Friday, January 22, 2010

Developing new account types, part 0: An introduction

This series of blog posts discusses the creation of a new account type implemented in JavaScript. Over the course of these blogs, I use the development of my Web Forums extension to explain the necessary actions in creating new account types. I hope to add a new post once every two weeks (I cannot guarantee it, though).

Before I begin the actual discussion, let me give some background. The ability to develop new account types has been my biggest extension goal for about two years now. Probably because of its difficulty, I know of only two extensions that have tried to do it: what is now the RSS code, and Webmail. In the first case, the implementer resorted to creating a binary component for the incoming server; in the latter, the implementer wrote a fake IMAP (and POP, SMTP) server to proxy the information to the web interface.

Some preliminary points: making a new account type is not a Good First Extension. You will need a fair amount of XPCOM experience, and probably decent experience at delving into implementations of undocumented interfaces. How much XUL and DOM (for stuff like webscraping) you use is up to you. MDC has a guide on building a Thunderbird extension from scratch. It is also probably not a bad idea to get comfortable with manual preference editing.

I am also trying a different form of development in this guide. This is not being done via my more common method of manually editing HTML by hand, but by writing in Kompozer. I'm also attempting to get more code included in my posts, and hopefully some images as well (the last part will be hardest). Like my first guide, I do expect that this will be adapted into a series of documents on MDC at some point. Some more reference-oriented documentation will be posted on MDC as I write this.

I personally use a debug version of Thunderbird, on Linux, very near the tip as the source code as the basis for my extension development (my regular profile is some 370 MB of stuff I don't dare threaten with developmental work). This is the same build I do patch development on, so I will rely on patches in said tree from time to time. One patch in particular is required [1], but otherwise, it should work on 1.9.2 and probably 1.9.1 as well.

This guide is structured to first demonstrate the actual activity components (e.g., displaying messages) and only cover configuration (e.g., the wizard to create a new account) when the more basic stuff has been completed. Therefore, you will need to get comfortable with editing configuration files by hand if you follow these steps exactly.

Backend introduction

So, let's start with an overview of the backend interfaces in mailnews. A list of the interfaces a front-end widget might use to talk to an account is: nsIMsgAccount, nsIMsgDatabase, nsIMsgDBView [2], nsIMsgFolder, nsIMsgDBHdr, nsIMsgIdentity, nsIMsgIncomingServer, nsIMsgMailNewsUrl, nsIMsgMessageService, nsIMsgProtocolInfo, nsIChannel, nsIProtocolHandler, and nsIRDFResource. Many of these would need to be implemented, and a few of them are not in any way small; to implement nsIMsgFolder would require a total of 186 methods, setters, and getters (as of this writing), many of which are not well-documented.

In reality, implementations are not from scratch. Everything tends to boil down into two or five different implementing classes: the server, the service, the folder, the url, and the database (there is also typically a protocol implementation as well). Of these, only the service is implemented from scratch, and it gets the simplest interfaces to implement. When I said "two or five," I am referring to the fact that there are actually two types of accounts. The first type, which only has to implement a server and service, can be called mailbox accounts: all of the messages are downloaded into local folders [3]. The second type implements all of the above, as the messages are generally stored on the server and downloaded on demand (or cached).

Of these two types, the less interesting is the first one. I will therefore generally ignore this account type. If you want to make such an account type, look at the RSS implementation for guidelines. The primary distinction is that mailbox accounts lack their own folder types, and therefore databases and URLs. In such a case, all you need to worry about is delivering the messages.

Following is a description of the major implemented components:

The server represents the source of messages for an account. It also serves as the per-account configuration information for implementers. For example, NNTP stores the maximum connection limit to a server off of this implementation.
The folder represents a container of messages. Ultimately, the UI interacts more with folders than with servers, at least on a regular basis. This is the most complex interface to deal with, primarily because it can be hard to tell precisely what you need to implement versus what (eventually) calls back on some other message.
The database represents a store of a subset of message information. It generally stores by default what NNTP would call overview information (enough to create a threaded message list), plus some flags like read status, as well as some information that extensions which to preserve.
The service is more of a "how-to" guide for accounts. This is the external endpoint for ultimately copying messages, viewing messages, etc. Note that this is the only service implementation, so the actual server communication code typically happens in a different implementation.
URLs are what the name implies. It's how one refers to messages, folders, and servers, although only messages are typically instantiated with the object in question. They also tend to be used as the primary internal communication system.
The protocol instance represents a connection to a server. Unlike the other implementations, this one is not mandatory and is typically not visible via the "main" interfaces (nsIChannel is perhaps the most useful one they export). I suspect this is primarily useful for binary protocols, but I have not yet delved far enough into creating a new account to say for certain.

