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SpamAssassin as an EC2 service

I had a bit of an epiphany while chatting to Antoin about the qpsmtpd/EC2 idea. Craig had the same thoughts.

Here’s the thing — there’s actually no need to offload the SMTP part at all. That stuff is tricky, since you’ve got to build in a lot of fault tolerance, quality-of-service, uptime, etc. to ensure that the MX really is reachable. Since an EC2 instance will lose its “disks” once rebooted/shut down, you need to store your queues in Amazon S3 — which has differing filesystem semantics from good old POSIX — so things get quite a bit hairier. On top of that, it requires a little RFC-breakage; there are issues with using CNAMEs in MX records, reportedly.

However, if we offload just the spamd part, it becomes a whole lot simpler. The SPAMD protocol will work fine across long distances, securely, with SSL encryption active, and SpamAssassin will work fine as a filtering system in an entirely stateless mode, with no persistent-across-reboots storage. (What about the persistent-storage aspects of spamd operation? There’s just the auto-whitelist, which can be easily ignored, and I haven’t trained a Bayes database in 2 years, so I doubt I’ll need that either ;)

If the spamd server is down or uncontactable, spamc will handle this and retry with another server, or eventually give up and pass the message through, safely intact (though unscanned).

Given that there’s a cool third-party ClamAV plugin now available for SpamAssassin, this system can offload the virus-scanning work, too.

So here’s the new plan: run the MTA, MX, and the super-lean “spamc” client on the normal MX machine — and offload the “spamd” work to one or more EC2 machines.

Basically, there would be a CNAME record in DNS, listing the dynamic DNS names of the EC2 spamd instances. Then, spamc is set to point at that CNAME as the spamd host to use. As EC2 instances are started/removed, they are added/removed from that CNAME list and spamc will automatically keep up.

Pricing is reasonably affordable — don’t send over-large messages to the EC2 spamd; rate-limit total incoming SMTP traffic in the MTA; and use the SPAMD protocol‘s REPORT verb to reduce the bandwidth consumption of mails in transit by ensuring that the mail messages are only transmitted one-way, MX-to-EC2, instead of both MX-to-EC2 and EC2-to-MX. That will keep the bandwidth pricing down.

Recent figures indicate that I got about 90MB of mail per day, at peak, over the past weekend (which nearly DOS’d my server and caused some firefighting) — 68MB of spam, and 13MB of blowback. At 20 cents per GB, that’s 1.8 cents per day for traffic. Plus the $0.10 per instance hour, that’s $2.42 per day to run a single EC2 instance to handle DDOS spikes. Of course, that can be shut down when load is low.

Yep, this is looking very promising. Now when are Amazon going to let me onto the beta program for EC2?…