Tutorials How to secure Postfix using Let’s Encrypt

How to secure Postfix using Let’s Encrypt

If you have registered a domain name and would like to use it for email, you might want to set up a mail transfer agent (MTA) through which you can send and receive messages. A great option for an MTA software is the free and open-source Postfix that aims to be fast, easy to administer, and secure. Ensuring a secure Postfix server in any network requires great care in its configuration, but with the help of Let’s Encrypt and Dovecot, the whole process is practically plug-n-play.

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This guide goes through the steps required in configuring a secure Postfix STMP server with certificates provided by the Let’s Encrypt certificate authority and Dovecot that is used for client authentication. The instructions listed below are intended for Ubuntu 16.04, but the components are available on other distributions as well with just minor changes to the installation command.

Let's Encrypt Postfix and Dovecot

Creating DNS records

The first step in setting up a trustworthy email server is to create the required domain name and mail exchanger records. This process will differ depending on which Domain Name Server you are using to manage your domain name. Most domain name servers will provide instructions or documentation on how these settings can be done.

For example, you could add a subdomain for your SMTP server such as mail.example.com and enable an MX record that points to that subdomain.

The records that you will need to configure:

  • DNS A record, that maps your domain name to the server’s public IP address.
    example.com   A
  • MX record, which will tell other mail servers where messages send to your domain should be delivered.
    example.com   MX   1   mail.example.com.
    @             MX   2   mail.example.com.
  • Reverse DNS record, that allows servers to check what domain your server’s IP address belongs to.
    Editing the PTR record

You can set the reverse DNS name per public IP address at your UpCloud control panel under Server settings and IP Addresses tab.

These settings might take a moment to propagate to other DNS servers so it is good to get them done early.

Installing Postfix

Postfix is the default MTA for Ubuntu and can be installed directly with the package manager. Use the following command to install the required packages.

sudo apt install postfix

Once the installation is complete, the setup will run a configuration script that asks to define a few settings, select the defaults for now by pressing enter to continue.

With Postfix installed, run the full configuration script to define the settings as below.

sudo dpkg-reconfigure postfix

The reconfiguration command will display the configuration interface again, select the following values in order of appearance.

  1. General type of mail configuration:
    Internet Site
  2. System mail name – Replace the <example.com> with your domain name:
  3. Root and postmaster mail recipient – Any Unix user account:
  4. Other destinations to accept mail for – Include $mydomain as the final destination:
    $mydomain, $myhostname, localhost.$myhostname, , localhost
  5. Force synchronous updates on mail queue?
  6. Local networks: [::ffff:]/104 [::1]/128
  7. Mailbox size limit (bytes):
  8. Local address extension character:
  9. Internet protocols to use:

The configuration is written into the /etc/postfix/main.cf file. In case you want to make changes to the above settings, you can always run the reconfiguration script again.

By default, Postfix uses the mbox mailbox format. Another commonly used option is Maildir which stores emails in individual files reducing the chance of your mail database getting corrupted. The following settings will use Maildir but you are free to choose any format. If you wish to use something else, remember to also configure it for Dovecot.

Rather than editing the configuration file directly, you can use the postconf -e command to change the Postfix parameters.

sudo postconf -e 'home_mailbox = Maildir/'

Using the Maildir mailbox format emails are stored in under the recipient user’s home folder /home/<username>/Maildir.

Also, tell Postfix what domain it is the final destination for so that it can be easily referenced as a Postfix variable as was already shown in the configuration script.

sudo postconf -e 'mydomain = <example.com>'

Now that Postfix is installed, you can continue below with further configurations.

Getting Let's Encrypt certificates

Enabling the TLS will require you to obtain certificates. Let’s Encrypt is a free, automated, and open Certificate Authority that allows easy certificate setup using the Certbot ACME client from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

An easy way to get the certificates issued on a server that does not have a running web server is to use the client with the --standalone plug-in. Start by installing the Let’s Encrypt module.

sudo apt install certbot

Once the install is finished, you can run the process with the easy command below. Replace the mail.example.com with your domain name.

sudo certbot certonly --standalone -d mail.example.com

The command starts an interactive configuration script which will ask a couple of questions to set up the certificate correctly.

