-grained
locks would be really hard to implement in a portable way.  The
problem is that you don't want two fetchmails querying the same site
for the same remote user at the same time.<P>

To handle this optimally, multiple fetchmails would have to associate
a system-wide semaphore with each active pair of a remote user and
host canonical address.  A fetchmail would have to block until getting
this semaphore at the start of a query, and release it at the end of a

This would be way too complicated to do just for an "it might be nice"
feature.  Instead, you can run a single root fetchmail polling for
multiple users in either single-drop or multidrop mode.<P>

The fundamental problem here is how an instance of fetchmail polling
host foo can assert that it's doing so in a way visible to all other
fetchmails.  System V semaphores would be ideal for this purpose, but
they're not portable.<P>

I've thought about this a lot and roughed up several designs.  All are
complicated and fragile, with a bunch of the standard problems (what
happens if a fetchmail aborts before clearing its semaphore, and how
do we recover reliably?).<P>

I'm just not satisfied that there's enough functional gain here to pay
for the large increase in complexity that adding these semaphores
would entail.<P>

<H1>Multidrop and alias handling</H1>

I decided to add the multidrop support partly because some users were
clamoring for it, but mostly because I thought it would shake bugs out
of the single-drop code by forcing me to deal with addressing in full
generality.  And so it proved.<P>

There are two important aspects of the features for handling
multiple-drop aliases and mailing lists which future hackers should be
careful to preserve.<P>

   The logic path for single-recipient mailboxes doesn't involve header
   parsing or DNS lookups at all.  This is important -- it means the code
   for the most common case can be much simpler and more robust.<P>

   The multidrop handing does <EM>not</EM> rely on doing the equivalent of
   passing the message to sendmail -oem -t.  Instead, it explicitly mines
   members of a specified set of local usernames out of the header.<P>

   We do <EM>not</EM> attempt delivery to multidrop mailboxes in the presence
   of DNS errors.  Before each multidrop poll we probe DNS to see if we have a
   nameserver handy.  If not, the poll is skipped. If DNS crashes during a
   poll, the error return from the next nameserver lookup aborts message
   delivery and ends the poll.  The daemon mode will then quietly spin until
   DNS comes up again, at which point it will resume delivering mail.

When I designed this support, I was terrified of doing anything that could 
conceivably cause a mail loop (you should be too).  That's why the code
as written can only append <EM>local</EM> names (never @-addresses) to the
recipients list.<P>

The code in mxget.c is nasty, no two ways about it.  But it's utterly
necessary, there are a lot of MX pointers out there.  It really ought
to be a (documented!) entry point in the bind library.<P>

<H1>DNS error handling</H1>

Fetchmail's behavior on DNS errors is to suppress forwarding and
deletion of the individual message that each occurs in, leaving it
queued on the server for retrieval on a subsequent poll.  The
assumption is that DNS errors are transient, due to temporary server

Unfortunately this means that if a DNS error is permanent a message
can be perpetually stuck in the server mailbox.  We've had a couple
bug reports of this kind due to subtle RFC822 parsing errors in the fetchmail
code that resulted in impossible things getting passed to the DNS lookup

Alternative ways to handle the problem: ignore DNS errors (treating
them as a non-match on the mailserver domain), or forward messages
with errors to fetchmail's invoking user in addition to any other
recipients.  These would fit an assumption that DNS lookup errors are
likely to be permanent problems associated with an address.<P>

<H1>IPv6 and IPSEC</H1>

The IPv6 support patches are really more protocol-family independence
patches. Because of this, in most places, "ports" (numbers) have been
replaced with "services" (strings, that may be digits). This allows us
to run with certain protocols that use strings as "service names"
where we in the IP world think of port numbers.  Someday we'll plumb
strings all over and then, if inet6 is not enabled, do a
getservbyname() down in SocketOpen. The IPv6 support patches use
getaddrinfo(), which is a POSIX p1003.1g mandated function. So, in the
not too distant future, we'll zap the ifdefs and just let autoconf
check for getaddrinfo. IPv6 support comes pretty much automatically
once you have protocol family independence.<P>


Internationalization is handled using GNU gettext (see the file
ABOUT_NLS in the source distribution).  This places some
minor constraints on the code.<P>

Strings that must be subject to translation should be wrapped with GT_() 
or N_() -- the former in function arguments, the latter in static
initializers and other non-function-argument contexts.<p>

<H1>Checklist for Adding Options</H1>

Adding a control option is not complicated in principle, but there are
a lot of fiddly details in the process.  You'll need to do the 
following minimum steps.

<LI>Add a field to represent the control in <code>struct run</code>,
    <code>struct query</code>, or <code>struct hostdata</code>.

<LI>Go to <code>rcfile_y.y</code>.  Add the token to the grammar. Don't
    forget the <code>%token</code> declaration.  

<LI>Pick an actual string to declare the option in the .fetchmailrc file.  Add
    the token to <code>rcfile_l</code>.  

