nginx as reverse SMTP proxy


Sven Vermeulen Thu 06 December 2012

I've noticed that not that many resources are online telling you how you can use nginx as a reverse SMTP proxy. Using a reverse SMTP proxy makes sense even if you have just one mail server back-end, either because you can easily switch towards another one, or because you want to put additional checks before handing off the mail to the back-end.

In the below example, a back-end mail server is running on localhost (in my case it's a Postfix back-end, but that doesn't matter). Mails received by Nginx will be forwarded to this server.

user nginx nginx;
worker_processes 1;

error_log /var/log/nginx/error_log debug;

events {
        worker_connections 1024;
        use epoll;
http {

        log_format main
                '$remote_addr - $remote_user [$time_local] '
                '"$request" $status $bytes_sent '
                '"$http_referer" "$http_user_agent" '

        server {
                server_name localhost;
                access_log /var/log/nginx/localhost.access_log main;
                error_log /var/log/nginx/localhost.error_log info;

                root /var/www/localhost/htdocs;

                location ~ .php$ {
                        add_header Auth-Server;
                        add_header Auth-Port 25;
                        return 200;

mail {
        server_name localhost;

        auth_http localhost:8008/auth-smtppass.php;

        server {
                protocol smtp;
                timeout 5s;
                proxy on;
                xclient off;
                smtp_auth none;

If you first look at the mail setting, you notice that I include an auth_http directive. This is needed by Nginx as it will consult this back-end service on what to do with the mail (the moment that it receives the recipient information). The URL I use is arbitrarily chosen here, as I don't really run a PHP service in the background (yet).

In the http section, I create the same resource that the mails' auth_http wants to connect to. I then declare the two return headers that Nginx needs (Auth-Server and Auth-Port) with the back-end information ( If I ever need to do load balancing or other tricks, I'll write up a simple PHP script and serve it from PHP-FPM or so.

Next on the list is to enable SSL (not difficult) with client authentication (which isn't supported by Nginx for the mail module (yet) sadly, so I'll need to look at a different approach for that).

BTW, this is all on a simple Gentoo Hardened with SELinux enabled. The following booleans were set to true: nginx_enable_http_server, nginx_enable_smtp_server and nginx_can_network_connect_http.

This page has been translated into Spanish language by Maria Ramos from