Apple mail “bug” turns out to be user script after all

This is a technical blog post which gives updates on the previous post. There is no need to read this unless you’re particularly interested in IMAP protocol issues and/or gossip.

Of course it’s hard to give updates quite the same level of press that the original post got. The internet does outrage far better than it does corrections.

The OS X Mail team have been really helpful in tracking this down. I put them in direct contact with the user to do further debugging. A very embarassed user discovered an applescript he wrote years ago to move mail from OS X Mail’s “semantic junk” folder to the real Junk folder at FastMail where our bayes trainer could learn from it.

What has changed is that OS X Mail now correctly detects the \Junk special-use on the folder at our server, and sets the semantic trash to be that folder – meaning he was moving messages from that folder to the same folder. Which raises another interesting question:

Could we stop this happening again?

There are three main places I can see that it could have been stopped:

  1. OS X Mail when it detected a “move” from a folder to the same folder and not performing it
  2. FastMail detecting a copy to the same folder and rejecting it
  3. FastMail detecting that the same message had occurred “too many times” in the past and rejecting the copy

Interestingly, none of these would have stopped the infinite loopyness. The script was pretty basic, and would have found messages in “Junk Mail” every time it ran.

There’s no way to avoid infinte loops in a sufficiently powerful language. You solve the “halting problem” when the user’s computer catches fire due to excess CPU usage, but otherwise it will just sit there eating power and making the computer feel slow.

With option (1) the reject would have been local, and minimal cost.

Option (2) costs more – because it causes a network round-trip each time, and it breaks theoretically useful usage (duplicating an email… not entirely sure how that’s useful in the case where you KNOW that it’s the same message – but the standard doesn’t say to reject it).

Option (3) is less breakage than option (2), because it only blocks the copy when it detects multiple past copies – but it’s expensive for the server – Cyrus doesn’t keep an index by GUID on the mailbox, so it would have to detect “copy to self” and do a full pass keeping a counter for each message and seeing if there were already “too many copies”. It’s more code and more complexity. It does bring a level of robustness against weird behaviour though.

Who should fix it?

Obviously, I think that client authors should be careful in what they send. They have the most information about the users’ intent, and the most ability to give useful feedback to the user about why the action is being rejected.

But I know it’s tilting at windmills. The OS X Mail team have been fantastic now that I’m in contact with them, but they are one of many clients, and it only takes one.

For now, I’ve put in a syslog statement that tells me how often clients are copying/moving messages to the same folder. The answer is – quite a lot. Some are OS X Mail (including older versions). Some don’t identify themselves, but I’ve found at least Outlook 14 in the “X-Mailer” fields of Sent Messages from the same IP address… so that’s a clue.

I’m guessing I really have to implement some variant of (3) if I want to not break any existing users. Hopefully the OS X Mail team will implement (1).

An aside on “detecting what’s happening at the server”

OS X Mail isn’t using the recently standardised “MOVE” command, it’s using the “COPY” command followed by “EXPUNGE” on the source messages – which is part of the original standard, and works on every server.

If we answered success to the COPY but didn’t actually create new copies of the message, it would mean that the messages would be silently deleted a moment later. Handy in this case, but hardly good behaviour in general! A user could accidentally wipe their entire INBOX.

This is a general problem that I have with IMAP. It’s a very imperative language. Rather than describing what you want done, you send explicit instructions against a very rigid model. Not only that, but there have been tons of extensions. You can use them if they exist – but a server can advertise itself as “IMAP” and support none of them, not even really useful basic things like UIDPLUS. Check this out:

http://imapwiki.org/Specs

Which means that clients either have to have two codepaths, one for servers with the extension, and one for servers without. Either that or just use the “without” codepath for every server.

If clients do have two different codepaths, the chance of bugs is more than doubled, because they will interact in interesting ways. Another issue I debugged this week was an issue with Thunderbird 24.0.1 not noticing that messages had been deleted from the server. The server was sending the right data, but Thunderbird wasn’t recognising it. Turning off support for CONDSTORE fixed it, which is why it “worked” on other servers which didn’t have CONDSTORE support, or didn’t have it switched on.

