Two annoyances I have with Python's imaplib module

January 21, 2019

As I mentioned yesterday, I recently wrote some code that uses the imaplib module. In the process of doing this, I wound up experiencing some annoyances, one of them a traditional one and one a new one that I've only come to appreciate recently.

The traditional annoyance is that the imaplib module doesn't wrap errors from other modules that it uses. This leaves you with at least two problems. The first is that you get to try to catch a bunch of exception classes to handle errors:

try:
  c = ssl.create_default_context()
  m = imaplib.IMAP4_SSL(host=host, ssl_context=c)
  [...]
except (imaplib.IMAP4.error, ssl.SSLError, OSError) as e:
  [...]

The second is that, well, I'm not sure I'm actually catching all of the errors that calling the imaplib module can raise. The module doesn't document them, and so this list is merely the ones that I've been able to provoke in testing. This is the fundamental flaw of not wrapping exceptions that I wrote about many years ago; by not wrapping exceptions, you make what modules you call an implicit part of your API. Then you usually don't document it.

I award the imaplib module bonus points for having its error exception class accessed via an attribute on another class. I'm sure there's a historical reason for this, but I really wish it had been cleaned up as part of the Python 3 migration. In the current Python 3 source, these exception classes are actually literally classes inside the IMAP4 class:

class IMAP4:
  [...]
  class error(Exception): pass
  class abort(error): pass
  class readonly(abort): pass
  [...]

The other annoyance is that the imaplib module doesn't implement any sort of timeouts, either on individual operations or on a whole sequence of them. If you aren't prepared to wait for potentially very long amounts of time (if the IMAP server has something go wrong with it), you need to add some sort of timeout yourself through means outside of imaplib, either something like signal.setitimer() with a SIGALRM handler or through manipulating the underlying socket to set timeouts on it (although I've read that this causes problems, and anyway you're normally going to be trying to work through SSL as well). For my own program I opted to go the SIGALRM route, but I have the advantage that the only thing I'm doing is IMAP. A more sophisticated program might not want to blow itself up with a SIGALRM just because the IMAP side of things was too slow.

Timeouts aren't something that I used to think about when I wrote programs that were mostly run interactively and did only one thing, where the timeout is most sensibly imposed by the user hitting Ctrl-C to kill the entire program. Automated testing programs and other, similar things care a lot about timeouts, because they don't want to hang if something goes wrong with the server. And in fact it is possible to cause imaplib to hang for a quite long time in a very simple way:

m = imaplib.IMAP4_SSL(host=host, port=443)

You don't even need something that actually responds and gets as far as establishing a TLS session; it's enough for the TCP connection to be accepted. This is reasonably dangerous, because 'accept the connection and then hang' is more or less the expected behavior for a system under sufficiently high load (accepting the connection is handled in the kernel, and then the system is too loaded for the IMAP server to run).

Overall I've wound up feeling that the imaplib module is okay for simple, straightforward uses but it's not really a solid base for anything more. Sure, you can probably use it, but you're also probably going to be patching things and working around issues. For us, using imaplib and papering over these issues is the easiest way forward, but if I wanted to do more I'd probably look for a third party module (or think about switching languages).


Comments on this page:

From 90.131.38.236 at 2019-01-21 05:30:36:

And that's just the login checking. I've tried using it to actually retrieve messages and it was just horrible. It parsed as little IMAP framing as it could get away with, leaving it to the user to clean up the rest. Who made this thing?

Written on 21 January 2019.
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