MIME, Dreaming of a White Christmas
Making an Email
I maintain a lot of Perl email code, and one of the most popular modules I maintain is Email::Simple. It was written to make a very simple class for looking at email documents. It didn't let you do much, and its implementation assumed that you wouldn't even go very far using the interface it provided. That's fine: it said, "here is a very simple tool for performing very simple operations on this very complicated thing, email." Unfortunately, sometimes we latch onto the dream -- the other way to read Email::Simple's name -- that email, itself, is simple. Sadly, it just isn't.
One of the most common kinds of email to send is a form letter. You want to send an invoice or welcome message, and you want to fill in the details for this purchase or customer. This is a simple thing to think about doing, and it's something we do a lot, so it seems like it should be really straightforward. Frustratingly, this is about as simple as it gets:
Yow! That's a lot of code, and a lot of it looks stupid and boring. Also, there are a bunch of bugs. If the customer's real name contains special characters (and I mean more than just 8-bit), the headers will be illegal. We probably made a mistake by stringifying the customer's "address" attribute in the plain text template (but not in the HTML template). We didn't specify any kind of encoding for the text parts, so there might be more bugs there.
Email::Stuff is designed to make this a bunch simpler, replacing the
Email::MIME->create call with:
That's a lot better! Still, we're going to end up with encoding bugs, our templates diverged, and there are other more subtle problems. For example, what if we accidentally pass in the wrong kind of object for
$customer? It might throw an exception when we try to call methods on it setting the
to header, but it might not happen until the Template Toolkit template, so that exception might just translate to missing data. It's a mess.
Making Email Simple
Email::MIME::Kit is designed to make it easy to write templates that get constructed into one email, abstracting the boring details and making it as easy as possible to add new features.
Here's an example of a fully-loaded message kit (or mkit (pron. "em kit"), as we call them at work), both on disk and in the code that sends it. We'll make a directory, welcome.mkit, which is the mkit itself. In it, we'll stick a bunch of files, starting with manifest.yaml (often manifest.json instead), which configures the kit as a whole:
This file explains how the message will be built. It says we'll validate the input using Rx, render templates using TT2, and then construct the message using the Markdown-style assembler. The Markdown assembler is the least straightforward bit of that, so let's look at it first.
It says: We've got a file, body.mkdn, which is Markdown. We'll render that Markdown as a TT2 template, wrap it up in some boilerplate, and use that as the plain text part. Then we'll take that Markdown and render it into HTML, wrap that in some boilerplate, and use that as the HTML part.
In other words, we'll get a easy to read plain text part and a pretty HTML part, and they'll have identical content. So, for the message we were sending, above, we might have this Markdown file:
Unless told otherwise, Email::MIME::Kit assumes you're working in Unicode with files stored in UTF-8 and takes care of encoding for you. Now you've got one template, identical across both alternatives, and all that remains is to validate the input. We declared we'd use the Rx schema system, and we'll put a schema in rx.json in our mkit directory.
Now we'll refuse to even build an email unless we were given a valid customer object. How do we actually build the message? It's easy.
At this point, we've written fewer total lines of code than we did in the very first example and have gotten a far superior result: fewer bugs are possible and all the "this email as a template" data are stored safely out of the way. This is also just the tip of the iceberg: mkits make it easy to write much more powerful templates and to share common components. They can also be used with fewer of their features, getting you fewer bug-preventing measures, but still plenty of benefit over other techniques.
In almost all non-trivial cases, mkits are a win over other methods of sending form letters -- and Email::MIME::Kit is still getting better.