The Maildir e-mail format is a common way of storing e-mail messages, where each message is kept in a separate file with a unique name, and each folder is a directory. The local filesystem handles file locking as messages are added, moved and deleted. A major design goal of Maildir is to eliminate program code having to handle locking, which is often difficult.
A Maildir directory (often named
Maildir) usually has three subdirectories named
The original Maildir specification was written by Daniel J. Bernstein, the author of qmail, djbdns, and other software. Although the original specification was written specifically for Bernstein's qmail, it is general enough to be implemented in many programs.
Sam Varshavchik, the author of the Courier Mail Server and other software, wrote an extension to the Maildir format called Maildir++ to support subfolders and mail quotas. Maildir++ directories contain subdirectories with names that start with a '.' (dot) that are also Maildir++ folders. This extension is therefore a violation of the Maildir specification, which provides an exhaustive list of the possible contents of a Maildir, however it is a compatible violation and other Maildir software supports Maildir++.
The program (process) that delivers an e-mail message writes it to a file in the
tmp directory with a unique filename. The current algorithm for generating the unique filename combines the time, the host name, and a number of pseudo-random parameters to ensure uniqueness.
The delivery process stores the message in the maildir by creating and writing to
tmp/unique, and then moving this file to
new/unique. The moving is commonly done by hard linking the file to
new and then unlinking the file from
tmp, but some implementations simply
rename() it there. This sequence guarantees that a maildir-reading program will not see a partially written message, as MUAs never look in
When the mail user agent (MUA) process finds messages in the
new directory it moves them to
rename() - link then unlink strategy may result in having the message duplicated) and appends an informational suffix to the filename before reading them. The information suffix consists of a colon (to separate the unique part of the filename from the actual information), a '2', a comma and various flags. The '2' specifies the version of the information that follows the comma. '2' is the only currently officially specified version, '1' being an experimental version. The specification defines flags which show whether the message has been read, deleted and so on: the initial (capital) letter of Passed, Replied, Seen, Trashed, Draft, and Flagged. Dovecot uses lowercase letters to match 26 IMAP keywords, which may include standardised keywords such as $MDNSent, and user defined flags.
Filesystem Compatibility Issues
The Maildir standard can only be implemented on systems that accept colons in filenames.
Systems that don't allow colons in filenames (This includes Microsoft Windows and some configurations of Novell Storage Services.) can use an alternative separator, such as ";", or "-". it is often trivial to patch free and open source software to use a different separator.
As there is currently no agreement on what character this alternative separator should be, there can be interoperability difficulties between different Maildir-supporting programs on these systems. However, not all Maildir-related software needs to know what the separator character is, because not all Maildir-related software needs to be able to read or modify the flags of a message ("read", "replied to" etc.); software that merely delivers to a Maildir, or archives old messages from it based only on date, should work no matter what separator is in use. If only the MUA needs to read or modify message flags, and only one is used, then non-standard alternative separators may be used without interoperability problems.
Software that supports Maildir directly
- bincimap IMAP server
- Dovecot IMAP server
- Courier Mail Server SMTP and IMAP server, for which the Maildir++ format was invented
- Exim SMTP server
- Postfix SMTP server
- Qmail SMTP server, for which the Maildir format was invented
- XMail, an open source cross-platform (*nix and Windows) SMTP and POP3 server
- MeTA1 SMTP server
- MagicMail Email Server
- UW IMAP, through an external patch
- OpenSMTPD SMTP server
- Dovecot delivery agent
- Getmail, a Maildir-aware mail-retrieval and delivery agent alternative to Fetchmail
- Alpine through a patch
- Balsa previously the official GNOME mail reader (prior to Evolution)
- Cone a curses-based mail reader
- Evolution, official GNOME mail client
- KMail, KDE mail reader
- Pine through a patch
- sup The hacker's Mail User Agent
- Thunderbird (beta 38)
Mail index and search tools
- Beagle (software) can index Maildirs and many other information storage formats
- Mairix is a program for indexing and searching email messages stored in maildir, MH or mbox folders
- Mboxgrep is a program that can search through maildir folders. It is similar to using grep
- Notmuch is a program for indexing and searching email messages stored in maildir
- mu is a set of command-line tools for searching in maildirs
Notes and references
- Daniel J. Bernstein. (1995) Using maildir format (the original specification)
- Varshavchik, Sam (1998) Maildir++ and Maildir quotas which has the Maildir++ specification buried within it
- Dovecot Wiki: maildir format
- mutt maildir support: workaround for filesystems that don't accept colons
- "Sup: The hacker's Mail User Agent". 2013-11-16.
- Thunderbird 38 goes to beta! 2015.04.03