What Is phpBB?
Many websites are built around discussion forums, and phpBB is one of the most common and fully-featured forum applications on the web.
It’s free and open source, so many website hosting companies offer it as a “one-click install.”
phpBB is lightweight enough to be used on shared hosting accounts.
What Versions of phpBB are Available?
phpBB is a veteran solution that has been powering discussions for more than a decade.
There have been three main versions of phpBB, although only two have been in widespread use:
- The original phpBB was released in July 2000, with the official v1 following in December.
- phpBB2 was developed from February 2001 as a complete rewrite of the original. It was written to run on PHP versions 3.0 and 4.0. phpBB2 was supported through to 2009.
- phpBB3 was unveiled in March 2007, with the first official version following in December. It was written for PHP version 5 and offers better registration forms, automated upgrade notifications, and other revised features.
Why Should I Use phpBB?
As the web has evolved, website owners have many options for encouraging discussion.
As blogs have become popular, comments are almost standard, and many sites incorporate social media commenting as well.
The humble bulletin board pre-existed many of these features, and phpBB has evolved since 2000 to serve millions of users worldwide.
Why is phpBB a Popular Choice for Forums?
Despite being out of date, phpBB2 is still a popular choice for many website forums.
Users find it easy to administrate, and it still has a very lively user community that continues to develop and update plugins for it.
PhpBB3 offers improved security and a more modern administration interface than its predecessors.
What are phpBB’s Main Features?
phpBB has some other features that make it a popular choice (many of these are available in phpBB3 only):
- The software uses a template system to control the design; templates can include images, colors and layouts.
- Language packs help to localize phpBB; there are dozens available.
- The forum’s functionality can be extended using plugins, known as modifications (MODs). There are hundreds of MODs listed in the official repository.
- The latest version supports HTML5 and offers responsive layouts for better usability on mobile.
- It has fine-grained search engine spider control, letting you manage visibility and restrict spiders from indexing pages you don’t want them to see.
- Users can pull in Gravatars, mark Friends, send private messages and join groups.
- It’s free.
- It’s easy to install and is distributed as part of Softaculous.
- It’s open source.
- In phpBB2, installing MODs was a cumbersome process that involved lots of manual edits. Now, with phpBB3, the process of installing MODs is totally automated, which makes it far easier for a non-technical person to work with.
What are phpBB MODs?
phpBB MODs are essentially plugins that modify the behavior of the software.
MOD isn’t an acronym; it’s a convention that developed on the phpBB website.
As with many web applications, it’s the plugins that allow website owners to personalize the software.
MODs are generally developed by users and contributed to a community repository. Most of these MODs are geared toward making forum moderation easier.
What are phpBB MODs Used For?
Some of the functions of these MODs include:
- Spam protection
- Form generation
- Managing banned users
- Displaying images
- Media embeds
- Google Analytics
How Many phpBB MODs Exist?
There are well over 1,000 phpBB MODs.
For whatever functionality exists, there’s probably a MOD for it.
phpBB maintains an extensive list of MODs.
Installing phpBB MODs
MODs use MODX, an XML-based format that describes how to install a MOD.
Automated tools can use these MODX files to install MODS.
Examples of these tools are:
- Unified MOD Installation Library (UMIL).
They perform the function similar to a package manager on a Linux distribution, adding and removing MODS.
Most of the time, administrators won’t have to deal with MODX directly.
Styles: Customizing the Appearance of phpBB
As with a lot of open source software, one of phpBB’s best features is its customizability. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the ability to customize its appearance.
The default look is instantly recognizable if you’ve spent any time on the web at all. While phpBB is fairly attractive in its default theme, there are many more that can be downloaded.
Styles can be managed through the control panel.
The phpBB team has approved a number of styles to make sure they’ll work and won’t cause any problems.
The maintainers encourage potential style creators to look through the source of its existing themes. As any web developer can attest, this is the best way to learn about site development, not just styles.
