May 20, 2016

How to Set Up Virtual Domains and Virtual Users in Postfix

A previous tutorial covered how to install a Postfix mail server and test it with mailx. Now we’ll introduce email aliases, set up virtual domains and users, and do a little troubleshooting.

My first professional introduction to serving HTTP was via the clever Roxen Web Server when I worked for an ISP during early 1997 and one of the first elements of a Mail Transfer Agent (MTA) that I maintained (using the mighty “qmail”) was its E-mail Aliases. The premise of E-mail Forwarding (or Aliasing) is super simple but I remember that some customers couldn’t immediately get their heads around it, possibly because public e-mail was relatively new. For the sake of those new to the idea, here’s the basics. Apologies to those who aren’t.

Imagine you own a Domain Name, we’ll use “chrisbinnie.tld”, and you want to send and receive e-mail from your Gmail account using that Domain Name.

You’ll first want to change your “From” line or sender address inside Gmail’s settings to make sure that your e-mails look as if they come from the e-mail address held under your Domain Name, such as “chris@chrisbinnie.tld”.

The other element of getting this to work is obviously dealing with inbound e-mails when they are are sent to “chris@chrisbinnie.tld”. The Web Hosting company (or ISP) which looks after your Domain Name needs to forward your e-mails sent to “chris@chrisbinnie.tld” onto your Gmail address. I told you it was simple.

Without running an unwieldy mailing list you can also add lots of people to an E-mail Alias. Imagine you’ve got ten Sysadmins in a department and everyone wants a copy of the daily sarcasm-fueled humour sent to “admins-are-better-than-devs@company.tld”.

Postfix uses old-school Sendmail formatting to add a few simple aliases. This isn’t very effective for many aliases but in this case we need to add a line or two to the file “/etc/aliases”. Note that whenever we make a change to this file we need to run this command:


Alternatively, run this command, Postfix-style to achieve exactly the same thing:

postalias /etc/aliases

Let’s make sure that all of the “root” user e-mail (the key system e-mails in other words) are forwarded to the user “chrisbinnie”. Simply edit the “/etc/aliases” file and alter the pertinent line so that it looks like this:

root:          chrisbinnie

That line is commented out at the foot of the file in my version and thankfully it’s intuitively formatted so it shouldn’t present any issues. Remember to run “newaliases” or its equivalent afterwards.

The mighty “sendmail” uses “.forward” files to create e-mail aliasing possible and the venerable qmail uses this format: “.qmail-ALIASNAME”. If you have the basic premise of e-mail forwarding and aliasing covered then they’re easy to use.

With qmail for example if e-mail is routed to your home directory for the an e-mail address beginning “support@” then inside our “.qmail-support” file we could add a few e-mail addresses, something like this:


Postfix Aliases

Onto a more industrial approach to aliases now. As you would expect Postfix’s aliases are typically easy to get your head around. Let’s have a look at them now. Sometimes the extensive online Postfix documentation refers to the same aliasing or forwarding functionality with different names such as “address rewriting” in case it trips you up. Additionally “database” and “lookup table” are frequently interchangeable it seems.

You begin by declaring which Domain Name you want to add a list of “virtual users” to (e-mail aliases in other words), inside the main configuration file. If you’ve forgotten the file lives at “/etc/postfix/” and the line you need to append would look like this, where “chrisbinnie.tld” is your Domain Name obviously:

virtual_alias_domains = chrisbinnie.tld

Simply separate multiple Domain Names with a comma and a space for better readability. Incidentally Postfix makes a big deal about the “mydestination” variable (which Domain Names that it will accept e-mail for) and it’s important to never add a “virtual_alias_domain” as a entry to “mydestination” or (very) bad things, think along the lines of Ghostbusters crossing the streams, will happen.

Next we need to create our virtual users file which we’ll “hash” in order to make it much more efficient as it grows lengthy. Imagine that for some insane reason an ISP doesn’t use an external database server like MySQL to house all of its aliases for a shared Domain Name. That flat aliases file could grow to tens of thousands of lines so it has to be efficient. More on this subject in a moment.

