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Action Mailbox Basics

This guide provides you with all you need to get started in receiving emails to your application.

After reading this guide, you will know:

1 What is Action Mailbox?

Action Mailbox routes incoming emails to controller-like mailboxes for processing in your Rails application. Action Mailbox is for receiving email, while Action Mailer is for sending them.

The inbound emails are routed asynchronously using Active Job to one or several dedicated mailboxes. These emails are turned into InboundEmail records using Active Record, which are capable of interacting directly with the rest of your domain model.

InboundEmail records also provide lifecycle tracking, storage of the original email via Active Storage, and responsible data handling with on-by-default incineration.

Action Mailbox ships with ingresses which enable your application to receive emails from external email providers such as Mailgun, Mandrill, Postmark, and SendGrid. You can also handle inbound emails directly via the built-in Exim, Postfix, and Qmail ingresses.

2 Setup

Action Mailbox has a few moving parts. First, you'll run the installer. Next, you'll choose and configure an ingress for handling incoming email. You're then ready to add Action Mailbox routing, create mailboxes, and start processing incoming emails.

To start, let's install Action Mailbox:

$ bin/rails action_mailbox:install

This will create an application_mailbox.rb file and copy over migrations.

$ bin/rails db:migrate

This will run the Action Mailbox and Active Storage migrations.

The Action Mailbox table action_mailbox_inbound_emails stores incoming messages and their processing status.

At this point, you can start your Rails server and check out http://localhost:3000/rails/conductor/action_mailbox/inbound_emails. See Local Development and Testing for more.

The next step is to configure an ingress in your Rails application to specify how incoming emails should be received.

3 Ingress Configuration

Configuring ingress involves setting up credentials and endpoint information for the chosen email service. Here are the steps for each of the supported ingresses.

3.1 Exim

Tell Action Mailbox to accept emails from an SMTP relay:

# config/environments/production.rb
config.action_mailbox.ingress = :relay

Generate a strong password that Action Mailbox can use to authenticate requests to the relay ingress.

Use bin/rails credentials:edit to add the password to your application's encrypted credentials under action_mailbox.ingress_password, where Action Mailbox will automatically find it:

action_mailbox:
  ingress_password: ...

Alternatively, provide the password in the RAILS_INBOUND_EMAIL_PASSWORD environment variable.

Configure Exim to pipe inbound emails to bin/rails action_mailbox:ingress:exim, providing the URL of the relay ingress and the INGRESS_PASSWORD you previously generated. If your application lived at https://example.com, the full command would look like this:

$ bin/rails action_mailbox:ingress:exim URL=https://example.com/rails/action_mailbox/relay/inbound_emails INGRESS_PASSWORD=...

3.2 Mailgun

Give Action Mailbox your Mailgun Signing key (which you can find under Settings -> Security & Users -> API security in Mailgun), so it can authenticate requests to the Mailgun ingress.

Use bin/rails credentials:edit to add your Signing key to your application's encrypted credentials under action_mailbox.mailgun_signing_key, where Action Mailbox will automatically find it:

action_mailbox:
  mailgun_signing_key: ...

Alternatively, provide your Signing key in the MAILGUN_INGRESS_SIGNING_KEY environment variable.

Tell Action Mailbox to accept emails from Mailgun:

# config/environments/production.rb
config.action_mailbox.ingress = :mailgun

Configure Mailgun to forward inbound emails to /rails/action_mailbox/mailgun/inbound_emails/mime. If your application lived at https://example.com, you would specify the fully-qualified URL https://example.com/rails/action_mailbox/mailgun/inbound_emails/mime.

3.3 Mandrill

Give Action Mailbox your Mandrill API key, so it can authenticate requests to the Mandrill ingress.

Use bin/rails credentials:edit to add your API key to your application's encrypted credentials under action_mailbox.mandrill_api_key, where Action Mailbox will automatically find it:

action_mailbox:
  mandrill_api_key: ...

Alternatively, provide your API key in the MANDRILL_INGRESS_API_KEY environment variable.

Tell Action Mailbox to accept emails from Mandrill:

# config/environments/production.rb
config.action_mailbox.ingress = :mandrill

Configure Mandrill to route inbound emails to /rails/action_mailbox/mandrill/inbound_emails. If your application lived at https://example.com, you would specify the fully-qualified URL https://example.com/rails/action_mailbox/mandrill/inbound_emails.

3.4 Postfix

Tell Action Mailbox to accept emails from an SMTP relay:

# config/environments/production.rb
config.action_mailbox.ingress = :relay

Generate a strong password that Action Mailbox can use to authenticate requests to the relay ingress.

Use bin/rails credentials:edit to add the password to your application's encrypted credentials under action_mailbox.ingress_password, where Action Mailbox will automatically find it:

action_mailbox:
  ingress_password: ...

Alternatively, provide the password in the RAILS_INBOUND_EMAIL_PASSWORD environment variable.

