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Last updated: 19 Oct 2020

email-alert-api: 6. Email Delivery Responsibilities

Date: 2020-10-23


Email, as an asynchronous communication medium, inherently has two boolean scenarios that need to be true for an email to be received. An email has to be sent to a mail server and the mail server then needs to deliver the email to the recipient's mail server. Resolving whether an email is sent is a rather simple question that can be resolved synchronously - "did the mail server accept the email?" - however, determining whether an email is received is more complex as delivery is not synchronous and may be subject to automated retrying should any problems occur. Typically, in the medium of email, clients only consider the first scenario in reporting an email's status, this is the point an email becomes sent. The latter scenario, delivery, isn't typically reflected in email clients, it is normal to assume the email was received successfully unless later you receive an email indicating a bounce has occurred.

The initial Email Alert API Notify integration was designed to consider both the sending and delivery of email. It had systems to monitor whether Notify had managed to deliver an email to a recipient and an automatic retry mechanism for when Notify had problems delivering an email.

In September 2020 we decided to re-evaluate this concept conflation as we were concerned that Notify functionality was duplicated in Email Alert API and that this had an adverse effect on the complexity of the system.


We decided that Email Alert API has a responsibility to send email, but does not have a responsibility to deliver it. That is the responsibility of Notify.

We defined that, in the context of Email Alert API, the process of sending email was the ability to successfully send a request to Notify to perform this action - we consider this the equivalent of a mail client successfully sending an email to an SMTP server. We then consider the Notify callback as the mechanism to learn if an email was delivered or not.

To reflect this we have switched the meaning of an email's status. A status of "sent" now means that the email was accepted by Notify and not that the email was delivered. A status of "failed" now means we weren't able to send the email to Notify, instead of the previous meaning where it meant that it may not have been sent to Notify or Notify failed to deliver the email.




We no longer retry delivering emails ourselves

Notify, via Amazon SES, will automatically retry the delivery of emails that fail for transitory reasons (such as the recipient's mail server being full or offline). If it doesn't succeed in a reasonable period of time Notify will inform us by telling us an email has experienced a "temporary-failure".

Email Alert API no longer has its own retry mechanism to re-attempt emails that have failed to be delivered. This resolves an aspect of duplicated functionality between the two systems and an area of ambiguity as to how long Email Alert API should retry for. With this removed there are no longer attempts to resend an email should the first delivery fail, this allowed us to delete the DeliveryAttempt model as the purpose of this was to disambiguate between different Notify requests.

We no longer record delivery data with an email

A question we pondered with these changes was "what should do with the data we receive from Notify about the delivery of emails?". This data no longer plays a role in the state modelling of email sending, so we decided it should not be represented in an email's status. (it conflated what a failure to send an email meant - was this failure to send or failure to deliver?).

We decided that we did not need to store delivery success or failure in the database with the email. This is because there is not currently a known use of this data and, since the email table only has a 7-day retention period, it can be added later to meet any later needs that are identified. The data remains available via the Notify UI for debugging whether emails were delivered.

We continue to act on "permanent-failure" notifications and remove subscriptions for non-operational email addresses - this can be done without storing additional data with the email. We also continue to store aggregate metrics about email sending which power dashboards.