Joe Thomas

Jul 23, 2021

How to send emails from Dream

I recently learned the OCaml ecosystem has most of the libraries needed to build email features, but I wasn't able to find an example that brings all of those pieces together. I wanted a simple example I could easily adapt to build common account verification and password recovery workflows in the Dream web framework. This post is my attempt to solve that problem and explain what I learned in the process. The accompanying code can be found here.

Defining the problem

As an application developer, my main concerns when sending mail are:

  1. Trying to ensure the address I'm sending to is valid.
  2. Handling the email synthesis process asynchronously, so it doesn't block the web server from handling requests quickly.
  3. Transmitting the email content (SMTP or a REST API call)
  4. Monitoring that the applications messages aren't getting blocked/dropped for some reason.

To test how easily I could satisfy these requirements, I built a web app that lets the user send an arbitary email.

A screenshot of the email form.

The app has two parts:

  • A server process responsible for showing the form above and validating user inputs.
  • A "worker" process responsible for sending mail. The worker gets its tasks from a queue populated by the server.

Validating Email Addresses

I decided to utilize the library emile for address validation. An email address might be invalid for reasons outside of the application's control (like the domain going way), but emile at least provides a way to check a given string conforms to 5(!) RFCs relevant to parsing email addresses. Check out the tests to see the impressive diversity of valid email addresses on the web.

The library provides several different predicates for checking addresses. I utilized Emile.of_string, which generates a simple result type, like this:

let form_post request =
  match%lwt Dream.form request with
    | `Ok ["address", address; "message", message; "subject", subject ] ->
      let parse = Emile.of_string address in
      let alert = match parse with
        | Ok _ -> Printf.sprintf "Sent an email to %s." address
        | Error _ -> Printf.sprintf "%s is not a valid email address." address
      let queue_req = match parse with
        | Ok _ -> queue_email address subject message
        | Error _ -> Lwt.return_unit
    queue_req >>= (fun _ ->
        Dream.html (Template.show_form ~alert request))
    | _ -> Dream.empty `Bad_Request

This way, if a user provides an invalid address, the form displays a simple warning message and won't queue any email tasks.

Queuing Tasks with RabbitMQ

The second issue I needed to address is handling the email send process with a background worker (queue_email in the code excerpt above). Sending an email can be a slow process, especially if you need to make additional database queries or render images to produce a customized email. That shouldn't block the web server from quickly responding to the user's requests. Instead, the server should record the email task in a queue, to be handled by a background worker that isn't as sensitive to latency.

There are several different technologies that can be used to solve this problem, for example RabbitMQ, Redis and SQS. I decided to use RabbitMQ because I didn't want to tie my implementation to one cloud provider and RabbitMQ is supported by amqp-client on OPAM. This isn't the only way to go: for Redis and SQS, you might have success with the packages redis or aws-sqs, respectively.

The worker and server process share a common function for establishing a connection to RabbitMQ:

let rabbit_connection () =
  let%lwt connection = Connection.connect ~id:"dream" "localhost" in
  let%lwt channel = Connection.open_channel ~id:"email" Channel.no_confirm connection in
  let%lwt queue = Queue.declare channel ~arguments:[Rpc.Server.queue_argument] "email" in
  Lwt.return (channel, queue)

I was initially little confused about why I needed a "channel" when I already had a connection to the broker. Both the worker and the server connect to the RabbitMQ Broker via TCP. It's common for clients to need several connections to the broker, but it's costly to have many TCP connections. RabbitMQ lets us avoid this cost with channels, which are like "lightweight connections that share a single TCP connection", according to these docs.

I created this function to submit messages to the queue:

type email = {
  address: string;
  subject: string;
  text: string;
} [@@deriving yojson]

let queue_email address subject text =
  let email = {address; subject; text} in
  let text = email |> yojson_of_email |> Yojson.Safe.to_string in
  let%lwt channel, queue = rabbit_connection () in
  let%lwt _ = Queue.publish channel queue (Message.make text) in

Here the server writes the address, subject, and text into a record type that can be serialized to JSON before being pushed into the queue.

The worker process, queue_worker, is fairly simple to define:

let handle_message (m: Message.t) =
  let text = snd m.message in
  let email =
      Some (text |> Yojson.Safe.from_string |> email_of_yojson)
    with _ ->
      Printf.printf "Received invalid email record from RabbitMQ: %s" text;
  match email with
  | Some e -> send_email e
  | None -> Lwt.return_unit

let queue_worker () =
  Printf.printf "Starting Queue Worker\n";
  let%lwt channel, queue = rabbit_connection () in
  let rec handle () =
    Queue.get ~no_ack:true channel queue >>= fun message ->
    let task = match message with
      | Some m -> flush stdout; handle_message m
      | _ -> Printf.printf "No new tasks, waiting.\n"; flush stdout; Lwt_unix.sleep 5.
    task >>= handle
  handle ()

The worker consists of an infinite loop. When the worker wakes and finds tasks in the queue, it uses yojson to deserialize the messages and passes them to send_email. If no work is available, the worker just sleeps for 5 seconds.

