Erlang and SMTP: a quick round-up

Sunday, 18th October, 2015

[update 20151022: added selectel/pat]

There seem to be three live projects for using SMTP from erlang:

  • Richard Carlsson’s sendmail
  • the smtp module in Yaws
  • Vagabond’s gen_smtp
  • Selectel’s pat

** Richard Carlsson’s sendmail

This is a simple-but-useful wrapper round sendmail. Consequently, it depends on the host OS having sendmail up & running. Also consequently, it can take advantage of sendmail’s other features (e.g., retrying failed sends). As Richard explained on erlang-questions in 2011:

Often, what you want is more than just SMTP. If there are some network
issues (or your mail server is simply down) at the time your program
tries to send the mail, you usually want your program to still be able
to regard the mail as sent and carry on. This means that the mail needs
to be persistently stored on disk in a spool area and that the MTA
regularly tries to send any outgoing mail that’s been spooled, so it
will eventually be on its way once the problem is resolved. That’s why
we like to rely on sendmail instead. But it all depends on the needs of
your application.

Note: although this is a single script, it is a git repo in its own right, so it can be added as a dependency.

However, as it’s a single-script it doesn’t have anything fancy like a Makefile. I’ve created a fork with a Makefile so I can have it in my Makefile as a dependency:

** the smtp module in Yaws

This is a single-script smtp client for sending emails. It does not depend on (or use) sendmail.

It seems that, to add this as a dependency to a project, it would be necessary to either add Yaws itself as a dependency, or manually copy the smtp.erl script into your own project.

** Vagabond’s gen_smtp

This is the full Monty: “a generic Erlang SMTP server framework that can be extended via callback modules in the OTP style. A pure Erlang SMTP client is also included.”

** Selectel’s pat

This connects to a downstream SMTP server to send email messages. An email message is represented by an erlang record.

A morning with elixir

Saturday, 1st June, 2013

After reading Joe Armstrong’s recent blog post on elixir, and the ensuing discussion there and on twitter, I’ve thought a bit about why I don’t like the language. I can’t spend a week with elixir, so the three observations below are after a morning’s reading and watching.

My overall impression is that elixir is a language that makes it easy for people with a ruby background to dabble with erlang. However, after a morning I’ve found at least three things about elixir that would make my own programming life less pleasant (see below). Elixir contains apparently powerful new features (e.g., macros and protocols), but the examples I’ve seen (e.g. in José Valim’s Erlang Factory talk) are not very exciting.

word-like forms as delimiters

  # elixir
  [1]  def name ( arglist ) do code end

  % erlang
  [2]  name ( arglist ) -> code .

I fail to see how [1] is an improvement on [2]. [2] is shorter by a handful of characters but, mainly, [1] uses word-like forms as delimiters, which I think is a very bad idea.

A human reader will read those word-like forms as words (e.g., the English words “do” and “end”), which they’re not. The delimiters “def”, “do”, and “end” delimit the function definition in the same way that “(” and “)” delimit the argument list.

Using word-like forms as delimiters will either/both (a) slow down the human reader as they read these forms as words, or/and (b) make the code harder to read, as the human reader must explicitly remember not to interpret certain word-like forms as words.

cf also lc and inlist or inbits used to delimit comprehensions.

n.b.: the same arguments apply to erlang’s use of “end” as a delimiter for fun and case blocks. Presumably erlang’s excuse was that they ran out of delimiters borrowed from English punctuation, and they didn’t want to overload “.”. I wonder whether some kind of list delimiter might be appropriate (for case at least), e.g.:

  R = case f() of
        [this -> 1;
         that -> 2],

The pipeline operator |>

The pipeline operator strikes me as being halfway between useful and troublesome. It would probably be very useful in cases similar to the example Joe gives (repeated below for convenience) — where a series of functions each take and produce a single item of data.

  capitalize_atom(X) ->
    V1 = atom_to_list(X),
    V2 = list_to_binary(V1),
    V3 = capitalize_binary(V2),
    V4 = binary_to_list(V3),

  def capitalize_atom(X) do
    X |> atom_to_list
      |> list_to_binary
      |> capitalize_binary 
      |> binary_to_list
      |> binary_to_atom

However, I think if any of the functions in the series take more than one argument, things could quickly get cumbersome. Witness the discussion on Joe’s blog, Joe’s recent tweets suggesting improvements, and the caveat in the elixir documentation.

The simple case above could be done in erlang with a fold:

  capitalize_atom(X) ->
    lists:foldl(fun(F, Acc) -> F(Acc) end, X, 
                [fun atom_to_list/1, 
                 fun list_to_binary/1,
                 fun capitalize_binary/1,
                 fun binary_to_list/1,
                 fun binary_to_atom/1]

Granted, this is possibly even yuckier than Joe’s version, but using a fold or, more generally, writing a function that walks through a list of funs, gives the possibility of handling errors, using some kind of context dictionary as the passed argument, etc.

I think elixir’s “|>” looks more general than it usefully is.


