How Email Works

Want to know how email works and how all those messages wind up in your inbox? It involves much more than magic. When you write your email and hit "Send," your message goes to an email server-or many different servers-and is routed to the recipient's address. Then, when the recipient opens his email client, he can read your letter. Let's follow an email from you to the network to the recipient to get a better idea of the process:

You, The Sender
Of course, in order to send and receive email, you need to use an email service. Some services are computer programs, like Microsoft Outlook. Others, like Gmail or Hotmail, are accessible via your Web browser. Either service performs the same task of storing your emails and providing an interface through which you can send and receive email. When you click "send," your email gets picked up by your or your company's Internet Service Provider and enters the network.

The Network
However, emails don't just float through the air-they enter a vast network of servers. In order to get the message transmitted from server to server, your email is sent via the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP). SMTP enables all the computers involved with the transmission of your message to communicate with each other. Using SMTP, a local mail transfer agent server processes the address and uses the Domain Name System to figure out which server will receive the email, based on the information after the "@" portion of the email.

The Recipient
Once the email makes it through the server, the task of sending isn't over. The recipient may not receive your message depending on his spam filters or his firewall. For example, if you are sending spam, the recipient may have set up filters to block you. If the transmission is successful, the message may stay on a POP (Post Office Protocol) or IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) server for the recipient to download when he is ready to read email. With a POP or IMAP server account, the recipient can contact a server using any email client he likes.

As you can see, the speed with which you receive email is a testament to modern technology. You may also realize that, just as with paper letters, sending an email doesn't automatically mean that the sender will receive it. Even with these occasional glitches, the technology behind email remains reliable and impressive.

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