<LI>Pick a long-form option name, and a one-letter short option if any
    are left.  Go to <code>options.c</code>.  Pick a new <code>LA_</code>
    value.  Hack the <code>longoptions</code> table to set up the
    association.  Hack the big switch statement to set the option.
    Hack the `?' message to describe it.

<LI>If the default is nonzero, set it in <code>def_opts</code> near the top of
    <code>load_params</code> in <code>fetchmail.c</code>.

<LI>Add code to dump the option value in <code>fetchmail.c:dump_params</code>.

<LI> For a per-site or per-user option, add proper
    <code>FLAG_MERGE</code> actions in fetchmail.c's optmerge()
    function.  For a global option, add an override at the end of
    load_params; this will involve copying a "cmd_run."  field to a
    corresponding "run." field, see the existing code for models.

<LI>Document the option in  This will require at least
    two changes; one to the collected table of options, and one full
    text description of the option.

<LI>Hack fetchmailconf to configure it.  Bump the fetchmailconf version.

<LI>Hack conf.c to dump the option so we won't have a version-skew problem.

<LI>Add an entry to NEWS.

<LI>If the option implements a new feature, add a note to the feature list.

There may be other things you have to do in the way of logic, of course.<P>

Before you implement an option, though, think hard.  Is there any way
to make fetchmail automatically detect the circumstances under which
it should change its behavior?  If so, don't write an option.  Just do
the check!<p>

<H1>Lessons learned</H1>

<H3>1. Server-side state is essential</H3>

The person(s) responsible for removing LAST from POP3 deserve to suffer.
Without it, a client has no way to know which messages in a box have been
read by other means, such as an MUA running on the server.<P>

The POP3 UID feature described in RFC1725 to replace LAST is
insufficient.  The only problem it solves is tracking which messages
have been read <EM>by this client</EM> -- and even that requires
tricky, fragile implementation.<P>

The underlying lesson is that maintaining accessible server-side
`seen' state bits associated with Status headers is indispensible in a
Unix/RFC822 mail server protocol.  IMAP gets this right.<P>

<H3>2. Readable text protocol transactions are a Good Thing</H3>

A nice thing about the general class of text-based protocols that SMTP,
POP2, POP3, and IMAP belongs to is that client/server transactions are
easy to watch and transaction code correspondingly easy to debug.  Given
a decent layer of socket utility functions (which Carl provided) it's
easy to write protocol engines and not hard to show that they're working

This is an advantage not to be despised!  Because of it, this project has
been interesting and fun --  no serious or persistent bugs, no long
hours spent looking for subtle pathologies.<P>

<H3>3. IMAP is a Good Thing.</H3>

Now that there is a standard IMAP equivalent of the POP3 APOP validation
in CRAM-MD5, POP3 is completely obsolete.<P>

<H3>4. SMTP is the Right Thing</H3>

In retrospect it seems clear that this program (and others like it)
should have been designed to forward via SMTP from the beginning.
This lesson may be applicable to other Unix programs that now call the
local MDA/MTA as a program.<P>

<H3>5. Syntactic noise can be your friend</H3>

The optional `noise' keywords in the rc file syntax started out as
a late-night experiment.  The English-like syntax they allow is
considerably more readable than the traditional terse keyword-value
pairs you get when you strip them all out.  I think there may be a
wider lesson here.<P>

<H1>Motivation and validation</H1>

It is truly written: the best hacks start out as personal solutions to
the author's everyday problems, and spread because the problem turns
out to be typical for a large class of users.  So it was with Carl Harris
and the ancestral popclient, and so with me and fetchmail.<P>

It's gratifying that fetchmail has become so popular.  Until just before
1.9 I was designing strictly to my own taste.  The multi-drop mailbox 
support and the new --limit option were the first features to go in that
I didn't need myself.<P>

By 1.9, four months after I started hacking on popclient and a month
after the first fetchmail release, there were literally a hundred
people on the fetchmail-friends contact list.  That's pretty powerful
motivation.  And they were a good crowd, too, sending fixes and
intelligent bug reports in volume.  A user population like that is
a gift from the gods, and this is my expression of gratitude.<P>

The beta testers didn't know it at the time, but they were also the
subjects of a sociological experiment.  The results are described in
my paper, <A
HREF="//">The Cathedral
And The Bazaar</A>.<P>


Special thanks go to Carl Harris, who built a good solid code base
and then tolerated me hacking it out of recognition.  And to Harry
Hochheiser, who gave me the idea of the SMTP-forwarding delivery mode.<P>

Other significant contributors to the code have included Dave Bodenstab
(error.c code and --syslog), George Sipe (--monitor and --interface),
Gordon Matzigkeit (netrc.c), Al Longyear (UIDL support), Chris
Hanson (Kerberos V4 support), and Craig Metz (OPIE, IPv6, IPSEC).<P>


At this point, the fetchmail code appears to be pretty stable.
It will probably undergo substantial change only if and when support
for a new retrieval protocol or authentication method is added.<P>

<H1>Relevant RFCS</H1>

Not all of these describe standards explicitly used in fetchmail, but they
all shaped the design in one way or another.<P>

