Forums can be a great way to encourage audience participation, and to change a website from a one dimensional entity into a full fledged community. There are a number of well developed open source forums out there on the web to help you create that, each with their own benefits. This review breaks down some of the best software out there in 2011 with a focus on everything from lightweight forum solutions to the all singing, all dancing heavyweights.
Features URL: http://vanillaforums.org/features/embed-vanilla
Runs on: PHP / MySQL / Postgres
Vanilla has always prided itself on clean underlying code, bringing together web standards, code reuse and css to create a product that kicks lumps out of 1990’s bulletin software that we’ve become accustomed to on the web. With many of the forum software solutions out there on the web carrying a technical burden of tables and bloatware, Vanilla brings with it a fresh approach. With almost half a million communities now being powered by it, the maturity of the product is no longer questionable, and the feature set rivals that of older products – Vanilla now boasts social sign-in integration, full theming support, WordPress integration (via a plugin) and a number of community submitted plugins.
It also works fully on mobile devices, ensuring future compatibility for your site and audience. With the growth of the mobile web, that is sure to be a deal maker for many webmasters, and it’s likely that we see many older communities making the switch. Vanilla have made that process even easier with import plugins at the ready for PHPBB and VBulletin – two dinosaurs in the forum world that should be afraid. Very afraid.
Features URL: http://www.osqa.net/learn-more/
Runs on: Python / Django Framework
Whilst not technically a ‘forum’ OSQA still could provide a community element to many websites. Essentially it is a fork of CNProg, a Python clone of Stackoverflow, and joins the others (Shapado / Question2Answer / Askbot ) which have tried to mirror it’s success. It runs on top of the Django web framework, so if you are familiar with developing with it, you should be able to hit the ground running. Although it does take a bit of messing around with to get installed if you aren’t familiar with Python, if you are looking for a question / answer type site then you could do a whole load worse than looking at OSQA. It is under active development with the last commit on the project 1st of Feb this year. Awesome, as it looks like it has a real chance of succeeding.
BBPress / BuddyPress
Features URL: http://bbpress.org/about/features/
Runs on: PHP / MySQL
If you are looking to use a WordPress plugin to power your forum, then BBPress is by far the best solution on the web today. It is developed by the WordPress team, so you should find the same level of support and help as is available with WordPress. Buddypress, a sister solution which is available to roll your own social network , also offers integrated forums, and the aim for BBPress going forward is to shelve version 1, and roll out a plugin which will be capable of being used across WordPress, WordPress MU, and Buddypress.
This separatation of functionality makes sense, and should help the project grow in stature, tap into the respective development communities of each offshoot project, and enhance the project overall. As a side note, plugin developer Justin Tadlock has started work on a really interesting plugin project for forums, which uses WordPress custom fields. I for one am staying tuned to see where that project goes.
Features URL: http://simple-press.com/features/
Runs on: PHP / MySQL
Another forum plugin for WordPress, Simple Press offers some additional functionality and features to those found with BBPress. The frontend and backend code is mostly clean and commented and they’ve added some nice touches with Ajax in some places. They also appear to be ahead of the curve with releases, as activity on the plugin appears to be as recent as this month. Good to see on a product that isn’t a part of the WordPress core. Many of you will find it easy to setup, but probably one of the only things missing is import export functionality, as some people may want to marry up an existing community to run on it. From what I can see however, that is a feature which is in the pipeline.
Features URL: http://www.forumsoftware.ca/features.jsp
License: Apache Software License
Runs on: Java on MySQL / Postgres / Oracle / SQLite
Yazd is open source and free discussion forum software running on Java, one of the few on the web that I’d come across. It runs on native JDBC for the database interfacing, with no ORM layer such as Hibernate. The project is relatively small, although tightly coded. From what I could see from initial research, there hasn’t been any security issues since 2008, but that is perhaps a reflection in part of its current adoption. That said, if you are looking to get off the ground running, and your other systems currently work in Java, Yazd may be a good starting point.