  1. Select Yes to use the default vhost file and specify the settings manually.
  2. Enter the email server’s domain name like mail.example.com.
  3. On the first installation on any specific host, you’ll need to enter a contact email.
  4. Read the Let’s Encrypt Terms of Service and select Agree to continue.
  5. Then select whether you wish to use both HTTP and HTTPS or to require all traffic to use encryption by highlighting either the Easy or the Secure option and selecting OK.

If everything worked correctly you’ll get a message that HTTPS was successfully enabled.

If you already have a web service installed on your mail server, you can find more about how to obtain certificates with Apache2 or Nginx in their software-specific instructions.

Once you have finished the process, the certificates will be stored under /etc/letsencrypt/live/<your.domain>/. You can add your new certificates to the Postfix configuration using the two commands below. Replace the <your.domain> with your email server’s domain name.

sudo postconf -e 'smtpd_tls_cert_file = /etc/letsencrypt/live/<your.domain>/fullchain.pem'
sudo postconf -e 'smtpd_tls_key_file = /etc/letsencrypt/live/<your.domain>/privkey.pem'

With the certificate installed, you can configure the rest of the email server.

Setting up SMTP authentication

Next, you should enable SMTP-AUTH, which allows a client to identify itself through the authentication mechanism SASL. Transport Layer Security (TLS) should be used to encrypt the authentication process. Once authenticated, the server will allow the client to relay mail.

Enter the following edits as they are.

sudo postconf -e 'smtpd_sasl_type = dovecot'
sudo postconf -e 'smtpd_sasl_path = private/auth'
sudo postconf -e 'smtpd_sasl_local_domain ='
sudo postconf -e 'smtpd_sasl_security_options = noanonymous'
sudo postconf -e 'broken_sasl_auth_clients = yes'
sudo postconf -e 'smtpd_sasl_auth_enable = yes'
sudo postconf -e 'smtpd_recipient_restrictions = permit_sasl_authenticated,permit_mynetworks,reject_unauth_destination'

Then configure Postfix to provide TLS encryption for both incoming and outgoing mail.

sudo postconf -e 'smtp_tls_security_level = may'
sudo postconf -e 'smtpd_tls_security_level = may'
sudo postconf -e 'smtp_tls_note_starttls_offer = yes'
sudo postconf -e 'smtpd_tls_loglevel = 1'
sudo postconf -e 'smtpd_tls_received_header = yes'

Enabling the SASL lets users send messaged outside the local domain without compromising the security of the relay.

Virtual alias mapping

The last bit of configurations for Postfix is to map the email addresses you wish to use to your user accounts. With virtual alias domains, each hosted address can be aliased to a local UNIX system account or a remote address. Enable virtual alias mapping with the following two edit commands.

sudo postconf -e 'virtual_alias_domains = $mydomain'
sudo postconf -e 'virtual_alias_maps = hash:/etc/postfix/virtual'

You can then create the alias map indicated above. The example below shows how to use this mechanism for the example.com domain. Assign the email addresses you want to enable to a username using the same pattern of <[email protected]> <username>.

sudo nano /etc/postfix/virtual
[email protected] root
[email protected] root
[email protected] info

Once you have configured the virtual aliases, tell Postfix to generate the required database file from the list.

sudo postmap /etc/postfix/virtual

Then restart Postfix itself to apply the full configuration.

sudo systemctl restart postfix

You might also want to add the Maildir setup to the user home directory template so that it is automatically configured when a new user account is created.

sudo maildirmake.dovecot /etc/skel/Maildir
sudo maildirmake.dovecot /etc/skel/Maildir/.Drafts
sudo maildirmake.dovecot /etc/skel/Maildir/.Sent
sudo maildirmake.dovecot /etc/skel/Maildir/.Trash
sudo maildirmake.dovecot /etc/skel/Maildir/.Templates

The same Maildir can be added to the current user with the commands below. Replace the $USER with any existing username if that user does not have sudo privileges.

sudo cp -r /etc/skel/Maildir /home/$USER/
sudo chown -R $USER:$USER /home/$USER/Maildir
sudo chmod -R 700 /home/$USER/Maildir
sudo adduser $USER mail

Finally, include the Maildir location in your terminal and mail profiles.

echo 'export MAIL=~/Maildir' | sudo tee -a /etc/bash.bashrc | sudo tee -a /etc/profile.d/mail.sh

Relog to the terminal to apply the group changes by reopening the SSH connection.

