Paranoid Penguin - Secure Mail with LDAP and IMAP, Part II

by Mick Bauer

In the first part of this series on using LDAP with the Cyrus IMAP mail delivery server (LJ, November 2003), we got as far as installing and setting up Cyrus IMAP and Cyrus SASL. In this article, we add some users to Cyrus IMAP and configure Postfix to deliver mail to the Cyrus IMAP server.

Cyrus IMAP Documentation

Before we dive back in to Cyrus IMAP configuration and administration, a note about documentation. Cyrus IMAP comes with an administrator's manual in HTML format. In the SuSE distribution, the manual is in /usr/share/doc/packages/cyrus-imapd/doc, and in Simon Matter's Red Hat SRPM distribution (see Part I of this article) it's in /usr/share/doc/cyrus-imapd-2.1.12. The link misleadingly labeled Installation actually leads not only to Cyrus installation instructions but to configuration and administration instructions as well. Besides this documentation, several man pages also are included with Cyrus IMAP, most notably imapd.conf(5), imapd(8) and cyradm(1).

In addition to Cyrus IMAP's included documentation, I recommend the book Managing IMAP by Dianna and Kevin Mullet (O'Reilly & Associates, 2000). As far as I know, it's the only book dedicated to IMAP. Although its coverage of Cyrus IMAP doesn't extend to LDAP, it's a well-written book that clearly explains IMAP concepts and Cyrus IMAP administration; it also covers UW-IMAP in some detail.

Using cyradm

Cyrus IMAP comes with a Perl script, cyradmn, that provides the most convenient way to create and manage user mailboxes. You should understand several things before using cyradm. First, you should run cyradm from any account with which you also read e-mail. In other words, you never should use an IMAP administrative account as an e-mail account. Due to unusual write-access permissions, using such accounts to read or send e-mail can have strange negative effects on your server. As we learned last time, Cyrus administrative accounts are named according to the variable admins in /etc/imapd.conf.

Second, cyradm uses the same authentication method as does the rest of Cyrus IMAP. In my previous column, we determined this by setting /etc/imapd.conf's variable sasl_pwcheck_method to saslauthd and by editing /etc/sysconfig/saslauthd to use either LDAP or, in the case of SuSE, to use PAM. PAM itself can be configured to use LDAP for IMAP transactions in the files /etc/pam.d/imap and /etc/openldap/ldap.conf. In short, cyradm identifies and authenticates administrative users with LDAP, assuming you've correctly configured LDAP support in Cyrus IMAP, as described last time.

Finally, to authenticate, cyradm performs an LDAP auth lookup against your user name and password, using the LDAP attribute UID as the search criterion. For each user account you want to allow to run cyradm, therefore, the LDAP record needs to contain definitions for both UID and userPassword. UID is a required attribute and userPassword is an allowed attribute in the posixAccount Object Class, so all IMAP user accounts need to be associated with posixAccount.

This last point has another important ramification: in your OpenLDAP server's /etc/openldap/slapd.conf file, you need to have access control list (ACL) statements granting auth access to the userPassword attribute for whatever LDAP user your IMAP server (or its saslauthd process) uses to bind to the LDAP server (that is, to perform authentications). LDAP ACL statements are described in the slapd.conf(5) man page and in my article “Authenticate with LDAP, Part III” (LJ, September 2003).

cyradm usually is run as an administrative shell rather than as a command, per se. When you invoke cyradm, supplying your user name plus the host you wish to administer, it prompts you for a password. On successful authentication, it begins an interactive session with its own commands and help screen. cyradm also can be run non-interactively; see the cyradm(1) man page for information on using cyradm for scripting.

The simplest invocation of cyradm is:

bash-$> cyradm --user username hostname

If you're running cyradm on the same host on which Cyrus IMAP is running, you can use the hostname localhost. If the server you want to administer is a remote host, however, specify its hostname or IP address. By default, cyradm attempts to connect to it over TCP port 143. Because Cyrus IMAP uses this port for clear-text communication, use the --port option to specify TCP port 993 for TLS-encrypted communications instead, like this: --port 993. Personally, in such situations I find it simplest to connect to my remote IMAP servers with SSH and then run cyradm locally on the remote host using my SSH session.

Suppose I want to run cyradm locally on my IMAP server and my admin account is called mick_admin. The command would look like this:

bash-$ cyradm -u mick_admin localhost
IMAP Password: **********


Notice the localhost> prompt after a successful login: I'm now logged in to a cyradm shell session. To see a complete list of available commands, all I need to do is type ? or help. There are 20 commands in all, and each can be abbreviated, sometimes in two different ways. The help screen lists all versions of each command.