So the clients try to convert the intentions of the user into changes on the server, and they have to do so through a set of very small commands which each do one thing. There’s no way for the client to say “I need all the following information”, or “here’s the transformation do the data model that the user requested”. And then the server, if it wants to optimise at all, has to guess the intent from the commands as they come in. Some servers try to read ahead to see if the client has pipelined (made multiple requests before waiting for the answers). Our server doesn’t – it just takes advantage of the fact that at least the files are “hot” in memory, so accessing them will be faster next time.

Some examples:

Unread counts? Have to ask for them separately for every folder. If you want to display all the folders with unread messages, you need to first get the full listing of folders, then for each one request the unread count in a separate command.

Want the “first text part of every message”? Good luck – you need to fetch the bodystructure for each, and either combine those for which the text part is the same number into separate batches, or just do one fetch per message.

So it’s not surprising that IMAP clients have bugs. There is some necessary complexity to the problem of accessing email remotely – but plenty of the complexity has been caused by standards which have the client doing too much telling the server “how to do it” rather than “what needs to be done”.

Posted in Technical. Comments Off on Apple mail “bug” turns out to be user script after all

Mac OS 10.9 – Infinity times your spam

UPDATE: the cause of the “infinite copy” bug was tracked down to a user side applescript. I have written a separate blog post about it.

This is a technical blog/rant. Users of FastMail who don’t use Apple’s email clients can safely skip it.

I’ve spent quite a lot of the past few days dealing with bugs caused by the Mail app in Apple’s new Mavericks update.

Apple’s mail client has been buggy with IMAP connections forever. It was infamous a couple of years ago for creating folders called INBOX.INBOX.INBOX.INBOX.INBOX.INBOX (until it hit the mailbox limit). We now block those at create time because they were causing “interesting” problems as well as being confusing.

This release has other interesting bugs that I’ve looked into in the past couple of days. When you uncheck the “keep a copy of my sent email on the server” checkbox, it auto-rechecks itself. I confirmed that report myself on our test laptop.

I also confirmed that the ‘Archive’ folder (special-use \Archive) doesn’t appear in the folder listing, and neither do any subfolders if you have any (one of my accounts does – one per year for the past *mumble* years).

So we know it’s not the breakfast of champions. That’s not a giant surprise, it’s never been the strong point of that OS. The previous revision has problems too:

229.12 UID STORE 588201 +FLAGS.SILENT ($Junk Junk JunkRecorded)
229.12 OK Completed 
230.12 UID STORE 588201 -FLAGS.SILENT ($NotJunk NotJunk)
230.12 OK Completed 
231.12 UID EXPUNGE 588201
231.12 OK Completed 
232.12 UID STORE 588201 +FLAGS.SILENT (\Deleted)
232.12 OK Completed 

Anyone who can read IMAP can see that it tries to expunge the message BEFORE the \Deleted flag is set, which is pointless. UID EXPUNGE only deletes messages with the \Deleted flag set.

http://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc4315#section-2.1

I found _that_ one because our web interface expunges all \Deleted items, so users noticed they only got the expected behaviour across multiple clients if they left the web interface open at the same time.

Millions of messages

But this doozy takes the cake. I found it nearly a week ago when we had an IO error because a user’s cache file was overflowing the 32 bit offset counter that still exists in Cyrus (I have an experiemental branch with 64 bit offsets, but it’s not ready for production yet)

They had 71 unique messages in their Junk Mail folder, but included expunged messages (we keep them for a week for backup purposes) there were over 1 MILLION separate entries in the index file. We de-duplicate on store, so the fact that there were over 100,000 copies of the most prolific message in the index didn’t totally flood the disk.

I noticed then that they were using 10.9’s mail app:

3.19 ID ("name" "Mac OS X Mail" "version" "7.0 (1816)" "os" "Mac OS X" "os-version" "10.9 (13A603)" "vendor" "Apple Inc.")

