Dovecot is split into multiple processes where each process does only one thing. This is partially because it makes the code cleaner, but also because it allows setting up different privileges for each process. The most important processes are:
- Master process (dovecot)
- Login processes (imap-login, pop3-login)
- Authentication process (dovecot-auth)
- Mail processes (imap, pop3)
This process keeps all the other processes running. If a child process dies, another one is restarted automatically. It always runs as root, unless you're specifically running everything under a single normal UID.
The master process reads the configuration file and exports the settings to other processes via environment variables.
All logging also goes through master process. This avoids problems with rotating log files, as there's only a single process to send a signal to reopen the log file. Also writing to the same log file (if not using syslog) isn't necessarily safe to do in multiple processes concurrently.
Making the logging go through master process also gives a couple of advantages from security and reliability point of view: All log lines can be prefixed with the process's name and the username of the user who was logged in, without the possibility for the process itself to forge them. Flooding logs can also be prevented. By default Dovecot allows non-privileged processes to write 10 lines per second before it begins to delay reading their input, which finally causes the badly behaving process to start blocking on writing to stderr instead of eating all the CPU and disk space.
In the Dovecot 2.0 design, the master process is split to three parts: the Master process which does nothing more than keep the processes running, the config process which handles reading the configuration file (supporting also eg. SQL storages!) and the log process which handles the logging.
The login processes implement the required minimum of the IMAP and POP3 protocols before a user logs in successfully. There are separate processes (and binaries) to handle IMAP and POP3 protocols.
These processes are run with least possible privileges. Unfortunately the default UNIX security model still allows them to do much more than they would have to: Accept new connections on a socket, connect to new UNIX sockets and read and write to existing file descriptors. Still, the login process is by default run under a user account that has no special access to anything, and inside a non-writable chroot where only a couple of files exist. Doing any damage inside there should be difficult.
When a new connection comes, one of the login processes accept()s it. After that the client typically does nothing more than ask the server's capability list and then log in. The client may also start TLS session before logging in.
Authentication is done by talking to the authentication process. The login process is completely untrusted by the authentication process, so even if an attacker is able to execute arbitrary code inside a login process, they won't be able to log in without a valid username and password.
After receiving a successful authentication reply from the authentication process, the login process sends the file descriptor to the master process which creates a new mail process and transfers the fd into it. Before doing that, the master process verifies from the authentication process that the authentication really was successful.
By default each login process will handle only a single connection and afterwards kill itself (but see SSL proxying below). This way attacker can't see other people's connections. This can however be disabled (login_process_per_connection=no), in which case the security of the design suffers greatly.
A newly thought out idea to balance security and performance is to use a separate process for each connection, but instead of destroying the process after the login is finished, it could be reused for the next connection. To avoid leaving sensitive information in memory (such as usernames and passwords), most of the memory is allocated using system_clean_pool, which causes the memory frees and reallocations to clear the memory before freeing it. Also the connection to the authentication process is reopened to make sure the previous connection's authentication attempt can't be reused in any way. This cleaning isn't done in Dovecot v1.0.
The login processes handle SSL/TLS connections themselves completely. They keep proxying the connection to mail processes for the entire lifetime of the connection. This way if a security hole is found from the SSL library, an authenticated user still can't execute code outside the login process.
See LoginProcess for more information about different settings related to login processes.
The authentication process handles everything related to the actual authentication: SASL authentication mechanisms, looking up and verifying the passwords and looking up user information.
It listens for two different kinds of connections: untrusted authentication client connections (from login processes) and master connections (from master process, but also from Dovecot LDA). The client connections are only allowed to try to authenticate. The master connections are allowed to ask if an authentication request with a given ID was successful, and also to look up user information based on a username. This user lookup feature is used by Dovecot LDA.
Each client connection tells their process ID to the authentication process in a handshake. If a connection with the same PID already exists, an error is logged and the new connection is refused. Although this makes DoS attacks possible, it won't go unnoticed for long and I don't see this as a real issue for now.
Having the authentication process know the PID of the client connection allows all authentication requests to be mapped to one specific client connection. Since the master process knows the login process's real PID, it's used when asking from authentication process if the request was successful. This makes it impossible for a login process to try to fake another login process's login requests. Faking PIDs will also be quite pointless.
Once the master process has done the verification request for a successful authentication request, the request is freed from memory. The requests are also freed about 2 minutes after their creation, regardless of the state they currently are in.
For blocking password and user database backends (eg. MySQL) separate "worker processes" are used. Initially only one of them exists, but more are created as needed. PAM can be configured to use worker processes instead of doing the forking itself, but this isn't currently done by default and there may be problems related to it. Also checkpassword currently does the forking itself.
These processes handle the actual post-login mail handling using the privileges of the logged in user. It's possible to chroot these processes, but practically it's usually more trouble than worth.
See mail process design for their internal design documentation.