Configure Postfix to pipe inbound emails to bin/rails action_mailbox:ingress:postfix, providing the URL of the Postfix ingress and the INGRESS_PASSWORD you previously generated. If your application lived at https://example.com, the full command would look like this:

$ bin/rails action_mailbox:ingress:postfix URL=https://example.com/rails/action_mailbox/relay/inbound_emails INGRESS_PASSWORD=...

3.5 Postmark

Tell Action Mailbox to accept emails from Postmark:

# config/environments/production.rb
config.action_mailbox.ingress = :postmark

Generate a strong password that Action Mailbox can use to authenticate requests to the Postmark ingress.

Use bin/rails credentials:edit to add the password to your application's encrypted credentials under action_mailbox.ingress_password, where Action Mailbox will automatically find it:

action_mailbox:
  ingress_password: ...

Alternatively, provide the password in the RAILS_INBOUND_EMAIL_PASSWORD environment variable.

Configure Postmark inbound webhook to forward inbound emails to /rails/action_mailbox/postmark/inbound_emails with the username actionmailbox and the password you previously generated. If your application lived at https://example.com, you would configure Postmark with the following fully-qualified URL:

https://actionmailbox:PASSWORD@example.com/rails/action_mailbox/postmark/inbound_emails

When configuring your Postmark inbound webhook, be sure to check the box labeled "Include raw email content in JSON payload". Action Mailbox needs the raw email content to work.

3.6 Qmail

Tell Action Mailbox to accept emails from an SMTP relay:

# config/environments/production.rb
config.action_mailbox.ingress = :relay

Generate a strong password that Action Mailbox can use to authenticate requests to the relay ingress.

Use bin/rails credentials:edit to add the password to your application's encrypted credentials under action_mailbox.ingress_password, where Action Mailbox will automatically find it:

action_mailbox:
  ingress_password: ...

Alternatively, provide the password in the RAILS_INBOUND_EMAIL_PASSWORD environment variable.

Configure Qmail to pipe inbound emails to bin/rails action_mailbox:ingress:qmail, providing the URL of the relay ingress and the INGRESS_PASSWORD you previously generated. If your application lived at https://example.com, the full command would look like this:

$ bin/rails action_mailbox:ingress:qmail URL=https://example.com/rails/action_mailbox/relay/inbound_emails INGRESS_PASSWORD=...

3.7 SendGrid

Tell Action Mailbox to accept emails from SendGrid:

# config/environments/production.rb
config.action_mailbox.ingress = :sendgrid

Generate a strong password that Action Mailbox can use to authenticate requests to the SendGrid ingress.

Use bin/rails credentials:edit to add the password to your application's encrypted credentials under action_mailbox.ingress_password, where Action Mailbox will automatically find it:

action_mailbox:
  ingress_password: ...

Alternatively, provide the password in the RAILS_INBOUND_EMAIL_PASSWORD environment variable.

Configure SendGrid Inbound Parse to forward inbound emails to /rails/action_mailbox/sendgrid/inbound_emails with the username actionmailbox and the password you previously generated. If your application lived at https://example.com, you would configure SendGrid with the following URL:

https://actionmailbox:PASSWORD@example.com/rails/action_mailbox/sendgrid/inbound_emails

When configuring your SendGrid Inbound Parse webhook, be sure to check the box labeled “Post the raw, full MIME message.” Action Mailbox needs the raw MIME message to work.

4 Processing Incoming Email

Processing incoming emails usually entails using the email content to create models, update views, queue background work, etc. in your Rails application.

Before you can start processing incoming emails, you'll need to setup Action Mailbox routing and create mailboxes.

4.1 Configure Routing

After an incoming email is received via the configured ingress, it needs to be forwarded to a mailbox for actual processing by your application. Much like the Rails router that dispatches URLs to controllers, routing in Action Mailbox defines which emails go to which mailboxes for processing. Routes are added to the application_mailbox.rb file using regular expressions:

# app/mailboxes/application_mailbox.rb
class ApplicationMailbox < ActionMailbox::Base
  routing(/^save@/i     => :forwards)
  routing(/@replies\./i => :replies)
end

The regular expression matches the incoming email's to, cc, or bcc fields. For example, the above will match any email sent to save@ to a "forwards" mailbox. There are other ways to route an email, see ActionMailbox::Base for more.

We need to create that "forwards" mailbox next.

4.2 Create a Mailbox

# Generate new mailbox
$ bin/rails generate mailbox forwards

This creates app/mailboxes/forwards_mailbox.rb, with a ForwardsMailbox class and a process method.

