Installing the MTA

Alaveteli sends and receives email. You'll need to set up your Mail Transfer Agent (MTA) to handle this properly. We've got examples here for both postfix and exim4, two of the most popular MTAs.

How Alaveteli handles email

Request mail

When someone makes a Freedom of Information request to an authority through Alaveteli, the application sends an email containing the request to the authority.

The email’s reply-to address is a special one so that any replies to it can be automatically directed back to Alaveteli, and so that Alaveteli can tell which request the reply needs to be shown with. This requires some configuration of the MTA on the server that is running Alaveteli, so that it will pipe all emails to these special addresses to Alaveteli to handle, via its script/mailin script. The special addresses are of the form:

<foi+request-3-691c8388@example.com>

Parts of this address are controlled with options in config/general.yml:

INCOMING_EMAIL_PREFIX = 'foi+'
INCOMING_EMAIL_DOMAIN = 'example.com'

If there is some error inside Rails while processing an email, an exit code 75 is returned to the MTA by the script/mailin script. Postfix and Exim (and maybe others) take this as a signal for the MTA to try again later. Additionally, a stacktrace is emailed to CONTACT_EMAIL.

Production installs of Alaveteli should make a backup copy of emails sent to the special addresses. You can configure your chosen MTA to backup these in a separate mailbox.

Transactional mail

Alaveteli also sends emails to users about their requests – letting them know when someone has replied to them, or prompting them to take further action.

Configure the address that these messages are sent from in the CONTACT_EMAIL option in config/general.yml:

CONTACT_EMAIL = 'team@example.com'

The address in CONTACT_EMAIL is also visible in various places on the site so that users can get in touch with the team that runs the site.

You must configure your MTA to deliver mail sent to these addresses to the administrators of your site so that they can respond to it.

Tracks mail

Users subscribed to updates from the site – known as tracks – receive emails when there is something new of interest to them on the site.

Configure the address that these messages are sent from in the TRACK_SENDER_EMAIL option in config/general.yml:

TRACK_SENDER_EMAIL = 'track@example.com'

Automatic bounce handling (optional)

As CONTACT_EMAIL and TRACK_SENDER_EMAIL appear in the From: header of emails sent from Alaveteli, they sometimes receive reply emails, including bounce messages and ‘out of office’ notifications.

Alaveteli provides a script (script/handle-mail-replies) that handles bounce messages and ‘out of office’ notifications and forwards genuine mails to your administrators.

It also prevents further track emails being sent to a user email address that appears to have a permanent delivery problem.

To make use of automatic bounce-message handling, set TRACK_SENDER_EMAIL and CONTACT_EMAIL to an address that you will filter through script/handle-mail-replies. Messages that are not bounces or out-of-office autoreplies will be forwarded to FORWARD_NONBOUNCE_RESPONSES_TO, which you should set to a mail alias that points at your list of site administrators.

See the MTA-specific instructions for how to do this for exim and postfix.

Note: Bounce handling is not applied to request emails. Bounce messages from authorities get added to the request page so that the user can see what has happened. Users can ask site admins for help redelivering the request if necessary.


  • Commands in this guide will require root privileges
  • Commands are intended to be run via the terminal or over ssh

Make sure you follow the correct instructions for the specific MTA you’re using:

Example setup on postfix

This section shows an example of how to set up your MTA if you’re using postfix. See the example for exim4 if you’re using that instead of postfix.

Install postfix

# Install debconf so we can configure non-interactively
apt-get -qq install -y debconf >/dev/null

# Set the default configuration 'Internet Site'
echo postfix postfix/main_mailer_type select 'Internet Site' | debconf-set-selections

# Set your hostname (change example.com to your hostname)
echo postfix postfix/mail_name string "example.com" | debconf-set-selections

# Install postfix
DEBIAN_FRONTEND=noninteractive apt-get -qq -y install postfix >/dev/null

Configure postfix

Pipe incoming mail for requests into Alaveteli

If the Unix user that is going to run your site is alaveteli, and the directory where Alaveteli is installed is /var/www/alaveteli, create the pipe that will receive request mail:

cat >> /etc/postfix/master.cf <<EOF
alaveteli unix  - n n - 50 pipe
  flags=R user=alaveteli argv=/var/www/alaveteli/script/mailin
EOF

The Unix user should have write permissions on the directory where Alaveteli is installed.

