Security Win or Headache? Pros and Cons of a Private Email Server

Private email server

A private email server sounds mysterious and alluring to most people — imagine creating an ecosystem where you have complete control over your emails and are no longer at the mercy of your ESP. You can customize it for your specific needs, add unlimited email addresses, hook up third-party integrations, and resolve all technical issues yourself.

Wow, it looks good! Only on paper, though.

This guide takes you through what private email servers do, who they’re for, the challenges involved, and whether it makes sense to get one for email marketing. 

What Does an Email Server Do? 

An email server is a system or software that handles the sending, receiving, and storage of emails. It plays a critical role in the smooth functioning of email. 

Here are the primary functions of an email server:

  • The email server is responsible for sending outgoing emails. It accepts messages from email clients or other servers and delivers them to the intended recipients.
  • When someone sends an email to a particular email address, the email server receives the incoming message. It processes the message and stores it until the recipient retrieves it through their email client.
  • The email server stores emails for users until they download or access them. It organizes emails into mailboxes or folders, allowing users to manage and categorize their messages.
  • Email servers authenticate users to ensure only authorized individuals have access to send or receive emails. Usernames and passwords make this possible.
  • Email servers use the Domain Name System (DNS) to link email addresses to the corresponding IP addresses.
  • Email servers support email protocols such as SMTP (Simple Mail Transfer Protocol) for sending emails, IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol), and POP3 (Post Office Protocol version 3) for retrieving emails, and others for various functions.
  • Many email servers include spam filtering to identify and filter out unsolicited emails before they reach the recipient’s inbox.
  • Email servers are equipped with antivirus features to scan incoming emails for malicious content.
  • If the recipient’s email server is temporarily unavailable, the sending server queues the email for delivery at a later time. Once the recipient’s server is back online, the queued emails are delivered.
  • Email servers often maintain logs of email transactions for troubleshooting, auditing, and security purposes.

An email server is the backbone of email communication, managing the exchange of messages between users and ensuring the reliability and security of an email system.

What is a Private Email Server?

A private email server refers to an email server that is owned, operated, and maintained by an individual, organization, or entity for their own use rather than relying on a third-party email hosting service. 

Setting up a private email server provides users with more control over their email communications, data, and security. It allows for the customization of email configurations, storage policies, and security protocols. However, managing a private email server also comes with responsibilities, such as ensuring proper security measures, regular maintenance, and addressing issues related to spam and other potential threats.

It’s worth noting that setting up and maintaining a private email server can be technically complex, and it requires a good understanding of email server software, networking, and security practices. Additionally, there are potential challenges related to deliverability, as email providers may treat emails from private servers with suspicion due to concerns about spam and security.

Private Email Servers: Who Are They Suitable For?

Private email servers are ideal for individuals or companies that have specific needs, preferences, or requirements that can be resolved by hosting their own email infrastructure. 

Examples of situations where getting a private email server is a good idea:

  1. Users who want complete control over their email infrastructure, allowing for customization of settings, security protocols, and storage policies according to their specific requirements.
  2. Individuals or entities with heightened privacy concerns who want more control over their data and communication, as private servers keep emails on servers they own and manage.
  3. Companies with specific security needs or regulatory compliance requirements that can be better addressed by managing their own email server.
  4. Businesses that require a high level of customization, integration with other applications, or specific features not easily provided by standard email platforms.
  5. Larger organizations that can justify the upfront and ongoing costs of setting up and maintaining a private server, potentially achieving cost savings over time.
  6. For individuals with the technical knowledge and skills required to set up and manage a private email server.

While private email servers offer advantages in terms of control and customization, they also come with responsibilities like security maintenance and compliance, as well as potential challenges like email deliverability

For many users and businesses, especially smaller ones, using reputable third-party email hosting services may be a more practical and straightforward solution. Each decision should be based on the specific needs, resources, and technical capabilities of the individual or organization.

Pros and Cons of Private Email Server

Here are the prominent pros and cons of running a private email server:

Complete control over the email infrastructure.Requires significant technical expertise in server administration, networking, and security.
Customization options for specific needs.Increased responsibility for security measures, making the server a potential target for attacks if not properly secured.
Enhanced privacy as emails are stored on private servers.Maintenance tasks, such as updates, backups, and troubleshooting, can be time-consuming.
Direct control over security measuresPrivate servers may face challenges in email deliverability, as some mailbox providers will be cautious about emails from private servers due to potential spam concerns.
Mitigates the risk of third-party data breaches on ESP servers.Initial setup can be complex and may require a significant time investment.
Potential cost savings for larger organizations with the infrastructure and expertise to manage servers.Responsibility for ensuring compliance with legal and regulatory requirements.
Managing a private email server requires significant resources, including hardware, software licenses, and ongoing maintenance.
Shared email services often come with support for many third-party tools, which can be challenging to implement on a private server.
Private Email Server: Pros and Cons

While the table here sums it up, we’re going to expand on the advantages and disadvantages of private email servers so you can decide for yourself if it’s a solution you want to explore.