Even though we haven’t got thousands of entries we can create the file “/etc/postfix/virtual” and merrily populate it with our e-mail forwarding information.

We’ll mention this again in a moment.  


Listing One: Our e-mail aliases file contents
Listing One: Our e-mail aliases file contents

As we can see in Listing One we can forward one address to another with ease. Again with the comma separation we can add multiple entries to one alias. Let’s consider an external address to our Domain Name too. We can force address redirection, sorry “forward”, e-mail like so:

support@chrisbinnie.tld           chrisbinnie@linux.tld

We now need to nip back to our main config file (“/etc/”) and add this line next to the Domain Name line we just added for clarity:

virtual_alias_maps = hash:/etc/postfix/virtual

We need to create an efficient “hash” file of our Postfix config. We’ve chosen “hash” because it’s used at length in the comprehensive Postfix documentation. I can tell that my current system will allow me to hash a file (which means that it supports Berkeley DB databases) and create a hashed version of my config file adding a “.db” extension to it but retaining the same name thanks to the results of this command:

# postconf -m


What about using a non-local Database Server to store your aliases, where your Mail Server connects remotely to another machine? The machine which I’m working on can support lots of different database types so you can alter that easily if you have a preference, including network databases. You’re encouraged to get local config working before diving into serving network information back to Postfix. You can test if your remote, network config achieves the same results as your local files as so with this LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) example:

# postmap -q support@chrisbinnie.tld ldap:/etc/postfix/

Incidentally when we’re updating our config files the clever Postfix used to make sure that conflicts are avoided by using file locking. Apparently however Berkeley DB has evolved into a more aggressive beast which utilises caching to a greater extent. To help get around this (infrequent issue) you are encouraged by the online documentation to follow a step similar to the one which follows:

# postmap && mv access.db

Before you do however the sophisticated Postfix realises that the typing of this command could lead to an unwelcome degree of tedium and to counter this issue introduced a “Makefile” to circumvent the pain. After editing your aliases config you now simply type “make” to skip, fast-footed past any conflicts.

# make


mv access.db

The addition of the “make” command means Postfix is also wise enough only to update files which have changed and it additionally includes some welcome error checking too.


We mentioned the old-school “/etc/aliases” file earlier before looking at Postfix’s virtual users. In case you become rattled and perplexed by the differences between the two let’s have a quick look now.

Postfix makes a somewhat conciliatory attempt to include the otherwise directly accessible “/etc/aliases” file available within its configs like so in the “/etc/postfix/”:

alias_maps = hash:/etc/aliases

The main differences are that the “alias_maps” option only applies to local deliveries therefore as a result the Domain Name element of an email address is discarded and only the prepended part before the “@” sign, such as “chris@” is checked against. You might forward an e-mail received using this method or do some other filesystem-based work like filter it before a local mailbox delivery.

In contrast the “virtual_alias_maps” option does pay heed to Domain Names. This option is all about the processing of Internet-friendly addresses and not local ones. Valid recipients Domain Names will match “username@local_machine_name” when “local_machine_name” is equal to $myorigin in your config. Or if “local_machine_name” is present in $mydestination or when it is listed in $inet_interfaces or $proxy_interfaces. Think of it effectively overlapping with the “/etc/aliases” file functionality and being useful for more than a few local alias changes.

Error Checking

The final steps to set your altered virtual user files live are simply these, starting with:

# postmap /etc/postfix/virtual

This creates a “.db” hashed version of what is essentially a “.cf” config file (even if you haven’t explicitly named it as much). The clever Postfix just needs to know the root of the name and by prepending “hash:” to the “hash:/etc/postfix/virtual“ entry in your main config file it knows not to look for the “.cf” version but rather the “.db” equivalent for translation.

It’s useful to also know that when you update your file the “postmap” command will look for a “key: value” style of format, in two columns and complain if you’ve missed an entry. For example if a row contains an alias name but not a destination and only contains one column you’ll get a failure notification.

