What are phpBB’s strengths and weaknesses?

phpBB is great but not perfect forum software. phpBB has many upsides, but it has downsides as well. In the interest of fairness, I thought I would document some of them.

These will also appear in my Mastering phpBB Administration book, which is undergoing professional editing at the moment, so consider this a bit of a preview. I’m hoping in a month or so it will be published. Here’s an except from the draft of the book on its strengths and weaknesses, as I see them:

Strengths:

  • Longevity. It’s been around since 2000.
  • Market share. According to the phpBB Group, phpBB is the #1 bulletin board solution in use. If you type “bulletin board software” into a search engine, generally phpBB is at the top.
  • Support. The phpBB Group’s support forums are outstanding. Responses to questions are quick and almost always helpful.
  • Security. While no software can guarantee it is free of security vulnerabilities, phpBB’s combination of open source software, code peer reviews and their extensive automated nightly build tests minimize unexpected security issues.
  • Rock solid. While most phpBB boards are relatively small, with just tens of thousands of posts, some are huge with millions of posts. As of this writing, phpbb.com’s forums alone have over 4.2 million posts. It needs to just work and almost all the time it does, at least if you use the latest version of phpBB, stick with approved extensions and your web host’s technical infrastructure doesn’t change too quickly. When phpBB fails, it’s almost always due to hosting changes beyond its control.
  • Features. If you need a feature, it’s likely available in phpBB, with one major exception (see the next section.)
  • Familiarity. Since you have likely used it before without knowing it, there is no steep learning curve.
  • Fanatical devotion to open standards. The phpBB Group goes to great lengths to ensure phpBB works across all browsers and devices. It does this by carefully adhering to the latest web standards and daily automated testing of builds in development.
  • Responsive. It behaves seamlessly on mobile devices, intelligently sizing down to the device’s screen size, yet with no loss of functionality.
  • Uses top-tier integrated third-party libraries. Under the hood, phpBB uses a host of other top-notch, enterprise-class software libraries. For example, it uses a Twig templating library from Symfony for rendering web pages with dynamic content.
  • Supports lots of databases. Typically phpBB is used with the MySQL or MariaDB database management systems (DBMS). But if you want to run it on the Oracle, Postgres, Microsoft SQL Server or even the SQLite DBMS, it will work and function virtually identically.
  • Permissions system. There is probably no better permissions system available anywhere. It’s incredibly feature rich, if more than a bit obscure.
  • Extensions. Since version 3.1, phpBB supports extensions. Extensions are new features that you can add to phpBB that can be turned on or off once you install them, all without affecting its base code. Extensions are not currently quite as easy to use as WordPress plugins, but they are getting there. And the number of approved extensions just increases with time.
  • It’s maintained and updated. If a security issue is uncovered, it tends to get fixed promptly with patch instructions to use until there is a new release. Over time, new releases will update phpBB so that it works with the latest changes to technology.

Weaknesses:

  • No multi-threading. While a poster can quote from a previous post inside of a topic, you cannot see a group of related, indented replies to a post within a topic. Hopefully this will show up as a feature one of these days.
  • New features are added slowly, if at all. While phpBB is a rock-solid bulletin board solution, it is not easily changed. This is in part because it is so feature-rich. Features that are added tend to be relatively minor and incremental. Rarely do you see big, new features. The extensions system introduced in phpBB 3.1 was one of these rare and big changes to phpBB.
  • Standalone. phpBB doesn’t integrate with other software solutions. For example, you can’t integrate it into WordPress or Joomla, at least not elegantly. It’s not available as a WordPress plugin.
  • Updates and upgrades can be painful. While better than it was, updating and upgrading phpBB is often a challenge. Most of my consulting business involves helping clients on these issues. Web hosting limitations also can introduce problems during these time-critical activities. For many users, the improved update process in phpBB 3.3 will do a lot to address this.
  • Setting up a bulletin board is mysterious and somewhat painful too. This is one of the major reasons I wrote this book. Mostly, bulletin board administrators learn by doing. It’s so much better to do things the phpBB way … except you can get a hundred different opinions on what the best way is. I’ll risk the wrath of the phpBB community (they are a passionate, but very helpful bunch) by telling you what I think the best way is, and why. I will help step you through these phpBB mysteries based on more than a decade of practical experience.
  • Complicated to administer. While using a phpBB bulletin board is not complicated and usually intuitive, administering a phpBB bulletin board can be very complex. With so many features, it’s hard just to know what they all are or where to find them. Certain very powerful features, like its granular permissions system and its ability to bundle permissions into roles are totally awesome, but rarely delved into. Sometimes an administrator won’t even know a feature exists.

So know what you are getting into. If any of these are major issues, you might want to use another bulletin board solution, or just not bother to install phpBB in the first place.

January 2020 work summary

I did plenty of work in January, just not so much for clients. That business was slow, but picked up toward the end of the month, so much so that at the moment it looks like my plate in February should be full.

