Update: See this updated post on why you should not use nullmailer but dma for relaying system mail.

One thing we often forget -- although it's one of the most important parts of administering a Unix machine -- is system mail. However, if you don't set it up correctly, you won't receive important information about the health of the systems you administer.

On systems that are only used by a single user, you don't need a full-fledged mail transfer agent (MTA)1 to receive system mail. You want every mail to be delivered to a single user i.e., the email address you regularly check. This is when nullmailer shines.

Once you replace the default MTA of your system with nullmailer, you can set it up to forward every mail to a single email address. This is quite handy because then you can make sure that you will receive important information about your servers e.g., unattended upgrades, failed cron jobs and the like.

In the following I describe how to configure nullmailer on Debian. After having it installed with sudo apt install nullmailer, we need to check three configuration files:

  • /etc/nullmailer/adminaddr: the address all system mail should be relayed to
  • /etc/nullmailer/defaultdomain: appended to all hostnames that aren't fully qualified
  • /etc/nullmailer/remotes: contains the mail relays where all system should be relayed through

It makes sense to relay mail through a server / an account that you can trust. Of course, you can relay mail through your own systems. However, what will you do, if these systems strike too? It makes sense to use a third party service that provides the required security (sensitive information might be relayed!).

How will we use such a service? On the one hand we will use an extern email account to send system mail. On the other hand we will use the very same account to receive the mail we sent. This sounds a bit weird in the first place but makes totally sense once you realise that this makes for a very easy setup.

It's not easy to find a secure email provider that you can trust. I decided to use Posteo because it provides a lot of security features that other providers lack. It only costs 1 Euro per month which makes it very cheap too. (Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to Posteo.)

Once you registered an external account, nullmailer requires the login settings of the account. In the following example I use STARTTLS for a secure connection and configure nullmailer to use the appropriate port and username/password combination. mail.example.com is the SMTP server while smtp specifies the chosen protocol.

# /etc/nullmailer/remotes
mail.example.com smtp --port=587 --starttls --user=username --pass=secret

Since you probably administer multiple systems, it makes sense to filter the mail you receive on the external account into subfolders. This can be achieved quite easily by so-called recipient delimiters, the plus sign + being a quite prominent one.2 The following is a general example.

# /etc/nullmailer/adminaddr

Recipient delimiters also work for Google Mail addresses such as john+important@gmail.com. Although an additional tag important was provided, john@gmail.com would receive the message. However, John could easily filter the message because of the provided tag.

I recommend to transfer this idea to our example, use the hostname of the system as a unique tag, and filter the received mail on the external account accordingly.

For system mail that doesn't provide a fully qualified domain e.g., mail sent to root@localhost you should provide the default domain in file defaultdomain.

# /etc/nullmailer/defaultdomain

You can test if everything works by using the sendmail command provided by nullmailer:

$ echo "test" | /usr/sbin/sendmail root

Check your external email account. You should have received a message containing the text "test".


I highly recommend reading the Wikipedia post on mail infrastructure to get a better understanding on how it works.


To get a better understanding of what a recipient delimiter is, take a look a the Postfix configuration page. This isn't a feature unique to Postfix but implemented by a variety of MTAs and email service providers.