Creating Mailboxes with cyradm

To create a mailbox, I can use the command createmailbox. Alternatively, I can use the abbreviation create or even a simple cm, like this:

localhost> cm user.bwooster

This is the very model of command-line efficiency, but notice that the user name corresponding to our new mailbox isn't really user.bwooster—it's simply bwooster. The user. prefix must be used for all mailboxes you create in Cyrus IMAP. Thus, to create a mailbox for the user bubba, I'd use the command cm user.bubba. To then create subdirectories for that mailbox, I'd use cm user.bubba.sent, cm user.bubba.drafts and so forth.

This user. prefix is visible only to Cyrus and to its administrators. In fact, when our user Bubba connects to the server with Evolution or some other IMAP client, rather than user.bubba he simply sees a folder named Inbox, even though its real name is user.bubba. Similarly, submailboxes appear as sent, drafts and so on, indented beneath Inbox.

Another thing worth noting about the e-mail account creation command is the lack of any feedback whatsoever from Cyrus upon successful completion. If you're like me, you find this unnerving; you periodically want to use the listmailbox command, lm for short, to see what you have:

   localhost> lm
   user.bwooster (\HasNoChildren)

Believe it or not, this is all we need to do with Cyrus IMAP to allow user bwooster to receive and read his e-mail, assuming there's an LDAP record with a UID of bwooster. In Cyrus IMAP, creating a new user mailbox has the effect of creating that user's IMAP account. But before I move on to the topic of configuring the Postfix MTA to deliver e-mail to Cyrus IMAP, a few words about Cyrus IMAP ACLs.


Each mailbox in a Cyrus IMAP system can have one or more ACLs associated with it in which each ACL defines which actions a given user may perform on the referenced mailbox or folder. By default, a new mailbox has only one ACL, one that grants the mailbox's owner full administrative rights over the mailbox.

Interestingly, administrators by default have only lookup and administer rights on the new mailbox. You can look up the name of the mailbox using the listmailbox command, and you can set ACLs on it. But if you need to delete the mailbox, you first must create an ACL for the mailbox that grants your administrative account administrative rights. This is a feature, not a bug; it helps prevent things from getting deleted accidentally.

Continuing with our example, below are the commands for removing the mailbox we just created, using our administrative account mick_admin:

$ cyradm -u mick_admin localhost
IMAP Password: *****

localhost> setaclmailbox user.bwooster mick_admin all
localhost> deletemailbox user.bwooster

The second command issued here is of particular note; it begins with the cyradm command setaclmailbox, which may be abbreviated as sam or setacl. This is followed by the mailbox in question (user.bwooster), in turn followed by the account name to which we wish to grant (or deny) access, mick_admin in this case. Finally, either a group of permission codes or a special string is indicated. In this example, we have the special string all, which is short for all permissions. To delete the user.bwooster mailbox, it would have been sufficient simply to specify c, for create or delete mailbox or submailboxes. Other possible ACL permissions are listed in Table 1.

Table 1. cyradm ACL Permission Codes (adapted from the cyradm(1) man page)

lLookup (visible to LIST/LSUB/UNSEEN)
wWrite flags other than \SEEN and \DELETED
iInsert (APPEND, COPY destination)
pPost (send mail to mailbox)
cCreate and Delete mailbox (CREATE new submailboxes, RENAME or DELETE mailbox)
aAdminister (SETACL)
noneSpecial string meaning no permissions
readSpecial string meaning lrs
postSpecial string meaning lrsp
appendSpecial string meaning lrsip
writeSpecial string meaning lrswipcd
allSpecial string meaning lrswipcda

ACLs are covered in detail in the cyradm(1) man page and are explained in Cyrus IMAP's HTML documentation. I highly recommend that you get into the habit of at least reviewing, if not always customizing, the ACLs on each mailbox you create with cyradm. On some sites, it may not be necessary for users to retain the default permission c. If all user submailboxes (user.whomever.sent, user.whomever.saved and so on) are created for them by you, for example, you may prefer that they not have the ability to create new ones or delete them accidentally.

Configuring Postfix to Deliver to Cyrus IMAP

In Part I, I described the role of mail delivery agents (MDAs) as delivering mail to mailboxes. Being an MDA, Cyrus IMAP can deliver mail, but it first must receive that mail from a message transfer agent (MTA). The most popular MTA is Sendmail, but a simpler and more secure option is Wietse Venema's excellent Postfix ( As Postfix is my MTA of choice, and because it's available either as the default MTA or as an option in most major Linux distributions nowadays, it's the one I explain in detail here.

