Sympa List Server to the Rescue

Mission improbable: Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is…

  • Implement a mailing lists service for 25,000+ user subscribers hosted in a legacy Oracle database, providing multiple queries that can be automatically refreshed when the database is updated.
  • Replace the old system that hosted subscriber lists in text files, pulled from cron job scripts to sync with the database. Keep costs low for new software.
  • Design an internal web page to display the lists and their subscribers in an easy-to-read format, which is always synchronized with the database.
  • Keep the peace with your manager while responding to her ever-changing demands for new mailing lists. (this one may be a bit harder.)

Sympa came to the rescue! With help from Sympa’s lively support forums, we were able to install and configure Sympa to create the solution we needed. We now have 300 lists with various mind-boggling combinations of user groups: partners, teachers, or schools by state, country, or region.

Using Sympa’s shared configuration groupings called “family,” we configured lists with similar configuration files and automated their creation, using the two letter state or country code abbreviation as the only variable, such as teachers-co, schools-fi. Pre-configured Oracle queries were defined in the configuration files, and the two-letter code added by the list creation script assisted in auto-configuration for the query.

Sympa’s SOAP API allowed our developers to craft an admin page to display lists and their subscriber e-mail addresses for easy lookup.

Comparable commercial solutions were around $15k at the time of implementation. Sympa is a free, open-source tool with an active support forum at sympa-users(@) The latest version may be downloaded from

What is Sympa?

Sympa sends mailings to large subscriber lists within minutes and keeps an archive for future reference.

Sympa (System Multi-Postage Automatique) is a mailing lists manager used to send e-mail to large numbers of subscribers, designed to automate list management functions such as subscription, moderation, and archival. Sympa handles the distribution of messages with a minimal resource usage and can synchronize subscriber lists from relational databases or from an LDAP directory. Sympa’s interface is multi-lingual and fully customizable. Sympa was created by French university developers, under the hosting of the CRU (Comité Réseau des Universités). The first version was created in 1995 by Christophe Wolfhugel at the Insitut Pasteur.  Sympa is used by numerous universities, such as: Duke University, Case Western Reserve, University of Kent, Brandeis, Tufts, Texas A&M, and other organizations.

Sympa’s features are:
• bulk mailing,
• customizable welcome/goodbye/subscribe messages
• Sympa saves archives of discussions and can allow the user to select their preferred digest reception mode, such as direct mail, URLs, HTML, text, or summary.
• Anti-spam and anti-virus tools.
• “Robots” are virtual list domains that be independently customized.
• CAS (Central Authentication Server) compatible
• RSS Feeds of latest messages
• List moderation
• Internationalization: translated into many languages and reportedly easy to translate modules
• Scalable up to 20,000 mailing lists, or up to 700,000 subscribers
• Supports relational databases MySQL, PostgreSQL, SQLite, Oracle, Sybase
• Compatible with MTA’s sendmail, postfix, qmail, exim
• FastCGI web interface

New features available in the latest release, 6.0.1:
• improved handling of bulk mail distribution, allowing parallelization of the process on multiple servers.
• Scheduled sending of mail, per list.
• Anti-spam tag headers
• Inline color editor to modify css skins
• SOAP server: session now uses the DB table, session_id can be validated (get more here from the authors)
• Password storage encrypted with md5 fingerprint
• Sympa virtual machine image for VMWare is available

The full list of features may be found at:

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