Using MX records to create backup mail server

There’s a widely held misunderstanding about “main” and “backup” MX records in the web developer world. The fact is that there not such thing! Anyone who tells you different is plain wrong, but there are a lot of web developers who believe there is the case, and some ISPs give in and provide them as it’s simpler than arguing. It’s possible to use two in some crazy scheme that looks like a backup server, in practice it does very little to help and quite possibly rather a lot to hinder. It won’t make your email more robust in practical terms.

If you are using an email server at a data centre, with reasonable expectation of an always-on connection, you need a single MX record. If your processing requirements are great you can have multiple records at the same level to spread the load between peered servers but none would be a backup any more than any other. Senders simply get one server at random. I have a single MX record.

“But you must have a backup!”, is the usual response. I do, of course, but it has nothing to do with having multiple MX records. Let me explain:

A domain’s MX record gives the address of the server to which its email should be sent. In practice, this means the company’s mail sever; or if they have multiple servers, the incoming one. Most companies have one mail server address, and this is fine. If that mail server dies it needs to be repaired or replaced, and the replacement gets the same address.

But what of having a second MX record with an alternative, lower-priority server? It may sound good, but it’s nuts. Think about it – the company’s mail server is where the mail ends up. It’s where the users expect to log in and read it. If you have an alternative server, the mail will go there instead, but the user’s won’t be able to read it. This assumes that the backup is on a different site, available if the first site goes down. If it’s on the same site it’s even more pointless, as it will be affected by the same connectivity issues that took the first one offline. Users will have their existing mail on the broken server, new mail will be on a different server, and you’ll be in a real bugger’s muddle trying to reconcile the two later. It makes much more sense to just fix the broken one, or switch in a backup at the same location and on the existing IP address. In extremis, you can change the MX record to point to a replacement server elsewhere.

There’s a vague idea that if you don’t have a second MX, mail will be lost. Nothing can be further from the truth. If your one and only mail server is off-line, the sender’s server will queue up the message and keep trying until it comes back – it will normally do this for a week. It won’t lose it. Most mail servers will report back to the sender if it hasn’t been able to get through for four hours, so they’ll know there’s a problem and won’t worry that you haven’t replied.

If you have two mail servers, one on a different site, the secondary server will start receiving emails when the first one goes off-line. It’ll just queue them up, waiting to forward them to the primary one, but in this case the sender won’t get notification of the delay. Okay, if the primary server is off-line for more than a week it will prevent mail loss – but why would the primary server possibly be off-line for a week – the company won’t function unless it’s repaired quickly.

In the old days of dial-up, before POP3 came in to being, some people did use SMTP in a way where a server in a data centre forwarding to the remote site when it connected. I remember Cliff Stanford had a PC mail client called Turnpike that did just this in the early days of Demon. But SMTP was designed for always-on connections and POP3 was designed for dial-up, so POP3 won out.

Let’s get real: There are two likely scenarios for having a mail server off-line. Firstly, the hardware could be dead. If so, get it repaired, and in less than a week. Secondly, the line to the server could be down, and this could be medium-term if someone with a JCB has done a particularly “good job” on it. This gives you a week to make alternative arrangements and direct the mail down another line, which is plenty of time.

So, the idea of having a “backup” MX is pointless. It can only send mail to an off-site server; it doesn’t prevent any realistic mail loss and your email ends up where your users can’t get it until the primary server is repaired. But is there any harm in having one if it makes you feel better? Actually, in practice, yes. In theory mail will just pile up on a spare server and get forwarded later. However, this spare server probably isn’t going to be up to the same specification as the primary one. They never are – they sit there idling, with nothing to do nearly all the time. They won’t necessary have the fastest line; their spam and virus filtering will be out-of-date or non-existent and they have a finite amount of disk space to absorb mail. This can really matter if you end up storing and forwarding a large amount of spam, as is they way these days. The primary server can be configured to discard it quickly, but this isn’t a job appropriate for the secondary one. So it builds up until it’s ancient and meagre disk space is exhausted, and then it tells the sender to give up trying due to a “disk full” error – and the email is bounced off in to the ether. It’d have been much better to leave it on the sender’s server is the first place.

There are other security issues to having a secondary server. One problem comes with spam filtering. This is best done at the end of the line; it’s not the place of a secondary server to determine what gets delivered and what doesn’t. For starters, it doesn’t see the corpus of legitimate emails, so won’t be so adept at comparing and sorting. It’s probably going to be some old spare kit that’s underpowered for modern spam processing anyway. However, when it stores and forwards it, the primary server will see it comes from a “friend” rather than a dubious source in a lawless part Internet. Spammers do use secondary MX records as a back door to get around virus and spam filters for this very reason.

