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Chat Room Software and Hosting
Chat room software is a popular tool for communications.
Whether you are a simply communicating with friends or family or your teammates at work, chat-related tools make it easier to communicate with others informally.
What is a Chat Room?
It is hard to define exactly what a chat "room" is.
In the early days of the software, it was a dedicated space people could log in to communicate with others.
Each person had to log in to that very same space. Today, there are many more options for chat-related communications, including:
- Private or small group chats via Facebook Messenger
- Open, yet directed, semi-asynchronous communications on platforms like Tumblr or Twitter
- Dedicated online chat rooms similar to the ones more frequently used in the past
- Private chat rooms, such as those offered by Slack, designed for enterprise-level communication
- Instant messaging apps, both for personal use (remember the non-defunct AOL Instant Messenger?) and for professional use (such as Skype for Business)
Essentially, we'll consider anything that facilitates instantaneous communication between two parties via the internet to be a chat room, though we realize that such a definition could be problematic in some ways.
General Chat Room vs Team Chat Room
One of the distinctions we wanted to make is between general chat room options and team chat options.
While the tools for the former could easily be used for the latter, we consider the following options to be those with sufficient privacy settings to keep out those who should not be present.
That is, a chat room is open to whoever wants to join, while team chat options are those where only those who should be there can join.
Audio vs Video Chat
In a lot of cases, the default means of communicating with others in a chat room is via verbal text, but there are options that allow for audio or video chat.
Such options can be useful, as they expand the ways you can communicate with others without requiring additional software.
Chat Room Options
With all the benefits of internet-based communications, what are the tools you can use to do this?
There are plenty of options available, each with its strengths and weaknesses, so to narrow down the list of tools that are best for you, you will want to think about your needs:
- Do you want to use written communications, or do you want something that supports audio or video calls as well?
- Is this for personal use, or is this for business-related communications?
- Do you intend to use your tool for file transfers and the like?
- Do you want to integrate your tool with other tools you might already be using?
- Do you want a public or private chat room (possible with invite-only features)?
- What's your budget? Are you planning on self-hosting or do you want a hosted option?
Once you have answered these core questions, you are on your way to finding the right tool.
Read on for some of your options!
Self-Hosted Chat Rooms
There are self-hosted, private chat room options available (though sometimes you may open these to the public), but be aware that these tend to be dated and limited in their functionality.
Obviously, you will have to do the legwork (such as setting everything up required to use the more secure HTTPS protocol) required to get these options set up on your servers.
You may also have to put in the time to implement the functionality you need and to make your final product look the way you want.
IRC (Internet Relay Chat): Old-School But Versatile
Internet Relay Chat, or IRC, dates back to the late 1980s and dated it is.
IRC does not ship with many of the features you would expect, including security features, identity management, file transfer, and more.
With that said, IRC is an open source product with variants supporting pretty much any platform you're using so you can get away with some pretty inexpensive server/hosting options.
If the "standard" implementation (if you can even identify one that is the standard, given the number of variants that have stood the test of time) does not come with what you need, you may find a custom implementation that includes such functionality.
The interface is very... old-fashioned. It is not as sleek as the technology's golden child chat client, Slack.
IRC's universality and widespread availability, however, make it an attractive option for those who need to implement something on their servers, possibly for security reasons (such as keeping all of their communications internal and behind a firewall).
phpFreeChat: Open-Source, Easy to Install
phpFreeChat is a free, open source chat room for your website.
It is easy to install. If your web/chat hosting provides you access to the popular Softaculous one-click installer -- you can have phpFreeChat installed on your server in no time!
With phpFreeChat, you can create both public and private chat rooms.
You can fully customize the design of your chat rooms (yes, phpFreeChat does support mobile-friendly designs).
- Multi-language chatting
- Private messaging
- Moderation (such as removing a user from a room or banning them outright)
- Custom chat commands created by you.
phpMyChat: 24 Languages Supported
When looking for web hosting for your chat server, you will not have any issues finding an option that supports phpMyChat, since these languages are very commonly supported, even on the cheapest of hosting plans.
phpMyChat is easy to install and easy to use.
phpMyChat's commands are IRC-like in nature, and it supports moderation and communication in twenty-four different languages.
