Siesta Mailing List Manager

Sometime around July 2002 there was another of the seemingly inevitable and interminable threads about mailing list managers that pop up with regrettable frequency on the London Perl Mongers mailing list.

It almost certainly contained references to Reply To munging, missing features, and why we, a Perl mailing list, were running off Python software, namely Mailman.

It was pointed out that even though Mailman has its limitations, it's still arguably the best MLM out there. Of course, rational argument is never something that gets in the way of a good thread and the debate continued until Richard Clamp brought his own unique brand of pragmatism to bear ...

 From: Richard Clamp <richardc@unixbeard.net>
 To: london.pm
 Subject: Re: for those who were looking for reason to better mailman in perl
 Date: Tue Jul 30 00:53:03 2002

 On Mon, Jul 29, 2002 at 03:06:44PM +0100, Nicholas Clark wrote:
 > Note that I have no intention of actually finding the time to 
 > actively help anyone re-write mailman (or majordomo) or anything 
 > else,

 I must say that I'm actively bored of this subject now.  I do, however,
 have a short proposal, which will hopefully lead to this recurring
 thread going the fsck away.

 To: Those that care
 From: Someone who doesn't
 
       Go form a sourceforge/savannah project, which will give you
       suboptimal mailing lists and a CVS repository.
 
       Let the world know you have done this so they can find you. 
 
       Write code and argue it out amongst yourselves.
 
       Let the world know when you get as far as being self-hosting.
 
 I'm sorry it's not a catchy 3-step plan, but try it out anyway.
 
 -- 
 Richard Clamp <richardc@unixbeard.net>

In response to which, precisely nothing happened. So it goes.

Until mid-August.

By some quirk of fate Greg McCarroll, Richard, and I were all simultaneously 'resting' between jobs. Being fun-loving, crazy people we decided that the most constructive use of time was to congregate at Greg's, drink his booze, and watch Kevin Smith films.

Instead, we wrote a mailing list manager. Well, I say "instead", but we managed to do the other stuff too, which explains the Jay-and-Bob-themed test suite.

By the end of the day we had a whiteboard full of diagrams, a load of code in a CVS repository, a self-hosting mailing list (with hard-coded subscribers list, natch) and a sense of impending hangovers. Then disaster struck. We all got jobs. And Siesta, as we'd decided to call our nascent MLM, lay dormant.

For about 6 months she lay sleeping.

Then, for whatever reason, in about March the dev team, bolstered by a couple of new member-cum-agitprops, began to churn out the patches again. The project was re-housed from SourceForge to siesta.unixbeard.net -- entailing a move to Subversion along the way.

The code was cleaned up, ported to Class::DBI and the Email::* hierarchy of modules and various yaks were shaved along the way, features were added, and a new Template::Toolkit-based mail archiver (named Mariachi) was written.

The first release of Siesta went onto CPAN on July 24, just in time for Richard to give his talk at YAPC Europe in Paris -- an event that involved, somewhat inexplicably, several members of the audience drinking a shot of tequila whenever the word 'Siesta' was mentioned and then giving 50 Euros to YAS. Needless to say, much fun was had by all.

So Why Should I Use Siesta?

Good question. Mailman, Majordomo, or a host of other MLMs usually suffice.

On the other hand, competition is always good and Siesta was designed from the ground up to be easily understandable and easily extensible.

In short, Siesta will almost certainly be able to do anything you want, although you may have to write the plug-in in to do it.

Writing something to check whether an incoming email address is valid is a matter of about 10 lines, most of which are boilerplate. A SpamAssassin plug-in would be of similar length. Writing something that required all mails to the list to be PGP-signed and encrypted with the list's public key, and then which signed and encrypted all outgoing mail, would be relatively trivial.

And with the concept of user preferences you never have to put up with incessant whining about Reply-To munging since the list members can configure it (or any other plug-in you deem fit) however they want.

Bliss.

As an example of how customizable Siesta is, Richard Clamp runs a mailing list called Hates-Software for people who, err, hate software.

Running on subclassed versions of Mariachi (the mailing list archiver) Hates-Software has archives for the whole list and also for every single member so my rants are archived at http://muttley.hates-software.com/, but are also part of the seething maelstrom of hate that is http://we.hates-software.com/.

Running a List

There are currently two ways of administering your Siesta installation (not including fiddling around with the DB manually, of course), and these are with the web interface and with the command line tool nacho.