I wiped the expunged messages from the cache, emailed the user, and left it at that.

This morning I checked again, there were nearly a million messages again, so I enabled telemetry on the account and emailed the user a second time.

Here’s what I saw in the telemetry (one of many):

44.18 SELECT "INBOX.Junk Mail" (CONDSTORE)
[...]
45.18 FETCH 1:* (FLAGS UID MODSEQ) (CHANGEDSINCE 213634)
45.18 OK Completed (0.000 sec) 
46.18 IDLE
+ idling 
DONE
46.18 OK Completed 
47.18 CHECK
47.18 OK Completed 
48.18 UID COPY 3360991:3361069 "INBOX.Junk Mail"
* 158 EXISTS 
* 79 RECENT
48.18 OK [COPYUID 1318456612 3360991:3361069 3361070:3361148] Completed

Yes you read that right. It’s copying all the email from the Junk Folder back into the Junk Folder again!. This is legal IMAP, so our server proceeds to create a new copy of each message in the folder.

It then expunges the old copies of the messages, but it’s happening so often that the current UID on that folder is up to over 3 million. It was just over 2 million a few days ago when I first emailed the user to alert them to the situtation, so it’s grown by another million since.

The only way I can think this escaped QA was that they used a server which (like gmail) automatically suppresses duplicates for all their testing, because this is a massively bad problem.

I discovered my second attempt to contact the user about this problem in their Junk folder tonight. 10 times already!

Given that my colleague had just been paged by high disk usage on that user’s server – a usage which was growing fast, and which got reduced massively by expunging old deleted messages… it was time to lock the account until the faulty email client is disabled. We don’t lock user accounts lightly, but running a malfunctioning piece of software which is affecting other users and resisting attempts to contact qualifies, and a promise to disable the faulty software will be enough to resume service.

Yes, Mail.app was cleaning up after itself, but we keep deleted emails for a week, and even though it wasn’t using disk space, over a million emails were using enough meta database space that a disk had filled up. There are only 79 actual emails in this folder with a total usage of about 2MB, yet the meta files:

91M cyrus.index
906M cyrus.annotations
1.2G cyrus.cache

Over 2GB of disk usage.

Solving problems

The sad thing is – there are about 600 copies of Cyrus on our production farm, and I can roll out a new copy in about 5 minutes. There are umpteen million copies of Mail.app out there, and I can’t get them fixed on any particular schedule – so if this happens with more than one user the only real solution that I have is to code a workaround directly into our server to protect our other users.

We already wrote a special case for another one of Apple’s brilliant ideas – make the search box default to a full text search of every mailbox. The most expensive possible option for the server.

We have rate limits for other things, but we’ve never considered needing a rate limit for the COPY command – it would usually hit quota, but because these messages are expunged as fast as they are created, the quota doesn’t catch this issue.

The 4 million message 32 bit limit of the UID field will become interesting on that folder soon too, which is another thing we’ve never hit in production before. The workaround here is at least known – create a new folder, copy the messages across, delete the old folder, and rename the folder into place with a new UIDVALIDITY and new messages. – as many people have pointed out to me, it’s 4 billion, not 4 million – so much for last minute ideas when writing late at night. Sorry for the confusion. It would take a lot longer then a few days to hit the limit!

Posted in Technical. Comments Off on Mac OS 10.9 – Infinity times your spam

iOS 7 Mail App uses multi-folder body searches by default

This is a technical post. Regular FastMail users subscribed to receive email updates from the FastMail blog can just ignore this post.

We’ve recently been testing out the Mail application in iOS 7 and found that there’s been a couple of significant changes, especially when you search your email. If you run an IMAP server with users that connect using the iOS Mail application, you might be interested in what we found. The two main ones are:

  1. Rather than searching the current folder, by default, it searches all folders. To do that, it opens many IMAP connections at once for searching each folder concurrently. We’re not sure on the upper bound on the number of connections it will make, but saw at least 10 in one case.
  2. Rather than searching the Subject/To/Cc/From fields, by default, it searches all those fields as well as the message body.