Configure postfix to accept messages for local delivery where recipients are:

  • defined by a regular expression in /etc/postfix/transports
  • local UNIX accounts
  • local aliases specified as regular expressions in /etc/postfix/recipients
cat >> /etc/postfix/main.cf <<EOF
transport_maps = regexp:/etc/postfix/transports
local_recipient_maps = proxy:unix:passwd.byname regexp:/etc/postfix/recipients
EOF

In /etc/postfix/main.cf update the mydestination line (which determines what domains this machine will deliver locally). Add your domain, not example.com, to the beginning of the list:

mydestination = example.com, localhost.localdomain, localhost
This guide assumes you have set INCOMING_EMAIL_PREFIX to foi+ in config/general.yml

Pipe all incoming mail for your domain where the To: address starts with foi+ to the alaveteli pipe (/var/www/alaveteli/script/mailin, as specified in /etc/postfix/master.cf at the start of this section):

cat > /etc/postfix/transports <<EOF
/^foi\+.*@example.com$/           alaveteli
EOF

The @example.com domain should be set to your actual domain.

Backup request mail

You can copy all incoming mail to Alaveteli to a backup account to a separate mailbox, just in case.

Create a UNIX user backupfoi

adduser --quiet --disabled-password \
  --gecos "Alaveteli Mail Backup" backupfoi

Add the following line to /etc/postfix/main.cf

recipient_bcc_maps = regexp:/etc/postfix/recipient_bcc

Configure mail sent to an foi+ prefixed address to be sent to the backup user:

cat > /etc/postfix/recipient_bcc <<EOF
/^foi\+.*@example.com$/                backupfoi
EOF

Again, the @example.com domain should be set to your actual domain.

Define the valid recipients for your domain

Create /etc/postfix/recipients with the following command:

cat > /etc/postfix/recipients <<EOF
/^foi.*/                this-is-ignored
/^postmaster@/          this-is-ignored
/^user-support@/        this-is-ignored
/^team@/                this-is-ignored
EOF

The left-hand column of this file specifies regular expressions that define addresses that mail will be accepted for. The values on the right-hand side are ignored by postfix. Here we allow postfix to accept mails to special Alaveteli addresses, and postmaster@example.com, user-support@example.com and team@example.com.

The @example.com domain is set in the mydestination as above. This should be set to your actual domain.

Set up contact email recipient groups

To set up recipient groups for the postmaster@, team@ and user-support@ email addresses at your domain, add alias records for them in /etc/aliases:

cat >> /etc/aliases <<EOF
team: user@example.com, otheruser@example.com
user-support: team
EOF

Discard unwanted incoming email

Configure postfix to discard any messages sent to the BLACKHOLE_PREFIX address, whose default value is do-not-reply-to-this-address:

cat >> /etc/aliases <<EOF
# We use this for envelope from for some messages where
# we don't care about delivery
do-not-reply-to-this-address:        /dev/null
EOF

If you have set BLACKHOLE_PREFIX address, replace do-not-reply-to-this-address with the address you have configured.

Filter incoming messages to site admin addresses

You can make use of Alaveteli’s automatic bounce handling to filter bounces sent to TRACK_SENDER_EMAIL and CONTACT_EMAIL.

This guide assumes you have set the following in config/general.yml: Change the examples below to the addresses you have configured.

Create a new pipe to handle replies:

cat >> /etc/postfix/master.cf <<EOF
alaveteli_replies unix  - n n - 50 pipe
  flags=R user=alaveteli argv=/var/www/alaveteli/script/handle-mail-replies
EOF

Note: Replace /var/www/alaveteli with the correct path to alaveteli if required.

Pipe mail sent to user-support@example.com to the alaveteli_replies pipe:

cat >> /etc/postfix/transports <<EOF
/^user-support@example.com$/            alaveteli_replies
EOF

Finally, edit /etc/aliases to remove user-support:

team: user@example.com, otheruser@example.com

Logging

For the postfix logs to be successfully read by script/load-mail-server-logs, they need to be log rotated with a date in the filename. Since that will create a lot of rotated log files (one for each day), it’s good to have them in their own directory.