Now, to be frank, the web interface sucks at the moment and needs an overhaul, some prettification, and a whole lot of usability work. But it's all open source and written in Template Toolkit, so you can fix it up, skin it however you want, and then send us the patches. Ah, the magic of the free software movement.

Instead, we'll concentrate on nacho; it's surprisingly powerful and just a shell prompt away.

nacho has full documentation embedded as POD, but the version checked into the repository will also, handily, provide a list of commands by doing:

  % nacho help

Or the syntax of a specific command by doing:

  % nacho help <command>

Like this:

  % nacho help set-plugins

  set-plugins list_id queue [ plugin [ plugin... ] ]
  -
  Set the list plugins to be the ones specified.

Anyway ... first things first.

Setting up the Database

The first thing you need to do is create a database.

Fortunately this is easy. Running:

    % nacho create-database

should do everything for you (providing the config in your siesta.conf is OK).

Migrating a List from Mailman

Use the bandito tool shipped with Siesta to steal the config of your existing Mailman configuration -- given the path to a mailman list config database, it should automatically create a new Siesta list, subscribe any necessary users, set up configs, and generally "just work."

It will even migrate your archives across for you.

How handy.

Creating a List by Hand

Run this command:

  % nacho create-list myfirstlist admin@thegestalt.org \
                     myfirstlist@thegestalt.org \ 
             myfirstlist-bounce@thegestalt.org

Which will print out:

  Created the new list 'myfirstlist' <myfirstlist@thegestalt.org> 

Paste this into your alias file to activate the list:

  ## myfirstlist mailing list
  ## created: 06-Sep-2002 nacho (the siesta config tool)
  myfirstlist:       "/usr/bin/tequila myfirstlist"
  myfirstlist-sub:   "/usr/bin/tequila myfirstlist sub"
  myfirstlist-unsub: "/usr/bin/tequila myfirstlist unsub"
  myfirstlist-admin:  admin@thegestalt.org 
  myfirstlist-bounce: admin@thegestalt.org

This prints out the appropriate aliases to put in your /etc/alias (or equivalent) file. This can be printed out again at anytime by doing:

  % nacho show-alias myfirstlist

  ## myfirstlist mailing list
  ## created: 06-Sep-2002 nacho (the siesta config tool)
  myfirstlist:       "/usr/bin/tequila myfirstlist"
  myfirstlist-sub:   "/usr/bin/tequila myfirstlist sub"
  myfirstlist-unsub: "/usr/bin/tequila myfirstlist unsub"
  myfirstlist-admin:  admin@thegestalt.orb
  myfirstlist-bounce: admin@thegestalt.orb

At which point you probably want to add some plug-ins.

  % nacho set-plugins myfirstlist post Debounce ListHeaders Send     
  % nacho set-plugins myfirstlist sub Subscribe
  % nacho set-plugins myfirstlist unsub UnSubscribe

This means that for the myfirstlist list, when it sees a post, it should first remove bounces, then add list headers, then call the Send plug-in to send it out. Similarly, subscribes and unsubscribes go through the normal Subscribe and UnSubscribe plug-ins.

If you want to find all the lists on the system you just do:

  % nacho show-lists
  myfirstlist

And then to look at the information for a list, do this:

  % nacho describe-list myfirstlist
  owner = 1
  return_path = myfirstlist-bounce@thegestalt.orb
  post_address = myfirstlist@thegestalt.orb
  name = myfirstlist
  id = 2
  post plugins : MembersOnly ListHeaders Send 
  sub plugins: Subscribe
  unsub plugins: UnSubscribe

Or to modify that information:

  % nacho modify-list myfirstlist name somenewname
  Property 'name' set to 'somenewname' for list myfirstlist

TIP: If you modify the id then what will actually happen is that a new list will be created with that id, but with information exactly the same as the details for the previous list.

Creating Members

You can either subscribe members manually by creating them and inserting them using nacho:

  % nacho create-member simon@thegestalt.orb
  Member simon@thegestalt.orb added    

  % nacho add-member myfirstlist simon@thegestalt.orb
  Member 'simon@thegestalt.orb' added to list 'myfirstlist'

Or, nacho will automatically create members if they don't exist.

  % nacho add-member myfirstlist newmember@notexists.orb

You can add multiple people at the same time. Que Conveniente!

