Originally posted on my site - http://www.olate.com
The ‘forum’, or ‘discussion board’, plays a major part on most successful websites providing a place for regular visitors to discuss topics the site covers. This creates a community and adds ‘stickiness’ to your site, making people come back time and time again. Looking at the many hundreds of thousands of websites with forums, you can see various systems that are employed to provide the discussion board features – posting, voting, private messaging, and categories etc which all play a part in the standard feature list for all big forum systems. In this article, I’m going to download, install and setup 5 of the biggest and more popular forum applications.
I have chosen these from the lists at Hotscripts.com and also based on my past experience and knowledge. I have only chosen free systems due to the fact that it is what most web site owners will be using and the difficulty in acquiring a copy of paid for systems for review. I understand that as a consequence of this, I will have to leave out the extremely popular vBulletin. I have also chosen PHP, ASP and CGI systems to give a wide choice to you when you decide which system you want to go for.
The following applications are going to be reviewed here, each is freely available for download from it’s website:
Invision Power Board - PHP
Snitz - ASP
Web Wiz Forums - ASP
IkonBoard - CGI
For each one, I will be following the same process:
1. Downloading, extracting and uploading the files to my web space.
2. Running through the installation scripts.
3. Browsing the configuration settings and features.
I will be commenting on the applications in different areas which will allow me to come to a final conclusion and present an overall mark in the summary.
phpBB, the system that powers the forums on my own website, has been available for quite a time. Version 2.0.x has come a very long way since 1.0.0 was released back in December 2000 with developments in the PHP scripting language and the addition of various features phpBB now has a very extensive feature listing which includes a very intuitive templates (Styles) system based around the PHPLib system. It has support for all major databases including MySQL, MSSQL and even MS Access databases. As well as these essential features, it has support for strong security, polling, BBCode Tags for formatting, user groups and permissions systems as well as avatars, signatures, profile options and moderation and administration facilities. Because of the nature of the free software, some forums do not come with free support, however posting in the phpbb.com forums will usually reveal an answer within a few hours with dedicated support team members always on hand and enthusiastic members always willing to help at no extra cost. However, no paid support is available so if nobody knows the answer to your question then you are stuck.
phpBB is extremely fast and comes with optional caching tools to make it even faster. It is based around PHP and is completely open source and free with no restrictions. This allows you to easily integrate it into your own website and develop styles and modifications for it – of which there are hundreds - most freely available for download. The original subSilver style that is available by default with phpBB is one of the best default styles of all the forum systems and they even provide you with the Photoshop .psd files so you can modify the style.
The administration control panel, compared to the other applications, is where phpBB is let down. You can configure every option in phpBB here, however, there aren’t the standard features of action logging, the advanced mailing list and backup tools that the other systems have. There is also no way to add new profile options without a modification, or to create your own post icons or forum icons. Visitor statistics are limited to an average number of users and posts which is not as good as some of the other offerings. You can, however, customise the look of the panel using to make it match your main forum style.
The development team at phpBB have not added many new features to 2.0.x since it was released only fixing bugs or security problems (of which there are very few) and seem to be reserving all these new features that are now standard on other forum applications for the upcoming phpbb2.2. This system is at Milestone 2 (of 4) but has many of the major features already working. However, as this has not yet been released, I can’t review it here even though it looks extremely promising. You can download a CVS of the current version to play around with at their development site area51.phpbb.com.
The installation of phpBB is very simple. The download is only 657kb as a .zip file (.gzip is available). However extracting the file increases the size to over 2mb which you have to upload to your web space. Once you have uploaded all the files, you browse to the directory you uploaded the files to and the installation script will automatically load up. You have to enter in basic details about your database and the default username and password as well as some location settings. The installation consists of 2 screens. The first, just described, and the second, telling you the database tables have been created.
You then need to upload the config.php file created for you by the script to complete the installation. You can let the install do it for you if you prefer. Once you have done this, you need to remove 2 directories before being allowed to access the forums. You are then presented with your brand new blank forum.
Overall, phpBB is an extremely good system that is very popular. It has all the features you would probably need for maintaining an active forum, but no standard extras that are not essential, but useful. The huge community in invaluable if you get stuck and the number of styles and modifications available will allow you to change the software to suit your site and requirements.
Database Support: MySQL, PostgreSQL, MSSQL, MS Access
Modifications/Styles Available: Hundreds
Pros: Very easy to use, nice default style, lots of styles and modifications
Cons: Admin panel lacking in ‘standard’ features
[SIZE=+1]Invision Power Board[/SIZE]
Another popular PHP application, IVB has some extremely advanced features available as standard. Downloading the file from the website takes a few moments as you have to navigate your way through various screens, which can be confusing due to the fact that the download is listed as a ‘free trial’. There is also the option to purchase support from Invision Power Services.
