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SparkPost


About a month ago, I received an email at work from the company which develops our school administration software. The email advised us that the company was planning to migrate their backend email delivery provider from Mandrill to SparkPost. We were advised that if we wanted to keep mail delivery free we’d sign up for an account with SparkPost. The email was poorly worded, as both my colleague and I assumed that the change over was going to be happening in a matter of days. Since our school sends out tons of email via the admin package, I acted quickly and got us signed up for a free account.

After getting signed up, I got the company to switch the backend provider on our account over to SparkPost, which worked correctly. I was advised to set up SPF and DKIM records in our DNS zone so that mail sent via SparkPost would be far less likely to be rejected as SPAM. It took me a bit of research on the correct way to set up these records, most especially the SPF record. We have mail coming from our domain from both SparkPost and our MX records, so both need to be covered. A catch is that your SPF record cannot require more than 10 DNS lookups or it would be not be considered a valid record. It took me a bit of fiddling to find the right balance, but I got it done eventually. As a bonus, the SPF record should help get mail delivered to Gmail recipients quicker – we’ve often have long delays in mail getting delivered to Gmail in the past probably due to the lack of the SPF record.

Once term started and users started sending mail, some problems came to light, namely that a lot of mail was simply being rejected as SPAM and that pulling out the list of automatically suppressed email addresses was impossible via the web interface. The SPAM problem comes from the fact that some of the IP addresses used in SparkPost’s free tier pool have been tainted by other users. Since we have no control over which server sends the mail, it’s a crap shoot in which mail gets through and what is blocked as SPAM. One solution is to upgrade to a paid tier and buy dedicated IP addresses, but this was not something we had budgeted for and as such isn’t a viable option just yet.

Contacting their support, I asked for help. I got a reply that apologised, told me that they were terminating accounts for SPAMMING and that they had made some change that would hopefully help our account. Time will tell if that really is the case. We cannot afford to regularly have 20 odd % of our mail routinely fail to deliver because it’s identified as SPAM due to a tainted IP address.

Getting the suppression list was a challenge. I found a command on their blog which would pull it out of a command line using cURL, a Unix tool. This displays a raw bit of JSON code on the command line which includes all the suppressed emails and reasons why it was suppressed. It took me quite some time to figure out that I could echo this output using the > command to a text file with the entire output of the command. Then I needed to get this processed into something I could use, preferably a CSV file for import into Excel. Thankfully I found an website that does just that – website here. Armed with the now useful CSV file, I imported into Excel and made a spreadsheet for our registrar to follow up with the relevant parents so that we can get correct email addresses.

This whole adventure with SparkPost has taught me quite a bit about email out there on the internet, especially when you operate on a bulk scale. It’s also taught me that the spammers have really ruined email as a communication tool. I struggle to explain to staff in plain English why exactly their email isn’t getting delivered, as the concepts are not straight forward for people who don’t have the faintest clue of how email delivery actually works.

Still, SparkPost should be useful in the long run, especially if they get their tainted IP problem sorted out. I have more insight now into the process than I did when Mandrill was the backend delivery tool. I get the feeling that at this point in time, SparkPost is still very much a programmer’s tool rather than something that is geared towards end users. Hopefully in time SparkPost will make their website more user friendly and capable, which will greatly elevate the service I think, especially for a non-programmer like myself who simply needs to get something done.

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