Piping Email with PHP and SiteGround

One of the fun things to do with computers is to think outside the box, to use tools for things they aren’t exactly designed for. Email is one of my favorite toys with which to play with. Email is universal, and everyone has it. So when you create a new user for it, everyone can now do that.

What can we make email do that it doesn’t do already? Well, email is a delivery system, so we can use it to not only deliver data of some kind, but also to trigger an event that causes a computer somewhere to do something. If necessary, email can also respond back to you.

In the early days of the web, there were email addresses you could send an email to with a URL in the body. It would retrieve the URL and send you back the copy. Email pre-dated the web on the Internet, so there was a time when people had email but not web browser. This was a great way to get to the web before you got a web browser. The downside was that most email at that time didn’t support images, but this was okay because most webpages at this time didn’t HAVE images. 🙂

I’ve also used email to deliver data and trigger processing. Last year for Mother’s day, I built my mother and mother-in-law digital picture frames based on Raspberry Pis. The front-end media management for these frames is a WordPress site. This gave me a convenient API already built to deliver images to. The problem is that my siblings are not programmers, so I needed an easy way for them to send images to these frames. Email was that easy way.

I created a system that allows them to send a picture via email. Each digital picture frame has an email address, and they can send pictures to it. While WordPress handles all the user management and image processing, SiteGround’s email system allows me to make all of this happen.

The way to do this is called a “pipe” because you are “piping” the contents of an email to a program of your choosing.

I’ll stop here and tell you upfront that if you are not a programmer or at least a very technical user, this is not for you. Programmers can write programs (like I did) to take the input and process it. Technical users may also be able to install programs on their server that will accept the input and do something with it. If you are not in one of these two groups, I suggest you go find a programmer you trust and hire them to help you do this.

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In SiteGround, the process is pretty simple. You first create an email address, then you create a filter for that email address. In my case, I created momspictureframe@example.com (not the real email address) in my Site Tools.

Then I went to filters and created a filter for momspictureframe@calevansxample.com.

  • I gave it a name that I could recognize, “Pipe Pictures to Mom’s Frame”.
  • I set the proper condition. I want this filter to trigger any time any email comes to momspictureframe@example.com. So I set it to:
    • IF ANY
      And then, I set it to trigger on the TO email address.
    • TO EQUALS momspictureframe@example.com
  • Finally, I set it to perform actions. In this case, I perform 2 actions.
    • First, “Pipe to a program”
      This is where you need to be a programmer. I wrote the program necessary to process the emails and uploaded it to my SiteGround site. I have to know the exact path and program name for this to work. Even a good programmer is going to have to experiment a little to get this right. Still, once they get it right once, it’s easy to do it again for other pipes.
    • Second, I set a “Discard Message” action.
      Remember that the first thing I did was create an actual email address? This means that unless I do something, emails will actually be stored for this address. Since I never plan to log into the email server to view them, I want it to toss each and every email coming to momspictureframe@example.com after I’ve handed it off to my script for processing. If I wanted to archive the email for future use, I would drop this action.

That’s it. Assuming you have a program handy that will accept the contents of an email and do something, you can now trigger it using a SiteGround email pipe.

Once you understand the power of piping emails to programs, the possibilities are endless. The example I gave you was a simple one but by no means the only one I’ve written. Again, since email is ubiquitous and available on just about any platform, you can open up a whole new world of processing and interactions for your users.

One word of caution, be aware that email is designed to be mostly insecure. You need to build security into your applications to make sure that only the users you want to, can interact with your system. The easy way to do this is to check the sender of the email, but that’s also insecure. If you do this, it should just be one of the checks you do.

author avatar
Cal Evans

PHP Evangelist

One of the most admired people in the PHP community, who has dedicated more than 16 years to building the amazing PHP community and mentoring the next generation of developers. We are extremely honored that he is a very special friend of SiteGround too.

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Comments ( 4 )

author avatar

Morgan

Mar 10, 2021

A small PHP snippet would have been nice

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author avatar

Mke

Mar 25, 2021

Hey this sounds sweet, I second the request for a PHP snippet to get started. Perhaps a way to secure the process better would be to have a "secret code" typed into the email message body or append certain message subject? Just my thoughts.

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author avatar

Hristo Pandjarov Siteground Team

Mar 26, 2021

Could work just fine :) Depends on how you've setup your system.

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author avatar

Sean

Apr 02, 2021

The issue with a "secret code" included in an email is that it is not encrypted, is plainly visible and could be intercepted depending on how and where you are sending the email from. Email itself is not a secure format you can trust 100%. It is getting better though. Generally you can mostly trust an email it when it meets certain conditions. The bulk of the security comes into play with how you program your script(s).

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