  % nacho add-member myfirstlist richardc@unibeard.not greg@mccarroll.demon.com
  Member 'richardc@unixbeard.not' added to list 'myfirstlist'
  Member 'greg@mccarroll.demon.com' added to list 'myfirstlist'

Finally a person can subscribe by mailing to the:

    myfirstlist-sub@yourdomainhere.orb 

address, or by going through the web interface.

Managing Members

You can get a list of every member that's on the system:

  % nacho show-members
  greg@mccarroll.demon.com
  richardc@unixbeard.not
  simon@thegestalt.orb

Or just the members subbed to a particular list:

  % nacho show-members myfirstlist

To find out all about a member, use the describe command:

  % nacho describe-member simon@thegestalt.orb

    email = simon@thegestalt.orb
    lastbounce =
    bouncing =
    password = bar
    nomail =
    id = 36
    Subscribed to : myfirstlist, somerandomlist

To modify information about that information:

  % nacho modify-member simon@thegestalt.orb password foo
  Property 'password' set to 'foo' for member simon@thegestalt.org

Again, just changing the id will copy the member:

Managing Plug-ins

You can list all the plug-ins installed on the system:

  % nacho show-plugins
  Archive
   -
   save messages to maildirs
  ...
  UnSubscribe
   -
   A system plugin used for unsubscribing a member to the list.

Since plug-ins are "just" normal Perl modules, you can write your own or download plug-ins other people have written and install them like any other module. Siesta will automatically detect them.

To set the plug-in order explicity, do this:

  % nacho set-plugins myfirstlist post Debounce SimpleSig SubjectTag Send

The "post" part is the queue you want these attached to. By default here are three: "post," "sub," and "unsub," but there can be as many as you want. They serve to differentiate the different modes the list might run in. So, for example, you could have a "help" queue that responds to help requests, or a "FAQ" queue that tries to answer questions.

To delete all the plug-ins, just pass an empty list

  % nacho set-plugins myfirstlist post
  Deleted plugins from siesta-dev

It should be noted that you probably always want to have the Send plug-in (or a replacement plug-in) as the last plug-in.

To get more information about a plug-in, you can either:

  % perldoc Siesta::Plugin::ReplyTo

Or ...

  % nacho describe-plugin ReplyTo
  The plugin ReplyTo has the following options :
  - munge : should we munge the reply-to address of the 
    message to be the list post address

To find out what the current config for a list is, just add the list name.

  % nacho describe-plugin ReplyTo myfirstlist
  Preferences for list myfirstlist
  - munge : 0

And to find out a member's config options, add his or her email address:

  % nacho describe-plugin ReplyTo myfirstlist simon@thegestalt.orb
  Personal preferences for member simon@thegestalt.orb on list myfirstlist
  - munge : 1

To modify configuration for any of these:

  % $ nacho modify-plugin ReplyTo box munge 0                     
  Preferences for list box
  - munge : 0

However, you can also set a preference on a per-member basis:

  % nacho modify-plugin ReplyTo box munge 1 simon@thegestalt.org
  Personal preferences for member simon@thegestalt.org on list box
  - munge : 1

Removing Members

Occasionally a member will want to leave (or will need to be pushed) and you'll need to do this by hand. To remove a member from a list just do this:

  % nacho remove-member myfirstlist greg@mccarroll.demon.com
  Member 'greg@mccarroll.demon.com' removed from list 'myfirstlist'

Deleting Members

Deleting members from the system will remove them from all the lists they're subscribed to, and then delete them from the system.

  % nacho delete-member richardc@unixbeard.net 
  Member 'richardc@unixbeard.not' deleted.

Handling Deferred Messages

Deferred messages are ones being held for approval, or that contain administrative tasks.

You can see how many deferred messages there are by doing this:

    % nacho show-deferred

    Deferred-Id: 1
    Reason: the hell of it
    Owner: test@foo

     From: simon@thegestalt.org
     To: people@somewhere.org
     Subject: some subject lin
     Date: Wed, 13 Aug 2003 15:49:30 +0100  

Or you can view an individual message by supplying the id:

    % nacho show-deferred 1
    From: simon@thegestalt.org
    To: people@somewhere.org
    Subject: some subject line
    Date: Wed, 13 Aug 2003 15:49:30 +0100  

    Hello people

    Simon

To resume a message simply do this:

    % nacho resume-deferred 1
    Successfully resumed message 1

Alternatively, to delete a deferred message do this:

    % nacho delete-deferred 1
    Message deleted from deferral queue

Deleting Lists

Similarly deleting a list will unsub all members from that list and then remove it from the system.

