Maildir Mailbox Format¶
The Maildir format debuted with the qmail server in the mid-1990s. Each mailbox folder is a directory and each message a file. This improves efficiency because individual emails can be modified, deleted and added without affecting the mailbox or other emails, and makes it safer to use on networked file systems such as NFS.
For information on how to configure Maildir in Dovecot, see Maildir Configuration.
Since the Maildir standard doesn’t provide everything needed to fully support the IMAP protocol, Dovecot had to create some of its own non-standard extensions. The extensions still keep the Maildir standards compliant, so MUAs not supporting the extensions can still safely use it as a normal Maildir.
IMAP UID mapping¶
IMAP requires each message to have a permanent unique ID number. Dovecot uses
dovecot-uidlist file to keep UID <-> filename mapping. The file is
basically in the same format as Courier IMAP’s
except for one difference (see below).
The file begins with a header:
3 V1275660208 N25022 G3085f01b7f11094c501100008c4a11c1
3 is the file format version number used by Dovecot v1.1+
1275660208 is the IMAP UIDVALIDITY
25022 is the UID that will be given to the next added message
3085f01b7f11094c501100008c4a11c1 is the 128 bit mailbox global UID in hex
There may be other fields, and the order of these fields isn’t important
Version 1 file format is compatible with Courier. Version 2 was used by a few Dovecot non-release versions.
After the header comes the list of UID <-> filename mappings:
25017 W2481 :1276533073.M242911P3632.kurkku:2,F
25006, 25017 are message UIDs
2481 is the second message’s virtual size. First message contains it in the filename itself, so it’s not duplicated.
There may be more fields before ‘:’ character
Rest of the line after ‘:’ is the last known filename. This filename doesn’t necessarily exist currently, because the filename changes every time a message’s flags change. Dovecot doesn’t waste disk I/O by rewriting uidlist file every time flags change, but whenever it is rewritten the latest filenames are used. This allows Dovecot to try to guess what the message’s current filename is and if successful, avoid having to scan the directory’s contents.
dovecot-uidlist file doesn’t need to be locked for reading. When
dovecot-uidlist.lock file needs to be created. New lines can be
appended to the end of file, but existing data must never be directly
modified; it can only be replaced with
rename() system call.
dovecot-uidlist is updated lazily to optimize for disk I/O. If a message
is expunged, it may not be removed from
dovecot-uidlist until sometimes
later. This means that if you create a new file using the same file name as
what already exists in
dovecot-uidlist, Dovecot thinks you “unexpunged”
message by restoring a message from backup. This causes a warning to be logged
and the file to be renamed.
Note that messages must not be modified once they’ve been delivered. IMAP (and Dovecot) requires that messages are immutable. If you wish to modify them in any way, create a new message instead and expunge the old one.
All the non-standard message flags are called keywords in IMAP. Some clients
use these automatically for marking spam (eg.
$!NonSpam keywords). Thunderbird uses labels which map to
Dovecot stores keywords in the Maildir filename’s flags field using letters
a..z. This means that only 26 keywords are possible to store in the
Maildir. If more are used, they’re still stored in Dovecot’s index files. The
mapping from single letters to keyword names is stored in
file. The file is in format:
0 means letter
a in the Maildir filename, 1 means
b, and so on. The
file doesn’t need to be locked for reading, but when writing
dovecot-uidlist file must be locked. The file must not be directly
modified; it can only be replaced with
rename() system call.
For example, a file named
would be flagged as
$NonJunk with the above keywords.
Maildir Filename Extensions¶
The standard filename definition is:
<base filename>:2,<flags>. Dovecot
has extended the
<flags> field to be
This means that if Dovecot sees a comma in the
<flags> field while
updating flags in the filename, it doesn’t touch anything after the comma.
However other Maildir MUAs may mess them up, so it’s still not such a good
idea to do that. Basic
<flags> are described in the Maildir standard.
<non-standard fields> isn’t used by Dovecot for anything currently.
