What are you getting into when you install phpBB? phpBB, open-source forum software for the web, is often simple to install. Most web hosts have a scripting center that allows you to install it on a domain in a few clicks. But should you?
It’s not like there aren’t other forum solutions out there, although arguably phpBB is the one that has survived the longest. To name a few, there is commercial vBulletin software, myBB, Xenforo, Phorum and pUNbb. There are also forum plugins. For example, WordPress has BBPress and BuddyPress. Since I specialize in phpBB I can’t speak with much authority about other forum solutions. However, as a software engineer I can highlight what I think some of phpBB’s strengths and weaknesses are, the subject of today’s posts.
What is forum software exactly?
Before you decide on any forum solution, understand what forum software is. Forum software is not blog software. It’s not a place that you use to rant about stuff that interests you and which others can comment. It is software that allows lots of disparate people to discuss certain topic areas elegantly. It imposes discipline on the content it manages by keeping things organized in forums, topics and posts.
Forum software is used by discrete communities that have something in common and want to share that information in an open manner. Usually what they are discussing is pretty specialized. For example, it might be a support forum for a commercial or open-source product (phpBB.com uses phpBB for its support forum), or a fan site, a bunch of people who own a particular type of boat or plane, whatever! Forum software allows people to create and reply to topics. It’s designed to run independently of a framework. For example, the BBPress plugin for WordPress requires it to work as an add on to WordPress, which means that to use BBPress you must also be a WordPress user on the site. Similarly, Facebook groups can act a bit like a forum, but it requires you to join the Facebook enclave. Facebook however does not organize content in its groups into forums and topics. Most forum software is designed to be standalone, at this is certainly the case of phpBB. It’s not designed to work with WordPress or any other content management system. In our social media age, this is sometimes a drawback.
phpBB has a long and proud legacy. Version 1.0 was released in 2000, at just the moment that the PHP language became dominant on the web, replacing mostly a lot of Perl scripts. Timing was everything. It was written in PHP, used the popular free MySQL database and was free and open-source. “Open source” was kind of a new thing back then, but it was essential to its growth. Not only was it free, anyone could modify it. So it got downloaded and installed like crazy. It’s still widely used today. Most support sites run on phpBB. This means you have probably used phpBB already, even if you aren’t aware of it. So it will seem comfortable and familiar, even if you don’t understand why.
Version 2 came a year later in 2001 and is still being used today by many sites because it is fast and lightweight. Version 3 was released in 2007, which thoroughly modernized it. Version 3.1 arrived belatedly in 2016. Its big feature was extensions, similar to WordPress plugins plus responsive styles, so things looked good on mobile devices. Prior to 3.1 if you wanted to extend phpBB’s functionality you installed “mods” that was code changes inside the source code, which made upgrading phpBB difficult. 2016 saw the release of version 3.2, the current version, which looks and behaves a lot like 3.1 but addressed some annoying issues mostly on the backend.
While phpBB was undoubtedly popular, updates were infrequent and its huge legacy base made it hard to push out new versions. Its team of core developers worked inefficiently together, in part because the tools for doing so were relatively primitive at the time. This allowed many other forum solutions to emerge to fill the feature gap while the phpBB group lumbered awkwardly forward into the future.
I first installed phpBB 2.0 in 2002 and have followed it since then. I have developed modifications and extensions, as well as generating good income from helping users upgrade and migrate their forums. In spite of the phpBB Group’s sometimes lumbering organization, it’s got some major strengths:
- Institutional legacy. Simply because it’s been around so long, it tends to get widely installed and used. Those who have phpBB forums rarely move to other forum solutions.
- Familiarity. Most likely you already know how to use phpBB because you have used it on various sites. While the forum/topic/post metaphor is hardly new, phpBB’s implementation of it garnered it a lot of attention and traction, so most forum solutions try to imitate it while addressing its perceived deficiencies.
- Terrific support. phpBB’s support forums are phenomenal. You will likely find a dozen answers to your question with a simple search but if not a quick post will generate fast response, often from dozens of highly experienced support members, all volunteers. They are so good that in most cases the problems I encounter I don’t have to solve. I can find the solution on their support forums.
- An anal obsession to standards. This is both a strength and a weakness. WordPress has now something like 40% of the web site market, but WordPress runs fast and loose. It’s not hard at all for people to create buggy plugins and non-optimal themes and WordPress will approve a lot of these. WordPress is a Wild West place where you are never quite sure if what you are adding on is crap or gold. That’s not a problem with phpBB. They go to extraordinary lengths to check their releases for bugs, running them against a host of security tools and making the base code pass thousands of detailed automated tests. I doubt there is an open source project that releases higher quality code. As an extension author, I am impressed and sometimes annoyed by how difficult it is to get my extensions approved. They inspect everything with incredible care and make sure you adhere to their voluminous and often somewhat obscure coding standards. This also makes things slow as there are plenty of extensions and styles in the review queue and reviews can take months. Rest assured though that officially approved extensions and styles are top quality.
- Lack of agility. The phpBB Group’s tendency toward being anal also means they are not agile. It’s hard to bring out new versions of phpBB since everything must be nitpicked to death. Arguably this is also because there are tons of features and options in phpBB; look through all the Administration Control Panel’s various screens sometimes to get an idea of how many features can be changed, enabled and disabled. Its permissions system alone is awesomely powerful while awesomely obscure. When finally released, new versions tend to be very stable and rock solid but if you are an impatient person, your patience will definitely be tested and then some. On the other hand, their development practices are top notch. They use state-of-the-art testing, development and bug tracking tools. They have daily builds of their software to see what breaks.
- Legacy architecture. Adding new features tends to be excruciatingly difficult not because their code is not modular enough (this problem largely went away with phpBB 3.1) but because the database is so baked in. Many features would mean large changes to the database. Business logic is baked into many different programs, although phpBB 3.1 introduced classes (the whole /phpbb folder) that addressed a fair amount of this problem.
- No multi-threaded topics. This means you can’t see a set of replies to a particular post within a topic, or get a hierarchical view of replies to a topic.
- Standalone. It doesn’t integrate with anything, at least not elegantly. It won’t work seamlessly with your content management system, like WordPress. The closest it comes to this is that it supports authentication via LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol), but even so users must still create accounts on the forum to use it.
There is a lot more to this topic that I may delve into in future posts. But this post at least gives you a heads up. phpBB is great software: stable, reliable, well tested and industrial strength. If you can live with its functionality and limitations and are okay if the features change slowly at best, it’s still a terrific solution. If you need more agility from your forum solution, you might have to look elsewhere. However, any other solution you pick may not hang around. phpBB is eighteen years old and is likely to survive another eighteen years without a sweat.