  % nacho delete-list myfirstlist
  List 'myfirstlist' deleted

Making Backups

Running the command:

    % nacho create-backup 

will print a shell script to STDOUT.

This shell script consists of nacho commands to restore your system to its glorious past should anything go wrong.

    % nacho create-backup myfirstlist

will do the same, but for only one list.

Upgrading

Upgrading is easy -- simply make a backup as described above, install the latest version from CPAN, and then run the nacho-generated script to restore your system. Most of the time, however, unless the database has changed format, even that won't be necessary, and simply installing from CPAN should just be OK.

Writing a Plug-in

Writing a plug-in for Siesta is easy. Say, for example, we wanted to take any supercited mails to the list and reform them into a less GNUSish format. First off, we start with the standard boilerplate:

    package Siesta::Plugin::DeSupercite;
    use strict;
    use Siesta::Plugin;
    use base 'Siesta::Plugin';
    use Siesta;

    sub description {
        '';
    } 


    sub process {
        my $self = shift;
        my $mail = shift;
        my $list = $self->list;

        return 0;
    };


    sub options {
        +{
         }
    };

Add in the existing DeSuperciting module:

    use Text::DeSupercite qw/desupercite/;

Fill in the description:

    sub description {
        'Strip superciting from emails';
    } 

And the options:

    sub options {
        +{
            harsh =>
            {
               description =>
               'should we be draconian about desuperciting?',
               type    => 'boolean',
               default => 0,
            },
        };
    }

And finally, fill in the body of the process method:

    sub process {
        my $self = shift;
        my $mail = shift;
        my $list = $self->list;

        # automatically works out if this is user 
        # setable or not 
        my $harsh = $self->pref( 'harsh' );

        # get the body text
        my $text = desupercite($mail->body(), $harsh);

        # set it back again
        $mail->body_set($text);

        # indicate success
        return 0;
    };

Et voila, one plug-in, ready to go. Now all you need to do is package it up and install it in your @INC and it'll get picked up automagically and will be ready to be added to any list on the system.

Mariachi

Whilst completely independent of Siesta, our mailing list archiver Mariachi is still entwined with the whole project, if only because it gives us something to noodle around as a distraction from the mailing list manager. As such it deserves at least a quick mention here.

Apart from being easily subclassable, Mariachi has another couple of nice features. For a start, all the output templates are done in Template Toolkit, making it easy to customize to fit in with the look and feel of your site without having to delve around in the code.

It also allows you to display mail in a couple of nifty ways. The first is the classic Jwz-style message threading as used in Netscape and Mutt, complete with indentation, which makes following threads much easier. The second is the so-called Lurker view, named after the Lurker application, which appears to be the first application to use this chronological view of mail.

These both include the option to extract either the first original sentence or paragraph from a mail, meaning that many threads can be easily skimmed without having to open up individual messages.

In addition, Richard has already written a module that will generate an SVG of a mail thread in the Arc form described here.

Perhaps Mariachi's only problem is that because it does not split mail up over arbitrary boundaries (although there's nothing to stop the users from doing this themselves), generating archives from a massive mail box (such as every London.pm mail from the last 5 years) can be slow, even if it is done incrementally.

However, work is being done to overcome this.

Conclusion

Although unfinished, we believe that Siesta is already a hugely powerful mailing list manager with almost unrivalled extensibility.

Breathless superlatives aside, and irrespective of whether it ever gets widely used, it will forever shut up those who whine on mailing lists that there's no good Perl MLM or that they wish there was an MLM that had plug-ins. Perhaps most importantly, you have somewhere to point anybody whoever complains about Reply-To munging, since with Siesta, each user can choose whether or not they want Reply-To munging applied.

In a more practical sense, while working on Siesta the team has written or patched nearly 20 modules outside the ones distributed with Mariachi and Siesta. So something for everybody.

If you're interested in getting involved with the project, just install the programs (they should work from your favorite CPAN shell), make notes on anything you find irritating, join the mailing list, and tell us about it. Then start patching, writing plug-ins or, and if you're the kind of person who likes doing web page stuff, fix the web interface. We'll love you forever. And you'll get to drink tequila at Perl conferences like all the cool kids.

References

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