Configuring Dovecot

Postfix supports two SASL implementations, that are used for authentication, Cyrus and Dovecot. Of these two, Dovecot is relatively simple to configure and was therefore selected for this guide. To enable Dovecot SASL you will need to install the dovecot-common package. You might also wish to install the Dovecot plugins for IMAP and POP3 to allow connections from mail clients such as Thunderbird or Outlook.

sudo apt install dovecot-common dovecot-imapd dovecot-pop3d

Once installed, you will need to make some changes to a few of the configuration files. Dovecot configuration is split between a number of files under /etc/dovecot/conf.d/. To enable the required security features, make the changes and indicated below to the next four .conf files.

Start by disabling the plaintext authentication at the top and enabling login authentication mechanism near the end of the auth.conf file.

sudo nano /etc/dovecot/conf.d/10-auth.conf
disable_plaintext_auth = yes
auth_mechanisms = plain login

Then instruct the mail directory to use the same format as Postfix.

sudo nano /etc/dovecot/conf.d/10-mail.conf
mail_location = maildir:~/Maildir

Next, configure the IMAP and POP3 protocols for email clients in the master.conf file as shown below. Uncomment the port lines shown underneath by deleting ‘#’ sign at the start of these lines. In the same file, also edit the service auth segment to allow user authentication.

sudo nano /etc/dovecot/conf.d/10-master.conf
service imap-login {
   inet_listener imap {
      port = 143
service pop3-login {
   inet_listener pop3 {
      port = 110
service auth {
   # Postfix smtp-auth
   unix_listener /var/spool/postfix/private/auth {
      mode = 0660
      user = postfix
      group = postfix

Most email clients default to the standard ports, 143 for IMAP and 110 for POP3. With STARTTLS required for every connection, there is no need to duplicate the services to the SSL dedicated ports.

You will also need to include your certificates in the Dovecot ssl.conf file, replace the <mail.example.com> with your server’s domain name. Select to require SSL and also disable the insecure SSLv2 and SSLv3 protocols.

sudo nano /etc/dovecot/conf.d/10-ssl.conf
# SSL/TLS support: yes, no, required. <doc/wiki/SSL.txt>
ssl = required
ssl_cert = </etc/letsencrypt/live/<mail.example.com>/fullchain.pem
ssl_key = </etc/letsencrypt/live/<mail.example.com>/privkey.pem
# SSL protocols to use
ssl_protocols = !SSLv2 !SSLv3

When you are done editing the files, you can check the Dovecot configuration with the following command.

dovecot -n

Once everything looks correct, restart Dovecot to apply the new settings.

sudo systemctl restart dovecot

That is it! Congratulations, your mail server is now ready to receive and send emails using secure authentication.

Testing the SMTP server locally

You can test the Postfix server locally from the terminal by using a direct connection with netcat, telnet or similar. The following commands need to be executed in the correct order or the server will close the connection.

nc mail.example.com 25
EHLO $hostname
MAIL FROM:<[email protected]>
RCPT TO:<[email protected]>
Subject: Test email

Body of the email

If the configuration worked correctly, you should see a confirmation that the email you just wrote has been placed in the queue and will arrive momentarily.

Note that using this method you can only send emails to your own domain addresses. When attempting to set recipient outside your own domain, you will see a message stating that relay access is denied and the connection will be closed.

Another little more convenient way to use email from the terminal is to install Mailutils.

sudo apt install mailutils

It can be used to check mail with the simple command below.


You can also test sending mail using the same utility by adding the recipient address.

mail [email protected]

Then complete the email form with subject and body text. Send the message by pressing Ctrl+D which exits the utility. Using this method will allow you to send messages outside your network. However, the sender and return addresses will show your username and server domain name, e.g. [email protected], instead of the probably more desirable [email protected] Therefore this method should only be used for testing purposes.

Additional security options

The main concerns of running a private SMTP server will be combating both incoming and outgoing spam messages. A secure configuration and strong user passwords will help with the latter but you might wish to take additional steps to prevent incoming spam.