Important interfaces and their interactions

The center of an account is represented by the nsIMsgAccount. To get an idea for the amount of interfaces involved, look at the collaboration diagrams for nsIMsgAccount and nsIMsgFolder.

nsIMsgAccount represents an account. The interface itself is not terribly useful—it's mostly just a step on the way to get to a server or an identity.

nsIMsgIdentity represents an identity. Identities are essentially a way of persisting compose settings; since their use is wholly related to compose code, I will not discuss them in detail until later parts of the guide.

nsIMsgIncomingServer, as mentioned earlier, represents a message source. This is one of the interfaces you will have to implement, although much of it is already done for you. Everything that is specific to a server hangs off of this interface; everything that is specific to a folder hangs off of nsIMsgFolder; folders are accessible via the root folder of a server.

nsIMsgFolder, as mentioned earlier, represents a container of messages. This is one of the interfaces that has to be implemented, unless you are using a mailbox account. All folders have a database.

nsIMsgDatabase represents the message store overview. This has to be implemented if you are implementing nsIMsgFolder (unless you want to be sneaky). Databases are used to get at thread and header information, via nsIMsgThread and nsIMsgDBHdr, respectively. Messages themselves have numerous representations: URIs, header objects, message keys, and (sometimes) message IDs. Conversion between these forms is common.

nsIDBFolderInfo represents folder properties normally stored in the database. All of these properties are also stored in the folder cache (nsIMsgFolderCache) to avoid opening up all of the databases just to figure out how many unread messages are in each folder.

nsIMsgAccountManager and nsIMsgBiffManager are two managers that handle account creation and the periodic mail download (generally called biff), respectively. Expect to see these calling your code a lot.

nsIMsgDBView represents the thread pane view. This is going to be the primary consumer of nsIMsgDatabase, and this is where you should go to look to find out what happens if, e.g., you select a new message.

nsIMsgFilterList, nsIMsgFilterPlugin, nsIMsgFilterService, and nsIMsgFilter are the interfaces that deal with filtering. None of these will have to be implemented to support filtering [4].

The nsIMsgSearch* interfaces are those that deal with search (there are around 9 of them). Most of these will not have to be implemented to support searching. More on this when searching is discussed.

nsIMsgWindow represents the bridge to the front-end. It is passed into many functions, although it may be null, typically when being invoked from the backend.

nsIMsgMailNewsUrl represents the URL object that loads a message. This will generally have to be implemented if nsIMsgFolder is.

nsIMsgProtocolInfo represents the basic information about an account type's capabilities. This interface is one that is required to be implemented. As the name implies, it is generally geared towards the capabilities of the connection to the server.

nsIMsgMessageService and nsIMsgMessageFetchPartService represent the ability to retrieve the message (and message parts, more often known as attachments [5]). This is another interface that one must implement if folders are being implemented.

The MIME, compose, and import interfaces are omitted from this list of backend interfaces, as these are topics that will not be discussed for a while, and I am not certain they are useful to know about making new account types at present.


  1. The purpose behind this patch is to enable extensions to reuse files from base/utils like C++ components can. If you were to adapt this to use C++ instead of JS, this patch would not be necessary. As the comments in the linked bug indicate, there is no guarantee that this will be implemented for Thunderbird 3.1; however, in such a scenario, the specifically required binary components would be available for reuse on some webpage. More on this when a decision is made.
  2. Strictly speaking, this interface uses other interfaces in the list to talk to you. That said, a lot of interaction with folders and databases happens through this interface.
  3. I say local folders—not Local Folders—here because Global Inbox settings actually rely on POP-specific attributes. It is still possible, via a reimplementation, to change the delivery settings. Such a mechanism is outside the scope of this guide.
  4. It's not strictly necessary to implement these, but if you want to add custom filter terms or actions or custom search terms, some interfaces will need to be implemented. Such actions are beyond the scope of this guide.
  5. Classifying all message parts as attachments is a pretty big oversimplification. In general, the only time specific parts are requested in Thunderbird and SeaMonkey are when attachments are involved. For more information on message parts, please see RFC 2045, RFC 2046 (two of the five MIME specifications), as well as the IMAP FETCH subsection (for numbering).


R Kent James said...

I'm seriously investigating implementing Exchange Server items in mailnews code, so I'm quite interested in your developments here. But I am not afraid of binary extensions, in fact in some ways I actually prefer them. Still, we need hooks added in many places to support new account types, even for a C++ extension.

A relatively easy first step might be to implement some sort of one-message-per-file local email store. I know some people aren't a big fan of that, but if you are a believer in local backup (as I am) then that is really important.

Have you considered what account types you want to use as demos?

Andrew said...

I'm looking forward to the rest of this blog series and the fruits of it!

@Kent, I'm not sure who you are referring to about people not being crazy about message-per-file, but I know bienvenu wants a pluggable implementation with that as one of the endpoints, and I agree with that.

Also, I think that specific task is orthogonal to Joshua's current goal, at least if my assumption that the webmail plugin would just stash thing in local folders is correct.

Joshua Cranmer said...

@rkent: The problem with binary components is that they have to be recompiled separately for each platform and work less reliably among updates than JS.

The primary account type I'm focusing on right now is the web forum I've mentioned briefly at the beginning. This should be enough to cover the major topics I've wanted to hit.

Implementing maildir via an account type should be possible, but it's not on my radar currently. More importantly, doing it as a new account type is probably the wrong place to do it.

Colby Russell said...

The specified repository "webfora" is "unknown, sorry."