Dovecot supports reading a few fields from the
<size>contains the file size. Getting the size from the filename avoids doing a system
stat()call, which may improve the performance. This is especially useful with Quota Backend: maildir.
<vsize>contains the file’s RFC822.SIZE, i.e., the file size with linefeeds being CR+LF characters. If the message was stored with CR+LF linefeeds,
<vsize>are the same. Setting this may give a small speedup because now Dovecot doesn’t need to calculate the size itself.
A Maildir filename with those fields would look something like:
Usage of Timestamps¶
Timestamps of message files:
ctimeis used as Dovecot’s internal “save/copy date”, unless the correct value is found from
dovecot.index.cache. This is used only by external commands, e.g.
doveadm expunge savedbefore.
atimeis not used.
mtimeis used to detect changes of the mailbox and may force regeneration of index files.
UNIX timestamp of arrival
Size of e-mail
S = seen (marked as read)
T = trashed
l = IMAP tag #12 (0=a, 1=b, 2=c, etc) as defined in
n = IMAP tag #14 (0=a, 1=b, 2=c, etc) as defined in
Maildir and Filesystems¶
Information in this section is old/dated. It remains here for informational purposes, but it is recommended that newer filesystems (e.g. ext4, JFS, ZFS, btrfs, etc.) be evaluated as they may contain technical improvements that workaround the limitations discuss below.
General Comparisons of Maildir on Different Filesystems¶
Linux ext2 / ext3¶
The main disadvantage in using these filesystems is that searching can be slightly slower, and access to very large mailboxes (thousands of messages) can get slow with filesystems which don’t have directory indexes.
Old versions of ext2 and ext3 on Linux don’t support directory indexing (to
speed up access), but newer versions of ext3 do, although you may have to
manually enable it. You can check if the indexing is already enabled with
tune2fs -l /dev/hda3 | grep features
If you see
dir_index, you’re all set. If
dir_index is missing, add it
tune2fs -O dir_index /dev/hda3
e2fsck -fD /dev/hda3
XFS performance seems to depend on a lot of factors, also on the system and the file system parameters.
There are reports on the Dovecot mailing list which suggest that XFS seems quite a lot slower than ext3 or ReiserFS: https://dovecot.org/list/dovecot/2007-January/018994.html
But then again others recommend XFS for the use with Maildir and Dovecot: https://dovecot.org/list/dovecot/2006-May/013216.html
This Linux.conf.au talk about “Choosing and Tuning Linux File Systems” also recommends XFS for Maildir (alternatively ext3 with small blocks and high inodetofile ratio)
Comparisons which suggest XFS as being best choice:
Mounting XFS with
logbufs=8option might increase the speed.
Create the XFS partition with options
-b size=1024 -d su=16k,sw=3 -l logdev=<some_other_device>(Source: https://www.thesmbexchange.com/eng/qmail_fs_benchmark.html)
mkfs.xfs -f -l size=32768b,version=2` and `mount.xfs -o noatime,logbufs=8,logbsize=131072(Source: https://www.htiweb.inf.br/benchmark/fsbench.htm)
NFS v3 performance can be adversely affected by readdirplus, which causes the
NFS server to
stat() every file in a directory. The solution under Linux
is to make sure the NFS filesystem is mounted with the
By default Dovecot uses the Maildir++ directory layout for organizing
mailbox directories. This means that all the folders are directly
~/Maildir/tmpdirectories contain the messages for INBOX. The
tmpdirectory is used during delivery, new messages arrive in
new, and read messages are moved to
curby the clients.
~/Maildir/.folder/is a mailbox folder.
~/Maildir/.folder.subfolder/is a subfolder of a folder (i.e.
You can also optionally use the
fs layout by appending
mail_location. This makes the folder structure
~/Maildir/tmpdirectories contain the messages for INBOX, just like with Maildir++.
~/Maildir/folder/is a mailbox folder.
~/Maildir/folder/subfolder/is a subfolder of a folder.