Reject bad connections and spam messages

Tightening the rules for SMTP connections can stop many of the common spambots that disregard email etiquette. Requiring a valid HELO or EHLO command with a fully qualified domain name can do just that. Add the following parameters to further improve your secure Postfix configuration.

sudo postconf -e 'smtpd_helo_required = yes'
sudo postconf -e 'smtpd_helo_restrictions = reject_non_fqdn_helo_hostname,reject_invalid_helo_hostname,reject_unknown_helo_hostname'

Postfix supports a verify (VRFY) command which allows anyone to determine if an account exists on the system, which can provide significant assistance to any brute force attack on your user accounts. VRFY may also give out sensitive information about the users, such as the account owners full name. It is recommended to disable the VRFY command with the following parameter.

sudo postconf -e 'disable_vrfy_command = yes'

You might also wish to delay the reject message to allow Postfix to log recipient address information when the connected client breaks any of the reject rules. This allows you to later find out who the spammers were trying to target.

sudo postconf -e 'smtpd_delay_reject = yes'

The Postfix recipient restrictions that were set in the SASL configuration part are important in securing the server while allowing users to connect with email clients such as Thunderbird or Outlook. Keeping these parameters in the right order will retain this ability, but you can include further restrictions that incoming messages will need to comply with.

sudo postconf -e 'smtpd_recipient_restrictions = permit_sasl_authenticated,permit_mynetworks,reject_unauth_destination,reject_invalid_hostname,reject_non_fqdn_hostname,reject_non_fqdn_sender,reject_non_fqdn_recipient,reject_unknown_sender_domain,reject_rbl_client sbl.spamhaus.org,reject_rbl_client cbl.abuseat.org'

The parameters above are fairly self-explanatory though a little difficult to read in a terminal copy paste friendly format. The general idea is to reject connections from made up addresses that do not use a fully qualified domain name or simply do not exist. Here is possible to also add external spam filters such as the Spamhaus or CBL blacklists. If you wish to find out more, Postfix has a very extensive documentation on its configuration options.

Directing spam to /dev/null

Postfix supports a so-called catch-all address with the virtual aliases. Any emails sent to an address not specified in the virtual map will be directed according to the catch-all address. This is useful to hide the valid addresses by allowing mail delivery to any address hence preventing spammers from finding real users through simple trial and error.

Enable the catch-all address by adding a line as shown in the example below to the end of your virtual mapping without any local part and direct the messages to a virtual user nobody.

sudo nano /etc/postfix/virtual
@example.com nobody

To prevent spam from filling up all of your storage space, edit the system aliases list to direct messages sent to invalid addresses straight to /dev/null.

sudo nano /etc/aliases
# See man 5 aliases for format
postmaster: root
nobody: /dev/null

Once you have configured both the system and virtual aliases, tell Postfix to regenerate the required database files from these lists.

sudo postmap /etc/postfix/virtual
sudo postalias /etc/aliases

Then reload Postfix again to enable the new settings.

sudo service postfix reload

You can test the spam trap by sending a message to any random unconfigured email address, the mail should be delivered successfully but will not be stored. Another way to test this is by using an address validator such as the Email Checker, any address should show up as valid, even the none existing ones.

Maintaining security

Configuring and maintaining a secure Postfix SMTP server only requires a basic understanding of the components, but simple mistakes in the setup can render the security settings ineffective, therefore most important part is to make sure the server does not become an open relay. Conveniently MX Toolbox, an online network testing utility, provides an SMTP diagnostics tool with which you can easily test your configuration by just entering your mail server domain name such as mail.example.com. With the setup used in this guide, everything should show green in their tests, granted that the DNS rules have propagated.

While a configuration helps to keep your SMTP server secure, strong user passwords are also very important. In such a case that a third party was to gain unauthorised access to one of the user account, they would be able to send spam messages unhindered using your infrastructure and tarnish your network reputation. A common way to reduce the chance of someone guessing your user’s passwords is to impose limitations to failed logging attempts with Fail2ban. You can read more about install Fail2ban on Ubuntu in its own article to further improve the server security.

General good usage practices can also bring your server security a long way. In addition to the aforementioned security methods, Linux systems offer documentation ways to minimise vulnerabilities and harden your cloud server against abuse. Take a look at our introductory guide on how to secure your Linux cloud server if you wish to learn more.

Editor-in-chief and Technical writer at UpCloud since 2015. Cloud enthusiast writing about server technology and software.

