An Overview of the Sender Policy Framework

by [Published on 30 Sept. 2004 / Last Updated on 30 Sept. 2004]

In this article I will give you some information about SPF – Sender Policy Framework and its implementation. Some statistics state that nearly 75% of all e-mail traffic is Spam, sometimes called UCE (Unsolicited Commercial Email). To help against this threat, several vendors are developing solutions against Spam. One solution is SPF. What is SPF? SPF is a solution to fight against email address forgery. SPF makes it easier to identify spam mails, viruses and worms.

What is the problem with e-mail and SMTP?

SMTP was developed at a time where only a few clients and servers existed. SMTP has very few security features. Originally, any SMTP server would accept mail from anyone, for anyone – this is known as an open relay. This wasn't a problem in the early days of the Internet, but until some time ago it was a real threat. Today open relay is no longer an issue for the majority of companies because the Admins have done their work and closed open relays. If there are any open relays they will be relatively quickly listed on Open Relay blocklists like http://ordb.org and many more.

The biggest problem today is mail that’s correctly addressed to a valid mail address, but comes from a dubious source (Spammer).

What is SPF?

Sender Policy Framework (SPF), formerly Sender Permitted From, is an extension to the  SMTP standard. SPF makes it easy to counter most forged "From" addresses in email, and thus helps to counter e-mail spam. The combination is also called SMTP+SPF.

You can notice SPF protected domains if they have the following logo:

Figure 1: SPF logo

SPF was originally designed by Meng Weng of POBOX. You can read more about POBOX here.

POBOX and Microsoft has combined SPF and the Microsoft Implementation called Sender ID and a third specification called the Submitter Optimization to Sender ID Framework.

SIDF reflects the merger of multiple standards and input from the internet and messaging communities…

  • SPF, by Meng Wong of pobox.com
  • Microsoft Caller ID for Email

How does SPF work?

SPF is easy to understand. The "Internet" uses DNS (Domain Name System) to resolve Domain Names (as an example www.msexchange.org) into IP addresses. DNS is also used to direct requests for different services like e-mail and Web Servers. For every Domain around the world an MX (Mail Exchanger) record must exist. An MX record tells the e-mail sender where the target server for receiving mail is located.

SPF is publishing "reverse MX" records in DNS which tells the mail sender which machines send mail from the domain.

The recipient of the e-mail can now check these records to ensure that e-mail is coming from a „trusted“ sender from this domain.

These "reverse MX" records can be easily published in DNS. It takes only one line in DNS to fullfil all requirements. I will give you an example later in this article.

SPF operates at the level of the SMTP transaction, and requires at most three pieces of information:

  • The MAIL FROM: parameter of the incoming mail
  • The HELO or EHLO parameter of the sending SMTP server (used for Mailer-Deamon bounces which send a blank MAIL FROM)
  • The IP address of the sending SMTP server

Benefits of SPF

SMTP without SPF allows any computer to send email claiming to be from anyone so it is easy for spammers to send email from forged addresses.

This makes it very difficult to trace back from which system Spam comes from. On the other hand it is very easy for Spammers to fake their sender address so that the receiver trusts these e-mails.

Now is the time for SPF. SPF allows an Administrator of an Internet Domain to specify which machines are authorized to transmit e-mail from that domain.

SPF makes it more difficult for spammers to send spam, because if they simply forge a "From" address from an address that implements SPF, receivers that implement SPF will  ignore the e-mail.

SPF prevents spammers forging the domain names given in the "From"-addresses of an e-mail. If a spammer legitimately has an account in that domain, or he is the owner of the domain, they can still send e-mail.

This is a real problem so that some experts expect a massive growth in the registration of one-way domains for spammers to go around SPF and other techniques.

SPF in DNS

It is very easy to implement SPF records in DNS.

An SPF record is a single TXT entry in the DNS database for each domain. TXT entries have been standard record types in DNS since DNS was developed.

SPF has a number of mechanisms defined in the SPF draft standard, but SPF is so flexible and extensible that new mechanisms can be implemented without having to rewrite the standard.

The most widely used mechanism for determining the e-mail server for a specified domain will be the 'MX' (Mail Exchanger) record, which states which server is designated to accept e-mails for your domain.

The 'PTR' (Pointer) record instructs the receiver to check the domain name of the sending host through DNS, and to check if this record corresponds with the domain name being checked. If there is a match, the e-mail is from an accepted source, but if there isn’t it's a forgery. 'PTR' records are used in Reverse Lookup zones.

The 'A' (Host) record allows you to specify that any machine with an address entry in the DNS database which matches your domain is allowed to send e-mail.

This is slightly different to the PTR mechanism because it doesn't require a special PTR DNS record, but instead performs exhaustive searches.

Thus, the key issue in SPF is the specification for the new DNS information that domains set and receivers use. The exact specifications may change (the following specification is from 04/25/2004) but here is one example:

 ; zone file fragment for msexchange.org
                                   IN  MX 10 mail.msexchange.org.
.......
mail                IN  A     192.168.1.2
; SPF enries
; domain SPF
Msexchange.org.  IN  TXT   "v=spf1 mx -all"
; mail host SPF
mail                IN  TXT   "v=spf1 a -all"

Figure 2: SPF entries in DNS

msexchange.org IN TXT "v=spf1 mx -all"
"v="     = defines the version of SPF used – this attribute is mandatory (SPF1)
„mx“    = Defines the MX record
„ptr“     =  PTR is the record for the reverse lookup zone
"-all"    = Specifies that, if the previous methods did not match, reject the message as a
forgery.