Benefits of Private Email Server

While the cons outweigh the pros, there are valid reasons to choose private email servers. 

Here are the top 5 reasons they make sense:

  1. No one but you or your company staff can access your emails.
  2. If you want to keep your list of contacts safe (even from the eyes of the ESP), then a private email server is a good choice.
  3. If you want to avoid downtime caused by an ESP.
  4. When you face a technical issue, you can resolve it yourself, instead of working with an ESP’s technical support team.
  5. More control over IP reputation as compared to using shared IPs. 

About that last point — at Campaign Refinery, we’ve managed to avoid the pitfalls of shared IPs completely by only working with clients who are on the same level in terms of best practices. By only onboarding select clients, we’ve ensured top-tier domain and IP reputation. An added benefit is that our IPs stay hot thanks to high email volume! 

Private Email Server: Painful in the Long Run

There are obvious challenges in building your own email server. 

For example:

  • Operating and maintaining a private email server demands significant technical knowledge.
  • Private servers may face challenges in maintaining a positive sender reputation, impacting email deliverability.
  • Managing a private email server is resource-intensive in terms of time, effort, and infrastructure.
  • Users are responsible for ensuring email marketing practices comply with anti-spam laws and regulations.
  • There’s a risk of mailbox providers blacklisting the server’s IP address if emails are perceived as spam.
  • Monitoring your email performance and going through SPF and DMARC reports to ensure the same can be a huge task.

Of these, the biggest obstacle you will face is the spam. From unsolicited bulk emails to malware, ads to scams, the junk mail problem will get overwhelming. If you’re dealing with an internal-only email server, it won’t be an issue; the challenge arises when you connect it to the Internet.

You could circumvent this by using blacklists, but you’ll have to subscribe to multiple, to avoid known spammers. Then there are other tasks to face — you have to set up site-to-site encryption, manage potential DDOS attacks, set up web interfaces for your users, calculate storage limits, and debug your system when you face send/receive issues.

But more than others, the biggest challenge is sender reputation. When you send your emails through a reputed email platform, it’s a shoo-in compared to building that reputation yourself and maintaining it. And if you think private email servers automatically mean flawless security, this next section will highlight how that is untrue.

Hillary Clinton Private Email Server Controversy

In 2016, an incident came to light where presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton used a private email server for government-related work, and was criticized for it. While we can skip the political arguments behind the incident, “emailgate” ignited a discussion about email security and the flaws in private email servers. 

Using a BlackBerry phone to connect and operate her private email server, which was installed at her home, led to a massive security risk as the device was highly vulnerable to hacking. Besides this, the server used the Outlook Web App to access emails and the login page was not secured by TLS to protect against malicious individuals. 

The incident highlighted the various loopholes in operating a private email server and how easily someone could have stolen the data (and possibly did) due to a lack of diligence.

How to Set Up a Private Email Server

Now that you’re aware of the advantages and disadvantages of private email servers, if the idea of a private email server still appeals to you — this is how you do it.

A bit of warning before you begin, though; the below guide is a highly simplified version. Tackling configuration issues will require strong theoretical knowledge and experience, too.

Here are the steps to set up a private email server:

  1. Step one is to decide on the domain name you’ll use for email addresses. 
  2. Next, choose a server provider or use your own hardware.
  3. Set up a server with your chosen OS
  4. Assign a static IP address to your server and ensure your server is reachable on the internet.
  5. Configure DNS records for your domain (MX, Address, Pointer Record) to point to your server’s IP address.
  6. Decide on the email server software you’ll use, like Zoho Mail, Yandex, or Microsoft Exchange Server.
  7. Configure your chosen server software, then set up email accounts for users and define their mailbox locations.
  8. Get an SSL certificate for secure communication
  9. Configure your email server to use the SSL certificate for encrypted connections.
  10. If you want a webmail interface for users, like SquirrelMail or Zoho, install and configure the webmail interface.
  11. Implement security measures to protect your email server; consider firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and regular security audits.
  12. Set up regular backups of your email server data. Define a recovery plan in case of data loss or server issues.
  13. Educate users on how to configure their email clients. Provide guidelines on password security and email best practices.
  14. Test the functionality of your email server. Send test emails, check delivery, and verify encryption is working.
  15. Implement monitoring tools to keep an eye on server performance. Establish a routine for server maintenance, including software updates.
  16. Document your server setup, configurations, and any customizations made. Keep records of changes and updates for future reference.
  17. Be aware of legal and compliance requirements related to email communication.