In erlang, variables must begin with a capital letter; atoms need special marking only if they start with a capital letter, or contain certain characters, in which case the atom is enclosed in single quotes. In erlang, module names and function names are atoms.

In elixir, variables don’t seem to need any special marking. Atoms /sometimes/ need to be marked with an initial colon. Unless the atom is a function or module name. Unless the module/function is from the erlang standard library. I might have that wrong.

[updated after discussion on erlang-questions, starting here]

I’ve just discovered that queue:split(N, Queue) causes a crash if N is larger than Queue has items:

    1> self().
    2> Q1 = queue:new().    
    3> Q2 = queue:in(a, Q1).
    4> Q3 = queue:in(b, Q2).
    5> Q4 = queue:in(c, Q3).
    6> queue:split(4, Q4).  
    ** exception error: bad argument
         in function  queue:split/2
            called as queue:split(4,{[c,b],[a]})
    7> self().              

Here’s a safe split:

    queue_split_at_most(N, Q) ->
        case queue:len(Q) >= N of
            true ->
            false ->
                {Q, queue:new()}

A Content-less PUT that returns 201 or 409

Thursday, 14th March, 2013

Thanks to people on the webmachine mailing-list, wmtrace, and the webmachine source (it really does implement the diagram!).

This webmachine resource accepts a PUT request to create a new resource. No content and no content headers are required in the request. A successful request returns 201, and the new resource is accessible at the same url as the PUT. If the resource already exists a 409 is returned.



init([]) ->
    {ok, undefined}.

allowed_methods(ReqData, Context) -> 
    {['PUT'], ReqData, Context}.

content_types_accepted(ReqData, Context) ->
    {[{"application/octet-stream", accept_content}], ReqData, Context}.

accept_content(ReqData, Context) ->
    {false, ReqData, Context}.

resource_exists(ReqData, Context) ->
    Name = wrq:path_info(name, ReqData),
    case dragon:create(Name) of
        ok ->
            NewReqData = wrq:set_resp_header("Location",
            {false, NewReqData, Context};
        error ->
            {{halt, 409},  ReqData, Context}

The relevant dispatch.conf line is:

{["here", "be", "dragons", name], dragon_resource, []}.

Building Web Applications with Erlang

Monday, 20th August, 2012

Building Web Applications with Erlang: Working with REST and Web Sockets on Yaws
By Zachary Kessin

This is a lovely little book. 133 pages long, it’s slim, readable, modest, concrete and to the point. It doesn’t insist on being comprehensive for the sake of filling shelf inches. The author has a simple story to tell, and he tells it simply.

The book introduces the erlang web server Yaws, and covers the Yaws approach to serving dynamic content, templating (with ErlyDTL), streaming, ReST, WebSockets, and so on.

The book is light enough to be worth reading if you’re mildly interested in Yaws, or in erlang for web development, and it’s concrete enough to have one or two exciting new ideas (at least it did for me).

It’s also just a nice read. I’d like to see a lot more computer books like this one.

Unfortunately, the text is marred by O’Reilly’s usual incompetent or negligent editing, littered with typos, language errors and code inconsistencies.

Putting that aside, especially nice for me were the chapter on file upload, showing how the web application can start processing a file even before the file has been fully uploaded, and the appendix on emacs, with its brief introduction to Distel.

Baby steps with a nif

Sunday, 14th August, 2011

simple_nif is an erlang NIF which takes a list of integers and returns a record, called params, containing the sum, the mean, and the quartiles of the input list:

1> simple:get_params([1,2,3,4,5,6,7]).

The main point of the exercise was the C interface between erlang and the C functions. The file simple_nif.c shows how to parse the input list from erlang into a C array, and how to assemble the results into an erlang tuple to return.

More details in the README.

I am releasing the code under the ISC license.


Browsing error logs on a remote node

Wednesday, 18th May, 2011

First, set up your sasl

This config sets up a directory for rolling logs (max ten files, each max 10 megabytes). More configs on the man page.

% erl_config.config
 {sasl, [
         {sasl_error_logger, false},
         {error_logger_mf_dir, "/path/to/a/dir/for/erl/logs/"},
         {error_logger_mf_maxbytes, 10485760},  % 10 MB
         {error_logger_mf_maxfiles, 10}

And when you run erlang, tell it where your config file is:

erl -config /path/to/erl_config -boot start_sasl  ... more args ...


  • erlang expects the config file to have the extension .config, which you don’t give in the command line.
  • the above config is cribbed from Programming Erlang. I was surprised to find that Erlang and OTP in Action does not describe how to configure the sasl error logger.

Connect and browse

Once you’re connected to the above node (see Connecting erlang nodes), you can run rb, the report browser. A little bit of set up is required. See this discussion on stackoverflow, which encapsulates the setup in a function:

%% @doc Start the report browser and reset its group-leader. 
%% For use in a remote shell
start_remote_rb() ->
    {ok, Pid} = rb:start(),
    true = erlang:group_leader(erlang:group_leader(), Pid),