Web and Email Protocols


Hypertext Transfer Protocol and Hypertext Markup Language

There are application layer-specific protocols that are designed for common uses such as web browsing and email. The first topic gave you an overview of these protocols. This topic goes into more detail.

When a web address or Uniform Resource Locator (URL) is typed into a web browser, the web browser establishes a connection to the web service. The web service is running on the server that is using the HTTP protocol. URLs and Uniform Resource Identifiers (URIs) are the names most people associate with web addresses.

To better understand how the web browser and web server interact, examine how a web page is opened in a browser. For this example, use the http://www.cisco.com/index.html URL.

Step 1

The browser interprets the three parts of the URL:

  • http (the protocol or scheme)
  • www.cisco.com (the server name)
  • index.html (the specific filename requested)

Step 2

The browser then checks with a name server to convert www.cisco.com into a numeric IP address, which it uses to connect to the server. The client initiates an HTTP request to a server by sending a GET request to the server and asks for the index.html file.

Step 3

In response to the request, the server sends the HTML code for this web page to the browser.

Step 4

The browser deciphers the HTML code and formats the page for the browser window.


HTTP is a request/response protocol. When a client, typically a web browser, sends a request to a web server, HTTP specifies the message types used for that communication. The three common message types are GET (see figure), POST, and PUT:

  • GET – This is a client request for data. A client (web browser) sends the GET message to the web server to request HTML pages.
  • POST – This uploads data files to the web server, such as form data.
  • PUT – This uploads resources or content to the web server, such as an image.

Although HTTP is remarkably flexible, it is not a secure protocol. The request messages send information to the server in plaintext that can be intercepted and read. The server responses, typically HTML pages, are also unencrypted.

For secure communication across the internet, the HTTP Secure (HTTPS) protocol is used. HTTPS uses authentication and encryption to secure data as it travels between the client and server. HTTPS uses the same client request-server response process as HTTP, but the data stream is encrypted with Transport Layer Security (TLS) or its predecessor Secure Socket Layer (SSL) before being transported across the network.

Email Protocols

One of the primary services offered by an ISP is email hosting. To run on a computer or other end device, email requires several applications and services, as shown in the figure. Email is a store-and-forward method of sending, storing, and retrieving electronic messages across a network. Email messages are stored in databases on mail servers.

Email clients communicate with mail servers to send and receive email. Mail servers communicate with other mail servers to transport messages from one domain to another. An email client does not communicate directly with another email client when sending email. Instead, both clients rely on the mail server to transport messages.

Email supports three separate protocols for operation: Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), Post Office Protocol (POP), and IMAP. The application layer process that sends mail uses SMTP. A client retrieves email using one of the two application layer protocols: POP or IMAP.



SMTP message formats require a message header and a message body. Although the message body can contain any amount of text, the message header must have a properly formatted recipient email address and a sender address.

When a client sends email, the client SMTP process connects with a server SMTP process on well-known port 25. After the connection is made, the client attempts to send the email to the server across the connection. When the server receives the message, it either places the message in a local account, if the recipient is local, or forwards the message to another mail server for delivery.

The destination email server may not be online, or may be busy, when email messages are sent. Therefore, SMTP spools messages to be sent at a later time. Periodically, the server checks the queue for messages and attempts to send them again. If the message is still not delivered after a predetermined expiration time, it is returned to the sender as undeliverable.


POP is used by an application to retrieve mail from a mail server. With POP, mail is downloaded from the server to the client and then deleted on the server. This is the default operation of POP.

The server starts the POP service by passively listening on TCP port 110 for client connection requests. When a client wants to make use of the service, it sends a request to establish a TCP connection with the server, as shown in the figure. When the connection is established, the POP server sends a greeting. The client and POP server then exchange commands and responses until the connection is closed or aborted.

With POP, email messages are downloaded to the client and removed from the server, so there is no centralized location where email messages are kept. Because POP does not store messages, it is not recommended for a small business that needs a centralized backup solution.

POP3 is the most commonly used version.


IMAP is another protocol that describes a method to retrieve email messages. Unlike POP, when the user connects to an IMAP-capable server, copies of the messages are downloaded to the client application, as shown in the figure. The original messages are kept on the server until manually deleted. Users view copies of the messages in their email client software.

Users can create a file hierarchy on the server to organize and store mail. That file structure is duplicated on the email client as well. When a user decides to delete a message, the server synchronizes that action and deletes the message from the server.


IP Addressing Services