# postfix reload

You now have two guesses as to what we’re doing in the final step above, having made those changes to our config files.

There May Be Trouble Ahead

To assist with troubleshooting the magical Postfix offers a welcome degree of help. Firstly you can run a standard Unix-type command to look in its logs, by using syntax along these lines:

# cat /var/log/mail.log | grep '(warning|error|fatal|panic):' | less +G -n

In the table below we can see the common types of errors along with a description of what they refer to.

Error Type



Consider this a critical fault which only a skilled coder can assist with. This is not a welcome error by any means and Postfix will halt having thrown all of its toys out of any nearby prams.


The common causes of a “fatal” error tend to be the result of missing files, broken permissions or some other config issue. Check your configuration and try starting up Postfix again. You will need to remedy the issue if you want Postfix to launch properly.


This indicates an error of varying types. Should a superstitious thirteen errors be encountered then Postfix will terminate and Skynet will take over.


Any “warning” might be, as you would expect, an indication of an issue but not necessarily one which will cause you headaches in the immediate future.

One Postfix troubleshooting tool is a command that displays the default Postfix config so you can reference how things were previously configured if something is broken.

# postconf -d 

Be warned that you’ll have screeds of config options scroll up your screen after running this.

Now onto my favourite troubleshooting command. When debugging it's highly useful to be able to display what changes you have made against prebuilt default values which are displayed with the above command. These are explicitly visible in the config file "/etc/postfix/" if I'm reading the docs correctly so you can hopefully correct mistakes there in the majority of cases. You can achieve this by running this exceptionally useful command as so:

# postconf -n

What about your queued e-mails? If you wanted to monitor any mails stuck in your queue then you can achieve this easily with this command:

# postqueue -p

An alternative is "mailq" (old-school sendmail style again) but I try to use the former to keep in with the other Postfix command names.

Running such a command might give you a response like this multiplied by the number of e-mails in your queue obviously:

-Queue ID-       --Size-- ----Arrival Time---- -Sender/Recipient-------
3ED1624E13    12512 Thu Nov 11 11:11:11  support@chrisbinnie.tld
(connect to[2607:f8b0:4002:c03::1b]:25: Connection timed out)

You can process your MTA’s queue there and then (or “flush” the queue) by running this command:

# postqueue -f

The sendmail equivalent of “sendmail -q” (or equally “postfix flush” or “postfix -f”) is very similar and forces the MTA to try and send the mails in the queue again. I mentioned that Postfix has lots of options and I wasn’t exaggerating, there’s even a way of only allowing certain users to flush the queue from within your main config file:


A minor caveat contained in the docs in relation to flushing the queue too often reads as follows:

“Warning: flushing undeliverable mail frequently will result in poor delivery performance of all other mail.”

As a last resort if you ever (really, really) need to delete your entire mail queue then you can run this devastatingly destructive command as follows:

# postsuper -d ALL

A more suitable approach is to reference an e-mail’s unique ID in the column shown as “Queue ID” above and then delete individual problem mails that may never be delivered for some reason but are slowing down your Mail Server (they could have very large attachments for example).

# postsuper -d 3ED1624E13

Needless to say there’s also a plethora of queue purging, queue length and allowed inbound e-mail size options available in addition if you want to tweak away to your heart’s content.


From installation to old-school E-mail Aliases and Postfix’s address redirection we’ve covered how to get up and running with virtual domains and virtual users in Postfix.

Trust me when I say that we’ve only touched upon a tiny percentage of the excellent Postfix features, however.

In the next article, we’ll cover how to protect your users from spam with Postfix’s extensible postscreen functionality. It’s a little more complex than the ground we’ve covered here but is incredibly useful.

Chris Binnie is a Technical Consultant with 20 years of Linux experience and a writer for Linux Magazine and Admin Magazine. His new book Linux Server Security: Hack and Defend teaches you how to launch sophisticated attacks, make your servers invisible and crack complex passwords.
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