What happened on August 11 and what we've learned
On August 11, 2020, some SimpleLogin users have experienced up to 8 hours of email delay. We deeply apologize for this incident and have made some measures to avoid this issue from happening again. No emails were lost during this time.
Here’s the timeline of what happened and the measures we’ve done to better handle these situations.
In the morning, we noticed that the second server mx2.simplelogin.co had a peak of emails. This server is the failover of the principal one (mx1.simplelogin.co) and usually only handles a fraction of emails. We also received emails from some SimpleLogin users asking about the email delay.
Checking the server mx1, the email handler container was down even if it’s set up to automatically restart. We noticed that SpamAssassin, a program used for detecting spams is taking 100% of the CPU.
We decided to scale up the main server. After redirecting most of the traffic to the second server, we increased the first server capacity 4x. Everything seemed to be back to normal and pending emails were quickly sent.
In the afternoon, we again noticed that the email queue was abnormally high. Turns out that all requests to SpamAssassin timed out which delayed Postfix email delivery. We had to proceed to the emergency solution of disabling the spam checking. Email delivery was back to the normal but we know that this is just a temporary solution.
We made the following actions to avoid similar issues from happening in the future:
Rewrite the email spam detection to be more fault-tolerant. The spam detection is now handled in our email container instead of in Postfix. That leaves more room for customization so we can easily implement the timeout mechanism along with some monitoring. We spent several days writing this part - that’s worth the effort as this allows better control over the SpamAssassin engine.
Add new monitoring that constantly watches the email delivery heath, especially the number of pending emails. Whenever this number reaches a threshold for consecutive periods, an alert is sent so we can act accordingly. We are building an automatic failover system that launches an urgent approach if necessary.
We are studying an alternative to SpamAssassin that can be used as a failover. The current best candidate is Rspamd.
In this incident, we have learned to be extra careful when working with software that we don’t have much control over. SpamAssassin seems to be the root cause of this incident but this can happen to any other software in the stack.
Things we learned when investigating the issue:
SpamAssassin suddenly starts timing out requests. Nothing really stands out in the log.
SpamAssassin times out if the email doesn’t end with a linebreak “\n”. Some email clients don’t automatically add this character.
Messages in Postfix queue “remember” its destination so flushing Postfix queue doesn’t help with this issue. The only solution we found is to re-queue all the messages.
The ecosystem around emails is scarce. We end up writing a lot of ad-hoc scripts to get the stats and monitor them.
Python support for asyncio is growing but not fast enough. A lot of our code uses SQLAlchemy which is one of the best ways to work with SQL databases in Python but its support for asyncio is limited. Its upcoming 2.0 version should have better support. We ended up using a lock that defeats the purpose of the async model.
Written by SimpleLogin team [Follow on Twitter]
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