See Shared Mailboxes Permissions for how permissions are set for newly created files and directories.
Issues with the Specification¶
Although Maildir was designed to be lockless, Dovecot locks the Maildir while
doing modifications to it or while looking for new messages in it. This is
required because otherwise Dovecot might temporarily see mails incorrectly
deleted, which would cause trouble. Basically the problem is that if one
process modifies the Maildir (eg. a
rename() to change a message’s flag),
another process in the middle of listing files at the same time could skip a
file. The skipping happens because
readdir() system call doesn’t guarantee
that all the files are returned if the directory is modified between the calls
to it. This problem exists with all the commonly used filesystems.
Because Dovecot uses its own non-standard locking (
dotlock file), other MUAs accessing the Maildir don’t support it. This means
that if another MUA is updating message flags or expunging messages, Dovecot
might temporarily lose some message(s). After the next sync when it finds it
again, an error message may be written to log and the message will receive a
Delivering mails to
new/ directory doesn’t have any problems, so there’s
no need for LDAs to support any type of locking.
Qmail’s how a message is delivered page suggests to deliver the mail like this:
Create a unique filename (only
time.pid.hosthere, later Maildir spec has been updated to allow more uniqueness identifiers)
stat(tmp/<filename>). If the
stat()found a file, wait 2 seconds and go back to step 1.
Create and write the message to
new/directory. Although not mentioned here, the
link()could again fail if the mail existed in
new/dir. In that case you should probably go back to step 1.
All this trouble is rather pointless. Only the first step is what really guarantees that the mails won’t get overwritten, the rest just sounds nice. Even though they might catch a problem once in a while, they give no guaranteed protection and will just as easily pass duplicate filenames through and overwrite existing mails.
Step 2 is pointless because there’s a race condition between steps 2 and 3.
PID/host combination by itself should already guarantee that it never finds
such a file. If it does, something’s broken and the
stat() check won’t
help since another process might be doing the same thing at the same time, and
you end up writing to the same file in
tmp/, causing the mail to get
In step 4 the
link() would fail if an identical file already existed in
the Maildir, right? Wrong. The file may already have been moved to
directory, and since it may contain any number of flags by then you can’t
check with a simple
stat() anymore if it exists or not.
Step 2 was pointed out to be useful if clock had moved backwards. However,
this doesn’t give any actual safety guarantees because an identical base
filename could already exist in
cur/. Besides if the system was just
rebooted, the file in
tmp/ could probably be even overwritten safely
(assuming it wasn’t already
So really, all that’s important in not getting mails overwritten in your Maildir is step 1: Always create filenames that are guaranteed to be unique. Forget about the 2 second waits and such that the Qmail’s man page talks about.
Maildir and Mail Header Metadata¶
Unlike when using mbox as
mailbox format, where mail headers (for example
X-UID, etc.) are used to determine and store metadata, the
mail headers within Maildir files are (usually) not used for this purpose
by Dovecot; neither when mails are created/moved/etc. via IMAP nor when
Maildirs are placed (e.g., copied or moved in the filesystem) in a mail
location (and then “imported” by dovecot).
There is one exception, though, namely when
pop3_reuse_xuidl = yes (which
is however deprecated): in this case
X-UIDL is used for the POP3 UIDLs.
Therefore, in this case, is recommended to strip the
X-UIDL mail headers
case-insensitively at the MTA, MDA, or LDA.
Maildir format is somewhat compatible with MH format. This is sometimes a
problem when people configure their procmail to deliver mails to
Maildir/new. This makes procmail create the messages in MH format, which
basically means that the file is called
msg.inode_number. While this
appears to work first, after expunging messages from the Maildir the inodes
are freed and will be reused later. This means that another file with the
same name may come to the Maildir, which makes Dovecot think that an expunged
file reappeared into the mailbox and an error is logged.
The proper way to configure procmail to deliver to a Maildir is to use
Maildir/ as the destination.