Moving your forum to https

Should your forum transmit and receive data securely? Most forums don’t contain sensitive information, so you would think the answer would normally be “no”. A secure forum encrypts all communications between server and client. This would be done by changing the URL of your forum to use https (Secure HTTP) instead of http (insecure).

Once considered a nice-to-have feature, technology companies are nudging us content providers to use https. Google is primarily responsible for upping the ante. Back in 2014, Google announced that sites that send data securely would be ranked higher than those that did not, all things being equal. This is a pretty good incentive for site owners to respond, particularly if you are concerned about your site ranking. However, in 2014 moving to https was still a pain so lots of site owners decided to dodge the issue.

As with most things, going to https can be complicated and potentially expensive and/or time consuming. Fortunately, it’s less complicated than it was, and can even be free.

SSL vs. TLS encryption

To make https work, a digital certificate must be installed on your web server. Keys in the certificate are used to encrypt communications, by the server with a private key which is decrypted by the receiver with a public key provided when the connection is established. SSL (secure socket layer) or TLS (transport layer security) protocols are used to facilitate secure communications over HTTP. TLS is the newer technology and SSL is now seen less frequently because it is easier to hack. Whether using SSL or TLS though, it’s behind the scenes stuff. The user just sees https in the URL and assumes data going to and from your forum will be transmitted securely.

Shared certificates

Hosts often provide a shared certificate you can use. As the name implies, the certificate is shared with others, generally all domains on the same server as the one that you are on. While this works, it is ugly. First, hosts will issue “self signed” certificates. Browsers will not trust self signed certificates and will ask users if they want to trust the certificate. You generally pick an “advanced” link in the browser and give your browser permission to trust the certificate. This obviously will not inspire confidence in users coming to your site. New users may simply opt out of coming to your forum altogether, feeling it is untrustworthy.

Paid certificates

Web hosts will usually offer to sell you a certificate, generally for around $75/year. This is a convenient way to go if cost is not a concern. Some hosts will handle the logistics of integrating the certificate for you. Also, these certificates will be trusted by the browser, as they will come from a certificate authority the browser will recognize as trusted.

As you might expect there are various levels of certificates based on the level of trust you are willing to pay for. Higher class certificates require site owners to submit credentials to prove they own their domains and they are who they say they are. This is especially important in electronic commerce. Hence Amazon’s certificates will cost a lot more than any certificate you are likely to get. If you are doing electronic commerce on your site you might want to pay for a higher level certificate, which will require you providing credentials to the certificate authority. In most cases though forums simply need a low class certificate, enough so that the certificate is trusted by the browser by default.

Let’s Encrypt certificates

The hassle and cost of securing web traffic has become recognized as a general issue, leading to a project to make trusted certificates available for free. The Let’s Encrypt site will issue certificates for free that are recognized by all the major browsers. However, the certificates are only good for three months. Moreover, depending on your host, installing and renewing certificates can be a considerable hassle. For example, I use MediaTemple‘s Grid Service to host this site. It supports Let’s Encrypt, but it’s quite a pain to install and renew certificates. Other sites, like SiteGround, make it automatic. All things being equal, you might prefer a host that makes installing and renewing Let’s Encrypt certificates easy, especially if this is important to your site.

Configuring phpBB to use HTTPS

By default, phpBB assumes you will be using HTTP, not HTTPS. Once your certificate is installed and tested, it’s easy to change phpBB in the Administration Control Panel: ACP > General > Server configuration > Server settings. Then change server protocol from http:// to https://. What this does is change the links across the site.

Do you have a httpsdocs or ssl folder? You may want to move your web content into it.

It you normally place your web content into a httpdocs folder, check to see if there is also a httpsdocs folder. This is commonly set up for you if you use Plesk as a web host control panel. Content in the httpsdocs folder is served securely.

In some configurations, there is a public_html folder for web content and also a ssl folder for secure content. In this case you could move the content of the public_html folder into the ssl folder.

This is a one-time action. If you have lots of files, it may take a while to move all the content. If you have a file manager, this makes it easier, but be careful to get the paths just right! You might want to backup your site before attempting this.

Redirecting HTTP traffic to HTTPS

Even with a certificate installed it’s possible that you will get requests for forum traffic using HTTP. You may want to make all HTTP traffic use HTTPS traffic instead. You can see what type of web server you are using the Administration Control Panel: ACP > General > Quick access > PHP Information. Scan for “Server API”.

These instructions will work if your web server is Apache. Edit your .htaccess file in your forum (or to make it across the whole site, edit or create a .htaccess file in your web root) as follows. Place this code at or near the top of the file, changing mysite.com to your domain name:

RewriteEngine On 
RewriteCond %{SERVER_PORT} 80 
RewriteRule ^(.*)$ https://www.mysite.com/$1 [R,L]

If you use nginx, use these instructions. If you use Microsoft’s IIS, use these.

 

 

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