The following methods are defined:

A         - If the domain name has an A record corresponding to the sender's address,
it will match.

MX      - If the domain name has an MX record resolving to the sender's address, it will match.

PTR    - If the sender reverse-resolves to a domain ending in the domain name, match.

IP4      - If the sender is in a given IPv4 range, match.

IP6      - If the sender is in a given IPv6 range, match.

EXISTS - If the given domain resolves, match.

For more information about SPF DNS configuration, have a look at the following article.

SPF records distribution in DNS

SPF uses the functionality of DNS to distribute SPF records across the DNS hierarchies. SPF records will be cached by several ISPs. This reduces the amount of bandwith required for SPF queries in DNS.

How to publish a SPF record

Publishing records is the first step to using SPF. There are more than 8.000 domains registered today.

How to register depends on the size of your organization. POBOX recommends the following:

If your organization:
- sends mail from under 5 servers,
- doesn’t have a large technical staff, or
- isn't email-mission-critical,

Self-publishing is your best option, with the quick and easy wizard. In the following picture you have an example of the wizard:


Figure 3: SPF Wizard

If your organization:
- has complex sending needs,
- sends a lot of mail, or
- is a Fortune 1000 company,
You may benefit from SPF certification or consulting. For more information go to the POBOX website at http://spf.pobox.com.

Mail Flows

The following picture shows the Mail Flow in an SPF environment


Figure 4: Mail Flow with SPF enabled – with friendly permission from http://spf.pobox.com

What do you do with unsupported messaging systems?

As I write this article, messaging systems like Microsoft Exchange and Lotus Notes don’t support SPF.

As long as vendors like IBM and Microsoft don’t support SPF it is possible to place an SPF enabled MTA in front of your unsupported systems. The only thing you have to do is to change the mail flow that all incoming mails will be sent to the SPF aware MTA. This MTA checks the e-mail and will forward it to the internal mail-system.

SPF problems

SPF breaks SMTP forwarding where an MTA forwards e-mail to someone else without

changing the "from" address. One solution for this problem is a technique called Sender Rewriting Scheme (SRS). SRS is a mechanism for rewriting sender addresses when a mail is forwarded in that way when mail forwarding continues to work within an SPF implementation. Learn more about SRS here.

If a spammer legitimately has an account in that domain, or owns the domain, they can still send email. This is a real problem so that some experts expect a massive growth in the registration of one-way domains for spammers to go around SPF and other techniques. But this is not a problem concerning the SPF implementation – it is a problem in general.

Standardization Status

As I write this article, SPF is not an IETF standard but it is one solution with the best chances of becoming a standard. There are some other implementations like Microsoft Sender ID, Yahoo DomainKeys and RMX. Another hopeful solution was MARID, but as of 09/23/2004, the MARID working group has stopped working because of some differences about which technique and record types will make the race.

SPF-aware MTAs

Plugins to MTAs can be found here. There are many MTA Plugins for well known Mail Servers like EXIM, Postfix, Windows 2000 SMTP.

Antispam and MTA vendors that support SPF

There are several Antispam and MTA vendors that support SPF. Some of them are: Brightmail, Ciphertrust, Communigate Pro, Declude, IronPort, MailArmory, MailFrontier, Penguin Software, Sophos and Symantec.

Some well-known names protected by SPF

As I write this article the following "Big Players" were protected by SPF:

AOL.com, Altavista.com, DynDNS.org, eOnline.com, Google.com, GNU.org, LiveJournal.com, OReilly.com, SAP.com, Spamhaus.org, Symantec.com, Ticketmaster.com and w3.org

As you can see in the following picture, the number of SPF protected domains is growing.


Figure 5: Growing SPF protected domains

Conclusion

SPF has a good chance of becoming an IETF Standard. SPF will not totally reduce Spam but is a powerful solution in the fight against Spam. See my other article for an explanation on how you can add SPF support to your Exchange Server. Click here to read the article.

Related Links

SPF in general
http://spf.pobox.com

SPF records in DNS
http://www.zytrax.com/books/dns/ch9/spf.html

Free SPF Filter for Windows – bought by GFI
http://www.michaelbrumm.com/smtpspffilter.html

SPF Event Sink for Windows 2000
http://sourceforge.net/projects/spf-event-sink/

How Do SPF and SenderID Work?
http://spf.pobox.com/howworks.html

Informations about SRS
http://www.libsrs2.org/srs/srs.pdf

The Author — Marc Grote

Marc Grote avatar

Marc Grote is an MCSA/MCSE Messaging & Security, MCSE Private Cloud and Server Virtualization, an MCTS/MCITP and a Microsoft Certified Trainer and MCLC. He is a freelance Consultant and IT Trainer in the north of Germany near Hanover. He specializes in TMG/UAG Server, Exchange, System Center, Security for Windows Server 2012 and Windows Server 2012 designs, migrations and implementations. His efforts have earned him recognition as a Microsoft MVP for ISA Server since 2004.

Latest Contributions

Featured Links