41 thoughts on “How to secure Postfix using Let’s Encrypt

  1. Excellent article, Janne.

    Just a few nits…

    Now, !SSLv2 (only !SSLv3) should not be included in /etc/dovecot/conf.d/10-ssl.conf

    Also, I seem to recall an error occurring when adding the user before configuring dovecot.

    Another thing to be aware of is verifying that a PTR record exists. You can check for that here: https://mxtoolbox.com/ReverseLookup.aspx

    Thank you for sharing!


    1. Hi Lex, thanks for the heads-up. The guide is due an update and your pointers are very helpful, much appreciated!

  2. I need some help with my Postfix installation. I am having problems when remote clients try to connect. They are able to connect to IMAP 993 with no issues. The problem is happening with SMTP.

    Will you be able to help ?

    1. Hi Ashu, you should test the SMTP connection from the server itself, for example, using the netcat method described in the guide. If that works while connections from external sources fail, there could be a firewall blocking the port 25.

  3. Thank you for a very good guide.

    However, att least in Ubuntu 16.04, port 587 is disabled by default. Therefore, in /etc/postfix/master.cf I hade to uncomment #submission inet n – n – – smtpd.
    Before that “unix_listener /var/spool/postfix/private/auth” did not work.

    I spent several hours before I got everything to work.

    I think you should update your guide.

    Best Regards


  4. Great tut, Janne! ??
    Q: is there a way to use different certificates for SMTP when the server is hosting multiple domains (=virtual hosts)?
    I host a.com and b.com on server xyz.com. Both domains have sep. hosts w. individual certs.
    I’d like user of Domain a.com use the a.com cert, the owner of b.com use the b.com cert for outgoing mail/SMTP. Is this possible or do both a.com and b.com have to use the xyz.com cert for SMTP? 🙂

    1. Hi Thomas, while the old letsencrypt tool should still work, we’ve updated this part of the guide to instruct in using the new certbot instead. When using the command in question, make sure to include your mail server domain name after the -d option, for example, sudo certbot certonly --standalone -d mail.example.com

  5. Hi Janne, thank you for your great tutorial. I have a question, after following your steps to configure the postfix, It’s successful to sent email, but I have problem when send email from other machine, seems only work internally. Do you know if there’s configuration I need to set up in order to do that? thanks!

    example: from postfix server sent to my gmail is fine, but using python script to send email from other PC is failed.

    1. Hi Andrea, thanks for the question. I’m assuming you were testing the sending using a script similar to the one shown in the guide. This works locally but any remote connection would need to authenticate themselves. This is to prevent your SMTP server from turning into an open relay for spam. Python does support authentication so this might help in sending email from external clients.

  6. Hi janne,

    Thank you very much for your tutorial. Sending mails work very good for me, but i cant receive. Also every time after reset mail service everything is back again and i have to do whole process again

    1. Hi Andrej, thanks for the question. Considering that you are able to send email, but not receive it, the problem is likely in your mailbox configuration. I’d recommend checking your Dovecot settings and that the virtual aliases got mapped correctly.

    1. Hi Tamko, thanks for the question. Any email client that supports IMAP will work with Postfix and Dovecot, I believe roundcube should work just fine once configured to connect to your mail server.

  7. When using standalone, do you need an Apache virtual host set up for the mail.example.tld domain for it to work? I’ve only ever use LE with actual web sites, so just wondered before I get started if I need to do that first.

    1. Hi Tony, thanks for the question. The standalone mode in Let’s Encrypts certbot tool is intended to be used exactly as that, stand-alone, without a web server. There’s no need to install Apache just to obtain certificates if you use the standalone mode.

      1. Hi Jake, thanks for the comment. The only difference should really just be in the install commands to use the yum packet manager instead. In addition, you may need to remove ‘sendmail’ if that is installed on your system to make Postfix the default message transfer agent.

  8. Thank you so much for spending the time to do such a detailed tutorial. Fantastic. Really easy to follow.

    The only issue I encountered was that the latest dovcot has replaced the ssl_protocols setting with ssl_min_protocol.

    1. Exactly. This line can be omitted, since ssl_min_protocol now defaults to TLSv1, so SSLv2 and SSLv3 won’t be used by default.

