5 Cool Cypht Webmail Features

Cypht is the Open Source webmail program I have been toiling away on for the last few years. It stands out from the competition because of a few unique options, not that it doesn’t have its own warts. But let’s focus on the positive, and not talk about things like the painful installation process, outstanding bugs, or unfinished features. I wouldn’t be doing a very good job converting this blog into a propaganda platform for the project with a title like “5 Shitty Cypht Webmail Features“. Also, I’m a dork. What I think qualifies as cool is known to be subjective.

1. Stand Alone Authentication
Pretty boring opener, but bear with me. Typically webmail programs are designed to point to an E-mail source, like an IMAP or POP3 server, for authentication. They pass the username and password you give them on to the E-mail server, which then tells the webmail program if you are legit or bogus. Cypht boldly (not really) breaks this paradigm by splitting authentication from your E-mail sources.

We support using LDAP or a database to authenticate users, as well as the old-school method of using a pre-configured IMAP or POP3 server. Adding new authentication mechanisms is designed to be easy (relatively), so any source that can verify your username and password can be coded up. We even support a dynamic login process that lets you pick from common E-mail service providers, and can auto-discover E-mail services for a domain (sometimes).

2. Combined Views
Cypht provides combined lists of E-mail messages from all your accounts. One of the reasons I started working on yet another webmail program, was because I wanted this feature. I spend 95% of my time using these views for my E-mail needs, and very little time browsing folders and pages like it’s 1999 (though Cypht supports this as well)

Show me the latest 20 unread messages from each of my accounts over the last 2 weeks in one list? Done. Search for the boarding pass I misplaced even though I forgot which E-mail account I used to make the reservation, and the plane takes off in 5 minutes? Done (this actually happened to me). If you have more than one E-mail account, combined views quickly become the bee’s knees. If you only have one E-mail address, you probably should have skipped this section.

3. Module Sets
Plugins are cool. Module sets are cooler. First of all, they sound cooler. Secondly, module sets are not just a way to bolt on features. Cypht is entirely built of module sets, and a framework to run them. Only one is required, the “core” set. It does things like basic page layout and login/logout. Everything else (IMAP, SMTP, POP3, RSS, contacts, profiles, the list goes on) is its own module set, and can be enabled or disabled independently.

As if that wasn’t the ultimate in coolness, there’s more! Module sets can override each other. Don’t like the default behavior of a core module? You can change it without hacking a single line of Cypht code by creating your own module set that overrides it. I need a sweater it’s getting so cool in here! There is even some poorly written documentation about module sets for aspiring developers.

4. Focus on Security
Security is serious business for a webmail program. So many attack vectors! From filtering out nasties, to TLS everywhere, to encrypting data at rest – Cypht goes the extra mile to try to cover all the bases. Cypht was built with security and privacy as core design principles.

Securing a complex web application is a process, and we welcome feedback and suggestions to continue to improve. For the gory details, check out our security page with a list of impressive sounding technical stuff.

5. Production and Debug Mode
Cypht has two modes of operation. “Debug” mode is what you use when troubleshooting issues or doing development. “Production” mode is what you use when … in production. Debug mode fire-hoses your PHP log with information about each request, enables all errors and warnings, and activates new modules as you create them for a quick write-then-test cycle. Production mode uses combined and minfied assets, silences warnings, and pre-calculates module dependencies.

If you are looking for a different kind of webmail, one that is lightweight, secure, and has a complicated install process -check out Cypht. Or don’t. It’s cool.

Cypht: New Open Source Webmail

I suck at product announcements, probably because I have no perceptible marketing skills. Usually I just whip out a list of technical details that even I can’t edit because I fall asleep by the third bullet point – A list that significantly limits the number of people who care one iota about what I’m blathering on about. What was I blathering on about? That’s right, sucky product announcements. Let’s pile another one on the heap, shall we?

