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Using SASL authentication with postfix SMTPD

Configuring postfix for SASL authentication can be quite tricky, especially with virtual aliases domains. Fortunately, the documentation is quite complete and help can be found in a few other places.

This article reviews the configuration for the sasldb plugin of libsasl, integrated in postfix built with Cyrus, as found in modern OS such as Debian 8 in a virtual domain set-up. sasldb is the simplest authentication method for postfix: it stores usernames and passwords in a database file and requires no external authentication service. Although simple and documented, this approch remains quite unclear on some points, or even wrongly and contradictorily documented and prone to error. The following sections will tackle all issues that were met, and solved in this serverfault question.

The use of saslauthd

It is not needed to install or start saslauthd in order to use the simple sasldb authentication database. Support for this authentication method is built in libsasl. A simple mention of the method in the smtpd.conf file is enough.

The smtpd.conf file

What the hell is this file, and where should it be put? The first answer is found in the README, the file is the data exchange format between postfix smtpd and libsasl. I found at least three locations for it, with no clear indication of where it should go. Serverfault was helpful: there is an extra configuration variable in postfix that never appears in tutorials, that defines the path for the file: cyrus_sasl_config_path.

Creating the sasldb

The sasldb file is created with the saslpasswd2 command. The realm argument is particularly unclear, especially the way postfix specifies it in the config file with smtpd_sasl_local_domain. The content of that variable will be the default domain users will authenticate to. For example, if set to "w.tf", a user john trying to authenticate with the john username will be actually checked as john@w.tf the sasldb. If you only manage one domain, using this option will facilitate login for users. Otherwise, leaving the variable empty will require users to provide the exact value of sasldb usernames, in our example "john@w.tf".

The -u argument of saslpasswd2 is optional. The commands saslpasswd2 -u w.tf john and saslpasswd2 john@w.tf are equivalent. With these two, programs will have to provide the entire username when authenticating, in our case postfix can be providing the domain part depending or not if smtpd_sasl_local_domain is configured.

Authentication failures

Several causes for authentiation failures were met in the first configuration try. First, the chroot, as mentioned in some forum threads. Postfix smtpd runs by default in chroot. Consequently, the sasldb file must be placed inside the chroot or the smtpd has to be run without the chroot. Disabling the chroot is easily done in the master.cf configuration file. I would recommend using the chroot and moving the sasldb in the chroot anyway, for security reasons. For convenience, a symlink can be done in /etc/sasldb2 in order to have the basic sasl commands still working, with default chroot path: ln -sf /var/spool/postfix/etc/sasldb2 /etc/.

The most troubling issue for me was when the system was actually working but the test was not. The official documentation presents various ways of testing the AUTH PLAIN command, using perl of shell base64 string construction. These methods didn't work for me, only the following command did: gen-auth plain. On authentication failure with the other methods, these warnings were appearing in the mail error log:

warning: SASL authentication failure: Can only find author/en (no password)
warning: localhost[127.0.0.1]: SASL PLAIN authentication failed: bad protocol / cancel

myorigin, mydestination and friends

Configuring myorigin, myhostname, mydestination and mydomain is a bit tricky too. From the serverfault replies, I made some tries and I think using one of the actual hostnames of the machine as myorigin and myhostname is the correct way to proceed. It may have two drawbacks however: the outbound emails will appear in headers as sent by your user@the.real.hostname.of.the.machine instead of user@the.mail.domain and this real hostname must not be in the list of virtual domains managed.

The problem with the latter is that myorigin is appended automatically to local users with no domain in the virtual alias maps, so you wouldn't be able to deliver to local users who have UNIX accounts if the content of myorigin wasn't also set as one of mydestination. And you can't have a virtual domain in mydestination. Also, if you don't have a real hostname that is not also present in the list of virtual domains, and just use localhost instead, some remote servers could reject your emails. And it can be a concern to have the most neutral hostname possible, because when you are managing at least two domains, you don't really want the emails from domain1 to appear as sent by a machine of domain2. So what I did was to use the default reverse DNS for the server, provided by the ISP/hosting service, which also may not be always possible.


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