Within Internet message handling services (MHS), a message transfer agent or mail transfer agent (MTA) or mail relay is software that transfers electronic mail messages from one computer to another using a client-server application architecture. An MTA implements both the client (sending) and server (receiving) portions of the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol.
The terms mail server, mail exchanger, and MX host may also refer to a computer performing the MTA function. The Domain Name System (DNS) associates a mail server to a domain with mail exchanger (MX) resource records containing the domain name of a host providing MTA services.
A message transfer agent receives mail from either another MTA, a mail submission agent (MSA), or a mail user agent (MUA). The transmission details are specified by the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP). When a recipient mailbox of a message is not hosted locally, the message is relayed, that is, forwarded to another MTA. Every time an MTA receives an email message, it adds a Received trace header field to the top of the header of the message, thereby building a sequential record of MTAs handling the message. The process of choosing a target MTA for the next hop is also described in SMTP, but can usually be overridden by configuring the MTA software with specific routes.
An MTA works in the background, while the user usually interacts directly with a mail user agent. One may distinguish initial submission as first passing through an MSA – port 587 is used for communication between an MUA and an MSA while port 25 is used for communication between MTAs, or from an MSA to an MTA; this distinction is first made in RFC 2476.
For recipients hosted locally, the final delivery of email to a recipient mailbox is the task of a message delivery agent (MDA). For this purpose the MTA transfers the message to the message handling service component of the message delivery agent. Upon final delivery, the Return-Path field is added to the envelope to record the return path.
Transfer versus access
The function of an MTA is usually complemented with some means for email clients to access stored messages. This function typically employs a different protocol. The most widely implemented open protocols for the MUA are the Post Office Protocol (POP3) and the Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP), but many proprietary systems exist (Exchange, Lotus Domino/Notes) for retrieving messages. Many systems also offer a web interface for reading and sending email that is independent of any particular MUA.
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