This is the official wiz-bang super exciting announcement for a NEW shiny NEW Open Source webmail program called “Cypht” (pronounced “sift”). Did I mention it was NEW? New does not necessarily mean better you say? Well, I had not thought about that before deciding to emphasize it. Seriously however, in the world of Open Source webmail, new is actually exciting (and subjective I guess since I have been working on this for like a year already).

Will this software disrupt the E-mail paradigm while streamlining workflow to maximize interpersonal communication channels using a ground breaking application stack and development process? Nope. From a user perspective it’s like a lot of web-based E-mail programs you are already familiar with. From a developer perspective the code is experimental, with a focus on a smart overall design that offsets some of the downfalls of building a complex program in PHP.

Wait, don’t go just because I said PHP. It’s not like the other PHP based webmail programs I have worked on, but it’s also not just another vanilla web-based E-mail client. One of the core ideas and most interesting features is the concept of viewing aggregated E-mail from multiple sources, without actually forwarding the messages to a central account. Let me esplain:

I have a few Gmail accounts. An old Yahoo E-mail. Throw in a few other domains I own and I have about 5 or so accounts I want to keep up with (to varying degrees). I don’t want to auto-forward them all to a single account, I like keeping my work E-mail separate from my personal messages. So I said to myself,

“Self, why not build a webmail application that does that? One that could give self fast access to a list of all the unread messages in all self’s inboxes from the last 2 days. Or something like that. Oh and search and stuff.”

And so it came to pass, that said webmail was created and continues to be tinkered with. I have droned on endlessly about this software on this blog in the past, so if you are one of the people who came here for the “Linux on a Macbook Pro” post (which is why most people come here) and clicked on the wrong link, this probably sounds familiar.

Since this is not really new, not even new to this blog, why the awful product announcement? Is it just an excuse to rehash old post material until someone pays attention to your stupid program? Maybe, but I think we are getting a little off-track, and for the record its my blog so I will be the one asking the questions around here partner.

Did I mention I like lists of technical details? Here comes one!

  • Really small page sizes, like the entire page + JS + CSS + Ajax requests is less than the Google home page. With normal browser caching and HTML5 local session storage the data transferred is reduced to a stupifyingly small amount.
  • An extra emphasis on security and privacy throughout the application. This is an Open Source program meant to be safe and useful, not an ad generating machine mining your E-mail.
  • It’s not your dad’s webmail! Unless you are one of my daughters in which case it is your dad’s webmail.
  • Valid HTML5 pages with accessibility friendly markup and mobile views.
  • A module system that is like a plugin system on crank. It’s all friggen modules!
  • At this point in development, Cypht is a decent E-mail and news reader with limited outbound message support (in this context limited means don’t use it).
  • A huge following on Github of 1, combined with a large developer base of 1. This thing is taking off I tell you!
  • A website with tons of impressive sounding acronyms like IMAP, POP3, SMTP, HHVM, RSS, SSL, PHP, 2FA, PBKDF2, AES, and more!
  • Other stuff!

Still here? I’m as surprised as you are. This concludes today’s craptacular product announcement. This blog will now return to its irregular schedule of posts about video games or goats or whatever.

The Itch I Can’t Stop Scratching

My first official contribution to an Open Source software project was way back in 2002.  I was solving a problem for my employer, and ended up becoming a developer for the venerable Squirrelmail project. It was an exciting time. The community was vibrant, active, and surprisingly welcoming to a near-complete novice willing to get their hands dirty. Looking back at the code I wrote lo those many years ago makes me want to gouge my eyes out with red-hot sporks, but I can’t deny the impact contributing to that project had on both my mindset and career path. Since then my involvement in Open Source has waxed and waned, but has always remained. That seemingly innocent interaction sparked a lifelong interest in webmail applications, and I have been tinkering with them ever since.

