Forum Software RoundupBy David Mytton
The ‘forum’ or ‘discussion board’ plays a major part on most successful Websites, providing a place for regular visitors to discuss topics the site covers. This creates a community and adds ‘stickiness’ to your site, giving people an incentive to come back time and time again. Take a look at the many hundreds of thousands of Websites with forums, and you’ll see that various systems are employed to provide the discussion board features â€“ posting, voting, private messaging, and thread categories, all of which play a part in the standard feature list for the big forum systems.
In this article, I’ll download, install and set up 5 of the biggest and more popular forum applications.
I’ve chosen the systems based on the lists at Hotscripts.com, and my own past experience and knowledge. I have only chosen free systems, as that it is what most Website owners use, and because of the difficulty involved in acquiring copies of paid for systems for review. As a consequence of this approach, I’ve had to leave out the extremely popular vBulletin. I have also chosen PHP, ASP and CGI systems to give you as wide a choice as possible as you decide which system you want to go for.
The following applications are included in this review. Each is freely available for download from its associated Website:
I’ll use the same process to review each system:
- I’ll download, extract and upload the files to my Web space.
- I’ll run through the installation scripts.
- I’ll browse the configuration settings and features.
I will be commenting on a range of different criteria for the applications, which will allow me to come to a final conclusion and present an overall mark in the summary.
phpBB, the system that powers the forums on my own Website, has been available for quite a time. Version 2.0.x has come a very long way since 1.0.0 was released back in December 2000. With developments in the PHP scripting language and the addition of various features, phpBB now has a very extensive feature listing which includes a very intuitive templates (Styles) system based around the Smarty system.
It offers support for all major databases, including MySQL, MSSQL, and even MS Access databases. As well as these essential features, it offers strong security, polling, BBCode Tags for formatting, user groups and permissions systems, as well as avatars, signatures, profile options, and moderation and administration facilities.
Because of the nature of free software, some forums do not come with free support. However, a post in the phpbb.com forums will usually attract an answer within a few hours — dedicated support team members are always on hand, and enthusiastic members are always willing to help at no extra cost. That said, you should be aware that no paid support is available, so if nobody knows the answer to your question, then you’re stuck.
phpBB is extremely fast and comes with optional caching tools to make it even faster. It’s based around PHP, is completely open source, and is available for free with no restrictions. This allows you to easily integrate it into your own Website and develop styles and modifications — of which there are hundreds, most freely available for download. The original subSilver style that is available by default with phpBB is one of the best default styles of all the forum systems, and they even provide you with the Photoshop .psd files so you can modify that style.
The administration control panel, when compared to those offered within the other applications, is phpBB’s weak point. You can configure every option in phpBB here, however, the system doesn’t offer the standard features of action logging, the advanced mailing lists, and backup tools that the other systems have. There is also no way to add new profile options without modification, nor can you create your own post icons or forum icons. Visitor statistics reporting is limited to an average number of users and posts, which compares poorly when compared to the stats reports provided by some of the other systems. You can, however, customise the look of the panel to make it match your main forum style.
The development team at phpBB have not added many new features to 2.0.x since it was released. They’ve appeared only to fix bugs or security problems (of which there were very few), and seem to be reserving all the new features â€“ features that are now standard on other forum applications — for the upcoming phpbb2.2. This system is at Milestone 2 (of 4) but many of the major features are already working. However, as this version hasn’t yet been released, I can’t review it here. You can download a CVS of the current version at the development site area51.phpbb.com.
The installation of phpBB is very simple. The download is only 657kb as a .zip file (.gzip is available). However, extracting the file increases the size to over 2mb, which you have to upload to your Web space. Once you’ve uploaded all the files, browse to the directory you uploaded the files to, and wait as the installation script automatically loads up. The installation consists of 2 screens. First, you have to enter basic details about your database and the default username and password as well as some location settings. The second installation screen tells you that the database tables have been created.
You then need to complete the installation by uploading the config.php file that was created for you by the script — you can simply let the install do it for you if you prefer. Once you’ve done this, you need to remove 2 directories before being allowed to access the forums. You are then presented with your brand new blank forum.
Overall, phpBB is an extremely good system that is very popular. It has all the features you would probably need to maintain an active forum, but it offers none of the standard “extras” that, while not essential, are useful. The huge community is invaluable if you get stuck and the number of styles and modifications available will allow you to change the software to suit your site and requirements.
Database Support: MySQL, PostgreSQL, MSSQL, MS Access
Modifications/Styles Available: Hundreds
Pros: Very easy to use, nice default style, lots of styles and modifications
Cons: Admin panel lacking in ‘standard’ features
Invision Power Board
Another popular PHP application, IVB offers some extremely advanced features as standard. Downloading the file from the Website takes a few moments, as you have to navigate your way through various screens; locating the download can also be confusing as the download is listed as a ‘free trial’. There is also the option to purchase support from Invision Power Services.
