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What is Simple Machines Forum?
Simple Machines Forum (SMF) is a free application that lets you build an online community, bulletin board, or forum quickly and easily, and without the need for advanced programming skills or heavy use of server resources. Internet forums have been around for decades and even before the World Wide Web took off, local bulletin board services and Usenet helped people stay in touch and interact online.
Although social networking, user comment sections and instant messaging have replaced and augmented traditional forums in many settings, forums are still quite popular. They can be created by businesses, various organisations or simply groups of people with a common interest. Many businesses still rely on forums to improve the depth of user engagement, offer customer support, address frequently asked questions (FAQs), offer tips and advice, or simply boost their online footprint.
Forums are a low-cost, low-maintenance way of leveraging human interaction and content created by enthusiasts to attract more users and traffic. One of the more popular software packages used to create web forums is Simple Machines Forum (SMF).
SMF started as a commercial project, but in 2010 it re-registered as a non-profit organisation headed by a diverse group of individuals from around the world. The team is currently working on SMF 2.1.
Simple Machines Forum community and licensing
Simple Machines Forum is written in the HyperText Preprocessor (PHP) language and uses MySQL database management, which means it is built around on some of the most popular industry standards. The use of PHP, MySQL and the fact that SMF is freeware has helped spawn the creation of a large and relatively active development community.
SMF offers a few improvements to the standard forum features. These include full integration with your existing site using Server-Side Includes (SSI), a suite of tools (including customizable themes, a backup utility and a conversion tool to convert your existing forum or bulletin board to SMF), and several “bridges” that allow it to integrate seamlessly with content management systems (CMS).
You can also customize your SMF installation with hundreds of add-ons to enhance security, features and revenue. SMF is published under the BSD 3-clause license, so while it is open source, redistribution of modified code is subject to several guidelines. SMF 1.0 and 1.1 are published under more restrictive OSI approved licenses, so distribution of certain modified components may be limited.
To some extent, the young and vibrant SMF community - backed by the reliance on PHP and MySQL - compensates for distribution limitations. New custom modules and themes are published on a regular basis and, if necessary, finding developers capable of creating custom themes and tweaks for your forum should not be difficult.
SMF offers easy, no-nonsense deployment
Simple Machines Forum deployment is relatively straightforward. Some hosts include SMF as a 'one-click' install via Softaculous or Fantastico, but even if your host does not, the installation process is not too demanding and shouldn't cause problems for most users. Even if your host does not offer 'one-click' functionality, chances are it offer a guide for SMF installation and setup.
Naturally you will need to make sure your hosting provider supports MySQL and PHP, but you'd be hard pressed to find a host that does not – after all these are industry standards. While the process can vary depending on the host, usually you will need to download SMF, gain FTP access details for the domain, along with SSH access, sort out MySQL details and proceed to install the package.
This usually means you will have to setup a MySQL database, upload the installation file to your account and unzip it. Check whether your file manager provides unzip and permission functions - it may be necessary to contact hosting support and open a Secure Shell (SSH) session. After that, it is just a matter of using FTP to unzip the installation file and fill out the necessary database details and set up administrator access.
Security and server support
Simple Machines Forum has a limited footprint and since it is free, the package is a popular choice for individuals and small organisations with limited resources.
As a result, SMF support is often found even on basic hosting packages, with or without 'one-click' install functionality. SMF is commonly deployed on shared servers, usually Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP (LAMP) compliant servers.
Even entry level hosting packages support the necessary standards, so it goes without saying that installing SMF on dedicated and managed dedicated servers should be just as easy.
Forums tend to present a large target for malicious actors, ranging from mostly benevolent trolls to spammers and phishers. Therefore it is vital to ensure secure file permissions and keep the software up to date with the latest security patches. SMF support offers all relevant information on available and upcoming updates.