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Digests 3.2.12 released

This release incorporates three major bug fixes, so be sure to update the extension. Details in this topic. You can download it from my digests extension page or GitHub. If getting it from GitHub, place it in the correct place: /ext/phpbbservices/digests. With any extension, update it the correct way: disable it, remove the files, upload the new files to the correct folder, then reenable the extension.

Cloud service types and phpBB

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. For the most part you will be expected to figure out how to do this. You will also have to worry about things like malware getting onto your site and deal with any technical issues that come up.

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.

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.

Conclusion

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.

 

March 2019 work summary

This was a fairly normal month work-wise for me. Here’s what I was up to for my clients during March.

  • Client couldn’t login to Administration Control Panel. This was likely due to sloppy upgrade of p8pBB bridge software that blanked out user_permissions column in the phpbb_users table. p8pBB is a bridge between the Joomla content management system and phpBB. I set it to the default value for “webmaster” for this column from a test board I have for his login and this allowed login. I also provided instructions on how to comprehensively reset permissions in phpBB.
  • Upgraded forum from phpBB 3.0.14 to phpBB 3.2.5. I installed the Spanish casual honorifics language pack. I also installed five extensions: Ultimate SEO friendly, Dynamic Meta Tags, Advertisement management, Akismet and ShareOn. I did not port the old ads for the Advertisement management mod since none were active. To work, the Akismet extension needs API key so I asked the client go get one on their website and enter it into the extension’s interface page. I added a home link and added a logo, but it was otherwise is vanilla prosilver style that was installed. Hid site title and description since it was in the logo image too. I configured reCaptcha V2 checkbox spambot countermeasure, disabled the contact form and provided instructions for making everyone use the Spanish language pack. I suggested he upgrade PHP to version 7. There followed additional work. I installed three additional styles and applied default logo to each. I installed the Quickstyle extension to have an easy way to change styles on the navigation bar but it conflicted with Ultimate SEO friendly extension, so I disabled it. And spent half an hour figuring out SEO friendly URLs for the Ultimate SEO friendly extension, sticking mostly with defaults and rewriting .htaccess file using code generated by the extension. Still to do: allow users to delete their own posts, but there are many groups so I need to understand their intended use. Later in the month, I installed and configured the Google Analytics extension. The client also wanted posts with a competitor’s URL in them removed. So used the MySQL replace function to change these to point to their website instead.
  • I installed my approved digests extension, version 3.2.11, on two domains for an existing client. I set up system crons to run every 15 minutes, which would both send out digests hourly and send out email notifications as well. But both domains were on email blacklists when I checked, so I expressed a concern and suggested they take action to get these domains off these blacklists before using digests. I suggested a Skype conference to go through interface for using digests properly. I changed the email settings for one domain to use an email address for domain, to lessen the likelihood that these digests would end up in spam folders.
  • Troubleshooting. Some newly registered users were not receiving sign up emails. I checked and the domain was not on any email blacklists. There were no relevant errors in phpBB’s error log. phpBB’s email settings showed FROM address as info@xxx.org instead of info@xxxing.org, so I changed the email address. (Note: the real domains were something else.) This might solved the issue. Advised that an update to 3.2.5 was available if desired. I changed the forwarders in Plesk for info@xxx.org to ensure any emails sent to it were received to a real email address.
  • I upgraded forum from phpBB 3.0.0 to phpBB 3.2.5. It used a standard prosilver style with a logo. After the upgrade, I changed PHP to 7.2 and edited the forum’s config.php file to tell phpBB to use the mysqli driver. One error during upgrade required removing a row from the phpbb_config table, then there were no more issues. I disabled contact form and installed the reCaptcha V2 checkbox spambot countermeasure. I removed a number of dead modules manually from the database and replicated the logo. I installed the Recent Topics extension. Later, I answered many questions on their forum and made a number of minor changes to accommodate quirks and oddities.