You could, of course, specify and configure a secondary mail server to be up to the job, with loads of disk space to prevent a DoS attack and fully functional spam filters, regularly maintained and sharing Bayesian analysis data and local rules with the actual server. And then have this expensive resource sitting there doing nothing all day but converting electricity in to heat. Realistically, it’s not going to happen.

By now you may be wondering, if multiple MX records are so pointless, why they exist? It’s one of these Internet myths; a paradigm that users feel comfortable with, without questioning the technology behind it. There is a purpose, but it’s not for “backup”.

When universal Internet email was new, messages would be sent to a user “@” computer, and computers were normally shared, so each would have multiple possible users. The computer would receive the email and put it in the mailbox corresponding to the user part of the address.

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When the idea of sending email to a domain rather than a specific server came in to being, MD and MF records also came in to being. A MD record gave the IP address of the server where mail should end up (the Mail Destination). An MF record, if it existed, allowed the mail to be forwarded through another machine first (Mail Forward). This was sometimes necessary, for example if the MD was on a dial-up connection or behind a firewall and unable to accept direct connections over the Internet. The mail would go to the MF instead, and the MF would send it to the MD – presumably it had a back door to get to it.

In the mid 1980’s it was felt that having both MD and MF records placed double the load on DNS servers, so unified MX records, which could be read with a single lookup, were born. To allow for multiple levels of mail forwarding through firewalls, they were prioritised to 99 levels, although if you need more than three for any scheme you’re just being silly.

Unfortunately, the operation of MX records rather than the explicitly named MF and MD, is a bit subtle. So subtle it’s often very misunderstood.

The first thing you need to understand is that email delivery should be controlled from the DNS for the domain, NOT from the individual mail servers that exist on that domain. This may not be obvious, but this is how it’s designed to work, and when you think of it, a central point of control is a good thing.

Secondly, DNS records should be universal. Every computer on the Internet, making the same DNS query, should get the same result. With he later addition of NAT, there is now an excuse for varying this, but you can come unstuck if you get it wrong and that’s not what it was designed for.

If you want to reconfigure the route that mail takes to a domain, you do it by editing the single master DNS record (zone file) for that domain – you leave the multiple mail servers alone,

Now consider this problem: an organisation (called “theorganisation”) has a mail server called A. It’s inside the theorganisation’s firewall, for its own protection. Servers on the Internet can’t talk to A directly, because the firewall won’t let them through, but local users send and receive mail through it all day long. To receive external mail there’s another server called B, this time outside the firewall. A rule on the firewall allows specific traffic from B to get to A. The relevant part of the zone file may look something like this, except IP addresses should be used instead of symbolic names:

MX 1 A.theorganisation
MX 2 B.theorganisation

So how do these simple lines tell the world, and servers A and B, how to operate? You need to understand the rules…

When another server, which I shall call C, sends a message to alice@theorganisation it will look up the MX records for theorganisation, and see the above. C will then attempt to contact alice at the lowest numbered MX it finds, which points to server A. If C is located within the same department, it will be within the firewall and mail can be delivered directly; otherwise the firewall will block it. If C can’t contact A because of the firewall it will try the next highest on the list, in this case B. B is on the Internet, and will accept connections from C (and anyone else). The message arrives at B for Alice, but alice is not a user of B. However, B knows that it’s not the final destination for mail to theorganisation because the MX record says there’s a lower numbered server called A, so it attempts to forward it there. As B is allowed through the firewall, it can deliver the message to A, where it’s finally put in alice’s mailbox.

This may sound a bit complicated, but the rules for MX records can be made to route mail through complex paths simply by editing the DNS zone file, and this is how it’s supposed to work. The DNS zone file controls the path the mail will take. If you try to use the system for some contrary purpose (like a poor-man’s backup), you’re going to come unstuck.

There is another situation where you might want multiple MX records: If your mail server has multiple network interfaces on different (redundant) lines. If the MX priority value is the same for both, each IP address will (or should) be used at random, but if you have high-cost and low-cost lines you can change the priority to favour one route over another. With modern routing this artifice may not be necessary – let the router choose the line and mangle the IP addresses in to one for you. But sometimes a simple solution works just as well.

In summary, MX record forwarding is not deigned for implementing backup mail servers and any attempt to use them for the purpose is going to do more harm than good. The ideas that this is what they’re all about is a myth.