Sending Email with cohttp and Mailgun

In order to send mail, I set up a trial Mailgun account. I selected this provider for several reasons:

  • Mailgun has a generous free tier (5000 emails).
  • A new account also comes with a "sandbox" domain, so I didn't have to deal with registering a domain.
  • Mailgun supports both a REST API and SMTP, allowing me to try different integrations.
  • Mailgun provides dashboards for tracking messages sent over time as well as emails that were rejected (bounced, marked as spam, etc.).

Mailgun's API allowed me to send an email by sending a POST with an API key and form data, like this:

let send_email (e: email) =
   let open Cohttp in
   let open Cohttp_lwt_unix in

   let api_key = Sys.getenv "MAILGUN_API_KEY" in
   let sender = Sys.getenv "MAILGUN_SEND_ADDRESS" in
   let api_base = Sys.getenv "MAILGUN_API_BASE" in

   let params = [
     ("from", [sender]);
     ("to", [e.address]);
     ("subject", [e.subject]);
     ("text", [e.text])
   ] in
   let cred = `Basic ("api", api_key) in
   let uri = api_base ^ "/messages" |> Uri.of_string in
   let headers = Header.add_authorization (Header.init ()) cred in
   let start =
     Printf.printf "Initiating email send to %s.\n" e.address;
     Unix.gettimeofday () in
   let%lwt resp, rbody = Client.post_form uri ~params ~headers in
   let%lwt finish = Unix.gettimeofday () |> Lwt.return in
   let%lwt rbody_str = (Cohttp_lwt.Body.to_string rbody) in
   Printf.printf "API Response Status: %d.\n" (Code.code_of_status resp.status);
   Printf.printf "API Response body %s.\n" rbody_str;
   Printf.printf "Time to send an email: %.2fs\n" (finish -. start);
   Lwt.return ()

The endpoint replies with either 200 and a JSON body like this:

  "id": "<some mailgun email address here>"
  "message": "Queued. Thank you."

or else a 400 and an explanation of why the request was rejected. In my tests, a successful API request typically took between 0.5 and 1 seconds. For comparison, the webserver can serve the email form in less than 200 microseconds, so the performance benefits to shifting email tasks to a background queue are nontrivial.

Sending email with SMTP

Mailgun supports SMTP but they recommend using their API, especially for sending large amounts of mail at once. I used letters to test their SMTP support with this script:

let body = Letters.Plain {|This is a test email body.|}

let send_email () =
  let config = (Letters.Config.make
      ~username: Sys.getenv "MAILGUN_SMTP_USER"
      ~password: Sys.getenv "MAILGUN_SMTP_PASSWORD"
  let sender = Sys.getenv "MAILGUN_SMTP_SENDER" in
  let recipients = [Letters.To (Sys.getenv "EMAIL_ADDRESS")] in
  let subject = "Test email from mailgun." in
  let mail = Letters.build_email ~from:sender ~recipients ~subject ~body in

  Printexc.record_backtrace true;
  match mail with
  | Ok message ->
       Letters.send ~config ~sender ~recipients ~message
      e ->
      Printf.printf "Error. %s\n" (Printexc.to_string e);
      Printexc.print_backtrace stdout;
  | Error _ -> Printf.printf "Message synthesis failed."; flush stdout; Lwt.return_unit

let () = @@ send_email ()

I ran into some difficulties because Mailgun does not consistently follow RFC 4954 (thanks to Calascibetta Romain for figuring out the problem and creating a patch). Once I applied the patch, I was able to send mail successfully.

I haven't fully explored the tradeoffs of using SMTP versus an API. The main goal of my experiements was to confirm that if I needed to integrate with a specific SMTP server, I knew how to do so.


This example focused on email, but task queues and background workers can be used to implement other important pieces of functionality for web applications. For example, I've utilized celery in the past to generate weekly reports and schedule recurring ETL jobs. This exercise was a nice opportunity to see how one would construct a system similar to celery in OCaml. It also provides a simple illustration of how we can utilize queues to facilitate horizontal scaling. If the volume of email requests grows too big for one machine, we can put the web server and the worker on separate instances or have multiple worker instances consuming from the email queue.

I didn't cover error handling in this example, but that's clearly an important piece of functionality to include when building a production email system. At a minimum, it would be useful to add a retry mechanism in the event that Mailgun is unavailable.


I found the resources below helpful for working on this project:

  • The amqp-client documentation, especially the examples were helpful for setting up with RabbitMQ.
  • The client tutorial was helpful for getting started with cohttp. Later, I utilized this section of the docs to understand that I needed to use post_form instead of post when interacting with Mailgun's API.


If you ended up looking through the source code for this example, let me know how what you thought! I'm interested in adding more tutorial resources to the OCaml ecosystem, so feel free to post a PR or issue to dream-email-example if you have ideas about how to make these resources better.