Both of these changes are actually great for the user experience, but they create potentially large headaches for IMAP server maintainers.

Clients making multiple IMAP connections at once isn’t new, but the number of potential IMAP connections an iOS client might now make is large. Some administrators limit the total number of IMAP connections a user can make at once. They might have to raise this or iOS might start returning unexpected results.

The bigger concern is the body searching. The search string iOS now sends is:

tag UID SEARCH RETURN (ALL) (OR FROM "Foo" (OR SUBJECT "Foo" (OR TO "Foo" (OR CC "Foo" BODY "Foo")))) NOT DELETED

IMAP search semantics suggest that a body search is supposed to be a pure sub-string search (BODY <string>: Messages that contain the specified string in the body of the message). Depending on your IMAP server, your message bodies may or may not be indexed in a way that allows sub-string searching. If they’re not, then a BODY search is potentially very expensive, requiring every message to be opened and searched individually. Doing that simultaneously across many folders might generate a sudden and significant IO load on a server.

Our plan at FastMail is to detect iOS clients, and convert all searches into FUZZY searches. This causes matches to be done on “terms” rather than pure sub-strings, but allows us to use our xapian powered index which should make matching and fetching results much, much quicker.

Posted in Technical. Comments Off on iOS 7 Mail App uses multi-folder body searches by default

Fastmail uses perfect forward secrecy with https/TLS connections

There’s been a number of articles recently about perfect forward secrecy (PFS). The main aim of PFS is to ensure that even if the private SSL/TLS key for www.fastmail.fm was ever compromised, it would still be impossible to decrypt any existing captured traffic between users and our server. If you’re looking for more information, the linked articles above are worth reading to get a better overview. For PFS to work, both the server (us) and the client (your web browser) must support it.

Fastmail has supported PFS via ECDHE for some time now (since July 2012). Unfortunately a few browsers don’t support ECDHE.

Today we’ve updated our ciphers to the best practice recommended by SSL Labs. Using the SSL Labs site tester on www.fastmail.fm shows that we now support PFS on all major browsers except for IE 8 on Windows XP, which has no support for PFS and so can never support it.

We’re pretty sure that this change won’t have any compatibility issues with old clients (which should fall back to older ciphers), but we’ll keep an eye out in case there’s any reported problems.

Posted in News, Technical. Comments Off on Fastmail uses perfect forward secrecy with https/TLS connections

Push events, NAT TCP connection timeouts, and device sleep

This is a technical post. Regular FastMail users subscribed to receive email updates from the FastMail blog can just ignore this post.

When we released the new user interface last year, one of the improvements included was push updates when new emails arrived.

In theory, push events are conceptually quite easy to do. We open a connection from your web browser to the server (see this blog post for details), then when a new email arrives, we send a message down the open connection to let the browser know. It then fetches the details about the new email(s) and refreshes the display.

Unfortunately, in the real world, it’s not quite that easy. The biggest problem is that when a mailbox is mostly idle (no new mail arriving), the connection from the browser to the server will be idle. While this shouldn’t be a problem, it turns out it often is.

As we have noted before, some of our users are behind NAT gateways/stateful firewalls that have short state timeouts. If you leave a TCP connection idle for too long (variable from 2 to 30 minutes depending on the device), these start dropping any new packets on the connection.

In the case of a push connection from the server to the client, this is particularly bad. When a new email arrives, the server will try and send data to the client, and then be told the connection is dead at that point. That’s fine for the server, it can then clean up the connection. However, the client will never see any data from the server, and neither will the client ever know that the gateway/firewall has broken the connection. The client will think it is still connected to the server and has no way of knowing that the connection has actually been broken. This is purely a consequence of the way the TCP protocol works. The only way for the client to be able to tell the connection is broken is to send some data down the connection, and there are only 2 ways that can happen.

  1. If the client has enabled TCP keepalive on the socket. Currently only Chrome on Windows does this.
  2. If the client sent some data down the connection to the server. Unfortunately the eventsource specification doesn’t provide any way to do this; it basically assumes the underlying TCP connection is always reliable and only the server can send to the client.