After extracting the .zip download, you are presented with a confusing directory structure. The location of the files you have to upload is not apparent but once you have found it, you simply need to upload them to your Website. The initial upload of all the files is large — over 4mb — and once you have them uploaded, you can’t just navigate to the directory and let the install begin. Instead, you have to navigate to a specific file. The well presented installation screens guide you through each step of the setup. The first thing you need to do is CHMOD a configuration file so the script can write to it. After entering your database information, the tables are created, along with a number of files. You can then log in to your forum system using the username and password you’ve created.
IVB has a number of useful features in addition to the standard forum features; these include extensive private messaging systems, a full user control panel, easy styling facilities, macro facility, calendar, birthdays, and SQL debugging features. Two new features for IVB1.2 include multi moderation and a warning system. The multi moderation facility allows you to modify many topics at once, for example, add a topic prefix to all of them at the same time. The warning feature allows you to give users visible warnings for their actions, which would prove useful on a busy site. You can even download topics into MS Word or MS Excel format for storage on your local machine. The members on your forum also get access to the unique ‘My Assistant’, which allows them to quickly find out answers to common questions such as ‘Who are the moderators?’, and lets them view their last posts. You can also search the forums and help system.
The default style is a blue chrome design — not bad for a default. You can, of course, download many hundreds of styles and graphics for your forum and customise it to your liking. The official Website, IB Planet.com provides access to all the skins, styles and modifications that are available for IVB.
The administration control panel in IVB is one of the most extensive available. The index page shows you whether your copy of IVB is up to date, and displays system information, who is logged into the control panel, a log of admin actions, and some quick search options. This admin panel allows you to control absolutely every aspect of IVB — from removing the copyright notice to adding new languages.
My only criticism is that IVB may provide too many options to the average user! It would take a long time to go through every one, and it could be difficult for site owners to locate the option they need. The options are contained under main headers that expand to reveal the list of alternatives; this keeps the interface tidier, although it’s slightly crowded regardless.
Overall, IVB is a very powerful solution with great emphasis on packing as many features as possible into the standard version. The initial download and extraction processes were relatively easy, as was the installation. The forum provides great support for everything you could possibly want your forum to do. The administration control panel is very detailed, allowing you to keep tight control over everything. The IVB support forums seem to be very active and provide the all-important free help. And if you get really stuck, there is always the option to buy support from the company.
Database Support: MySQL
Modifications/Styles Available: Hundreds
Pros: Extensive feature set, advanced control panel
Cons: Cluttered admin interface, confusing directory structure
With over 151,000 downloads since it was first released in September 2002, Snitz Forums is a reasonably popular board solution. But for some reason, ASP-based forums are unable to match the feature set of their PHP/CGI counterparts. Snitz Forums has the standard features you’d expect, such as complete Web based administration, unlimited forums, private forums, sticky topics, and word censors, but little else. The full feature listing of Snitz Forums can be viewed here.
Although Snitz Forums does support modifications, there are very few available — the limited list includes signature previews and FAQ administration. These are available from the Official Snitz Website and a number of small Snitz ‘Fan’ sites that provide modifications for download. There is no support for styling whatsoever. However, it is possible to make basic colour changes and modifications to graphics. A limited set of graphics is also available, again via the Snitz Website.
The download of the ASP files for the forum is a 525kb .zip file, which extracts just over 3mb of files. There is no directory structure — all the files are located in the same directory. You must follow the instructions provided in the readme.html file in order to install the forum system, including opening and editing a config.asp file to set the database connection information. After this has been completed, you open up a setup page and configure the forums, after which you can load the forums and log in.
The configuration options match the features of the software. You can configure every option in the forum, including the forum categories and forums, logos — you can even disable registrations. The colour/font change is limited to names, not HTML codes, and users are given a list of the colours they can use, with examples. There are no permissions options (that I can see) with only basic moderator control. While I was trying to figure out how to add a new forum/category from the administration control panel, I realised that you can’t. You actually do that from the main index page!
Overall, compared to phpBB and IVB, Snitz Forums is poor. However, this may be due to the limitations of ASP, and not a lack of desire to add such features. But contrary to that, there is the paid IdealBB, which looks as though it could match the PHP systems.
Database Support: MS Access, MSSQL, MySQL
Modifications/Styles Available: No styling features, few modifications
Pros: Basic forum features for ASP
Cons: Basic features, no styling system, few modifications
Web Wiz Forums
Another ASP forum solution, Web Wiz Forums has a reasonably large feature listing which makes it a popular ASP discussion board application. The full feature list includes such features as avatar galleries, image and file uploading, styling/skinning support, a powerful permissions system, private messaging, a statistics system, and others. This means that Web Wiz Forums is almost an equal contender with the like of IVB and phpBB.