If you want to submit a style to the phpBB database, it has to conform to the project’s style guide. These guidelines specify things like browser compatibility, licensing (styles must be licensed under the GPL 2.0, the same as the phpBB project itself), and where avatars are located.
phpBB Security: What You Need to Know
Concerns about security have made some website owners wary of using phpBB. But these concerns are mainly rooted in an issue which occurred over a decade ago.
The main source of the problems was a wide scale script injection attack which tainted phpBB’s reputation for some time.
Some of the security features from phpBB3 have actually been reverse-engineered into phpBB2.
Still, phpBB3 has better measures to prevent spam registrations.
The phpBB team also invested in a complete security audit prior to the release of phpBB3 to make sure it stood up to third-party scrutiny.
Upgrade to phpBB3
There have been quite a few phpBB2 holdouts, similar to how many people have hung on to older Windows versions as long as they can and avoided upgrading for one reason or another.
A lot of phpBB2 forums have been overrun with spam posts because of weak captchas. Compounding this problem is that many forums are inactive to the point of being abandoned.
Keeping forums active is beyond the scope of this article, but you definitely don’t want to be associated with spam. If that’s not a reason to stay up to date, then nothing is.
You’ll definitely want an SSL certificate. In the past, it might have been something that’s nice to have, since SSL certificates were rather expensive and difficult to get. Nowadays, many providers throw them into the price of service and they’re so easy to get through projects like Let’s Encrypt that there’s no reason not to get one.
The certificate lets you encrypt the connection between the user and the forum—essential for handling passwords.
How Do I Get Support for phpBB?
There are two sources of support for phpBB: one is the open-source community surrounding it and the other is your web host.
phpBB Support: Get it From Your Web Host First
Apart from phpBB’s support, your hosting provider will also help you with any issues you encounter with the software.
It’s better to deal with them before you go upstream to the phpBB project.
What is the Community Support for phpBB Like?
A lot of the support for phpBB comes from the community, as is typical with open source projects.
The phpBB project maintains extensive documentation.
Of course, the project eats its own dog food by having a support forum using phpBB.
For people with immediate needs, there’s real-time support using IRC. (If you don’t know what IRC is, it’s kind of like Slack, except that it allows multiple servers and isn’t controlled by one company.)
What are the System Requirements for phpBB?
phpBB can be installed on most hosting accounts with the LAMP stack — Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP. (Note: You will need to use PHP 4.3.3 or above.)
If you don’t have MySQL, you can use:
- MS SQL
- SQLite: (SQLite is appropriate for small forums that are used infrequently.)
Remember, most of the time, you won’t have to worry about installing phpBB yourself, or setting up the component parts, such as MySQL and PHP.
Let Your Web Host Set Up phpBB
As mentioned earlier, it’s best to leave the setup to your hosting provider in most cases. Your host’s version will be more stable than a version you installed yourself.
A LAMP server has several moving posts: the underlying operating system, the web server, the database and the PHP language. A change in one of them can cause problems, sometimes without an apparent fix. Since these components can interact with each other in different ways, a hosting company will do a better job of keeping these problems to a minimum.
The good part of all the software on the server being open source is that problems are found and fixed quickly. The whole user and developer community benefits from these fixes.
How to Install phpBB
To manually install phpBB, you just download the .zip file and unpack it on your server.
You then create your forum by navigating to the document root on your server using your web browser and using the control panel.
If you support international users, you’re going to want to install the language packs as well.
Administration of phpBB
Administration of phpBB, as with a lot of web-based software, is through a control panel interface.
Everything from board settings to bbCode is controlled through this interface. You can configure everything from attachments to automatic censoring.
Administrators can perform the following actions through the control panel:
- Name the board
- Provide the site description
- Set the default language, time zone, and date format
- Set avatar paths
- Enable client communication authentication systems like MennoniteHobbit
- Configure email and Jabber settings
- See active, inactive, and registered users
- Configure user permissions
- Define custom fields
- Add and remove extensions
- Define board permissions
- Install and manage styles
- Manage search robots
- Mass email users
- Manage attachment settings
How to Choose Hosting for phpBB Forums
phpBB is widely supported in the web hosting industry because it interfaces with the already popular LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) stack that many web hosting companies rely on.