You’ll also need to tell Alaveteli where the log files are stored and that they’re in postfix format. Update MTA_LOG_PATH and MTA_LOG_TYPE in config/general.yml:

MTA_LOG_PATH: '/var/log/mail/mail.log-*'
MTA_LOG_TYPE: "postfix"

Configure postfix to log to its own directory:

Debian

In /etc/rsyslog.conf, set:

mail.*                  -/var/log/mail/mail.log
Ubuntu

In /etc/rsyslog.d/50-default.conf set:

mail.*                  -/var/log/mail/mail.log
Configure logrotate

Configure logrotate to rotate the log files in the required format:

cat >> /etc/logrotate.d/rsyslog <<EOF
/var/log/mail/mail.log
{
      rotate 30
      daily
      dateext
      missingok
      notifempty
      compress
      delaycompress
      sharedscripts
      postrotate
              reload rsyslog >/dev/null 2>&1 || true
      endscript
}
EOF

Making the changes live

As the root user, make all these changes live with the following commands:

service rsyslog restart

newaliases
postmap /etc/postfix/transports
postmap /etc/postfix/recipients
postmap /etc/postfix/recipient_bcc
postfix reload

Troubleshooting (postfix)

To test mail delivery, run:

$ /usr/sbin/sendmail -bv foi+request-1234@example.com

Make sure to replace example.com with your domain. This command tells you if sending the emails to foi\+.*example.com and the backup account is working (it doesn’t actually send any mail). If it is working, you should receive a delivery report email, with text like:

<foi+request-1234@example.com>: delivery via alaveteli:
delivers to command: /var/www/alaveteli/script/mailin
<backupfoi@local.machine.name>: delivery via local: delivers to  mailbox

You can also test the other aliases you have set up for your domain in this section to check that they will deliver mail as you expect. For example, you can test bounce message routing in the same way - the text of this delivery report mail should read something like:

<user-support@example.com>: delivery via alaveteli_replies: delivers to command: /var/www/alaveteli/script/handle-mail-replies

Note that you may need to install the mailutils package to read the delivery report email using the mail command on a new server:

apt-get install mailutils

If emails are not being received by your Alaveteli install, we have some more troubleshooting tips for incoming mail in general email troubleshooting.

Example setup on exim4

This section shows an example of how to set up your MTA if you’re using exim4. See the example for postfix if you’re using that instead of exim4.

Install exim4

Install exim4:

 apt-get install exim4

Configure exim4

Set up exim to receive mail from other servers

Edit /etc/exim4/update-exim4.conf.conf. Set the following settings (use your hostname, not example.com):

dc_eximconfig_configtype='internet'
dc_other_hostnames='example.com'
dc_local_interfaces='0.0.0.0 ; ::1'
dc_use_split_config='true'

This final line tells exim to use the files in /etc/exim4/conf.d to configure itself.

Define general variables and logging settings

Create /etc/exim4/conf.d/main/04_alaveteli_options with the command:

cat > /etc/exim4/conf.d/main/04_alaveteli_options <<'EOF'
ALAVETELI_HOME=/var/www/alaveteli
ALAVETELI_USER=alaveteli
log_file_path=/var/log/exim4/exim-%slog-%D
MAIN_LOG_SELECTOR==+all -retry_defer
extract_addresses_remove_arguments=false
EOF

This sets up ALAVETELI_HOME and ALAVETELI_USER for use in other config files, and sets up logging.

