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What is Forum Hosting?
If your site needs a message board where you and your customers can interact, particularly in a more controlled setting than social media sites allow, then adding a forum to your site may be the ideal solution.
An Internet forum is a website or an area of a site where people can have discussions with each other. A forum may have a single topic or several topic areas under which discussions are created. These conversations are known as threads. Each thread consists of a string of messages and replies. The organization of these messages varies depending on the structure of the message board, but generally they are hierarchical.
The administrators of a message board control posting and site options. Some sites allow you to post anonymously. Others require you to create an account and log in before posting messages. Moderators help eliminate spammers, keep conversations polite, encourage interaction, and address questions and complaints.
Message boards may be displayed as threaded or non-threaded. The former is best for sites where a message will have many replies (and sometimes replies to those replies). This allows you to view a thread as a list where it’s obvious which item a poster is responding to. Non-threaded displays would be useful in situations where there won’t be replies, such as announcements.
Many forums allow you to format posts. This is a way for you to show your individuality, emphasis a comment, and even include business information as a means of advertising. Usually either hypertext markup language (HTML) or bulletin board code (BBCode) tags are allowed. You can use these tags to stylize a signature that attaches to all your posts, as well. Signatures are a good place to link to your business.
Forums have their own social code of conduct you should be aware of. If you haven’t used forums before, you must familiarize yourself with them before creating one for your business. A message board that doesn’t add anything to your business or give value to your customers will ultimately fall silent. Your forum must give your clients a safe place to connect and get their questions answered quickly.
Which Forum Software?
Here are a few of the most popular forum choices:
bbPress is a WordPress-based forum system "with a twist." It was created by the same team that created WordPress, and is designed to be run on a self-hosted WordPress site (not on a WordPress.com-powered blog).
Because bbPress was created by the core WordPress team, it was built with similar values in mind. It is simple, lightweight, and there is as little code as possible. The main bbPress code base contains only the features needed by truly everyone, and any additional features are available in one of almost 200 plugins.
Why use bbPress?
bbPress is definitely the right choice if you want to add a forum or bulletin board system to an existing WordPress site.
Also, if you are launching a new project in which you need regular Content Management features as well as a forum, you should strongly consider using bbPress with WordPress, because it will enable your users to interact with both your "main site" and your forum with a single login.
Using bbPress without a WordPress blog
The bbPress forum software depends on WordPress software to function. Therefore, you cannot install and run bbPress independent of it.
However, you have a lot of WordPress experience already, you may still want to use bbPress for a project even if there will be no blog or other standard website pages.
This is easy to accomplish.
Simply adjust your settings to display the bbPress page on the home page, and it will be the main feature of your site.
Even if you aren't running a traditional blog this might be a good option because you can use WordPress Pages for simple "About" content or use the Posts system for general news and Forum announcements. IT also gives you some flexibility for the future.
bbPress Hosting Requirements
Almost any web host that supports WordPress will also support bbPress. Specifically, the only technical requirements are:
- PHP version 5.2.4 or greater
- MySQL version 5.0 or greater
- The mod_rewrite Apache module
phpBB is a fully featured bulletin board and forum system. It is the most widely used forum software on the internet, running on sites visited by millions of people daily.
Unlike bbPress, it is standalone software.
Why use phpBB?
As opposed to the WordPress/bbPress philosophy of keeping features out of the core code base, phpBB is a feature-rich solution. The developers assume that most people want forums to work mostly the same way, and so popular features are included.
This has benefits and drawbacks, of course.
The good thing about this approach is that it is much easier to get up and running with a fairly standard forum implementation without having to consider every single feature.
The downside is that you may not actually want users to have every available feature. Some typical forum features, like user images and emoji (smile icons) contribute to a very cluttered user experience that may not be appropriate to your audience.
Our own recommendation is that phpBB is the right choice if your expected audience is familiar with forums and are frequent users of other online bulletin board systems. phpBB will look and feel very familiar to these users, and a forum that doesn't follow these patterns may disappoint the people most likely to engage with your website.
phpBB Hosting Requirements
The full requirements for phpBB hosting are somewhat detailed, though fairly common. Many web hosts specifically support phpBB and even provide one-click installation of it through their control panel, via Softaculous, Simple Scripts, or another install wizard.
Of the three bulletin board systems profiled here, vbulletin is the only one that is not Open Source. Rather, vbulletin is commercial software.
Why use vbulletin
With several free and Open Source alternatives available, the natural question is: Why use vbulletin?
Most of the basic bulletin board system functions are essentially the same, but there is at least one feature that vbulletin has which makes it worth paying for: Mobile apps.