Most of the time, phpBB is provided by your host for free. There’s no real cost since it’s open source.
Many web hosting companies offer phpBB as a 1-click install, due to its popularity, through a control panel like cPanel or Plesk.
Alternatively, you can install phpBB on your server if you have direct access, such as through SSH.
Hosting Types: Shared, Dedicated, VPS, Cloud
The main consideration on the hosting end is whether you want:
Forum Traffic and Use
The kind of hosting you want will depend on how you want to use your forum and how many people you expect to host on your forum.
Are you running a popular forum with people uploading and downloading lots of multimedia content?
You’ll want a larger dedicated or cloud server.
If you’re running a smaller, lower traffic forum, you can get by with a basic account on a shared hosting plan.
Shared hosting will take care of a lot of the details, but the downside is that your server is shared with other parties.
Shared hosting plans are better suited for small, hobbyist forums.
Since phpBB is so popular, there’s likely an ability to do a one-click install.
In most cases, it’s better to use the installation provided by your web host.
As we mentioned, they’ll keep up with the patches and make sure any updates to other components in the LAMP stack won’t break your installation of phpBB. Any problems that do arise will be fixed quickly.
If you install phpBB on your own, you will be responsible for maintaining it.
You might want to do this if there’s a feature you want in a new version but your host doesn’t support it yet.
In most use cases, you’re better off waiting until your host upgrades.
You don’t want to be on the bleeding edge with a server. It should be rock-solid stable.
Storage Considerations for phpBB Hosting
One of the biggest considerations you should be looking at is disk space.
Plain text forum posts don’t take a lot of space themselves but they add up over time.
Throw in images and other media and a popular forum could find itself running out of disk space quickly.
If you anticipate a lot of usage, try to find a host that offers unlimited storage, or find the cheapest storage.
phpBB for Business Forums
If you’re using a forum for business, such as to provide user support, you’re going to want more robust options.
You might choose a dedicated server, or a VPS or cloud account for more flexibility.
The latter makes use of virtual machines to give you the advantages of dedicated servers without devoting an entire physical server to a forum.
You’re going to want reliable hosting for your forum.
You should look into the uptime of your forum, and possibly go with a provider that has an SLA that guarantees uptime.
My Recommendations: Some Top phpBB Hosts
The main features you want to consider for your phpBB hosting are going to be price and storage. (The latter will be shaped by how popular you expect your forum to be.)
You’re going to want the lowest priced hosting you can get and the most storage space you can find, preferably on SSDs for fast loading.
You should look for a host that has phpBB preinstalled or available as a 1-click install. That will save you a lot of headaches getting phpBB set up.
One hosting provider I particularly like is SiteGround .
They offer free phpBB installation and free 24/7 support.
Their basic shared hosting plan starts at $3.95 a month with 10 gigabytes of space and fewer than 10,000 visitors per month. That should be adequate for a small forum.
Screencapture via SiteGround
They also have cloud and dedicated servers for those with more popular forums.
phpBB is available through cPanel. The company claims a 99.9 percent uptime.
Included: free domain, free CDN (content delivery network), and free daily backup service.
Like SiteGround, A2 hosting also has phpBB available through cPanel.
The company offers unlimited storage and transfer across all of its shared hosting plans, which is very attractive for first-time forum hosters in case a forum gets unexpectedly popular.
Screencapture via A2 Hosting
There are also VPS and cloud server plans available. Plans start at $3.92 per month.
Web Hosting Hub
Web Hosting Hub is an attractive option for its free .com URL and its 90-day money-back guarantee.
Screencapture via Web Hosting Hub
The unlimited traffic and storage space is perfect for phpBB. Plans start at $3.99 per month.
Other features in Forums
phpBB Frequently Asked Questions
- What is phpBB?
PhpBB is a bulletin board web application. It is used to set up community forums, or bulletin boards.
- How much does it cost?