<DT><A HREF="">RFC821</A>
<DD> SMTP protocol
<DT><A HREF="">RFC822</A>
<DD> Mail header format
<DT><A HREF="">RFC937</A>
<DD> Post Office Protocol - Version 2
<DT><A HREF="">RFC974</A>
<DD> MX routing
<DT><A HREF="">RFC976</A>
<DD> UUCP mail format
<DT><A HREF="">RFC1081</A>
<DD> Post Office Protocol - Version 3
<DT><A HREF="">RFC1123</A>
<DD> Host requirements (modifies 821, 822, and 974)
<DT><A HREF="">RFC1176</A>
<DD> Interactive Mail Access Protocol - Version 2
<DT><A HREF="">RFC1203</A>
<DD> Interactive Mail Access Protocol - Version 3
<DT><A HREF="">RFC1225</A>
<DD> Post Office Protocol - Version 3
<DT><A HREF="">RFC1344</A>
<DD> Implications of MIME for Internet Mail Gateways
<DT><A HREF="">RFC1413</A>
<DD> Identification server
<DT><A HREF="">RFC1428</A>
<DD> Transition of Internet Mail from Just-Send-8 to 8-bit SMTP/MIME
<DT><A HREF="">RFC1460</A>
<DD> Post Office Protocol - Version 3
<DT><A HREF="">RFC1508</A>
<DD> Generic Security Service Application Program Interface
<DT><A HREF="">RFC1521</A>
<DD> MIME: Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions
<DT><A HREF="">RFC1869</A>
<DD> SMTP Service Extensions (ESMTP spec)
<DT><A HREF="">RFC1652</A>
<DD> SMTP Service Extension for 8bit-MIMEtransport
<DT><A HREF="">RFC1725</A>
<DD> Post Office Protocol - Version 3
<DT><A HREF="">RFC1730</A>
<DD> Interactive Mail Access Protocol - Version 4
<DT><A HREF="">RFC1731</A>
<DD> IMAP4 Authentication Mechanisms
<DT><A HREF="">RFC1732</A>
<DD> IMAP4 Compatibility With IMAP2 And IMAP2bis
<DT><A HREF="">RFC1734</A>
<DD> POP3 AUTHentication command
<DT><A HREF="">RFC1870</A>
<DD> SMTP Service Extension for Message Size Declaration
<DT><A HREF="">RFC1891</A>
<DD> SMTP Service Extension for Delivery Status Notifications
<DT><A HREF="">RFC1892</A>
<DD> The Multipart/Report Content Type for the Reporting of Mail System Administrative Messages
<DT><A HREF="">RFC1894</A>
<DD>An Extensible Message Format for Delivery Status Notifications
<DT><A HREF="">RFC1893</A>
<DD> Enhanced Mail System Status Codes
<DT><A HREF="">RFC1894</A>
<DD> An Extensible Message Format for Delivery Status Notifications
<DT><A HREF="">RFC1938</A>
<DD> A One-Time Password System
<DT><A HREF="">RFC1939</A>
<DD> Post Office Protocol - Version 3
<DT><A HREF="">RFC1957</A>
<DD> Some Observations on Implementations of the Post Office Protocol (POP3)
<DT><A HREF="">RFC1985</A>
<DD> SMTP Service Extension for Remote Message Queue Starting
<DT><A HREF="">RFC2033</A>
<DD> Local Mail Transfer Protocol
<DT><A HREF="">RFC2060</A>
<DD> Internet Message Access Protocol - Version 4rev1
<DT><A HREF="">RFC2061</A>
<DD> IMAP4 Compatibility With IMAP2bis
<DT><A HREF="">RFC2062</A>
<DD> Internet Message Access Protocol - Obsolete Syntax
<DT><A HREF="">RFC2195</A>
<DD> IMAP/POP AUTHorize Extension for Simple Challenge/Response
<DT><A HREF="">RFC2177</A>
<DD> IMAP IDLE command
<DT><A HREF="">RFC2449</A>
<DD> POP3 Extension Mechanism
<DT><A HREF="">RFC2554</A>
<DD> SMTP Service Extension for Authentication
<DT><A HREF="">RFC2595</A>
<DD> Using TLS with IMAP, POP3 and ACAP
<DT><A HREF="">RFC2645</A>
<DD>On-Demand Mail Relay: SMTP with Dynamic IP Addresses
<DT><A HREF="">RFC2683</A>
<DD> IMAP4 Implementation Recommendations
<DT><A HREF="">RFC2821</A>
<DD> Simple Mail Transfer Protocol
<DT><A HREF="">RFC2822</A>
<DD>Internet Message Format
RFC2192 IMAP URL Scheme
RFC2193 IMAP4 Mailbox Referrals
RFC2221 IMAP4 Login Referrals

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<td width="30%" align=right>$Date: 2002/03/26 00:55:55 $

<P><ADDRESS>Eric S. Raymond <A HREF="">&lt;;</A></ADDRESS>