Updated June 28, 2019
In a recent post I looked into putting phpBB in the cloud, the first in a series of related posts. In the first post I said that while it is possible to do it, phpBB is not a cloud-first software solution. There are advantages to putting phpBB in the cloud, such as scalability and potentially lower costs. But there are significant drawbacks for most forum administrators too, including almost no technical support and you must provide any system administration.
Cloud service are arranged around various service types. While the types can be breathtaking at times (look at Amazon’s many specialized web services) you can sort of lasso these into three types: IAAS (Infrastructure as a Service), PAAS (Platform as a Service) and SAAS (Software as a Service). As you will see, phpBB doesn’t fit neatly into any of these models.
IAAS (Infrastructure as a Service)
With IAAS, the cloud provider provides you with a set of basic tools and lets you have at it. The tools can be refined somewhat but generally you get an operating system (usually some variant of Linux), a web server (generally Apache) and a database (generally mySQL). The actual set of tools that you get depends on the package you select. In Amazon Web Services speak, this is the AMI (Amazon Machine Instance). Yes, there are AMIs for phpBB such as intuz’s and BitNami’s. However, these packages are not necessarily free. BitNami, for example, creates a “smart” integration of these tools along with other ones that are optimized for various cloud deployment patterns. You will probably be asked to pay for the privilege. A good package though it well thought out and cleverly integrated for maximum functionality and performance, and these phpBB AMIs should be finely tuned for phpBB. You might want to use one of these packages for an upfront cost and then rent it for a monthly fee.
Some packages/AMIs are free and come from a common library provided by the cloud vendor. You might want to install one of these instead. They likely won’t come as well integrated, but they will get the job done.
As much as an intelligent package/AMI helps, you still don’t get much in the way of handholding. You will generally get the most basic of control panels provided by the cloud provider and some SSH and database credentials. You are expected to know how to use SSH, FTP and relational databases. Of course as time goes on, your operating system, web server and database software will need updating. Generally, operating system and security upgrades are handled for you in the background. But you may be expected to figure out how to do this by yourself, so make sure you understand what will and won’t be done for you. It’s hard to escape doing some of your work using SSH and the Unix prompt.
If none of this intimidates you, IAAS is a great choice and probably cheaper than using a web host. But basically you are trading your own time and expertise to lower hosting costs, but as a bonus you should get a scalable cloud service to handle high and low demand periods, that is if you set it up right. There is an art to fine-tuning cloud service as you need to balance between potential high usage spikes and your budget.
PAAS (Platform as a Service)
In general, PAAS cloud services are oriented around developers. If you want to be the next Facebook, for example, PAAS will provide you not just with infrastructure as a service but also a set of development tools finely optimized for you to develop unique cloud services. They tend to be oriented around one or more programming languages, such as Java or PHP, and one or more deployment engines, such as Kubernetes. The nice thing about PAAS is that you don’t manage much. Should the Java J2EE engine need an update, that will be handled for you. Consequently, PAAS tends to cost more than IAAS. You and your development team are then free to focus on developing that next Facebook.
phpBB of course is a prepackaged software solution. You shouldn’t be developing anything, unless perhaps you are an extension developer like me. But if you are an extension developer like me, you don’t need to develop your extension using PAAS because phpBB is not typically deployed in the cloud. Instead, you have a local web development environment and do your development there. You might want to test it on a web server connected to the Internet, but you don’t need PAAS to do that.
So basically, using the PAAS cloud service type for phpBB makes no sense.
SAAS (Software as a Service)
In the SAAS model, you use a cloud provider to provide a software solution in the cloud. Perhaps the best known SAAS provider is Office 365. Why install Microsoft Office on a PC when you can run it as a cloud service instead? It’s a popular model that is making some companies like Adobe (and its Adobe Creative Suite) or Salesforce.com tons of money. They’ve already figured out an optimal solution and they are happy to rent it to you for a fixed cost per month. If you don’t need it anymore, you cancel your contract. In some cases, you do actually download some software on your PC that works optimally with these services in the cloud. Many developers using PAAS are actually hoping to market their solutions as SAAS. Since SAAS is deployed in the cloud, it is presumably finely engineered for optimal performance in all kinds of workloads.
The thing is, you can sort of get phpBB as SAAS already. phpBB has a knowledge base article on how to do it with Microsoft Azure. There are also a number of sites that allow you to create phpBB forums on their servers, which are often for free for low usage sites, sort of how you can host a blog on wordpress.com for free under a subdomain like myblog.wordpress.com. And if you have web hosting already, there is usually a scripting center that allows you to install phpBB. But are these really providing software as a service? They arguably don’t because once you install phpBB you generally don’t want to use it “out of the box”. You want to change the style, or add extensions, or do all sort of fine-tuning. If you don’t need to do these things, then maybe these “SAAS” services are what you need. They just aren’t really SAAS, since you can’t give your site this degree of customization, because there is no way to do this other than to use phpBB. And if you use phpBB you will need to be able to upload and edit files on your phpBB instance.
With a better understanding of the cloud service types, you should now understand why phpBB is so rarely placed in the cloud. At its root, it’s because phpBB is not a cloud-first product, and probably never will be. In a future post, I’ll look into deploying phpBB using IAAS to give you some idea of what you might be getting into.