Features URL: http://www.minibb.com/features.html
License: GPL / Link attribution
Runs on: PHP / MySQL
Mini BB prides itself on being small, yet powerful, and recognise that forum software is often bloated. Written in PHP, it is lightweight in its code generation with CSS and XHTML templates which are W3C compatible, and offers SEO-optimisation through a mod_rewrite module. It includes the common threading and replying options that you have come to expect from forum software and also support a variety of databases, although MySQL is the default. If you are looking for a lightweight forum, with high performance that has clean and clear code – Mini BB is well worth investigation.
License: Phorum / BSD type license.
Runs on: PHP / MySQL / Postgres
Whilst a bit low on feature set, Phorum has been designed with high scalability and performance in mind. As testament to the success of this objective, it currently runs the forums over at MySQL – so rest assured that it can cope under heavy load. With a small feature set, it does do the simple things particularly well, and has a pretty comprehensive module / add-on community that beefs up the core offering. It has a bespoke templating engine to allow full skinning of the software, and the code is well written and documented. They could do with a helping hand with documentation though – which like many open source projects, leaves alot to be desired.
Simple Machines Forum
Features URL: http://www.simplemachines.org/about/features.php
License: Custom License
Runs on: PHP / MySQL
Touted as a great alternative to vBulletin (commercial forum software), Simple Machines offers a powerful feature set in a free, no charge, no strings open source box. Although heavier in some places than the other software mentioned here, it has everything you need to successfully integrate a forum with your own website, regardless of your current setup. Some of you will know the team behind Simple Machines Forum were originally behind YaBB SE – a PHP port of Yabb Bulletin board (which originally ran on Perl). Simple machines is the next incarnation of that successful open source project. Documentation for the project is provided by the community for the community with installation and help and a number of high quality themes have also been developed for use alongside the software. If you are looking for a more feature heavy product, and aren’t prepared to pay the moolah for vBulletin, simple machines is probably your best bet.
Features URL: http://fluxbb.org/about/features.html
Runs on: PHP / MySQL / Postgres / SQLite
Another forum to file under ‘light and fluffy’ is FluxBB. As with Vanilla it produces valid markup and clean code that is a joy to skin and modify. Unlike some of it’s peers, there are no tables to be seen. It is a fork of PunBB, again an older piece of software some of you may already be familiar with that has brought with it even cleaner more compact code. Considering that Pun moved to a commercial company a while back, its a welcome one as well.
One feature that some of you may find particularly useful is FluxBB ability to run on SQL lite, meaning it could in theory become part of a native mobile application – as the database could be shipped along with the application. Conformance with Accessibility guidelines is also a plus and the clean code and architecture will please the standards zealots amongst you.. If you are looking for a fully fledged feature set, again it’s probably not going to be up your street, but if you are looking to get moving quickly, with the core forum features you’d expect, FluxBB won’t disappoint.
Some other bits and bobs that I came across on my travels whilst taking a look at what is out there.
http://www.mybb.com/ – MyBB runs on PHP and MySQL, has a great templating system which gives complete control over the output
http://sourceforge.net/projects/fruitshow/ – FruitShow, is a lightweight forum system available at Sourceforge. The philosophy is that social atmosphere is a by-product of software design. No registration, clean design, and easily skinable.
http://newsboard.unclassified.de/ – A lightweight German open source bulletin board.
http://kryogenix.org/code/cruciforum/ – A single page PHP script – Cruciforum is a very simple web forum, designed to make it really easy to add a discussion forum to a website. If you want to start off some conversation around a bit of code you’ve written, provide somewhere to let people enter feature requests, or just want somewhere to chat with your mates, Cruciforum is for you.
http://code.reddit.com/ – The code powering the Reddit community is completely open source, may contain some stuff there of use on your projects.
http://fudforum.org/forum – As well as a fully fledged forum system – FUDforum can also act as a Mailing List Manager, USENET newsreader and even an XML Feed Aggregator. This will allow you to build an instant community and consolidate all your messages into a single system.
http://www.usebb.net/ – PHP 5 based community system that is modular and object oriented while retaining UseBB’s core characteristics of usability and effectivity
http://tal.ki/ – Embeddable forum software, that is free for small volumes.
Hopefully some of these should be useful for anyone looking to get up and started with running a forum. Let me know if there’s any other snippets I should include, or that you’ve had personal experience of in the comments.