Setting up Cyrus on RHEL 5.1Edit

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As part of my migration from Rackspace to INetU I moved from RHEL 3 to RHEL 5.1. I saw it as an opportunity to do a bit of "spring cleaning" and select the most up-to-date, standard, supported, Red Hat-backed tools that I could.

Part of that entailed moving from UW-IMAP on the old server to Cyrus on the new server (the supported options on RHEL 5.1 were Cyrus and Courier; I chose Cyrus purely because it was listed in the Red Hat docs as the "standard" IMAP software, despite the fact that I had previous experience with Courier on FreeBSD).

I created local user accounts (real accounts, but without shell access) for each email account and enabled Cyrus in /etc/mail/ as suggested in the comments:

dnl # For using Cyrus-IMAPd as POP3/IMAP server through LMTP delivery uncomment
dnl # the following 2 definitions and activate below in the MAILER section the
dnl # cyrusv2 mailer.
dnl #
dnl define(`confLOCAL_MAILER', `cyrusv2')dnl
dnl define(`CYRUSV2_MAILER_ARGS', `FILE /var/lib/imap/socket/lmtp')dnl

Little did I know that this would end up causing me problems later.

The mailstorm problem

In the configuration suggested above you could find yourself on the receiving end of a mailstorm. This stems from the fact that Cyrus is designed to work with "virtual" accounts (not real accounts on the system), and so sendmail has no way of knowing whether email accounts really exist. Furthermore, the Cyrus mailboxes are in a custom format which sendmail can’t write to and so it must delegate responsibility for this to Cyrus.

The mailstorm problem therefore arises as follows:

  1. Spammers connect to sendmail
  2. Attempt to send to dozens, hundreds or thousands of addresses, most of which do not exist
  3. Sendmail accepts all the messages, then passes them on to Cyrus
  4. Cyrus generates a bounce for each non-existent user
  5. Bounce message is transmitted by sendmail to remote hosts, but in many or most cases the spammer has used a false email address, so the bounce is itself bounced back to the local postmaster

So this is really a double problem because you’re generated bounces which you shouldn’t be generating (better to refuse delivery as soon as the spammer attempts to deliver to a non-existent user) and then again because most of your bounces generated another wave of bounces, but these latter ones pile up in your postmaster inbox.

One solution

One solution is to somehow teach Sendmail to query Cyrus about whether a user account exists in real time. Then it can refuse delivery immediately for non-existent users and no bounce message is generated, solving the mailstorm problem.

I tried for many hours to get this solution working but I was unable to iron out all the flaws. As soon as I got real-time look-ups working (using the smmapd provided with Cryus and some custom Sendmail configuration) I found that incoming mail deliveries were seemingly getting dropped on the floor. In reality they were actually getting delivered via the local mailer to /var/spool/mail rather than to the Cyrus mailboxes, so no mail was really lost.

Another solution

I finally managed to get an alternative solution working, enabled by the fact that my email accounts are actual UNIX user accounts, even though they don’t have login shells. My solution was to disable all Cyrus-related directives in the — I had only used them because the comments seemed to indicate that this was "the" way to set things up — and instead use Procmail as a local delivery agent.

Procmail can easily pass emails on to Cyrus using the deliver program, but by the time sendmail even invokes procmail it has already checked if a corresponding local user exists and can refuse spam for non-existent users at the right time and thus avoid mailstorms.

Procmail has another benefit which is that it affords easy insertion of other filters into the mail flow (SpamAssassin, for example) and allows for per-user customization.

Yet another solution

Another solution, also leveraging the existence of real UNIX accounts for email, was suggested to me but I never tested it. The idea is to use the Cyrus mailer but have sendmail check for the existence of local accounts first:


Ensuring that Cyrus launches on boot

When I first set up Cyrus I left the machine running for over 200 hundred days until it was time to update to a new version of the kernel. Upon rebooting, mail services didn’t come back up and the server was issuing temporary failure notices because I had forgotten a key step in the configuration; telling the service to start up Cyrus at boot time:

sudo chkconfig cyrus-impad on