  • ALAVETELI_HOME: set to the directory where Alaveteli is installed.
  • ALAVETELI_USER: should be the Unix user that is going to run your site. They should have write permissions on ALAVETELI_HOME.
  • log_file_path: The name and location of the log files created by Exim must match what the load-mail-server-logs script expects
  • MAIN_LOG_SELECTOR: The check-recent-requests-sent scripts expects the logs to contain the from=<...> envelope information, so we make the logs more verbose
  • extract_addresses_remove_arguments: setting to false gets exim to treat the -t command line option that the mail gem uses when specifying delivery addresses on the command line as specifying that the addresses should be added, not removed. See this mail issue for more details.
Note: If you are editing an existing exim config rather than creating a new one, check the untrusted_set_sender option in /etc/exim4/conf.d/main/02_exim4-config_options. By default, untrusted users in exim are only allowed to set an empty envelope sender address, to declare that a message should never generate any bounces. untrusted_set_sender can be set to a list of address patterns, meaning that untrusted users are allowed to set envelope sender addresses that match any of the patterns in the list. If a pattern list is specified, you will need also to add ALAVETELI_USER to the MAIN_TRUSTED_USERS list in order to allow them to set the return path on outgoing mail. This option is also in /etc/exim4/conf.d/main/02_exim4-config_options in a split config. Look for the line that begins with MAIN_TRUSTED_USERS - something like:
MAIN_TRUSTED_USERS = uucp
and add the alaveteli user:
MAIN_TRUSTED_USERS = uucp : alaveteli
If untrusted_set_sender is set to *, that means that untrusted users can set envelope sender addresses without restriction, so there's no need to add ALAVETELI_USER to the MAIN_TRUSTED_USERS list.

Pipe incoming mail for requests from Exim to Alaveteli

In this section, we’ll add config to pipe incoming mail for special Alaveteli addresses into Alaveteli, and also send them to a local backup mailbox.

Create the backupfoi UNIX user

adduser --quiet --disabled-password \
  --gecos "Alaveteli Mail Backup" backupfoi

Specify an exim router for special Alaveteli addresses, which will route messages into Alaveteli using a local pipe transport:

cat > /etc/exim4/conf.d/router/04_alaveteli <<'EOF'
alaveteli_request:
   debug_print = "R: alaveteli for $local_part@$domain"
   driver = redirect
   data = ${lookup{$local_part}wildlsearch{ALAVETELI_HOME/config/aliases}}
   pipe_transport = alaveteli_mailin_transport
EOF

Create /etc/exim4/conf.d/transport/04_alaveteli, which sets the properties of the pipe transport that will deliver mail to Alaveteli:

cat > /etc/exim4/conf.d/transport/04_alaveteli <<'EOF'
alaveteli_mailin_transport:
   driver = pipe
   command = $address_pipe ${lc:$local_part}
   current_directory = ALAVETELI_HOME
   home_directory = ALAVETELI_HOME
   user = ALAVETELI_USER
   group = ALAVETELI_USER
EOF
This guide assumes you have set INCOMING_EMAIL_PREFIX to foi+ in config/general.yml

Create the config/aliases file that the alaveteli_request exim router sources. This pipes mail from the special address to script/mailin and the backupfoi user.

cat > /var/www/alaveteli/config/aliases <<'EOF'
^foi\\+.*: "|/var/www/alaveteli/script/mailin", backupfoi
EOF

Note: Replace /var/www/alaveteli with the correct path to alaveteli if required.

Set up your contact email recipient groups

To set up recipient groups for the team@ and user-support@ email addresses at your domain, add alias records for them in /var/www/alaveteli/config/aliases

cat >> /var/www/alaveteli/config/aliases <<EOF
team: user@example.com, otheruser@example.com
user-support: team
EOF

Discard unwanted incoming email

Configure exim to discard any messages sent to the BLACKHOLE_PREFIX address, whose default value is do-not-reply-to-this-address

cat >> /var/www/alaveteli/config/aliases <<EOF
# We use this for envelope from for some messages where
# we don't care about delivery
do-not-reply-to-this-address:        :blackhole:
EOF

Note: Replace /var/www/alaveteli with the correct path to alaveteli if required.

Filter incoming messages to admin addresses

You can make use of Alaveteli’s automatic bounce handling to filter bounces sent to TRACK_SENDER_EMAIL and CONTACT_EMAIL.

This guide assumes you have set the following in config/general.yml: Change the examples below to the addresses you have configured.

Change the user-support line in /var/www/alaveteli/config/aliases:

user-support:     |/var/www/alaveteli/script/handle-mail-replies

Logging

You’ll need to tell Alaveteli where the log files are stored and that they’re in exim format. Update MTA_LOG_PATH and MTA_LOG_TYPE in config/general.yml:

MTA_LOG_PATH: '/var/log/exim4/exim-mainlog-*'
MTA_LOG_TYPE: 'exim'

Making the changes live in exim

Finally, execute the commands:

update-exim4.conf
service exim4 restart

Note that if the file /etc/exim4/exim4.conf exists then update-exim4.conf will silently do nothing. Some distributions include this file. If yours does, you will need to remove or rename it before running update-exim4.conf.