Does your IMAP server need to reside on your organization's SMTP relay? It can, but it doesn't have to. It may make more sense from the standpoints of security and performance to keep your SMTP relay dedicated to that purpose. You then can have your IMAP server run its own instance of Postfix that receives mail from the dedicated SMTP relay rather than directly from other networks' MTAs. In either case, we assume the MTA from which IMAP receives its mail is running on the same host as Cyrus IMAP.

Three files need to be edited in order to configure Postfix to transfer mail to Cyrus. The first file is /etc/postfix/, in which we need to add or uncomment this line:

mailbox_transport = cyrus

The second file we need to edit is /etc/postfix/, in which we need to add or uncomment these two lines:

cyrus     unix  -       n       n       -       -       pipe
user=cyrus argv=/usr/libexec/cyrus/deliver -r ${sender} ${user}

Actually, the second line may differ on your system; the syntax of Cyrus' deliver program has changed over the years. If you installed both Cyrus IMAP and Postfix from your Linux distribution's current CDs or download site, the included /etc/postfix/ file should work without tweaking. If you installed either Cyrus IMAP or Postfix from source code, however, you may need to do some tweaking and Googling to get the second line exactly right. One key piece of the second line is the path in argv=/usr/libexec/cyrus/deliver, which must point to your local system's Cyrus deliver command.

The third and final Postfix file to edit is /etc/aliases; you may keep yours in /etc/postfix/aliases. Unless you're using LDAP for alias lookups—a process too involved for this article, but which I describe in the Sidebar—you need to have at least one entry in aliases for each Cyrus mailbox, plus any aliases to those mailboxes you need. For our example user Bubba, /etc/aliases needs the line:

bubba:    bubba

Simple enough, right? We omit the user. prefix; Cyrus mailboxes are referred to by user name. If your Cyrus (LDAP) user names correspond to local system user names, you don't need aliases entries for those users. But part of Cyrus' attraction lies in its not requiring users to have shell accounts.

If Bubba is our organization's marketing analyst, we also can add the line:

marketing_weasel: bubba

After you edit your aliases file, don't forget to use the postalias command to generate a new alias database:

bash-$> postalias hash:/etc/aliases

Postfix and LDAP

In this article I describe how to use LDAP to authenticate Cyrus IMAP users, but I cover Postfix only so far as pointing Postfix mail delivery at Cyrus. In fact, Postfix also has LDAP functionality: it can use LDAP to resolve e-mail aliases to mailbox names.

That is, you can configure Postfix to check both its local /etc/postfix/aliases database for e-mail-alias-to-mailbox-name mappings and also to query the local LDAP service or a remote one. This can save considerable administration time; rather than maintaining separate alias and user databases, you can do it all in LDAP.

However, Postfix on Red Hat 7.3 (and possibly on later versions) doesn't have LDAP support compiled in. To determine whether your version of your distribution of choice has LDAP support compiled in its Postfix package, use the command postconf -m. If LDAP isn't listed among the supported Postfix modules, you need to uninstall your Postfix package and build it yourself from source.

See for more information and for Postfix source code. Be sure to read the instructions in ./READMES/LDAP_README in the Postfix source code, which explains how to compile in Postfix's LDAP functionality—the default Postfix Makefile does not do so automatically. Be sure also to read the file /etc/postfix/samples/, which contains the parameters you need to add and configure in /etc/postfix/ to get LDAP alias lookups working. The latter step is extremely important, and it may take some tinkering to get it working properly.

If you forego all this and choose instead to maintain Postfix's aliases file separately (the old-fashioned way), then don't worry; using or not using LDAP with Postfix has no ramifications whatsoever on Postfix's ability to interact with your LDAP-authenticated Cyrus IMAP software.


This is not all you need to know in order to be a Cyrus IMAP administrator, but hopefully it's enough to get started in building an LDAP-enabled Cyrus IMAP server. With the topics we've covered or touched on in these two articles, you now can go on to advanced topics, including how to let users change their LDAP passwords; how to let users use the LDAP server as an address book; how to set up shared IMAP folders securely; and how to set up a secure Web mail interface, such as SquirrelMail for Cyrus IMAP.


Cyrus IMAP Home Page (source, documentation and so on):

Mullet, Dianna, and Kevin Mullet. Managing IMAP. Sebastopol, California: O'Reilly & Associates, 2000.

“Secure Mail with LDAP and IMAP, Part I”: /article/6998

Mick Bauer, CISSP, is Linux Journal's security editor and an IS security consultant in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He's the author of Building Secure Servers With Linux (O'Reilly & Associates, 2002).

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