Open Source Community and forum software

Thu, 24th April 2008, 15:08

It isn't often that I take the time to give kudos to the software I use, despite being as militant as I am for open source. For the past few years I have been attempting to use as much open source as possible without giving into proprietary stuff. For the most part, open source wins.

There's several pieces of community software that I have built sites on these days. Most of which I've used to build other communities and sites. There's a few that I'm going to be detailing today including phpBB, Vanilla, punBB and SMF (SimpleMachines). Each piece of software has it's benefits and drawbacks, hopefully you'll find this post remotely useful.

Starting with the one I'd consider the underdog...


PunBB is a fast and lightweight PHP-powered discussion board. Its primary goals are to be faster, smaller and less graphically intensive as compared to other discussion boards. PunBB has fewer features than many other discussion boards, but is generally faster and outputs smaller, semantically correct XHTML-compliant pages.

And they succeed at their mission. PunBB is very lightweight right out of the starting gate & for a basic community. The PunBB site features a great set of addons, plugins and frequent software and security updates. One aspect that I especially liked was a feature on their site named 'SpinkBB' which allows you to easily create a custom color scheme with minimal effort.

The underlying drawbacks I found about PunBB though was that it was almost too minimal. Many basic features seemed to be lacking but if the forum wasn't for my business site, I would have continued to use it for personal use. PunBB does a great job at what it intends to do: lightweight ass-kicking. :)

The next forum up is one of my favorites despite my inability to use it, at all.


Vanilla is an open-source, standards-compliant, multi-lingual, fully extensible discussion forum for the web. Anyone who has web-space that meets the requirements  can download and use Vanilla for free!

Vanilla is one of those forums that you simply want to use. It's minimalistic, absolutely stunning and basic enough that anyone can wield it. There's a massive range of extensions and an absolutely gorgeous site for fetching them. The man behind Vanilla is Canadian as well, maybe that's why I have some odd inextinguishable desire to have Vanilla's babies.

However that's where the love stops. Actually, that's right where the abuse started. Vanilla is great if you wish to continue using it in it's vanilla form or with any of the 'released' themes. Customizability, though?

Vanilla drawbacks

Vanilla has a stunning plugin system, a diverse range of themes developed for it but it's theming and template system is absolutely horrendous. I have used many, many forum systems prior and had no problems making minor tweaks, fiddling and all-in-all surviving in the code (despite having zero coding ability). Vanilla on the other hand, despite reading the documentation and spending a few days digging around on the official forum left me dazed and confused.

It may be far too advanced for me or things are just in general obfuscated. I couldn't get even the smallest changes implemented without an outright desire to drive myself off the nearest cliff. Since I'm in Toronto the trek to the nearest cliff would be several hours. Nonetheless, I was willing and ready to make the trip.

Vanilla is one of those systems you want to love but know you'll end up in ruins as an alcoholic after attempting to wield it for long. A ten in my book.. for the masochist.

Official Vanilla Forums



Millions of people use phpBB on a daily basis, making it the most widely used opensource bulletin board system in the world. Whether you want to stay in touch with a small group of friends or are looking to set up a large multi-category board for a corporate website, phpBB has the features you need built in.

phpBB is hard to deny in the open source community. It's one of those forums that have been around and is older than rocks, it's frequently updated and there's a gigantic plethora of addons, plugins and themes available for it solely due to it's age. It's great, usable and the latest version really does have a lot to offer as a forum.

One of my own problems I have with phpBB though is my security concerns. As a piece of software it's been around for such a long time that with all of it's past, I simply can't trust it to build a community on. With the past phpBB team's delays and insane amounts of exploits being released for it... ah. But it's hard denying such beauty -- the latest version of it had an insane amount of effort put into it and is one of the most usable pieces of forum software out there today.

Even if you don't consider using it on a long-term basis I would recommend at least giving it a try.
phpBB Official Site
phpBB Community


SMF can trace its roots all the way back to a perl powered message board, YaBB. After awhile, there became a demand for a php coded version of YaBB. So that is where YaBBSE comes into play. While YaBBSE was getting bigger and bigger, there were certain aspects of it that just needed improvement and reworking. The decision was made that it was best to separate from YaBBSE because it was a lot different from YaBB and it was best to start from scratch. At this point, SMF started being developed. On September 29th, 2003, the first beta of SMF was released to charter members, SMF 1.0 Beta 1. While this was a huge milestone for SMF, only charter members had access to use it. But on March 10, 2004, SMF made its public debut with the first public SMF release available to everyone.

Last but certainly not least, SimpleMachines. SimpleMachines or SMF for short (Simple Machines Forum) is my favorite of all of the available software out there today. It's a great mix of usability and features, all the while still offering easy customization and addons.

While I admit I do find it a bit bulky and the 'default' template leaves a lot to be desired, I love it. Best of all? The community behind the system. Recently I had the opportunity to spend about 48 hours on their forum while a few of their team members made great efforts helping me move data from one old version of another forum (IPB) to SMF.

The process was not easy by any means and as it was one of my first times really digging into simplemachines from a technical standpoint, quite frankly it went horribly. Nonetheless their team was behind me 100% and even offered to help dig in on their own and spend their own time getting it up and running: To me, that tells me they're both confident with their software and care about the community enough to help get new folks using it.

Kudos SimpleMachines.
Official SimpleMachines Site
Official SimpleMachines Community

Building communities isn't the easiest thing to do but with free, open source software out there like the ones detailed above it certainly takes a lot of weight off our shoulders.