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Self-Hosted email is the hardest it's ever been, but also the easiest.

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tl;dr - This post was inspired by Carlos Fenollosa’s post (and the resulting discussion on HN). Self hosting email is the easiest it’s ever been – don’t let the email provider oligopoly (Gmail, Microsoft, Yahoo, etc) win.

Discussion up until now: Deliverability for self-hosted emails has never been harder

The top page on HN had an interesting post on it titled “After self-hosting my email for twenty-three years I have thrown in the towel. The oligopoly has won.”.

Before you write off the post as just another self-hoster complaining, read it. Carlos has been at it a LONG time, and he’s tried everything. Carlos makes excellent points, and they’re all about the centralization of email services.

It’s true – Big, concentrated email services are elbowing out people who run their own servers in the name of “spam protection”. While the attacks may not be targeted to one individual or another, kafka-esque systems that often just don’t work are being employed to make it harder to land in user’s inbox.

Even if you you set up all the “acronyms” (i.e. DKIM, DMARC, SPF), emails from your self-hosted email server may go to spam.

Simultaneously: it’s never been easier to self-host your email

One thing I didn’t want to get lost in the discussion is the fact that it’s also never been easier to start hosting your own email.

Deliverability may be troubled, but the act of running your own email server has never been easier. Struggling with postfix and dovecot configuration, semantics, and architecture isn’t the only way to start using email you control.

There’s awesome software out there that makes it possible these days to run your own email with very little effort.

You don’t have to postfix + dovecot in 2022.

Don’t let the email oligopoly win. Keep hosting your own email.

At the very least, use alternative email providers like ProtonMail (I personally use proton mail as well for a couple addresses, so I’m safe from myself breaking my mail setup :).

This page is probably going to serve as a reference I point to all the time since I seem to talk about this far too much.

Another option: Relaying through email providers

An excellent recommendation from the original discussion on HN was to use ImprovMX as an outgoing email server. A quick list:

The combination of ImproveMX with a self-hosted server is also attractive and helps to at least somewhat mitigate the grip of the largest providers.

To replicate my response to this on HN:

Run your own email servers, but forward through there for better delivery?

Maybe this is what we need more of – A class of mail system participants who exclusively maintain trusted IPs and do the legwork of trying to get through the gnarly systems set up by the other large email providers.

I don’t know the solution but I know it needs to be discussed.

Choices for alternate emails providers

Earlier in this post I recommended ProtonMail because I personally use it and have not had a negative experience – the service has been great, the apps and UI have done exactly what I needed and I’m a happy customer who has purchased service years in advance.

That said, thanks to highwaylights on HN, it’s clear there have been quite negative experiences. What he describes is quite bad (and is what people generally fear from bigger providers), so I think it’s worth including here.

While I can’t say that I’ve ever had such an experience, as this post is a reference for myself and others I feel it’s my job to at least surface that complaint and offer some alternatives.

All together, here are some alternate email providers:

Keep in mind that I don’t use most of these (as of when this post was last updated, at least), so I can’t guarantee that they’ll satisfy your threat model, but at the very least, they should do the job of lessening the grip of the oligopoly at least.

More marketshare to other providers means better email for everyone, even if an individual provider isn’t perfectly ideal.

As it’s possible for any of the providers above (and probably any provider, period) to drop you without recourse, make sure to take ownership of your own domain so you can switch away (or run your own infrastructure) if necessary. Choosing an alternate email provider is a great in-between point for people who don’t want to run their own email servers, but it all start with owning your domain on the internet.