Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP)

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The Internet Message Access Protocol or IMAP is one of the two most prevalent Internet standard protocols for E-Mail retrieval, the other being POP3. Virtually all modern e-mail clients and servers support both protocols as a means of transferring e-mail messages from a server to a client.

Many implementations of webmail use IMAP to retrieve e-mail messages from a server and display them within a web browser, making the use of this protocol transparent to the user.

Advantages over POP

Connected and disconnected modes of operation

When using POP3, clients typically connect to the e-mail server briefly, only as long as it takes to download new messages. When using IMAP4, clients often stay connected as long as the user interface is active and download message content on demand. For users with many or large messages, this IMAP4 usage pattern can result in faster response times.

Multiple clients simultaneously connected to the same mailbox

The POP protocol requires the currently connected client to be the only client connected to the mailbox. In contrast, the IMAP protocol specifically allows simultaneous access by multiple clients and provides mechanisms for clients to detect changes made to the mailbox by other, concurrently connected, clients.

Access to MIME message parts and partial fetch

Usually all Internet e-mail is transmitted in MIME format, allowing messages to have a tree structure where the leaf nodes are any of a variety of single part content types and the non-leaf nodes are any of a variety of multipart types. The IMAP4 protocol allows clients to separately retrieve any of the individual MIME parts and also to retrieve portions of either individual parts or the entire message. These mechanisms allow clients to retrieve the text portion of a message without retrieving attached files or to stream content as it is being fetched.

Message state information

Through the use of flags defined in the IMAP4 protocol, clients can keep track of message state; for example, whether or not the message has been read, replied to, or deleted. These flags are stored on the server, so different clients accessing the same mailbox at different times can detect state changes made by other clients. POP provides no mechanism for clients to store such state information on the server so if a single user accesses a mailbox with two different POP clients, state information—such as whether a message has been accessed—cannot be synchronized between the clients. The IMAP4 protocol supports both pre-defined system flags and client defined keywords. System flags indicate state information such as whether a message has been read. Keywords, which are not supported by all IMAP servers, allow messages to be given one or more tags whose meaning is up to the client. Adding user created tags to messages is an operation supported by some web-based email services, such as Gmail.

Multiple mailboxes on the server

IMAP4 clients can create, rename, and/or delete mailboxes (usually presented to the user as folders) on the server, and move messages between mailboxes. Multiple mailbox support also allows servers to provide access to shared and public folders. The IMAP4 Access Control List (ACL) Extension (RFC 4314) may be used to regulate access rights.

Server-side searches

IMAP4 provides a mechanism for a client to ask the server to search for messages meeting a variety of criteria. This mechanism avoids requiring clients to download every message in the mailbox in order to perform these searches.

Built-in extension mechanism

Reflecting the experience of earlier Internet protocols, IMAP4 defines an explicit mechanism by which it may be extended. Many extensions to the base protocol have been proposed and are in common use. IMAP2bis did not have an extension mechanism, and POP now has one defined by RFC 2449.