After a brief 5-year stint writing mostly Python and C++ , I started working with PHP full-time again last May when I joined Automattic. I realized pretty soon after starting that my skills were rusty. Like PHP4 rusty. I needed to experiment with the latest-greatest the language had to offer, but in a safe way, and on my own terms. For the third time in my life, I decided to unleash yet another Open Source webmail client on the world. That surge of excitement you are not feeling at this point is totally understandable. Especially considering the code I wrote the first two times would best be stowed away in the “how not to write complex software” file.

I set out with a newly provisioned github repo, the enthusiasm of someone half my age, and some lofty goals:

  1. Build a client with combined views from multiple E-mail accounts, able to speak both IMAP and POP3, and flexible enough to merge other data sources
  2. Turn security up to 11. Perhaps 12
  3. Make it fast, compact, and compliant
  4. Utilize a modular system that all components outside the bare bones framework use. Like an uber-plugin system the whole app runs on
  5. Do all this while pushing myself to learn what great features new versions of PHP have to offer

To get started, I ferreted out and cleaned up the core IMAP, POP3, and SMTP routines from my last webmail project. While I was at it, I modernized the IMAP library to support some useful protocol extensions, and even built some unit tests *gasp*. These libs have been battle-tested against real world server idiosyncrasies for over a decade, so while they may not be ideal from a code design standpoint, they have an established record of compatibility. This is important when dealing with complex protocols that have a myriad of server implementations. I’m looking at you IMAP.

Next I set out to create a simple request and response processing framework – one that uses “modules” to do the real work of building the resulting page. The framework is lightweight (request processing uses on average 2MB of server memory), and leverages some nifty code features. With a framework in place, the next step was to start cranking out module sets for specific functionality. I started with core requirements like laying out the page content and logging in and out. Next I dove into IMAP, since it would be the primary protocol for E-mail access, and easily the most complicated data source to implement.

9 months later I am happy to say I have a pleasant to use E-mail and RSS reader including preliminary SMTP support for outbound mail (very preliminary). It’s easy on the server and the browser, and has some interesting features for combined content views. It is still very much a work in progress, but here are some highlights:

  • Super small pages with minimal server requests. A single page load only requires 3 HTTP requests with a combined response size of about 30KB (gzipped). Email and Feed data are populated via one parallel AJAX call per source, with response sizes of ~1KB. All interface icons are served inline with data urls to keep request count low.
  • Oodles of security features: TLS/STARTTLS support for all protocols; forced HTTPS for browser requests; secure HTTP-only session level cookies; AES compatible encryption for session and persistent data using unique keys; white-listed and typed user input; built-in HTTP POST nonce enforcement; HTTP header fingerprinting; easy output escaping; a two factor authentication module; probably more I’m forgetting.
  • Modules for IMAP, POP3, SMTP, RSS, and several other app components with more on the way. Modules can be enabled or disabled independently. The module system is super flexible and lends itself to some interesting customization options. It might even turn out to be too flexible.
  • Easy-to-extend session management including stock PHP session support and custom DB sessions. The DB session support is not a registered PHP session handler – it is a completely independent implementation.
  • Authentication is also easy to extend and already supports authenticating via IMAP, POP3, or an included PBKDF2 compliant database schema.
  • Database access is not required (unless used for authentication), but can be leveraged for session and persistent data storage with any PDO supported DB. Table definitions are included for Mysql and Postgresql.
  • Validated HTML5 output, including responsive views for mobile devices and HTLM5 local session storage for caching.
  • Lots of other boring technical details really neat stuff!

I could ramble on about this forever, better stop now before I get carried away. No post about half-done probably soon-to-be obsolete software is complete without at least one screenshot. Here is a look at the interface with a combined view of 9 different RSS feeds.

hm3_feedsIt’s not only been a great learning experience to work on this code, it’s been a lot of fun too. The repository is at http://github.com/jasonmunro/hm3/ for anyone who wants to take a look. Documentation is scarce and things are changing quickly, so if you do check it out, use caution :).