The latest version (7.01) was released on 27th April 2003 and is available in 2 versions — Access 2000 and SQL Server 7.0/2000. The Access version is the more popular, but the SQL Server version is the higher performance system with added tweaks for high traffic boards. Other downloads available include 2 avatar galleries. The Web Wiz Website also provides in depth and detailed documentation to help users install, administer, and troubleshoot the software.
In addition, a large list of modifications and add-ons is available. These are also available on the Web Wiz Website, and range from a Latest News Mod to a Photo Gallery Mod. Although there aren’t as many as for phpBB, they are available, and allow you to customise the forums to your own requirements. Skinning (as it is called by Web Wiz Forums) is also supported. Although there are only currently 10 skins available, one of these will make the forums look like the default IVB style! All the software available on the Web Wiz Website is free. However, you can pay to have the link removed using the WorldPay system.
After you download the 988kb .zip file and extract its contents, all the files you need to upload can be found in the /forum directory; documentation is also available. There are around 3mb of files to upload to your Web space, and once you’ve uploaded these, you do not need to modify any files or even run any installation scripts — Web Wiz runs ‘right out of the box’.
The default style is not stunning. It features a grey look and icons for the menu options. The profile page looks quite like the phpBB profile page, as does the administration area. The admin area is much more comprehensive than the Snitz Forums area. Again, it allows you to modify every aspect of the forums, set up new categories, view forum statistics, and email members.
Overall, the Web Wiz forum system is probably the most feature-packed and extensive of the free ASP forums, with support for skins and modifications, and some standard features that are only available as extras or modifications in the other forum applications. The Web Wiz Website forums are where you will find support for the application. However, they do not appear to be as busy as the other support forums. There is no other way to obtain support, although a troubleshooting document is available.
Database Support: MS Access, MSSQL
Modifications/Styles Available: Small number of styles or modifications available
Pros: Good features listing and administration area
Cons: Small number of styles/modifications available
With well over 50,000 downloads in the past few months, Ikonboard is truly one of the most popular systems available. Powered by CGI, Ikonboard 3.1 provides a whole set of features that match — and sometimes beat — the features available in other applications. Its key features include full language support, extensive skinning support, SSI enabled-templates (for including other parts of your site), advanced permissions, graphical and colour modification options from the control panel, and news management.
As well as the CGI version, you can obtain a hosted version, a PHP version, and a light version. Most of these are still in development, but you can find out more via the Guided Tour.
There are also a number of dedicated sites that provide IB skins and modifications. The Skins site includes over 50 skins for IB3, plus over 200 graphics for download. The modifications or ‘hacks’ are also available via a dedicated section of the IB Website.
The support for the application appears to be the best available. By signing up to the member’s area you gain access to priority support tickets, support forums, FAQs and live chat — all, apparently, for free.
Downloading the 1.16Mb system does not require registration in the member area, although you are advised to register to receive the support. Other downloads include older versions and a graphics development pack. You have to upload just over 3.5Mb of files to your CGI-enabled Web space. The instructions provided are comprehensive, but could easily be confusing for new users. Installation on Windows is easier as no chmoding is required; however, you have to chmod various files on Unix/Linux.
You then use the installation screens to install various files so that Ikonboard can run. I chose to use a MySQL database to store the data, although other available options include PostgreSQL, Oracle, and even DMB database.
The default style of the forum is quite nice — grey/blue with chrome type buttons. At the bottom, it includes an option to ‘Invite a friend to the board’ which is interesting and a nice feature to help you promote your forum. The Control Panel allows you to set up various options for posting and altering your profile, and it’s split into different sections, which keeps it tidy. My only problem with this default style is that the three Search/Members/Help buttons look out of place in the top right corner, as they are the only graphical buttons in the whole interface.
Like the IVB administration area, the options down the side are expanded by selecting the category name, which again keeps the interface neat. The overall look of the IB administration control panel is clean and tidy. There are many options here to allow you to change features — from database management to setting up news functionality.
Overall, IB is a very good application. Even though it uses CGI, there is barely a noticeable decrease in speed, though the administration area did feel slightly sluggish. The software provides a very good feature list and easily matches the PHP systems. However, the installation was slightly complicated (I had to go through about 6 screens before I was able to access the forums), and the administration control panel skin could be improved.
Database Support: DMB, PostgreSQL, MySQL
Modifications/Styles Available: Many skins and modifications freely available
Pros: All the features you could need
Cons: Slight admin area slowdown, bad admin area colours
There are hundreds of other forum applications available. I have reviewed the most popular, but these may not suit your site. What I did discover was that ASP forum systems seem to offer the least features. This is disappointing for ASP Website owners, considering that PHP and CGI forum applications currently outweigh any free ASP system.
In addition to these HTML-based forums, there are Flash forums currently in development — some are even available right now. Time will tell if these are successful, but there is no reason why they shouldn’t be, provided they can match the features displayed by the applications reviewed here.