Who’s NGI? Sam Tuke with Lightmeter

Portrait Sam Tuke. Photo Jan Michalko
Portrait Sam Tuke. Photo Jan Michalko

Lightmeter allows you to check the health of a mailserver at a glance, and quickly dig into problems and solutions when necessary, Sam Tuke has more.

What problem does your project solve?

The short answer is that Lightmeter monitors email servers to help fix message delivery problems, by reading server logs and automatically notifying technicians.

The long answer is that email as we know it is under threat. That is a problem because email is the world’s largest communication network, and the only one which is independently run at a similar scale. Free, instant, universal digital communication has transformed human efficiency and comfort, but we now take it for granted.

What makes email so powerful are its open standards and decentralised principles. Nevertheless, today more than half the world’s email is controlled by just two US-based companies. Even though one can choose among hundreds of different email providers, most of us select one of these two, despite polls showing they are generally not trusted. This is quite a problem considering email is the world’s largest identity database, the most widely used authentication system, and, according to Symantec, home to 20 percent of all confidential digital files.

If the trend towards centralised email services continues, then email will no longer be available to everyone, according to this article, and perhaps we will never see another universal digital communication channel ever again.

One key reason for this trend is the difficulty of hosting your own email server. Furthermore, whoever hosts the mail service also decides how it can be accessed. In the case of Google and Microsoft, they have hindered improvements for 25 years (which is why email is not as pretty or as reliable as web pages are). Those who control the infrastructure control the user experience too.

As a point of contrast, approximately a quarter of the world’s websites are self-hosted using WordPress. This is because self-hosting WordPress is easy, and it is Open Source. When hosting email becomes as easy as it is with WordPress, then everyone can choose to host their private communications, and the data they contain, in a trustworthy place. This is the goal of Lightmeter.

Put another way: choosing an untrustworthy company in another legal jurisdiction to manage your messages will soon make no sense; because control *and* convenience will be achievable with an Open Source solution.

You can hear more about these topics in the upcoming podcast from NGI Pointer; in which we discuss the past, present and future of email communications and where the $billions in this ecosystem are currently being made.

Watch the video: Lightmeter 1.0 walkthrough: all-in-one Open Source mail server monitoring.

Could you explain what is new and original in your project?

90 percent of the world’s mailservers are Open Source, but getting mail delivered has never been harder. Old and new security standards (SPF, DMARC, DKIM, BIMI) and ever-changing anti-spam policies make reliable operation challenging even for experts, resulting in many seasoned technicians to give up and move to the dominant global email provider.

Lightmeter checks various aspects of a mailserver’s health in real-time to look for disruption, and notify the administrator when they need to take action. Where possible, recommended solutions are provided. Specifically, it checks for IP blocks against shared blocklists (RBLs) and the largest mail service providers. Message rejection (bounce) and delay (deferral) rates are also watched.

We are in the process of launching a new meta-network made up of Lightmeter installations sharing threat data in order to automatically defend against attackers. Through automated cooperation between Lightmeter-enabled mailservers, self-hosted mailservers can benefit from economies of scale currently only enjoyed by big centralised services.

For now, Lightmeter supports Postfix mailserver which has 55 percent of the world’s total and #1 in marketshare, and we plan to support others in future.

Lightmeter

How did you come up with the idea for your project?

Before Lightmeter I ran another email company: phpList. The software is like Mailchimp, but Open Source, and we had tens of thousands of customers on our SaaS platform, for whom we sent tens of billions of emails each year. 100 percent of the software used for this was Open Source – which was wonderful!

Over time, I realised that some of the problems we faced with email delivery were shared by other mail admins too. Problems like:

  • An overwhelming amount of data (log files) to search through when diagnosing a problem;
  • Overly complex configuration systems and settings for common mailserver software; and
  • Major email providers deliberately degrading the experience of people using smaller email servers, making life harder for the independent networks.

I resolved to do something about it. I conducted market research for my EMBA degree thanks to a Tagesspiegel scholarship, sold my shares in phpList, then started work on Lightmeter.

Where does your passion for this subject originate?

Originally I’m from the East of England, a town called Bury St. Edmunds, near Cambridge.

My father was a Doctor who worked for the public good for 60 years within England’s National Health Service. Among other achievements, he spearheaded the successful eradication of the Rubella virus by facilitating knowledge-exchange and fostering cooperation between disparate public services. He inspired me to pursue the public good above all else.

I learned to apply these principles to technology after founding my first company, aged 17, and realising the benefits of nurturing cooperation on a global scale through software. While running that company I also witnessed the anti-cooperative and anti-consumer effects of withholding rights to use, share, study, and improve software (“the four freedoms”), which sadly remains the norm in the software industry.

Soon afterwards, I adopted the promotion of Open Source and Open Standards as my personal mission, and went to work as a full-time campaigner for the Free Software Foundation Europe, where I had the privilege of advocating for Open Source professionally in society and government for five years. I’ve only worked for and founded Open Source organisations since.

How did you learn about NGI?

NlNet’s funding work has been known to me for a decade, since collaborating with Michiel Leenaars (NlNet Director) on the Open Document Format standardisation back in 2011, which I wrote about at the time. I checked their website, saw their open calls, signed up to the newsletter, was notified about the new NGI grants, and applied with my team.

How did the NGI project support your idea?

NGI Zero provided the first external funding for our work on Lightmeter, with Michiel Leenaars serving as our mentor. Until then I had covered all the project costs, and we had been operating “on a shoestring”. The grant provided resources to pay a stipend to those team members who had previously been working pro-bono (including myself). Back then there were four of us: Leandro Santiago, Suela Palushi, Rudolf Burgaj, and I.

NGI also provided:

  • A security review by Radically Open Security resulting in a CVE
  • Advice on internationalisation from Translate House (Lightmeter is fully internationalised)
  • Recommendations for improving Lightmeter accessibility and inclusion
  • The addition of compliant license-labelling to our source code by FSFE

This €50k grant allowed us to continue working, improve our work’s quality, and transition from a prototype written in Rlang, to a new codebase in Golang and firm foundation for future development (still in use today).  However, it wasn’t much money to fund our five-person team for more than a few months.

That’s why I applied for a follow-on grant: NGI Pointer, which offered longer-term support aimed at commercialising our work. This seemed like a perfect fit for us, and we were overjoyed when we were selected.

I was introduced to a new mentor, Mirko Presser, who supported us through the milestones for the next 12 months, and introduced us to students at the University of Aarhus, who researched possible pricing models for our future commercial services.

We also received extensive support from NGI Tetra – a business accelerator for NGI projects. This included:

  • Attending a three day bootcamp for early stage startups
  • Pitch coaching from the European Startup Network
  • Community management consulting, and
  • One-on-one mentoring from business veterans over six months

We’re now transitioning to Lightmeter’s next phase, and have some exciting announcements coming up, which will soon be announced on the Lightmeter website.

More about Lightmeter at these links: