Interview – James Atkinson , Founder of phpBB

Today, phpBB is one of the most popular boards on the Internet, powering communities of thousands of sites. Unlike most available scripts, phpBB is open source, and is provided for free under the GPL. It serves as a great example of a successful open source project, functioning just as well as, if not better than, its commercial counterparts.

While phpBB boasts impressive features and great performance, one of the biggest advantages is its helpful community. The product has established a great following, which guarantees that experienced help is only a quick search away.

Already a great script, new version 2.2 is soon to be released. PhpBB 2.2 should further improve administration functionality, while adding popular new features to make the product even stronger. With the release of version 2.2, the phpBB development team will start development of a portal based around the core features of product. This portal project will likely help phpBB gain even more popularity among the Webmaster community.

Recently, I had the privilege to interview James Atkinson (theFinn), founder and project manager of the phpBB project.

How and why did phpBB get started? How did the phpBB team get together? Did you ever think the product would be as popular as it is now?

I started phpBB in the summer of 2000 with the lofty goal of providing my wife with a forum for her Website. At the time, the only real options for forum software that I knew of were UBB and Phorum. UBB was too expensive for a poor college student, and I didn’t like the style of Phorum at all. I wanted a good, open source, flat-style message board, so I set to work to clone the look of UBB and offer it for free under GPL.

The team came together after I posted a message on DevShed asking for people to test my new forum. Soon after that, I opened up a project on Sourceforge.net and people began to submit code and ask if they could join the team. It all kind of snowballed from there.

Regarding the product’s popularity, I had no real aspirations when I started the project. The amount it’s grown over the last few years has really shocked me.

The Advantages of Open Source

phpBB is one of the few open source bulletin board products. Why did you decide to make it open source?

I can’t say I ever considered not making it Open Source. I, and all the phpBB team members, believe in the ideals of the free software movement.

What advantages do you feel phpBB gains over other commercial forum scripts by being open source?

Our biggest advantage is that being Open Source affords us a larger community than pay-for-play scripts. There’s no price point for entry into the phpBB community — any Webmaster who wants to put a board on their site can do so. As they gain experience with phpBB, they often feel they want to give something back, so they join our community and help out other users of the software. This is one of the best things about the Open Source movement — people helping people.

Do you have any advice for developers who are just starting their open source projects?

The biggest thing is to listen to your users. They drive your product forward and they help you support it. Secondly, you have to stick to your ideals. One of the reasons that phpBB is as successful as it is, compared to other "free" forum scripts, is because our project is very stable. We’ve never changed our name, we’ve never changed our leadership, and we’ve never changed our license. We’ve stuck to the ideals on which we originally founded phpBB, and this approach has given our community the perception that phpBB is strong and stable.

A lot of phpBB’s success can be attributed to its great following and helpful community. It seems you not only know how to make great script, but also might have advice for Webmasters launching new forums…

I think the mistake a lot of people make as they start an online community is that they don’t start small. I’ve seen many boards with 10 or 12 forums, and maybe 20 posts between them. That’s no way start. Begin with 2 or 3 forums to really get the discussion rolling, then expand as needed.

Also, you need a hook — something that will draw people into the forums, and be a jumping-off point for discussion. SitePoint is an excellent example. They have a large site with a ton of content that drives people into their forums. People discuss and ultimately evolve that content into an even more useful resource.

Development… in Detail

Can you describe how members of the phpBB team communicate? How do you decide if you’ll add a new feature? Who’s responsible for what aspects of the project?

We communicate though phpBB.com’s forums. There are staff forums "behind the scenes", were we plan out what happens with the site and the software.

Ideas for new features come directly from users. On Sourceforge.net, we maintain a feature request list, and the development team (lead by psoTFX) decides how and when to implement the requested features. Our development cycle is rather closed in the sense that we don’t accept code from people outside the development team; however, we’re always happy to take feature requests and ideas from our community.

