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guam: an IMAP session filter/proxy

guam: an IMAP session filter/proxy

These days, the bulk of my work at Kolab Systems does not involve writing code. I have been spending quite a bit of time on the business side of things (and we have some genuinely exciting things coming in 2016), customer and partner interactions, as well as on higher-level technical design and consideration. So I get to roll around Roundcube Next, Kube (an Akonadi2-based client for desktop and mobile ... but more on that another time), Kolab server hardware pre-installs .. and that's all good and fun. Still, I do manage to write a bit of code most weeks, and one of the projects I've been working on lately is an IMAP filter/proxy called Guam.

I've been wanting to blog about it for a while, and as we are about to roll version 0.4 I figured now is as good a time as any.

The Basics of Guam

Guam provides a simple framework to alter data being passed between an IMAP client and server in real time. This "interference" is done using sets of rules. Each port that Guam listens has a set of rules with their own order and configuration. Initially rules start out passive and based on the data flow may elect to become active. Once active, a rule gets to peek at the data on the wire and may take whatever actions it wish, including altering that data before it gets sent on. In this way rules may alter client messages as well as server responses; they may also record or perform other out-of-band tasks. The imagination is the limit, really.

Use Cases

The first practical use case Guam is fulfilling is selective hiding of folders from IMAP clients. Kolab stores groupware data such as calendars, notes, tags and more in plain old IMAP folders. Clients that connect over IMAP to a Kolab server which are not aware of this get shown all those folders. I've even heard of users who have seen these folders and delete them thinking they were not supposed to be there, only to then wonder where the heck their calendars went. ;)

So there is a simple rule called filter_groupware_folders that tries to detect if the client is a Kolab-aware client by looking at the ID string it sends and if it does not look like a Kolab client it goes about filtering out those groupware folders. Kolab continues on as always, and IMAP clients do as well but simply do not see those other special folders. Problem solved.

But Guam can be used for much more than this simple, if rather practical, use case. Rules could be written that prevent downloading of attachments from mobile devices, or accessing messages marked as top-secret when being accessed from outside an organization's firewall. Or they could limit message listings to just the most recent or unread ones and provide access to that as a special service on a non-standard port. They could round-robin between IMAP servers, or direct different users to different IMAP servers transparently. And all of these can be chained in whichever order suits you.

The Essential Workings

The two most important things to configure in Guam are the IMAP servers to be accessed and the ports to accept client connections on.

Listener configuration includes the interface and port to listen on, TLS settings, which IMAP backend to use and, of course, the rule set to apply to traffic. IMAP server configuration includes the usual host/port and TLS preferences, and the listeners refer to them by name. It's really not very complicated. :)

Rules are implemented in Guam as Erlang modules which implement a simple behavior (Erlangish for "interface"): new/1, applies/3, apply_to_client_message/3, apply_to_server_message/3, and optionally imap_data/3. The name of the module defines the name of the rule in the config: a rule named foobar would be implemented in a module named kolab_guam_rule_foobar.

... and for a quick view that's about all there is to it!

Under the hood

I chose to write it in Erlang because the use case is pretty much perfect for it: lots of simultaneous connections that must be kept separate from one another. Failure in any single connection (including a crash of some sort in the code) does not interfere with any other connection; everything is asynchronous while remaining simple (the core application is a bit under 500 lines of code); and Erlang's VM scales very well as you add cores. In other words: stability, efficiency, simplicity.

Behind the scenes, Guam uses an Erlang IMAP client library that I've been working on called eimap. I won't get any awards for creativity in the naming of it, certainly, but "erlang IMAP" does what it says on the box: it's IMAP in Erlang. That code base is rather larger than the Guam one, and is quite interesting in its own right: finite state machines! passthrough modes! commands as independent modules! async and multi-process! ooh! aaaaaah! sparkles! eimap is a very easy project to get your fingers dirty with (new commands can be implemented in well under 6 lines of code) and will be used by a number of applications in future. More in the next blog entry about that, however.

In the meantime, if you want to get involved, check out the git repo, read the docs in there and take a look at the Guam workboard.

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