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The RFC 822 message format

Sometimes it's just fun to take a look under the hood. This article explains what the RFC 822 messaging standard is and how it works.

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Since Exchange and Outlook natively and automatically support it, unless you are a software developer, you will probably never have to manually code anything in RFC 822 format. Even so, knowing that RFC 822 exists and a little bit about how it works will give you a greater understanding of messaging and the Internet. Besides, sometimes it's just fun to take a look under the hood. This article explains what the RFC 822 messaging standard is and how it works.

E-mail is universal. You can send an e-mail message to anyone, regardless of the person's geographic location or the mail client software that the recipient is using. Have you ever wondered how this is possible?

Like most things related to the Internet (or to computing in general for that matter), e-mail is based on a standard. This particular standard is known as RFC 822. It was introduced over two decades ago (Aug. 13, 1982 to be exact) and has since remained largely unchanged. The RFC 2822 standard was introduced in 2001 and supersedes RFC 822, but it is basically the same as RFC 822 with minor updates and changes. Other message formats, such as RFC 850 (used for USENET), are also based on RFC 822.

RFC 822 is amazing in its simplicity. If you look at most Internet standards in use today, you will find that you practically need a Ph.D. in computer science to understand them. RFC 822, however, was designed to be readable even by novices. For example, the following message is coded in RFC 822 format:

From: To: Subject: A demonstration of the RFC 822 message format

This is the message body.

As you can see in the example above, there is absolutely nothing cryptic about a message in RFC 822 format. In fact, there isn't even anything to flag the body of the message other than a blank line.

Of course, my example message is extremely simple. It consists of only four elements: a recipient, a sender, a subject and the message body. The demonstration message, although perfectly valid, omits other commonly used elements, such as the date or multiple recipients. That doesn't mean that you can't define more elaborate messages though. Like any Internet standard, RFC 822 defines a full set of commands for sending and receiving e-mail.

If you are curious to see the rest of the RFC 822 syntax, you can view it here. You can also read the RFC 822 specifications in their entirety, although I must warn you that the document is a bit lengthy.

About the author: Brien M. Posey, MCSE, is a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional for his work with Windows 2000 Server and IIS. Brien has served as the CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and was once in charge of IT security for Fort Knox. As a freelance technical writer he has written for Microsoft, CNET, ZDNet, TechTarget, MSD2D, Relevant Technologies and other technology companies. You can visit Brien's personal Web site at

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