You will also get other basic features, such as:
- Usage statistics
- Basic profile features for your users (such as avatars)
- Video sharing
- Notifications for your users.
While there has been some work done on phpMyChat (the program is fully compatible with the most recent versions of PHP, for example), there have not been any major changes in the program in several years.
If you opt for phpMyChat, know that what you get now (regarding feature set) is likely all that you will get in the foreseeable future.
Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) Chat Room Options
If self-hosted options aren't for you, software-as-a-Service (SaaS) chat app options are definitely the easier option to get up and running.
How to Get Started with SaaS Chat Room Software
Getting started generally requires you to:
- Sign up for an account
- Create the appropriate groups (e.g. setting up different departmental teams).
These options generally include everything you need, including the user interface, the web hosting, and the data storage.
You do not have to worry about anything on the back-end.
Quick Comparison: Popular SaaS Chat Room Software Products
|Product||Main audience(s)||Standout features(s)|
|Cisco Spark||Businesses||Advanced collaborative tools including digital whiteboard. Multi-device access, including via iWatch.|
|Discord||Gamers||Live video and text streaming during gaming. Low latency, DDoS protection, low CPU usage|
|Google Hangouts||Wide audience||Free live group video conferencing and text chat.|
|Slack||Businesses, organizations, and project groups||Text, video, audio chat. Easy creation of multiple channels. Extensible via hundreds of bots.|
|Microsoft Teams||Businesses||Integrates with Office 365. Facilitates meetings, sending of files and documents.|
Cisco Spark is your one-stop shop for all things related to enterprise communications.
It provides you with:
- Instant messaging
- Group chat
- Phone calls
- Video conferencing
- Screen sharing
- File transfers
- The ability to communicate via mobile devices (in addition to using desktops or laptops).
Collaboration via Digital Whiteboard
The most striking feature of Cisco Spark is the whiteboard.
You can collaborate with others on a digital "whiteboard" that allows each person to draw, write down their thoughts, and so on.
This video provides an overview of some of Cisco Spark's top features.
As an enterprise-grade product, Cisco Spark comes with identity management and security features that will complement any existing infrastructure you may already have in place.
Free or Licensed Version of Cisco Spark?
There is a free-to-use version of Cisco Spark, but you will not get the administrative features and you will be limited in the number of people that can participate in calls, the number of tools you integrate with Cisco Spark, and so on.
→ Cisco's fees for premium licenses are based on the number of users you have.
Discord: Voice, Video, and Text Chat for Gamers
You'll see that Discord is set up to interfere with your computer's performance as little as possible since games are such resource-intensive applications.
Get a glimpse of how Discord video chat works. The Discord team shares a game night stream.
Discord is free to use, works with both desktop/laptop computers and mobile devices, and comes with security features and performance optimizations including:
- Protection against distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks and IP/host address harvesting
- Low latency
- Minimal CPU usage
Other features include:
- Custom hotkeys
- Multi-channel use
- Direct messages
- Automatic failover in the event that you lose access to the server to which you are currently connected.
You also get some user management features, as well as robust moderation features to keep your channels calm and civil.
Google Hangouts is a Google tool that lets you send instant messages, text (SMS) messages, and conduct calls (both audio only and video).
Currently, this is free to use to anyone with a Google account.
Get a quick view of Google Hangouts features by watching this Hangout from CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.
Downsides of Google Hangouts
The downsides to Google Hangouts, however, are that it is harder to integrate with other tools you might be using, there aren't really features for multi-channel communication, and it can be complicated to set up multi-user configurations.
Google Hangouts is best for those seeking a real-time (not asynchronous) communication tool.
Microsoft Teams: Enterprise Solution
Microsoft Teams combines chat functionality, facilitates meetings, and allows for the sending of notes and attachments.
It is an enterprise-level solution that integrates with the Microsoft's Office 365, which is a subscription-only productivity suite that includes apps like Office and Skype.
If your team already uses Microsoft Office 365, Teams might be an easy way to get chat functionality up and running with little hassle.
Currently, Slack (which stands for Searchable Log of All Conversation and Knowledge) is the darling of the technology industry, and there are a lot of reasons for this:
- Text, audio, and video chats for both individuals and groups
- Ability to integrate with hundreds of other apps
- Easy to use with robust security features, including single sign-on
- Sharing of all types of files with ease
- Robust search so that everything that's been communicated can be referenced at a later date by others
What is Slack? Get a quick introduction to this messaging app.
