Choosing Forum Software

I’ve operated discussion forums as a hobby for many years.

My first was a discussion group for a turn-based enviroment where players owned spaceships, planets, and fleets; called Tradewars. I didn’t own or operate the necessary software, just moderated a loosely-knit group of worldwide participants. Back then dial-up bulletin board systems syncronized posts nightly, so a post could take up to two days before it was viewed by everyone.

At the same time, users were communicating in similar ways on the original internet, but it was almost real-time. There were no web browsers, but it wasn’t that difficult for those that took time to learn how.

While there are several services available to create, develop, and grow a community today; the more-common method has been to obtain preferred software and self-manage the installation and maintenance.

If you’ve done any research, you’ll find that there is a significant amount of historical baggage to sift through. This is an objective viewpoint.

I’ve previously operated on three platforms; vBulletin, Invision Power Board, and Xenforo. Currently running forum sites on Xenforo, Invision Power Board, and Vanilla. Older Communities have run on phpBB, XMB, and forked-phpBB. Below are my opinions:

The most prolific forum software package has been going through many challenges; too many for this post. The owning company, Internet Brands (IB), still runs it’s own sites on the version 3 series (commonly described as vb3.x); as well as many other sites. vb4 was originally shown as a visual concept, but the organization had undergone significant change by the time vb4 was actually released. IB has also released vb5 along with several version updates.

vBulletin’s strenghs:

  • vb4 has it’s issues, but is built upon a solid platform.
  • addon and theme options have diminished, but there are still several good options available.
  • Users tend to better understand how to use vBulletin 3/4.
  • As long as you avoid being critical, you will likely receive reasonable support.

vBulletin’s challenges:

  • Software bugs – vb4 still has many issues, but it is considered far more stable than vb5.
  • Diminishing Community – There aren’t as many knowledgeable participating resources today.
  • Increased cost of ownership – A vb license isn’t expensive, but meeting your needs may be more difficult.
  • Site Performance – either vb4 or vb5 will require some degree of optimization to perform well for your users.

Invision Power Board
Invision Power Board (IPB) represents a solid community platform that supports complex feature sets. It started several years ago amid some drama of it’s own, but that has since subsided. There are still some sites running on legacy IPB versions, but most today operate with modern v3.x variants. IPB provides updates regularly and informs on forthcoming features and development activity. The software is offerred as a hosted/cloud service, or a downloadable license.

IPB’s strengths:

  • Many feel that IPB represents the most solid and stable platform available.
  • Search Engine Optimization – IPSEO is now an integrated feature.
  • IPB is feature-rich in it’s standard form before modification or addons.
  • IPB has a helpful community, but a strong helpdesk team. Pre-Sales support also includes Professional Services options.
  • The Community Suite approach provides commonly desired applications (blog, photo gallery, online store, & etc) that is fully integrated.

IPB’s Challenges:

  • Site Performance – The forward-thinking approach has it’s tradeoff in the form of slower site performance. This can be overcome with creative optimization strategies to bring site speed to a reasonable level. At the time of this writing, version 4 has not yet been released. This aspect may change.
  • Design Layout – You either love it or hate it. There are several excellent themes available.
  • Competitive Features – Some communities will benefit from IPB’s automated spam control, but still wonder why other features are missing or not implemented.
  • Mobile Support – basic package supports a mobile-skin that automatically displays on most mobile devices. Changing to a responsive strategy can be done with an inexpensive addon.

For those of us who were comfortable with the original Jelsoft-owned vBulletin, Xenforo has been the option. Started by former Jelsoft employees, which now includes additional enthusiasts on it’s staff. The software is available as only a downloadable license, and additional packages are currently limited to an online store (Resource Manager) and advanced search option (Sphinx).

Xenforo’s strengths:

  • Speed – out of the box and with little modification yields respectable site speed.
  • Ease of setup and use – XF doesn’t have the features that IPB does, but setup can be so quick that one may wonder if everything was done.
  • Search Engine Optimization – SEO features are strong, even though there is little to setup for it.
  • Easy to Improve – Regardless if it’s performance or visuals, the developers of XF homed in on what the challenges were and delivered.
  • Responsive Design – Able to maintain your existing look/feel without unique mobile skins or external apps.

Xenforo’s challenges:

  • Design Layout – Like IPB, it’s another Love it or Hate it circumstance. Some have commented that it’s modern approach is too much for established communities.
  • Responsive Layout – The responsive layout implementation on Xenforo is Excellent but having a truly responsive site presents several challenges. Established communities that migrate to XF should disable responsive features initially and enable them later.
  • Addon equivalents – XF enjoys the fastest-growing community of addon developers, but there a migrating community may have to give up on a feature or adopt an alternative.
  • Maturity – XF is supported by experienced developers, but the company hasn’t been in business very long.

Some additional software packages that I’ve tested, or just started with:

I’m currently running a dormant forum with the open-source version of Vanilla and am finding it very enjoyable to work with. Vanilla’s primary goal is to grow their cloud service business, but they have a decent group of open-source enthusiasts. Vanilla’s attraction is it’s simplicity and rich feature set. Choose this option if you wish to run a community that doesn’t need a lot of flash, or you wish to integrate into a CMS.

Simple Machines
For a while, it seemed that SMF wasn’t going to survive. I did several successful tests, but with slow development and little advanced support I moved on. SMF still impresses me today, but the current verion is still too simplistic. Go with this option if you don’t care about integrations into anything and feel that a traditional forum-layout style is all that will be needed.

I haven’t run a phpBB forum in a while, but did test v3 a few years ago. I wasn’t turned off, but didn’t feel that there were enough features. Themes and addons are plentiful, but had concerns that the community wasn’t going in the proper direction. Circumstances appear to have improved, but would prefer to see a new major release.

I did some testing with myBB and found it to be enjoyable to work with. If one wanted a community that looked like vb3 but wasn’t, this would be an option. My test site was speedy and didn’t take long to modify. myBB is easy for anyone to download and setup, but one may need to be more self-sufficient than the average forum operator. myBB released it’s 1.6x platform when I started testing and is still at that base as of this writing.

There are other forum software/service options. I hope you find my experiences worthwhile.

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