Private email servers aren't just for prominent politicians. If you want to remove your inbox from the clutches of Microsoft, Apple, or Google, you can establish your own. In this guide, we'll explain why you might want to take control of managing and storing your messages, and how to set up your own private email server.
What is a private email server?
An email server is a data drive that stores your messages before you download them to a client on your computer or a page in a web browser. These servers rely on whichever company provided your email address, so Google runs the Gmail servers, Microsoft takes care of Outlook, and so on.
A private email server doesn't sit in the server farms of Google or Microsoft. Instead, it lives inside your own house, and you set up your own disk drive to hold incoming and outgoing messages. That means you get to decide how they are stored and accessed. The advantage, as the name suggests, is privacy—no one else has the opportunity to look at your messages or advertise alongside them. In an added bonus, your email will keep working even when Gmail, Outlook, or iCloud happens to be down.
Although this gives you much more control, a private email server comes with its own responsibilities. Instead of mindlessly logging in to check your email, you'll have to put in more work—but thanks to tutorials, you don't need to be an expert to do so.
Consider the pros and cons
Before we get into the technical details of setting up a private email server, you should know about the advantages and disadvantages.
In the pro column, we've already mentioned privacy. Sure, the employees at your email provider (probably) aren't rifling through your messages on a daily basis. But the company might be scanning your email in order to serve you ads or inform apps like Google Assistant, which uses that information to tell you things like the date of your next hotel booking.
On the less likely side, your account could potentially fall prey to both illegal and legitimate prying. A rogue email-provider employee or determined hacker could expose your inbox. Law enforcement or government agencies could compel your email provider to turn over your account. And if you get your address from your workplace, that means your employers could be reading everything you send and receive.
A private server isn't vulnerable to your employer or email provider (although it's still at risk from hackers—more on that later). This setup also gives you full control over your email's management and presentation. So you can choose everything from the software that displays the messages on screen to the aggressiveness of the spam filter. For example, if you don't want to allow attachments over 1MB, then don't—that type of decision is completely up to you.
The cons all boil down to the fact that you must take responsibility for every aspect of your email. You need to make sure your hard drive has enough capacity to store those messages. Being able to customize your spam filters is great, but again, you need to rely on yourself to find or write software that you like. Oh, and remember those prying hackers? You'll have to pick the software that can protect your messages from them. In fact, security might be the biggest reason to avoid setting up a private email server. Tech titans like Google, Apple, and Microsoft employ whole teams of experts who can focus all their time on fighting spam, hackers, and malware. All you have is...you.
In the end, there's a reason private email servers are relatively uncommon: Establishing them takes extra money, time, and effort. Still, they do let you wrest email control from the big corporations. If you have considered the various trade-offs and remain determined to go your own way, here's how to start setting up your own private server.
Set up your server
Your first step: Write up your shopping list, which will encompass hardware, software, and web support. The initial costs should wind up in the region of low triple figures. After that, monthly running costs should hit the low double figures. Of course, this is an extremely rough estimate, and your exact needs might push the price higher or lower.
So what exactly will you need? You'll have to buy a separate computer to act as your email server, and it needs enough hard drive capacity to hold your messages and all their attachments. Still, this doesn't have to cost too much. Because it will handle only email, the computer won't require too much power. In fact, you can make it work with a cheap Raspberry Pi ($40 on Amazon) and an SD card for storage.
On top of the computer itself, you'll need a domain name for your email server. This is the section of your email address that follows the @ symbol, such as @gmail.com. Once you buy that domain, you can use it to set up as many email addresses as you want. For example, you might want a separate email address for each family member: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, and so on.
Running your own email server also requires a reliable, high-speed internet connection. This ensures your account will remain accessible at all times—otherwise, someone might email you only to see their messages bounce back. If your existing setup lags, you might have to upgrade to high-speed residential or business-class broadband.
On top of that, you'll need some software: an operating system (either Linux or Windows) to run the server, virus protection, a set of programs (such as MailEnable or Postfix) to sort and route the email, and perhaps a spam filter (like SpamAssassin) on top of that. The exact combination of tools will depend on your choice of operating system.
After you've purchased everything, it's time to set up the hardware and configure the software. However, the exact process will depend on the hardware and software you've chosen—and you have a variety of options for both. We don't have room to cover all the possibilities here, but luckily, the internet abounds in step-by-step tutorials.
For example, tech DIYer Sam Hobbs has a great tutorial for setting up a Raspberry Pi server. If you want that server to run Linux, we can recommend two excellent setup guides from technology publication Ars Technica and software developer Cullum Smith. If you prefer to work with the Windows operating system, you can check out instructions from the hMailServer application. Choose the process that matches your individual preferences.
Try an easier shortcut
If you're willing to pay for assistance, you can hire an IT professional to sort out the process for you. Once you get help with the initial setup, you can then take charge of the various apps and services, ensuring that they keep ticking along as needed. This option cuts down on the hassle while preserving some of the privacy.
Even with professional help, not everyone feels comfortable setting up a physical server. In that case, you might skip the hardware option and pay a cloud hosting company to store your emails for you—here's a guide to setting up a private server in the Amazon cloud. A cloud-based server lets you side-step the pressure of figuring everything out yourself, because the provider will configure local storage and mail management. On the other hand, you lose some of that privacy benefit—instead of trusting Apple or Google, you're now forced to trust the hosting company.
Another way of simplifying this process is with a tool like the newly-launched Helm, which acts as an all-in-one private email server solution. Its creators say you can set up the Helm-based system in just a few minutes, personalized domain name and all. You still keep the physical server in your home, but it comes with on-board software that will take care of most of your email management: protection, encryption, and letting you access your messages from any device. This takes some of the decision-making out of the equation, which simplifies the whole process.
However, Helm isn't quite as cheap as the DIY Raspberry Pi method. For $500, you get the server hardware and a one-year subscription to Helm's email-management software. After that, you pay $100 per year to keep covering the programs. This works best if you're hoping to reap the advantages of a private email server without going through as much hassle—and you don't mind paying for it.