After extracting the .zip download, you are presented with a confusing directory structure. The location of the files you have to upload is not apparent but once you have found it, it is simply a case of uploading to your website. The initial upload of all the files is over 4mb and once you have them uploaded, you cannot just navigate to the directory and let the install begin - you have to navigate to a specific file. The well presented installation screens guide you through each step of the setup where the first thing you need to do is CHMOD a configuration file so the script can write to it. After entering your database information, the tables are created and a number of files are created. You can then login to your forum system using the username and password you just created.
IVB has a number of useful features as well as the standard forum features which include extensive private messaging systems, a full user control panel, easy styling facilities, macro facility, calendar, birthdays, and SQL debugging features. Two new features for IVB1.2 include multi moderation and a warning system. The multi moderation facility allows you to modify many topics are once, for example, add a topic prefix to all of them at the same time. The warning feature, allows you to give users visible warnings for their actions which would prove useful on a busy site. You can even download topics into MS Word or MS Excel format for storage on your local machine. The members on your forum also get access to the unique ‘My Assistant’. This allows them to quickly find out answers to common questions such as ‘Who are the moderators’ and ‘View your last posts’. You can also search the forums and help system.
The default style is a blue chrome design which does not look bad for the default style. You can, of course, download many hundreds of styles and graphics for your forum so you can customise it to your liking. The official website, IBPlanet.com provides access to all the skins, styles and modifications that are available for IVB.
The administration control panel in IVB is one of the most extensive available. On the index page, it shows you whether your copy of IVB is up to date, system information, who is logged into the control panel, a log of admin actions and some quick search options. This allows you to control absolutely every aspect of IVB – from removing the copyright notice to adding new languages.
My only criticism is that there may be too many options! It would take a long time to go through every one and it could be difficult to locate the option that you need. The options are under main headers which expand to reveal the options beneath them which keep it tidier, although the interface is slightly crowded regardless.
Overall, IVB is a very powerful solution with great emphasis on the features available as standard. The initial download and extraction was relatively easy, as was the installation. The forum provides great support for everything you could possibly want your forum to do. The administration control panel is very in depth allowing you to keep control over everything. The IVB support forums seem to be very active and provide the all important free help. And if you get really stuck, there is always the option to buy support from the company.
Database Support: MySQL
Modifications/Styles Available: Hundreds
Pros: Extensive feature set, advanced control panel
Cons: Cluttered admin interface, confusing directory structure
With over 151,000 downloads since it was first released in September 2002, Snitz Forums are reasonably popular. But for some reason, ASP forums are unable to match the feature set of their PHP/CGI counterparts. Snitz Forums have standard features such as complete web based administration, unlimited forums, private forums, sticky topics, and word censors, but nothing else. The full feature listing of Snitz Forums can be viewed here.
Although Snitz Forums do support modifications, there are very few available – only modifications such as signature previews and FAQ administration. These are available from the Official Snitz website as well as a number of small Snitz ‘Fan’ sites which provide modifications for download. There is no support for styling whatsoever. However, what is available is basic colour changes and modification of graphics. There is a limited set of graphics available, again via the Snitz Website.
The download of the ASP files for the forum is a 525kb .zip file which extracts just over 3mb of files. There is no directory structure and all the files are in the same directory. You have to follow the instructions provided in the readme.html file in order to install the forum system. This includes opening and editing a config.asp file to set the database connection information. After this has been completed, you then open up a setup page and configure the forums. Once this has been done, you can then load the forums and login.
The configuration options match the features of the software. You can configure every option in the forum – the forum categories and forums, logos, and you can even disable registrations. The colour/font change is limited to names, not HTML codes. You are given a list of the colours you can use, with examples. There are no permissions options (that I can see) with only basic moderator control. Whilst trying to figure out how to add a new forum/category from the administration control panel, I realised that you can’t. You actually do that from the main index page!
Overall, compared to phpBB and IVB, Snitz Forums are poor. However, this may be due to the limits with ASP and not the lack of desire to add such features. But contrary to that, there is the paid for IdealBB which looks as though it could match the PHP systems.
Database Support: MS Access, MSSQL, MySQL
Modifications/Styles Available: No styling features, few modifications
Pros: Basic forum features for ASP
Cons: Basic features, no styling system, few modifications
[SIZE=+1]Web Wiz Forums[/SIZE]
Another ASP forum solution, Web Wiz Forums has a reasonably large feature listing which makes it a popular ASP discussion board application. The full feature list includes such features as avatar galleries, image and file uploading, styling/skinning support, a powerful permissions system, private messaging, a statistics system, and others. This means that Web Wiz Forums is almost an equal contender with the like of IVB and phpBB.
The latest version (7.01) was released on 27th April 2003 and is available in 2 versions – Access 2000 and SQL Server 7.0/2000 - the Access version being the more popular but the SQL Server version being the higher performance system with added tweaks for high traffic boards. Other downloads available include 2 avatar galleries. The Web Wiz website also provides in depth and detailed documentation for installing, administering and troubleshooting the software.