Troubleshooting (exim)

To test mail delivery, as a privileged user run:

exim4 -bt foi+request-1234@example.com

replacing example.com with your domain name. This should tell you which routers are being processed. You should see something like:

$ exim4 -bt foi+request-1234@example.com
R: alaveteli for foi+request-1234@example.com
foi+request-1234@example.com -> |/var/www/alaveteli/script/mailin
  transport = alaveteli_mailin_transport
R: alaveteli for backupfoi@your.machine.name
R: system_aliases for backupfoi@your.machine.name
R: userforward for backupfoi@your.machine.name
R: procmail for backupfoi@your.machine.name
R: maildrop for backupfoi@your.machine.name
R: lowuid_aliases for backupfoi@your.machine.name (UID 1001)
R: local_user for backupfoi@your.machine.name
backupfoi@your.machine.name
    <-- foi+request-1234@example.com
  router = local_user, transport = mail_spool

This tells you that the routing part (making emails to foi\+.*@example.com be forwarded to Alaveteli’s mailin script, and also sent to the local backup account) is working. You can test bounce message routing in the same way:

exim4 -bt user-support@example.com
R: alaveteli for user-support@example.com
user-support@example.com -> |/var/www/alaveteli/script/handle-mail-replies
  transport = alaveteli_mailin_transport

If emails are not being received by your Alaveteli install, we have some more troubleshooting tips for incoming mail in the next section. There is also a great Exim Cheatsheet online that you may find useful.

General Email Troubleshooting

First, you need to check that your MTA is delivering relevant incoming emails to the script/mailin command. There are various ways of setting your MTA up to do this; we have documented one way of doing it in Exim, including a command you can use to check that the email routing is set up correctly. We’ve also documented one way of setting up Postfix, with a similar debugging command.

Second, you need to test that the mailin script itself is working correctly, by running it from the command line, First, find a valid “To” address for a request in your system. You can do this through your site’s admin interface, or from the command line, like so:

$ ./script/console
Loading development environment (Rails 2.3.14)
>> InfoRequest.find_by_url_title("why_do_you_have_such_a_fancy_dog").incoming_email
=> "request-101-50929748@localhost"

Now take the source of a valid email (there are some sample emails in spec/fixtures/files/); edit the To: header to match this address; and then pipe it through the mailin script. A non-zero exit code means there was a problem. For example:

$ cp spec/fixtures/files/incoming-request-plain.email /tmp/
$ perl -pi -e 's/^To:.*/To: <request-101-50929748@localhost>/' /tmp/incoming-request-plain.email
$ ./script/mailin < /tmp/incoming-request-plain.email
$ echo $?
75

The mailin script emails the details of any errors to CONTACT_EMAIL (from your general.yml file). A common problem is for the user that the MTA runs as not to have write access to files/raw_emails/.

If everything seems fine locally, you should also check from another computer connected to the Internet that the DNS for your chosen domain indicates that your Alaveteli server is handling mail, and that your server is receiving mail on port 25. The following command is a query to ask which server is handling the mail for the domain example.com, which receives the answer mail.example.com.

$ host -t mx example.com
example.com mail is handled by 5 mail.example.com.

This next command tries to connect to port 25, the standard SMTP port, on mail.example.com, and is refused.

$ telnet mail.example.com 25
Trying 10.10.10.30...
telnet: connect to address 10.10.10.30: Connection refused

The transcript below shows a successful connection where the server accepts mail for delivery (the commands you would type are prefixed by a $):

$ telnet 10.10.10.30 25
Trying 10.10.10.30...
Connected to 10.10.10.30.
Escape character is '^]'.
220 mail.example.com ESMTP Exim 4.80 Tue, 12 Aug 2014 11:10:39 +0000
$ HELO X
250 mail.example.com Hello X [10.10.10.1]
$ MAIL FROM: <test@local.domain>
250 OK
$ RCPT TO:<foi+request-1234@example.com>
250 Accepted
$ DATA
354 Enter message, ending with "." on a line by itself
$ Subject: Test
$
$ This is a test mail.
$ .
250 OK id=1XHA03-0001Vx-Qn
QUIT