Performance is one of the biggest headaches among forum administrators. How does phpBB cope with the heavy competition on this front? How do you balance the implementation of new features with the overall performance of phpBB?

The development team always takes into account the total effect of any new feature implementation on the performance of phpBB. If a feature is going to be a huge resource hog, it’s either redesigned from the ground up (as has been done with our search and permissions system several times), or it’s dropped. We don’t feel the performance of the software should suffer just for the sake of some flashy features. phpBB 2.0 was designed with stability, security, and performance in mind. That focus has continued with subsequent developments of phpBB — the release of v2.2 sees very large performance increases and the addition of numerous features. These performance improvements will be especially valuable for larger forums. We’ve learned a lot from our users who have very large boards.

Security is also an important factor and phpBB seems like a pretty secure script. What do you plan do to ensure phpBB remains secure in the future?

Security was a big issue with early versions of phpBB (v1.x). As such, we take a very active role in making sure that security holes are kept out of the software. Any large feature implementations are looked at from a security point of view at every step of the development. Our development team keeps a close eye on everything that goes into the code, and makes sure there’s not way to break SQL queries to inject cross-site scripting issues. Overall, the biggest issue we’ve had with v2.0 has been JavaScript being snuck into place. However, with 2.2 we’ve come a long way in implementing a more centralized way of validating input and making sure it’s clean of any XSS-type issues.

Keeping phpBB secure is a core goal in all our development.

PhpBB is mostly used with MySQL, but it has a database abstraction class for other databases. Do you have any examples of successful boards running on other databases?

I’d love to say, ‘Oh yeah, X.com uses phpBB with Postgres and it runs great’, but mostly all we ever hear about is MySQL. There seem to be very few people using other databases with the software. MySQL is clearly the most popular database engine for most people.

This won’t deter us from continuing to add support for other databases, however.

Inside phpBB Version 2.2

2.0 was a total rewrite of phpBB, and it seems like 2.2 is, too. What are the main changes?

It’s not a total rewrite. We started 2.0 from scratch. 2.2 is a rewrite of the permissions system, the moderation functions, the addition of a user control panel, and a large number of additions on the administration side.

What are the major new features of phpBB 2.2?

The brand new feature is the addition of a "User Control Panel". A more modularized way of handling user details in phpBB 2.2, along with subscribed topics and forums and ‘friend or foe’ lists, are other additions.

We’re also including an all-new Moderator Control panel that will allow much finer grained control over forums and topics, as well as topic merging, and the ability to report topics to moderators.

File attachments in posts have been adapted from the very popular File Attachment mod, courtesy of Acyd Burn, who’s now on our development team.

Tons of new things have been added to the administration section: online template editing, an all new ban control system, server load/performance limiting features, features to allow Google and other spiders to effectively crawl the forums, and so much more it would take forever to list them all here!

We also have plenty of other features up our sleeves that I think people will enjoy.

A portal script is to be developed alongside the release of 2.2. Why did you decide to do that?

This project was something our team decided to do. BartVB, a long time member of the phpBB teams, is spearheading the project and it was mostly his idea. To be honest, I’ve had very little involvement in this side of things so I can’t answer the questions about it too well.

What will be the main advantages of the phpBB portal over other products already on the market?

The main advantage will be its interface to phpBB. Web developers who want to get a site up quickly, based around their discussion forums, will be able to do so. One of the goals is to make the product very modularized, so it should be quite expandable.

What are the future goals for phpBB?

The future goal of phpBB is the same as it’s always been: to make the best damn forum software we can! We’ll follow the direction our users want us to take. They drive the project forward!

When you look back, is there anything you regret?

Mis-spelling ‘category’ in v1.0… I take flack for that from the other team members all the time.

I really can’t say there’s anything I regret. It’s been a great ride and I look forward to the next decade or so running this project.

Visit the phpBB site at phpbb.com. SitePoint thanks James for his time.

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