One way to try and work around this issue is for the server to send regular “ping” events to the client, sufficiently often that the gateway/firewall knows the connection is still alive. This is relatively straightforward to do, but causes other problems.

If the ping events come too fast, it can cause some clients to never go into sleep mode. For instance, we used to send ping events every 60 seconds. It was noted that on an iPad if you left the FastMail webpage open in Safari and put the iPad down, the iPad itself would never actually go to sleep. The screen would stay on, draining the battery very quickly.

Because of that, we decided to go the other direction and disabled the ping events, but that ends up back at the other end of the scale where sometimes push just seems to randomly stop working.

As there’s no perfect solution to this problem, we’re now changing again to a new trade off.

  1. The server will send regular “ping” events to the client at 5 minute intervals. This should be enough for most gateways/firewalls to keep the connection open, but long enough apart to allow devices to go to sleep.
  2. If the client doesn’t see a ping event after 6 minutes, it assumes the connection has died, drops the existing connection and creates a new one. This should at least allow push events to work to some extent on connections with gateways/firewalls with low timeouts.

This change has now been rolled out everywhere. Based on initial testing, we think that this time we’ve got the balance between theory and reality right.

Posted in Technical. Comments Off on Push events, NAT TCP connection timeouts, and device sleep

Intermittent bayes db corruption resolved

This is a technical post that describes the history and recent efforts to track down a bug that was corrupting some users bayes databases. Fastmail users subscribed to receive email updates from the Fastmail blog can ignore this post if they are not interested.

Over the past few years, we’ve had sporadic reports of users bayes databases being corrupted and reset back to empty. When this happened, it would cause email delivery for that user to fall back to using the global bayes database, which decreased the overall accuracy of their spam detection until they retrained the database with more spam and non-spam messages.

I had tried multiple times to track down what was causing this issue, but each time with no luck. Each time the problem occurred, there was an error message in the logs of this form.

bayes: bayes db version 0 is not able to be used, aborting!

Often searching the internet for an error message will find other people that have had the same problem and tracked down the solution, but in this case it didn’t. Each time I tried to work through the code to see what was going wrong, I reached a dead end and couldn’t see any obvious problem.

Since the corruptions were very intermittent and losing a bayes database isn’t critical, doesn’t cause email to be lost or inaccessible, and can be rebuilt just by reporting email as spam/non-spam again, tracking this down was always a bit of a lower priority issue.

Recently though, after one more corruption report too many, I decided once and for all to track down what was causing it. Bit by bit over the course of several weeks, I added more and more logging information to the server code to track down where in the code the problem was occurring.

The logging results proved to be very odd. In the vast majority of cases it showed that writing to a particular database worked fine, but every now and then, it caused data to be lost. Eventually I managed to create a reproducible test case. It turned out to be very odd issue because performing a particular programming action with a database library worked fine the first 5 or 6 times, but on the 6th or 7th, it would cause data to become lost. Clearly something odd is happening in the lower level library code.

Fortunately there was a straight forward workaround to the problem, so I’ve now patched our code with the workaround, and over the last few weeks I’ve monitored the logs which show the original error message above has completely disappeared and no databases are being corrupted any more.

I’ve reported bugs to the underlying modules causing the problems, so hopefully long term they’ll fixed as well.

https://rt.cpan.org/Public/Bug/Display.html?id=83060

https://issues.apache.org/SpamAssassin/show_bug.cgi?id=6901

Posted in Technical. Comments Off on Intermittent bayes db corruption resolved

Update to DNS hosting

We’ve rolled out a change to our DNS hosting abilities to switch our backend from tinydns to powerdns. We’d previously tried this change once before but had some problems and had to roll back. After some more development work and testing, we believe we’ve fixed all these issues and so have moved forward to powerdns again.

This change should initially be invisible to users and things should continue to work as they were. In the long term, it will allow us to support more features and faster updates to DNS in the future.

Posted in Technical. Comments Off on Update to DNS hosting
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