This document describes the setup of InterIMAP for a rather usual user-case, where messages on a remote IMAP server imap.example.net need to be synchronized locally in a bidirectional fashion (changes on either server are replicated on the other one).

Local IMAP server

Background and rationale

On a workstation, one’s mail storage is typically found under ~/Maildir (in Maildir format) or in /var/mail/$USER (in mbox format). Local mail clients usually access it directly. They also often maintain their own cache in order to speed up message header listing and searches.

While most bidirectional synchronisation software (such as OfflineIMAP) are able to handle a mail storage in Maildir format, InterIMAP is not. Instead, InterIMAP needs an IMAP4rev1 server on both peers to synchronize. This may sound like a severe limitation at first, but by seeing both local and remote mail storage through the same “IMAP lens”, InterIMAP is able to take advantage of the abstraction layer and perform significant optimizations, yielding much faster synchronization. Note: InterIMAP uses the Quick Mailbox Resynchronization extension for stateful synchronization, hence won’t work on IMAP servers that don’t advertise support for that extension.

Installing an IMAP4rev1 server on a single-user workstation may sound overkill, but we argue that most systems, not only servers, come with a Message Transfer Agent preinstalled. Just like one may use /usr/sbin/sendmail (or a compatible interface) in order to send mail out, we propose to use an imap binary to access them.

In order to take full advantage of the abstraction layer and of InterIMAP’s optimizations, one should always access the mail storage through the local IMAP4rev1 server and never directly. Otherwise the IMAP server will invalidate its cache each time it notices inconsistencies, potentially causing a severe performance hit. (Or worse: very likely many IMAP4rev1 servers are not able to gracefully reconcile cache inconsistencies.) As far as the mail client is concerned, the cost of abstraction seems to be negligible. (TODO link to benchmark.) Furthermore, we think that approach is in line with the Unix philosophy: the mail client only takes care of the rendering part, leaving the rest to the IMAP server (searches, sorting/threading, as well as storage and caching logic).

Installation

While this document focuses on Dovecot, a popular IMAP4rev1 server, any other QRESYNC-capable server should work equally well. Run the following command to install the Dovecot IMAP server on a Debian GNU/Linux system.

$ sudo apt install dovecot-imapd

(The leading $ in this document are command-line prompt strings, which are not part of the command themselves.)

Configuration

Our interimap(1) instance will use the imap binary from Dovecot’s libexec_dir in order to access the local mail storage. We assume that the mail client can access it in the same fashion. In other words, that it can spawn a command and use its standard input (resp. output) for IMAP4rev1 commands (resp. responses). Mutt is an example of such a mail client, for which we propose a configuration snippet below.

Since we don’t need the Dovecot services nor master process in this example, we disable them and create a local configuration file under $XDG_CONFIG_HOME/dovecot. If you need to keep the system-wise services (for instance because your MTA uses the LMTP server for mailbox delivery) then don’t disable them, and modify Dovecot’s system wide configuration instead. Same thing if your mail client isn’t able to spawn a command for IMAP communication, and instead insists on connecting to a network socket (in that case you’ll even need to configure user authentication for the IMAP service, which is out of scope for the present document).

Run the following command to terminate and disable the system-wide Dovecot processes.

$ sudo systemctl mask --now dovecot.socket dovecot.service

Create a new directory $XDG_CONFIG_HOME/dovecot holding the local Dovecot configuration:

$ install -m0700 -vd ${XDG_CONFIG_HOME:-~/.config}/dovecot
$ cat >${XDG_CONFIG_HOME:-~/.config}/dovecot/dovecot.conf <<-EOF
	ssl = no
	mail_location = maildir:~/Mail
	namespace {
	    inbox     = yes
	    separator = /
	}
EOF

Some remarks on the above:

Now test the configuration by starting a pre-authenticated IMAP4rev1 session and issuing two commands, first `LIST "" "*"` to recursively list all mailboxes (along with their hierarchy delimiter), then `LOGOUT` to… log out and exit. (The “C:” and “S:” prefixes respectively denote client commands and server responses.)

$ doveadm -c ${XDG_CONFIG_HOME:-~/.config}/dovecot/dovecot.conf exec imap
S: * PREAUTH [CAPABILITY IMAP4rev1 …] Logged in as myuser
C: a LIST "" "*"
S: * LIST (\HasNoChildren) "/" INBOX
S: a OK List completed (0.001 + 0.000 secs).
C: q LOGOUT
S: * BYE Logging out
S: q OK Logout completed (0.001 + 0.000 secs).