The vbulletin Mobile Bundle license includes software to publish native iOS and Android apps which act as clients for your vbulletin forums.
vbulletin Hosting Requirements
- PHP 5.3.0 (5.4 or higher recommended)
- MySQL 5.1.5 (5.5 or higher recommended)
- mod_rewrite, URL Rewrite, or equivalent.
- GD or ImageMagick
- cURL or OpenSSL
Simple Machines Forum
Simple Machine Forum is a free and Open Source forum software with a loyal user base and an extensive ecosystem of plugins (called "mods" in SMF).
SMF is very popular, especially among webmasters and forum owners who do not have a lot of development and coding experience. The built-in package manager system and mod system make it very easy to set up and use and moderate.
Simple Machines Forum Hosting Requirements
The requirements for SMF are extensive, but fairly common, including a number of standard PHP libraries and web server configuration settings. Rather than trying to track down whether a hosting company supports each individual requirement, your best bet is to find a web host that has "out-of-the-box" support for Simple Machines Forum.
Also see: MyBB
Choosing a Host for Your Forum
Web hosting packages are not generally focused on, or marketed as, “forum-friendly hosting,” but many hosting providers offer some sort of forum package as a one-click install via their hosting control panel.
Free forum solutions are also available for download and installation at various freeware sites around the Internet. To avoid problems, however, be sure to consult your provider regarding any potential compatibility or resource issues before installing a forum on your site.
Forum Hosting - Other Considerations
Commercial or Open Source?
When you are starting out with a new forum, there can often be a lot of back and forth about what forum management system to use for your site. While the majority of the market is open source solutions, one of the industry leaders is actually a commercial solution - vBulletin.
Depending on the license you want to acquire, vBulletin can cost as little as $200 all the way up to over $400. But do you actually get better performance from vBulletin for the financial investment? Consider the following facts about vBulletin in a comparison to a popular open source solution - phpBB:
- phpBB provides over 30 more languages out of the box
- vBulletin includes a Rich Text Editor while phpBB has a WYSIWYG editor
- phpBB comes with more social media integrations than vBulletin. Both have Facebook integrations, but phpBB also has integrations for Twitter and MySpace.
- vBulletin comes with a software bundle that includes a custom homepage, a blog, bug tracking, project management and picture album management. phpBB does not include a bundle.
- YouTube videos can be embedded in vBulletin forums - not in phpBB.
- phpBB includes plain text post editing along with HTML and BBCode - vBulletin only includes HTML and BBCode.
- vBulletin has post tagging included “out of the box” while phpBB requires a plugin to be installed.
When you consider vBulletin or other premium forum platforms, make sure you are getting value for the money you are investing. In the case of choosing vBulletin or phpBB, the choice of going commercial or open source should ultimately come down to whether or not you want the software bundle that includes all of the other functionality. vBulletin does have some limitations for the investment required, but if you want a full website with a forum at its core, the spend could be worthwhile. Just make sure you have plan for making the money back!
Hosting Frequently Asked Questions
How do forums store conversation data?
Most forums store post information in a database. The type of database will depend on the specific forum, hosting service, and administrator’s preference.
What is the difference between threaded and non-threaded forums?
A threaded forum places all replies (and replies to replies) beneath the original message, as one long, threaded list.
The advantage to this view is that all conversations around a single topic are contained together. The disadvantage is that this can quickly become visually unappealing when there are too many replies and sub-replies in a single thread.
A non-threaded, or flat, forum is one where each message gets added to the end of the discussion, without relation to any specific message in the discussion.
These forums often include a ‘quote’ feature, which allows users to include an excerpt from a previous message when responding directly to another user.
Visually, these tend to be much more appealing, and the most recent comments will always be easy to find. However, following an entire thread can be nearly impossible.
Are there any forum programs that offer both flat and threaded options?
Nearly all forum programs allow you to create a non-threaded forum.
Many, like bbPress and vBulletin, will let you choose between threaded and non-threaded (in some cases, plugins are required).
Some forums software, however, such as phpBB, does not provide an option for threaded forums.
If this is an important feature for your organization, you should thoroughly research forum options and select one that includes threaded functionality.
How customizable are forums?
That depends on the platform you’re using.
bbPress, because it’s based on the WordPress principal of themes and plugins, is going to offer a much more customizable experience than other open source options.
Just about all forums software will allow some degree of customization, and many will even allow the user to customize the appearance for their own, unique experience.
Why use a forum rather than a social media site?
That will depend largely on the needs of your organization, but general the goals of a forum and a social media platform are different.
Social media sites are designed to get a community of users talking and sharing, but not necessarily responding to every single item shared.
Forums are all about sharing knowledge, getting questions answered, and helping each other. If someone posts a question, it’s expected that someone in the community will respond, hopefully with an answer.