4.3 Process Email

When processing an InboundEmail, you can get the parsed version of the email as a Mail object with InboundEmail#mail. You can also get the raw source directly using the #source method. With the Mail object, you can access the relevant fields, such as mail.to, mail.body.decoded, etc.

irb> mail
=> #<Mail::Message:33780, Multipart: false, Headers: <Date: Wed, 31 Jan 2024 22:18:40 -0600>, <From: someone@hey.com>, <To: save@example.com>, <Message-ID: <65bb1ba066830_50303a70397e@Bhumis-MacBook-Pro.local.mail>>, <In-Reply-To: >, <Subject: Hello Action Mailbox>, <Mime-Version: 1.0>, <Content-Type: text/plain; charset=UTF-8>, <Content-Transfer-Encoding: 7bit>, <x-original-to: >>
irb> mail.to
=> ["save@example.com"]
irb> mail.from
=> ["someone@hey.com"]
irb> mail.date
=> Wed, 31 Jan 2024 22:18:40 -0600
irb> mail.subject
=> "Hello Action Mailbox"
irb> mail.body.decoded
=> "This is the body of the email message."
# mail.decoded, a shorthand for mail.body.decoded, also works
irb> mail.decoded
=> "This is the body of the email message."
irb> mail.body
=> <Mail::Body:0x00007fc74cbf46c0 @boundary=nil, @preamble=nil, @epilogue=nil, @charset="US-ASCII", @part_sort_order=["text/plain", "text/enriched", "text/html", "multipart/alternative"], @parts=[], @raw_source="This is the body of the email message.", @ascii_only=true, @encoding="7bit">

4.4 Inbound Email Status

While the email is being routed to a matching mailbox and processed, Action Mailbox updates the email status stored in action_mailbox_inbound_emails table with one of the following values:

  • pending: Received by one of the ingress controllers and scheduled for routing.
  • processing: During active processing, while a specific mailbox is running its process method.
  • delivered: Successfully processed by the specific mailbox.
  • failed: An exception was raised during the specific mailbox’s execution of the process method.
  • bounced: Rejected processing by the specific mailbox and bounced to sender.

If the email is marked either delivered, failed, or bounced it's considered "processed" and marked for incineration.

5 Example

Here is an example of an Action Mailbox that processes emails to create "forwards" for the user's project.

The before_processing callback is used to ensure that certain conditions are met before process method is called. In this case, before_processing checks that the user has at least one project. Other supported Action Mailbox callbacks are after_processing and around_processing.

The email can be bounced using bounced_with if the "forwarder" has no projects. The "forwarder" is a User with the same email as mail.from.

If the "forwarder" does have at least one project, the record_forward method creates an Active Record model in the application using the email data mail.subject and mail.decoded. Otherwise, it sends an email, using Action Mailer, requesting the "forwarder" to choose a project.

# app/mailboxes/forwards_mailbox.rb
class ForwardsMailbox < ApplicationMailbox
  # Callbacks specify prerequisites to processing
  before_processing :require_projects

  def process
    # Record the forward on the one project, or…
    if forwarder.projects.one?
      record_forward
    else
      # …involve a second Action Mailer to ask which project to forward into.
      request_forwarding_project
    end
  end

  private
    def require_projects
      if forwarder.projects.none?
        # Use Action Mailers to bounce incoming emails back to sender – this halts processing
        bounce_with Forwards::BounceMailer.no_projects(inbound_email, forwarder: forwarder)
      end
    end

    def record_forward
      forwarder.forwards.create subject: mail.subject, content: mail.decoded
    end

    def request_forwarding_project
      Forwards::RoutingMailer.choose_project(inbound_email, forwarder: forwarder).deliver_now
    end

    def forwarder
      @forwarder ||= User.find_by(email_address: mail.from)
    end
end

6 Local Development and Testing

It's helpful to be able to test incoming emails in development without actually sending and receiving real emails. To accomplish this, there's a conductor controller mounted at /rails/conductor/action_mailbox/inbound_emails, which gives you an index of all the InboundEmails in the system, their state of processing, and a form to create a new InboundEmail as well.

Here is and example of testing an inbound email with Action Mailbox TestHelpers.

class ForwardsMailboxTest < ActionMailbox::TestCase
  test "directly recording a client forward for a forwarder and forwardee corresponding to one project" do
    assert_difference -> { people(:david).buckets.first.recordings.count } do
      receive_inbound_email_from_mail \
        to: 'save@example.com',
        from: people(:david).email_address,
        subject: "Fwd: Status update?",
        body: <<~BODY
          --- Begin forwarded message ---
          From: Frank Holland <frank@microsoft.com>

          What's the status?
        BODY
    end

    recording = people(:david).buckets.first.recordings.last
    assert_equal people(:david), recording.creator
    assert_equal "Status update?", recording.forward.subject
    assert_match "What's the status?", recording.forward.content.to_s
  end
end

Please refer to the ActionMailbox::TestHelper API for further test helper methods.

7 Incineration of InboundEmails

By default, an InboundEmail that has been processed will be incinerated after 30 days. The InboundEmail is considered as processed when its status changes to delivered, failed, or bounced.

The actual incineration is done via the IncinerationJob that's scheduled to run after config.action_mailbox.incinerate_after time. This value is set to 30.days by default, but you can change it in your production.rb configuration. (Note that this far-future incineration scheduling relies on your job queue being able to hold jobs for that long.)

Default data incineration ensures that you're not holding on to people's data unnecessarily after they may have canceled their accounts or deleted their content.

The intention with Action Mailbox processing is that as you process an email, you should extract all the data you need from the email and persist it into domain models in your application. The InboundEmail stays in the system for the configured time to allow for debugging and forensics and then will be deleted.

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