      1. Hi there, thanks for the comment. You are right that the ssl_min_protocol is no longer required unless you wish to set the minimum version higher than TLSv1.

    1. Hi there, thanks for the comment. The step to installing Dovecot is right at the beginning of the “Configuring Dovecot” section but as a one-liner, it might be easy to miss 🙂

  9. Hi! Great tutorial!

    Just wanted to point out that the ‘sudo maildirmake.dovecot’ commands are shown *before* dovecot is actually installed. The dovecot installation line is a bit below the ‘sudo maildirmake.dovecot’ commands.

    Someone else pointed this out, but it really is out of order.

    Thanks! 🙂

    1. Hi Will, thanks for the comment. You are right that the maildirmake.dovecot commands may seem out of sequence but are only added to the mailbox template and should not require Dovecot to be installed at that time. We’ll look into reorganizing these to be more logical and easier to follow when the tutorial is next updated.

      1. Hi Janne! 🙂

        When following the tutorial, I executed the maildirmake commands but they wouldn’t work until I installed dovecot-common.

        Also, I was getting “[postfix] warning: do not list domain in BOTH mydestination and virtual_alias_domains” after following this tutorial. The resolution was found on various websites. I had to make an /etc/postfix/domains file (and do postmap on it) and change these properties to

        myorigin = localhost
        mydestination = localhost
        virtual_alias_domains = hash:/etc/postfix/domains

        But overall, this tutorial was the easiest to understand and get up and running quickly. Thank you! 🙂

        1. Thanks for the feedback Will, glad to hear you got the mail server working. We’ll hopefully get the tutorial updated soon to reflect the more recent changes to Postfix.

  10. Hello very good tutorial, but I want to ask why the imap port does not work, the smtp with port 587 works perfect but the imap 143 does not work, RainLoop says
    MailSo-Net-Exceptions-SocketReadTimeoutException (NetClient.php ~ 514),
    I appreciate if you have any idea what may be happening and how it can be solved, thanks

    1. Hi there, thanks for the question. If the port 587 works for sending mail but you are unable to access the mailbox, it’s likely that something is blocking the access specifically to the port 143. I’d suggest double-checking that it’s allowed at the firewall, if enabled, and that Dovecot is not restricting IMAP to local IP addresses.

      1. Thankyou very much
        Just a little something i did not follow
        the file saved by letsencrypt was /etc/letsencrypt
        and not
        /etc/letsencrypt/live/my domin name

        1. Hi Maria, thanks for the comment. If Certbot was successful in obtaining the certificates, they would have been saved in /etc/letsencrypt/live/your.domain.

  11. Hi, thanks for the great tutorial. I was able to set up the server and emails are working as expected with Squirrel mail. However, If I try to connect to Thunderbird I’m not able to send emails, I can receive though.
    I checked that thunderbird uses default outgoing port 465 and In my server, there’s nothing running on port 465. I tried to enable smtps in /etc/postfix/master.cf but I’m still not able to connect. I also verified the settings of postfix and dovecot twice from this tutorial.
    Please let me know if I’m missing something.
    Thank you.

    1. Hi Alex, thanks for the question. You could use the outgoing port 587 which also works with TLS. You can enable the port 587 by edit the /etc/postfix/master.cf file and uncommenting the following line: submission inet n - n - - smtpd then run sudo postfix reload

      1. this worked for me. Before changing this, I could not connect with thunderbird to my email server out on the cloud. When I added this, thunderbird finds IMAP and SMTP protocols and works great. Was surprised that it solved all of my problems as I thought I was going to have to deal with IMAP and SMTP problems separately. One thing I noticed with regard to sending emails out on the server (instead of via thunderbird) is that the messages were labeled “[email protected]”. Why is that? it does not do that when I use the thunderbird email client. Thanks for this tutorial very much.

        1. Hi Jay, glad to hear you got it working. It seems you haven’t set your server’s FQDN hostname in the /etc/hostname file which is often used by mail clients as the sending address. Once that’s done, you should try doing an SMTP diagnostic using MXToolbox to verify.

  12. Thanks for your helpful guide.

    I noticed a small error you might want to fix:

    “dovecot -n” should be “doveconf -n”

    1. Hi Bobby, thanks for the comment. You’re right doveconf -n also works for checking the configuration, you can use either one.

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