In general Dovecot doesn't mind if you modify the mbox file externally. It's fine if external software expunges messages or appends new ones. However moving around existing messages, inserting messages in the middle of the file or modifying existing messages isn't allowed.
Especially modifying existing messages (eg. removing attachments) may cause all kinds of problems. If you do that, at the minimum go and delete dovecot.index.cache file from the mailbox, otherwise weird things may happen. However IMAP protocol guarantees that messages don't change at all, and deleting Dovecot's cache file doesn't clear clients' local caches, so it still may not work right.
If you insert messages, or if you "undelete" messages (eg. replace mbox from a backup), you may see errors in Dovecot's logs:
mbox sync: UID inserted in the middle of mailbox /home/tss/mail/inbox (817 > 787, seq=18, idx_msgs=32)
This is normal. Dovecot just assigned new UIDs for the messages.
Debugging UID insertions
The above message can be read as: "18th message in the mbox file contained X-UID:787 header, however the index file at that position told the message was supposed to have UID 817. There are 32 messages currently in the index file."
There are three possibilities why the error message could happen:
- Message with a X-UID: 787 header really was inserted in the mbox file.
- Something changed the X-UID headers. I don't think any existing software can cause this.
- The message was expunged from the index file, but for some reason it wasn't expunged from the mbox file. The index file is updated only after a successful mbox file modification, so this shouldn't really happen either.
It's possible that broken X-UID headers in mails and mbox_lazy_writes=yes combination has some bugs. If you're able to reproduce such an error, please let me know how.
Dovecot's mbox code is a bit fragile because of the way it works. However instead of just corrupting the mbox file, it usually assert-crashes whenever it notices an inconsistency. You may see crashes such as:
file mbox-sync-rewrite.c: line 404 (mbox_sync_read_and_move): assertion failed: (need_space == (uoff_t)-mails[idx].space)
This is a bit difficult problem to fix. Usually this crash has been related to Dovecot rewriting some headers that were broken. If you see these crashes, it would really help if you were able to reproduce the crash.
If you have such a mailbox which crashes every time when it's tried to be opened, please put the mbox through [http://dovecot.org/tools/mbox-anonymize.pl mbox anonymizer] and send it, the mailbox's dovecot.index and dovecot.index.log files to firstname.lastname@example.org. None of those files contain any actual message contents so it's be safe to send them.
Avoiding crashes and errors
Since the problems usually have been related to broken headers, you should be able to avoid them by filtering out all the Dovecot's internal metadata headers. This is a good idea to do in any case. If you use [:LDA:Dovecot LDA] it does this filtering automatically. Otherwise you could do this in your SMTP server. The headers that you should filter out are:
X-UIDL (if you're using pop3_reuse_xuidl=yes)