Why was I busy? I was writing and editing a book on phpBB administration. The introduction of phpBB 3.3 Proteus on January 6th added work, as I needed to update the book to talk about phpBB 3.3. As I noted, its feature set makes it more of a micro release than a minor release, so that part was good. But by changing the phpBB logo and a few other things, I had to recapture fifty or more screenshots, which was tedious and time consuming. Then of course the text had to be revised in places which also meant reading it through twice more. Right now it stands at 305 pages on 8.5 x 11 inch paper.

I reached a milestone of sorts when I turned it over for editing on Thursday. I should mention that I am using Maria Williams, so if you need an editor, hit her up! It will take her a couple of weeks for her to do her magic, then I have to figure out how to publish and market the book. I need cover art. Publishing will likely be on demand, and I expect most people will want electronic copies. I also need to figure out how to price it. It’s a sizable capital investment of time and money, so it needs to be profitable. I expect to offer some sort of discount for the first ninety days and for my existing clients. The last book published on the topic was written in 2006, so it described phpBB 2, so the market is out there. Also, that was a user guide, not an administrator’s guide.

Otherwise:

  • Added two users and forced a reactivation of two other users for a commercial client, who outsources this work to me.
  • Updated a board from phpBB 3.2.7 to 3.2.9. Also, I created a new forum with a forum logo on the board. I resized and placed a forum image logo with the forum, and put it in the requested place on the index. I gave the forum permissions similar to another forum. I investigated issues in the error log. Most of these errors seems to be due to debug being turned on.
  • More analysis for a client I did work for in December. I generated a list of users and email addresses on his archived forum that had contributed at least 1 post but whose usernames were not on the current forum. He will use the list to invite them to come to the new board. I installed a release candidate extension to creating lots of user accounts in bulk, but it didn’t work as advertised. I did some styling changes. I upped base font 1 pixel to 12pixels. Client wanted to know if my digests extension can show text only. Yes, and I sent him a sample. He wants digests generated by my extension to look similar to someone else’s digest. I deleted a user defined moderator group. I provided guidance on using the ACP Add User extension so lots of old users could be added. He would like to delegate the work to someone else, so discussed how this could be done with ACP permissions so their access was tightly limited in the ACP.
  • Client’s board wouldn’t come up on Bluehost hosting. After some analysis, I determined he had a phpBB 2.0.19 board and that only PHP 7 was available. He did have attachments. I converted the board to phpBB 3.3.0. Issues logging on were solved by removing the domain’s cookies, clearing browser cache and resetting the password, which was set back. I moved the old board into forum_old folder. I created the search index, disabled contact page, added Invisible reCAPTCHA. The resulting board is very basic. It may need some customization, styles and extensions installed. Later there was additional work. The client needed some gallery software. The phpBB Gallery extension is not being maintained and is not reliable, so looked for a solution outside of phpBB. I tried one solution, then tried another. Piwigo seemed to work after I installed a Community plugin/extension. This allowed users to upload their own pictures.
  • I updated a board from phpBB 3.2.0 to 3.2.9 on generic prosilver style. I updated my digests extension to version 3.2.17 and the Cleantalk extension to version 5.7.2.
  • I upgrade board from phpBB 3.2.7 to 3.3.0. I updated the prosilver SE style to 3.2.9 and put the old logo back. I changed the spambot countermeasure to reCaptcha V2 invisible, since spam registrations were a complaint.
  • Client wanted active topics in red on the navigation bar. First tried installing the Advanced Active Topics extension (release candidate) but couldn’t get it to show. I then installed the Recent Topics extension as a trial, but client didn’t like it, so I created a special link on the navigation bar, highlighted in red, moving it from the Quick Links menu.
  • I upgraded a board from phpBB 3.2.8 to 3.3.0. I replaced the logo.I checked all the extensions and they seemed to work on phpBB 3.3 with no issues, but there was no test case for change post time extension to verify it worked properly.
  • More work for a client on spam. Used Prune Users feature to remove users and their posts who registered after Feb 10, 2018 when spam seemed to start in earnest. Reenabled board and suggested ways to mitigate the problem in the future with moderation, digests, etc. This is discussed in more detail in this blog post.
  • This work is still ongoing. On Hostgator hosting, I created space for five domains and set up DNS for these domains. I set up five boards on five subdomains of these domains. All have a basic configuration, registration disabled, reCaptcha enabled, prosilver_se style applied, contact form disabled, and forwarder set up to redirect to client’s email address. Set up https redirection by installed WordPress SSL plugin on the main blog. Next, I cloned four WordPress instances based on work on one domain, whose theme and plugins client wanted to replicate. I did this by copying the files and database, changing the wp-config.php file to point to the new database, and tweaking the site information in the wp_options table. This saved a lot of time and work for the client.