However, the list of features available is beyond the scope of this article -- you can do pretty much anything you want with Slack.
Slack isn't just a chat service, but a full suite of collaboration tools and services.
There's even a marketplace of Slack "bots" to extend functionality and boost workplace productivity.
If you are using WordPress, there are some ways you can integrate chat-related functionality into your website.
For example, you can easily send WordPress notifications to Slack or you can set up live chat software to communicate with your visitors in real time.
Depending on whether you have the cloud-based WordPress setup or you're hosting your own WordPress-based app, you may have more or fewer options available.
Chat rooms and other chat-related tools are great for internet-based communication, both in real-time and asynchronous.
Regardless of what your purpose and end goals are, you're likely to find a solution that fits your needs.
Hosting Frequently Asked Questions
What are current uses for chat rooms?
Chat rooms can be used for anything, but most chat rooms these days focus on a specific interest.
They can be a place to discuss your favorite artist, talk about last night’s episode of Doctor Who, find other parents dealing with a specific developmental or social issue, or get support for your favorite open source project.
How closely do I need to monitor my chat rooms?
That depends on a number of factors. It’s less important if you are approving every member of your chat room, as opposed to allowing public chats. Better still if you know every member of your chat room.
In any case, it’s a good idea to monitor them closely, as any open environment is prone to abuse, and chat rooms, while highly useful, can also be very attractive to predators.
Can I use a chat room program for individual chat?
In many cases, yes.
A number of organizations use chat room software to provide one-to-one technical or sales support on their website.
In this case, the chat room acts more like a two-way Instant Messaging conversation than a tradition chat room.
However, it can be an inexpensive tool for assisting website users in real time, and can also allow for support from multiple individuals or departments.
Do chat room programs offer any other features, aside from just chatting?
Many of them offer some additional features like offline messaging, video posting, and calendars.
However, in general, true chat room programs stay very tied to that core functionality, which may be partly to blame for their overall decline.
Can I host a chat room on a company intranet?
Absolutely. As long as your intranet servers meet the minimum requirement, which they probably will, it should be fairly simple to set up a company-wide chat room, where your employees can quickly post questions or share ideas.
In fact, many intranet solutions and business content management tools include some sort of built-in chat system for just this purpose.
How secure are chat rooms?
Most chat room applications will allow you to limit the type of content that can be posted, as well as the markup that can be embedded into posts, which limits the risk of dangerous files being uploaded to your server.
However, most chat-room-only tools are fairly old and are no longer receiving regular updates. That means even if issues are identified with the code, it probably isn’t being patched.
Using any outdated software on your server increases your vulnerability.
In some cases you may be able to find patches in the user community, but these aren’t guaranteed to work.
Can I customize my chat room, or add themes to match my website?
Most chat room programs will include some level of customization and a limited number of themes.
For example, phpFreeChat includes five themes, all of which can be customized to fit your organization’s needs. phpFreeChat themes are also responsive to screen size, so they can provide a mobile friendly interface.
Better still, chat rooms that are installed as add-ons to your existing CMS should utilize your existing theme, so you won’t need to deal with much, if any, customization.
Is there a way to easily block or remove users?
Any good chat room program will provide the admin with tools for booting members out of a chat room or completely banning them.
Some tools will do this based on the person’s registered username. Others will let you do it based on IP address.
Although neither is a perfect solution (users can always re-register with a different username, and most home users don’t have static IP addresses or can simply login from somewhere else), it does allow you to quickly resolve any issues, at least in the short term.
I’m curious what these chat rooms look like. Where can I check them out?
There are a number of chat rooms still active, if you just want to see how they work.
A simple Google search for popular chat rooms should find you plenty of examples.
If you’re interested in testing the features of a specific application, many of them offer demo versions, which allow you to both chat and utilize the administrative features.
Is there any support available for these chat rooms?
Support will vary based on the application you choose.
Since many popular chat room applications are no longer being developed, the only support you’ll receive is from their community groups.
Before committing to an application, check out their website, see how often they update (or when they last updated), and visit their forums and IRC communities to see how active they are.
If no one has posted in the past two years, don’t count on much support.