That’s why forums are typically broken down into specific topics or areas of interest, focusing the attention of its users.
If you’re looking for a place for your users to ask questions and get answers from their peers, a forum is probably the right option for you. If you want to allow your users a community to express themselves, social media might be a better approach.
What is the difference between HTML and BBCode?
HTML provides far more flexibility in terms of content and markup, but it also comes with additional security risks.
BBCode was designed specifically for forums and is more limited in terms of functionality and, therefore, better in terms of security. It provides the essential text markup (bold, italic, underline, etc.), quotes, links, and little else.
How hard is it to monitor for appropriate language or subjects in a forum?
Most forum platforms will include some type of auto-replace function, which allows administrators to set a list of inappropriate words and either remove them or replace them with other text.
The auto-replace function will provide basic coverage and can usually be adjusted if you determine new terms need to be added or removed.
If this is a concern, you should plan to have someone monitoring the forums regularly, because users are skilled at communicating inappropriate content even without inappropriate words.
Can I add a forum to an existing site?
Absolutely. If you’re already running a WordPress site, it will take very little effort to add a bbPress forum.
For other CMS platforms, or if you prefer another forum software, it may take a little more effort, particularly if you want to replicate your site’s theme, but it should be possible.
Be sure to check your support documentation before getting started. You should also check with your hosting platform, as they may offer a simple (often 1-click) solution.
Can I add images to a forum?
Most forum platforms allow users to add images to threads. Exactly how those will appear or how easy they will be to add will depend on the forum software.
Is there any way to prevent duplicate threads?
Many forums provide some type of check for existing threads whenever a user creates a new topic.
In some cases this may be provided as an add-on, so be sure to carefully review the installation documentation to make sure this features is enabled. Your users will appreciate it.
What languages are forums written in?
Most forums are developed using PHP because it was designed specifically for developing dynamic websites based on user-provided content.
You will find an occasional forum developed in Perl, Java, or ASP, but all of the forums features above were written in PHP.
How can I choose the best forum for my organization?
That will depend on a number of factors.
Here are a few things to consider:
1. If you already have a hosting plan, they probably provide some forums as a one-click installation. That might be a great way to start.
2. What’s your budget? If it’s small, open-source is the way to go. On the other hand, if you have money to spend, a proprietary solution will include better support and probably more features.
3. How customized do you want it? Some solutions are easier to customize than others.
4. Test. Test. Test. Many forum platforms offer a demo on their website. Try them all out, and pick the one that feels right.
How does Simple Machines compare to other open source forum platforms like phpBB and bbPress?
All three of these forum platforms are open source and free to use. That said, their licenses are very different. With Simple Machines, you don't have access to the codebase to make improvements or modifications. Simple Machines runs on its own platform, and while it can integrate with a handful of content management systems with a bridge, Simple Machines Forums are designed to be standalone sites for online communities.
With phpBB, you can have access to the code, as it is published under a 'GNU General Public License'. Because of this availability, you are far more likely to find custom themes and plugins to integrate into a phpBB forum than you are to find similar mods for Simple Machines. Depending on how unique you want your forum installation to be, you may want to select one service over the other.
By comparison to both phpBB and Simple Machines, bbPress is a plugin that provides forum functionality on the WordPress platform. While Simple Machines and phpBB have a lot of nice features, if you already have a WordPress website and want to add a forum, bbPress is the way to go, no question.
What are some options for hosting forums on windows?
The most popular forum option configured to operate on a Windows server is YetAnotherForum - or “YAF.NET”. While it is the industry leader in the ASP.NET forum software niche, it is not the only option on the market. Two other alternatives include MVC forum - which is a full-service and open source installation - and Nearforums - an open source, SEO-friendly forum built on ASP.
Are there any advantages to having a forum that doesn't require a database?
Some of the hosting industry’s most basic plans don’t offer database access. That said, if you want to host a forum, you do have some options! Yet Another Bulletin Board is a forum solution that is one of the few options that might still be viable for a site hosted on an account that does not include databases. Also, some forum admins that are uncomfortable with programming in databases may be more comfortable using a system like Yet Another Bulletin Board with its flat files than navigating a MySQL database.
Future versions of Yet Another Bulletin Board are planned to include support for MySQL databases or optional use of the current flat-file database system. There is no current timetable for the release of a version of YaBB that uses MySQL databases.
Why is PHP so commonly used for forums over perl or other languages?
PHP is a programming language built specifically for generating web pages. PHP has lots of built-in functionality that makes it an easy choice for creating web sites. As a result, even though it’s generally considered to be a little challenging to work with, PHP is one of the most popular programming languages on the web, and is supported by virtually all shared-server hosting plans. There are more PHP applications available as a result of this built-in web functionality and vast hosting support.