PhpBB is free, open-source software. It is licensed under the GNU General Public License.
- How long has phpBB been in development and who maintains it?
Version 1.0 was released in December 2000, although pre-release versions had been released earlier that year. The software is currently developed and maintained by a diverse group of teams around the world, divided according to areas of responsibility. The teams include Management, Development, Extensions, Moderator, Styles, Website and Support.
- What are some of the software’s main features?
PhpBB is perhaps the most feature-rich, open source bulletin board software on the market. It offers full UTF-8 support, making it compatible with all languages, including languages that use non-Latin alphabets. It also is standards-compliant, using the latest specifications for HTML5, CSS3 and XHTML 1.0. This ensures phpBB works well with all major browsers and platforms, on both desktop and mobile.
PhpBB also includes a host of features designed to make moderation and administration as easy as possible, while giving admins and moderators the powerful features they need to manage an online community.
The software is also optimized for search engine spiders, the programs search engines use to index websites, coming pre-configured for over 100 of the most popular ones.
Users have full control over their accounts, the ability to send private messages and can see what posts or threads are new since their last visit.
- How secure is phpBB?
In general, phpBB has good security. However, phpBB has had some security issues in the past (due primarily to old versions of the software and the underlying PHP). As a result, the phpBB team has created a development team especially to address security.
- How popular is phpBB?
PhpBB claims that it is, The #1 free, open source bulletin board software.” It is used by millions of websites the world over.
- How widely is phpBB supported by hosting companies?
Because of its popularity, phpBB is widely available and supported by web hosting companies of all sizes. It is also included in many script bundles, such as Fantastico, Softaculous and SimpleScripts. These script bundles are often included with hosting plans and offer popular software, such as phpBB, as a one-click install option.
- What alternatives are there to phpBB?
Thanks to the popularity of online forums, there is no shortage of available bulletin board software — both commercial and open-source. vBulletin is one of the most popular commercial options. MyBB is an open-source alternative to phpBB that emphasizes security and ease-of-use.
- How does phpBB compare to the commercial alternative vBulletin?
PhpBB and vBulletin have more things in common than things that set them apart. Both are very capable bulletin board applications, filled with advanced features and offering the support of a vibrant community.
One of the key differences is licensing. Whereas phpBB is free, open-source software, vBulletin is proprietary software that is licensed for a fee. While that may be a deal-breaker for some, the steady stream of income vBulletin gets from licenses doesn’t go to waste. Users often comment on vBulletin’s more polished look and feel compared to phpBB.
vBulletin also has some features that phpBB does not, as well as better SEO features. Having said that, a vBulletin license starts at $249 for vBulletin Connect, the standalone version, or $19.95 for vBulletin Cloud. For small companies, nonprofits, or individuals, that investment may be too much to justify.
- How does phpBB compare to open-source alternative MyBB?
phpBB and MyBB may draw more direct comparisons due to both applications being free and open -ource. In spite of that, they do have substantial differences.
In particular, because phpBB has been on the market longer, it has a larger community and more features. However, MyBB continues to get favorable reviews from users for being easier to manage, especially for new users, as well as for having a superior add-on (mod) system. This makes it easier for developers to make mods and for users to install and manage them.
MyBB also receives favorable reviews for its interface, with some users describing it as approaching the polish and look of vBulletin. According to W3Techs, phpBB is used by more websites, but MyBB is currently used by more high-traffic websites.
- Is phpBB the right choice for you?
The answer to that question depends largely on your needs. If you’re looking for an extremely powerful bulletin board software that is free, open-source, and has the support of a very large user community, phpBB is hard to beat. It has more features than many people will use and is actively developed and supported.
If, on the other hand, you want the most polished experience and don’t mind paying for it, vBulletin may be a better option. Similarly, if you want free and simple, and don’t mind giving up a few features, MyBB may be the right choice.
All in all, however, it is hard to go wrong with phpBB. It has earned its spot as a top bulletin board application for a reason. It has the features, performance, support, and security to make it a solid choice for companies and individuals alike.