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Software review: Features of phpBB discussion server

There are numerous open source discussion servers available for download from the Internet. This reviewer suggests that phpBB may have the best set of features and the highest level of support when compared to the rest.


There are a good number of open source discussion servers out there. I recently went through the exercise of looking at a few discussion servers and deciding which one was best for my needs. I chose phpBB, which, according to its developers, is "the world's leading Open Source flat-style discussion forum software."

What is phpBB
PhpBB is a php application that's licensed under the GNU (GPL) open source license. It supports a number of databases, including MySQL, PostgreSQL, MS SQL Server, and MS Access. It is a feature-rich BBS, discussion-board application that's easy to install, deploy, and maintain.

What is required to install it
The latest version of phpBB can be downloaded from www.phpbb.com and is available as both tarball and zipfile. Uncompress the archive, put it in your Web server, and set up a database in whatever database program you're going to be using. From there, phpBB has an install script that guides you through the rest of installation process.

Figure A
Installation screen


As a security measure, the program dialog screen suggests that you delete the /install and /contrib directories before actually logging into your phpBB installation. The whole process is quite fast.

Setting up phpBB for discussion
After the quick installation, you're left with the task of actually making phpBB usable as a community. There's no detailed user walk-through manual built into the application, though there is a User Guide available online. There is also a vibrant and active community of user and support forums to help you deal with specific issues. The first step in configuration is to go to the Administration Panel. From there, the first thing I usually do is to go to the General Admin: Configuration tab to setup the basic parameters of the site.

Figure B
General Configuration screen


Some other programs offer these types of configuration optimizations as part of the initial install. PhpBB, in my opinion, really is about simplicity and about having a discussion board work the way you want it to work. You'll find as you continue with the setup process and use the board that it's very configurable. But if you don't want to do any additional configuration, you don't have to; it's pretty functional as is.

Styles
The next step in phpBB setup is Style configuration. The default subsilver blue is nice enough, but you'll probably want your board to integrate with the rest of your site or brand. The Styles Admin panel allows you to add, create, and manage themes. The phpBB site and the various support sites offer links to countless numbers of pre-built styles for you to look at and use if you choose. I like to make a copy of the default subsilver theme, rename it, then edit it to match the requirements of the site or brand for which I'm creating the discussion board. The built-in Edit menu makes it very easy to adjust the style through your browser. Because it's a css file, you could just edit it in your favorite editor and then load that back into your Web server, if that works best for you.

Figure C
Edit Theme screen


Forums
This is what it's all about, isn't it? The Forum administration and management module of phpBB2 is as simple to use as it is to set up.

Figure D
Forum Administration screen


Adding, editing, moving, and deleting categories and forums is a point-and-click affair. The program also includes an optional automated pruning feature that will prune old posts and topics from a forum after a set time of dormancy. Initially, while your discussion site is building its user and traffic base, I'd strongly recommend that you not enable auto-pruning. Users will keep coming back to a site only because of the content and the community that it builds. When the time comes that you've got hundreds of posts, then it starts to make sense to get rid of the old stuff.

The forum management interface also allows for permission-based access and rights. The real trick in keeping your forums active (and working) is to continually check, update, and modify them. Users of your forum are allowed whatever access you specify, and if you enable them to make the best possible use of the forum, chances are that they will.

The feature set of phpBB2 is second to none and makes this board a user favorite:
  • Message formatting with various font styles and sizes and capabilities for quoting, code display, image posting, and automatic URL linking
  • Support of standard and extended BBCode tags and controlled HTML tags
  • Ability to add polls to posts simply
  • E-mail notification of replies to your topics
  • Powerful topic subscription capability
  • Original emoticons to portray emotions
  • Powerful search facility
  • E-mail-like private messaging system
  • Support for local, remote, and uploadable avatars
  • Topic editing
  • Mass delete/move/lock/unlock of posts
  • Topic splitting

Extending phpBB2
One of the great strengths of phpBB, is its extensibility. A range of mods is currently available to extend the functionality of the application. One of the standard mods for me is Topics Anywhere, which allows you to show and link to the most recently posted forum topics from your phpBB forum on any page or site you want, through a JavaScript or an RSS feed. The other mod I usually recommend is the Referral System MOD. One of the toughest challenges in getting your community active is getting users. The Referral MOD lets your existing users easily refer others to the forum.

Support
I chose phpBB as an open source discussion server after looking at a number of candidates and testing a number of systems. In my experience, one of the things that stood out most was the tremendous user support available from the phpBB community. With open source software, support is sometimes an issue, but with over 360,000 posts and over 75,000 topics, the phpBB support community really does have virtually all the answers. It's also a great test case of the power and usability of the phpBB system. PhpBB is a great example of the best that open source software can be.

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