Sending Email & Notifications

Sending notifications is key to delivering great service. A growing user base means distributing the effort and shrinking the time it takes to get emails and messages to your users.

Sending notifications is a required part of almost any application or service. Whether it's sending email verification emails, texting users, sending out a newsletter, emailing usage data, or even a more complicated use case, it's important for you to keep in communication with your users.

This communication never really needs to block requests, however. Notifications are asynchronous by nature, which makes them a perfect match for Iron.io's services. As your application grows, your notification system needs to scale with your user base and usage. This, again, is something that the elastic, on-demand, massively scalable Iron.io architecture supports out of the box.

Notifications diagram

Basics

Notification workers generally follow the same three-step process:

  1. Create Your Workers. Create different workers to handle a variety of emails and notifications—alerts, daily summaries, weekly updates, personalized offers, special notices, and more.
  2. Choose Your Delivery Gateway. Use an SMTP gateway like SendGrid or an API like Android C2DM and Twilio to manage the actual sending, monitoring, and analysis of the delivery step.
  3. Process and Send Notifications in Parallel. Use IronWorker to handle the processing and interface with the gateway. Queue up thousands of jobs at once or use scheduled jobs to send messages at set times.

The Worker

The worker can also be split up into three major steps: initializing the notification headers, preparing and sending the notification, and signaling exceptions and recording the status.

For a detailed example using SendGrid, IronWorker, and ActionMailer, check out our blog post.

Preparing the Headers

Based on your gateway, your language, and your library, this step may be trivial. It consists largely of configuring the sender, the subject, and other information that is common to all the notifications.

Preparing the Notification

This will again depend on your specific implementation, but this will almost always consist of a loop through the users you want to notify. If the notifications are customized on a per-user basis, this is when the message would be generated. Finally, the worker sends the mail or notification.

Signaling Exceptions & Recording Status

This step is an important one if stability and logging are important to your notifications. "Signaling Exceptions" simply means notifying your application when something goes wrong--this can be as simple as a callback to an HTTP request endpoint, pushing a message to IronMQ, or flagging a notification in the database. However you want to do it, you should implement a way to trigger retries on notifications. Scheduled workers can help in this: simply schedule a worker to run every hour or every day and retry emails or notifications that threw errors or failed. If a messge fails a certain number of times, bring it to the attention of your team, as it probably indicates a bug in your worker.

Recording status is important for providing an audit log. It's often important to know that, e.g., the user was warned about their overdue status. You should log that the notification or email was successfully sent, along with the timestamp.

Sending in Parallel

Notifications and emails can often need to be sent in a timely fashion; users are often not impressed with 9 hour delays between an event and receiving a notification of it. As your usage and user base grow, a single task that processes notifications one at a time will quickly become inadequate.

As with the transformation of a 9-hour job to a 9-minute job, the solution to this lies in massive parallelisation. By queuing tens, hundreds, or thousands of tasks to manage your queue, you can process a staggering amount of notifications and emails in a brief time period. Many hands makes light work.

Workers do have a setup time, and sending a notification is a pretty quick action. To try to make the most of the setup time, we usually recommend that tasks run for at least several minutes. The most straight-forward architecture, queuing a task for each notification, will work—it's just not the most efficient method available. A more elegant model would be to batch notifications into tens or hundreds, then queue that batch, instead of all tasks or just one.

Using IronMQ to Guarantee Delivery

IronMQ uses a get-delete paradigm that keeps messages on the queue until they are explicitly deleted, but reserves them for short periods of time for clients to prevent duplicate handling. This architecture makes it really easy to implement messages that will automatically retry. As long as a message is not removed from the queue until after the worker sends it, any error that causes the worker to fail or sending to fail will result in the message being returned to the queue to be tried again, without any intervention or error-handling on your part.

Furthermore, IronMQ can be used for tightly controlled parallelisation. Assuming messages are queued up, workers can be spun up to consume the queue until it is empty. This allows you to spin up as many workers as you want, working in parallel with no modification to your code or batching. You can avoid overloading an API or database with thousands of simultaneous requests through this tight control over the number of running workers.

More Info

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