Create a wrapper under ~/.local/bin in order to avoid hard-coding the local Dovecot configuration path:

$ install -Dm 0755 /dev/stdin ~/.local/bin/dovecot-imap <<-EOF
	#!/bin/sh
	set -ue
	export PATH="/usr/bin:/bin"
	exec env -i PATH="\$PATH" HOME="\$HOME" USER="\$USER" \\
	    doveadm -c "\${XDG_CONFIG_HOME:-\$HOME/.config}/dovecot/dovecot.conf" \\
	        exec imap
EOF

You can now start a pre-authenticated IMAP4rev1 session like the one above by simply running `~/.local/bin/dovecot-imap`.

InterIMAP

On Debian 10 (codename Buster) and later, installing the package is one command away. Simply run the following:

$ sudo apt install interimap

Create directories for the InterIMAP configuration and data files:

$ install -m0700 -vd ${XDG_CONFIG_HOME:-~/.config}/interimap ${XDG_DATA_HOME:-~/.local/share}/interimap

Create the configuration file. The included sample file /usr/share/doc/interimap/interimap.sample can be used as baseline, but for the sake of clarity we start from an empty file here.

$ install -m0600 /dev/null ${XDG_CONFIG_HOME:-~/.config}/interimap/config
  1. The file is in INI format. First, set general options in the default section:

    $ cat >${XDG_CONFIG_HOME:-~/.config}/interimap/config <<-EOF
    	# only consider subscribed mailboxes
    	list-select-opts = SUBSCRIBED
    	#list-mailbox = "*"
    
    	# ignore the mailbox named 'virtual' and its descendants
    	# WARN: for version 0.4 and earlier it should be ^virtual(?:/|$)
    	ignore-mailbox = ^virtual(?:\x00|$)
    EOF
  2. Next, append a [local] section pointing to the wrapper defined above:

    $ cat >>${XDG_CONFIG_HOME:-~/.config}/interimap/config <<-EOF
    
    	[local]
    	type = tunnel
    	command = exec ~/.local/bin/dovecot-imap
    EOF

    (The command will be passed to `/bin/sh -c` as it contains the metacharacter ~. We use the exec built-in utility so the shell process doesn’t linger around during the IMAP session.)

  3. And finally append a [remote] section with your account information at imap.example.org (adapt the values accordingly):

    $ cat >>${XDG_CONFIG_HOME:-~/.config}/interimap/config <<-EOF
    
    	[remote]
    	type = imaps
    	host = imap.example.net
    	username = myname
    	password = xxxxxxxx
    EOF

At this point running `interimap` should create the database and copy the entire remote mail store locally. (If ~/Mail was not empty, it will also copy its content remotely, possibly yielding duplicates.) This might take a while depending on the volume of messages to synchronize.

$ interimap
Creating new schema in database file …/imap.example.net.db
database: Created mailbox INBOX
[…]

A user unit for systemd is provided. Run the following command to enable and start the service:

$ systemctl --user enable --now interimap.service

By default the connection to the IMAP servers remains open, and a status update is requested every minute. Thanks to the QRESYNC IMAP extension a status update scales linearly with the number of mailboxes (unlike OfflineIMAP not with the number of messages). And thanks to the COMPRESS extension, the typical volume of data exchanged is rather small. You may even want to override the default settings and reduce the interval between status updates to 20s:

$ mkdir -p ${XDG_CONFIG_HOME:-~/.config}/systemd/user/interimap.service.d
$ cat >${XDG_CONFIG_HOME:-~/.config}/systemd/user/interimap.service.d/override.conf <<-EOF
	[Service]
	ExecStart=
	ExecStart=/usr/bin/interimap --watch=20
EOF
$ systemctl --user daemon-reload
$ systemctl --user restart interimap.service

Email client configuration

Mutt

Add the following snippet to the configuration file:

$ cat >>~/.muttrc <<-EOF
	set tunnel    = "exec ~/.local/bin/dovecot-imap"
	set folder    = "imap://foo"
	set spoolfile = "imap://foo"
EOF

Further Reading and Resources

Other use-cases:

Multi-remote setup

Benchmarks:

Benchmark metrics and comparison

Manual

interimap(1)