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The Exim SMTP Mail Server: Official Guide for Release 4 Philip Hazel
Published by UIT Cambridge
621 pages
£ 37.00
Published: 10th June 2003
reviewed by Oliver Gorwits
   in the June 2003 issue (pdf), (html)

Exim is a mail transfer agent that can be run as an alternative to Sendmail on most Unix and Unix-like systems. At my organisation we use it to relay around half a million messages per day, although it's suitable for many other types of installation including those with local delivery, and far larger (or smaller) ISPs.

A bit of history, first. Exim is currently in its fourth version, and is developed by Philip Hazel at the University of Cambridge Computing Service. The third release was accompanied by an O'Reilly book, also written by Philip, but there were enough fundamental differences that this release warranted its own volume. And what a book: more than 600 pages straight from the horse's mouth (as it were); you can't go wrong.

Philip begins with five chapters that introduce the reader to Internet mail, Exim, and some rudimentary runtime configurations. There's nothing to fear here, as the text is beautifully self-contained, covering topics from the DNS to routing lookups. As Exim's runtime configuration is both flexible and easy to read, the quite technical examples given early on can be understood without flicking to and from other chapters in the book. The next four chapters cover in a rather succinct manner the parts of Exim that route and transport your messages. By this point you should have a grasp of the philosophy and design of Exim, which allows Philip just to give you the details. This section does feel most like a reference manual but I'm not sure there's another way he could present the information without confusing the reader. The remainder of the book covers each of the Big Features of Exim, one per chapter. I'm guessing that Philip just kept on writing until he ran out of features, rather than time or space! These chapters feel far more like the heart of the book, and the author treads a fine line between thorough process description and distracting technicalities. The two appendices cover regular expression syntax and special variables (both being available to Exim's configuration).

The book would be ideal if, for example, you manage a mail system on your own and don't have a great deal more admin experience close at hand. Its great strength is the vast number of scenarios that Philip has thought up; it seems that if you can think of something that you want the application to do, it'll be in there somewhere. At my site however we do have a good number of people who are familiar with Exim, so armed with a copy of the (equally well written) reference manual we can usually get along just fine.

Those expecting the chatty, irreverent style of an O'Reilly text may be in for a disappointment. Philip writes in a clear, precise manner, and obviously knows the subject matter (literally) inside-out; but there's no messing around and you have to be committed to learning about the subject in question. Having said that, I don't want these last two paragraphs to put you off. If there's even a whiff of a chance of you having to come into contact with Exim or its runtime configuration, then I can do nothing else but strongly recommend this book. The detail's there in spades, it reads very well, and is a fine complement to the reference manual.

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