In addition, there is quite a large list of modifications and add-ons available. These are also available on the Web Wiz website and range from a Latest News Mod to a Photo Gallery Mod. Although there aren’t as many as for phpBB, they are available allowing you to customise the forums to your own requirements. Skinning (as it is called by Web Wiz Forums) is also supported. Although there are only currently 10 skins available, there is even one that will make the forums look like the default IVB style! All the software available on the Web Wiz website is all free. However, you can pay to have the link removed using the WorldPay system.
After downloading the 988kb .zip file and extracting, all the files you need to upload are in the /forum directory with documentation available. There are around 3mb of files to upload to your web space. Once you have uploaded, you do not need to modify any files or even run any installation scripts – it runs ‘right out of the box’.
The default style is not stunning. It features a grey look with some icons for the menu options. The profile page looks quite like the phpBB profile page, as does the administration area. The admin area is much more comprehensive that the Snitz Forums area. Again, it allows you to modify every aspect of the forums, setup new categories, view forum statistics, and e-mail members.
Overall, the Web Wiz forum system is probably the most feature packed and extensive of the free ASP forums. With support for skins and modifications as well and some standard features that are only available as extras or modifications in the other forum applications. The Web Wiz website forums are where you will find support for the application. However, they do not appear to be as busy as the other support forums. There is no other way to obtain support – although there is a troubleshooting document available.
Database Support: MS Access, MSSQLL
Modifications/Styles Available: Small number styles or modifications available
Pros: Good features listing and administration area
Cons: Small number of styles/modifications available
With well over 50,000 downloads in the past few months, Ikonboard is truly one of the most popular systems available. Powered by CGI, Ikonboard 3.1 provides a whole set of features which match, and sometimes beat, the features available in other applications. Its key features include full language support, extensive skinning support, SSI enabled templates (for including other parts of your site), advanced permissions, graphical and colour modification options from the control panel and news management.
As well as the CGI version, you can obtain a hosted version, a PHP version, and a Light Version. Most of these are still in development but you can find out more via the Guided Tour.
There are also a number of dedicated sites that provide IB skins and modifications. The Skins site includes over 50 skins for IB3 as well as over 200 graphics you can download. The modifications or ‘hacks’ are also available via a dedicated section of the IB website.
The support for the application appears to be the best available. By signing up to the member’s area you gain access to priority support tickets, support forums, FAQs and live chat – all, apparently, for free.
Downloading the 1.16Mb system does not require registration in the member area although you are advised to register to receive the support. Other downloads include older versions and a graphics development pack. You have to upload just over 3.5Mb of files to your CGI enabled web space. The instructions provided are comprehensive, but could easily be confusing for new users. Installation on Windows is easier as no chmoding is required; however, you have to chmod various files on Unix/Linux.
You then use the installation screens to install various files so that Ikonboard can run. I chose to use a MySQL database to store the data, although you can choose a PostgreSQL, Oracle or even DMB database.
The default style of the forum is quite nice – grey/blue with chrome type buttons. At the bottom, it includes an option to ‘Invite a friend to the board’ which is very interesting and a nice feature for promoting your forum. The Control Panel allows me to set up various options for posting and my profile and is split into different sections to keep this tidy – which it does well. My only problem with this default style is the three Search/Members/Help buttons look out of place in the top right corner as they are the only graphical buttons.
Like the IVB administration area, the options down the side are expanded by selecting the category name. This keeps the tidy. The overall look of the IB administration control panel is clean and tidy, however, my personal opinion is that I don’t like the colour used! There are many options here to allow you to change features – from database management to setting up news.
Overall, IB a very good application. Even though it is using CGI, there is very little noticeable slowdown in speed. However, the administration area did feel slightly sluggish. The software provides a very good feature list and easily matches the PHP systems. The installation was slightly complicated with about 6 screens to go through before being able to access the forums and the administration control panel skin could be improved.
Database Support: DMB, PostgreSQL, MySQL
Modifications/Styles Available: Many skins and modifications freely available
Pros: All the features you could need
Cons: Slight admin area slowdown, bad admin area colours
There are hundreds of other forum applications available. I have reviewed the most popular but these may not suit your site. What I did discover was that ASP is the language that has the forum systems with the least features. This is disappointing for ASP website owners considering that PHP and CGI have forum applications that way outweigh any free ASP system.
In addition to these ‘HTML’ based forums, there are flash forums currently in development and some even available right now. Time will tell if these are successful but there is no reason why they shouldn’t be - but only if they can match the features put on show by the applications reviewed here.
Forum Software Listings
Read more articles like this, plus over 100 web development tutorials, phpBB and vBulletin styles and PHP scripts at http://www.olate.com