Setting up a private email server requires careful planning, technical knowledge, and ongoing maintenance. Always refer to the documentation of the software you’re using for detailed instructions and considerations.

Private Email Server: What are the Costs?

To run your own private email server, you don’t need to invest in a massive server like you see in the movies. If your needs are basic, even a simple desktop computer will do. Note that it will need a power backup as it has to run 24/7, plus it needs to stay connected to a stable internet line (a redundant connection is recommended). 

Here’s a breakdown of how much it costs to set up a very basic private email server:

  1. Computer: Between $400-600 (one-time).
  2. High-bandwidth internet connection: $50-$100 a month.
  3. Power bills: Approx $10-20 extra per month. 
  4. Backup power generator: $250-800 (one-time).
  5. Email server software: There are free options.

Note that any added features — like firewalls, antivirus, blacklist subscriptions, webmail interfaces, etc — will cost you more. But at the very least, you can build a private email server and get started for about $1200. This does not include the cost of a software specialist who can set it all up and keep it running smoothly — hiring an email administrator will cost you anywhere between $80-100K a year.

Private Email Servers in Email Marketing

We’re confident the sections above have convinced you to stay away from private email servers, but we’d like to explain why it’s doubly true for email marketing.

First, here’s a table showing the pros and cons of using an ESP versus a private server to send your marketing emails:

*Private Email ServerEstablished ESP
ControlHigh control over settings, configurations, and security.Limited control; relies on ESP’s platform features.
InfrastructureRequires own server setup and maintenance.Utilizes ESP’s infrastructure and resources.
DeliverabilityChances of poor deliverability are high; relies on sender reputation management.Generally better deliverability due to established infrastructure and reputation.
Technical expertiseRequires significant technical expertise for setup and maintenance.Minimal technical expertise needed; user-friendly interfaces.
ScalabilityScalable, but may require additional resources and expertise.Easily scalable; ESPs handle infrastructure scaling.
ExpensesUpfront costs for server setup; ongoing maintenance costs.Monthly fees based on usage; may include additional costs for premium features.
AdaptabilityHighly customizable features; potential for integration with other tools.Standardized features; limited customization options.
RegulationsResponsible for ensuring compliance with anti-spam laws and regulations.ESPs typically handle compliance and provide tools for adherence.
Customer supportSelf-support or reliance on community forums.Customer support is provided by the ESP.
Private Email Server vs. ESP: Benefits and Drawbacks

For email marketers, deliverability is critical — you have to reach your subscribers’ inboxes consistently for engagement and conversions. It gets trickier when using private email servers as you may face deliverability challenges. Maintaining a positive sender reputation can be more complex than when using established email marketing services.

Besides this, handling email marketing campaigns through a private server comes with increased responsibility for compliance with anti-spam laws and regulations. You must ensure your practices align with legal requirements. You will have to implement SPF, DKIM, and DMARC on your domains effectively.

You should know that mailbox providers tend to look at new mail servers with suspicion; there is an overlap between private email servers and blackhat activities, aka spamming. In short, unless you have a strong reason to choose a certain aspect of private email servers, stick to sending your marketing emails through established email platforms. 

Sending Emails Through Campaign Refinery

Concerns about security are valid, but let us share a few points on why it makes more sense to use Campaign Refinery.

  • Your emails are safe. We have robust security measures in place to ensure our clients’ data is always secure.
  • You don’t need to worry about your emails getting caught in the spam filter. We take great care to ensure our industry-topping deliverability rates stay high, and by sending your emails through Campaign Refinery, inboxing will no longer be a concern.
  • You can completely skip learning the technical know-how of email sending, and focus on your marketing goals. Let us do the heavy lifting while you focus on different email campaigns and strategies.
  • Our automated list-cleaning feature removes all shady emails from your lists — we’re really proud of how well it works for our clients. 
  • Running your campaigns on Campaign Refinery means you get to access our powerful email sequencing tools and automation logic. You can create highly personalized campaigns using our Branch & Rule Builder.

Sending/receiving your private and confidential emails through a private server (or any secure email service) makes sense, but executing your entire email marketing operation on it does not.

Teaming up with Campaign Refinery, you get access to the best deliverability, amazing tools, and excellent analytics, all at a much lower cost. 

Apply now to become a Campaign Refinery customer!

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