  • I upgraded a forum from phpBB 3.0.14 to phpBB 3.2.5. There was an error during upgrade, and I had to make prosilver style active to complete the upgrade. I disabled the contact form, created a new set of reCaptcha keys and enabled reCaptcha V2 checkbox spambot countermeasure. I added a home link. Then I installed the we_universal style to try to replicate the look they had under phpBB 3.0 with that version of the style. The only change was swapping the dashboard image. I changed PHP for domain to version 7.2. I installed the Advertisement management extension, porting the old ads. I installed my digests extension. But digests did not arrive. I suggested talking to web host since they were likely blocking outgoing emails. A day later I got a first digest unexpectedly. Then I started getting regular digests but they no longer appearing in spam folder, suggesting the client’s web host had solved the outgoing email issue. Except for delay, seems to be working correctly now. Later, I was asked to hide the site title and to make minor changes to the logo’s placement.
  • Troubleshooting. Cleantalk is a service that is used to keep sites clean from spam. There is a Cleantalk extension for phpBB that was somewhat old on a client’s site that stopped working. This is because their software was poorly written to hardcode calls to mysql libraries, rather than use phpBB’s database abstraction later. But when the client upgraded their PHP to version 7, mysql drivers could not be used. mysqli drivers are required. This error made whole forum inaccessible with just the ambiguous Cleantalk error message coming up. To get the forum up, I deleted the Cleantalk extension with cPanel’s file manager and replaced it with Cleantalk version 5.6.9 which had fixed this bug. I disabled the extension in database and manually cleared the cache with the file manager. I refreshed the page and after a few minutes it took. I then reenabled the newer version of the Cleantalk extension. Later I updated the forum from phpBB 3.2.1 to phpBB 3.2.5. I also updated the Hexagon style to the latest version, updated the Advertisement Management extension to version 2.0.1 and Advanced BBCode Box extension to version 3.2.1.
  • I updated a forum from phpBB 3.2.2 to phpBB 3.2.5, updated the prosilver Special Edition style in use, reapplied logo changes, then updated the NavBar search and Tapatalk extensions.
  • I updated forum from phpBB 3.0.11 to phpBB 3.2.5. There was some wasted effort as the cPanel information I was given was old pointing to an old server. That explained when I tried to run the upgrade I got a file not found error message. The forum has about 800,000 posts. Finally on the right cPanel instance, I uploaded the new software to the right place, and ran database upgrade, which seemed to hang once. When I manually restarted it, it seemed to complete successfully. I replicated a streaming player in the navigation bar and in the forum’s header, which used old Flash technology. I also installed an extra style, SE Square Left; users can switch between both styles. I installed the Tapatalk and NavBar search extensions, the latter to make room for the player list in the header. I changed PHP to version 7.2 from 5.6. I disabled the contact form and setup the reCaptcha V2 spambot countermeasure. I installed the mChat extension, which was later disabled. I may change its permission to just let the site’s “music group” see it and keep it hidden from the rest. Some people on the site like to stream the same music at the same time and talk abou the music in a site chat area, which was the reason I installed the mChat extension. I installed an abandoned Radio Module extension which has a radio player to see if that would work instead of the old and buggy Flash player. It must be attached to a streaming service. I removed the link to old player from navigation bar and undid style changes to show playlist in the header.
  • Client had rehosted a site but the forum but could not connect database, giving an error message he could not figure out. This was because the forum’s database was not loaded into a database. This set off a search for the most recent version of the forum’s database. We settled on one from 2015 as the one to load. I loaded this version into a database using phpMyAdmin. After creating a new mySQL user and giving it full access to the database, I edited the forum’s config.php file so it would use the right credentials. This allowed the forum to come up. I recommended updating from phpBB 3.1.3 to phpBB 3.2.5, which would require a different style because the subsilver one is not available. Later I did upgrade the forum to phpBB 3.2.5. The default prosilver style is now used because subsilver for phpBB 3.1 is not responsive and thus not allowed for phpBB 3.2.

Should I host phpBB in the cloud?

So I’ve been playing with cloud providers, most recently looking at the Google Cloud in context with a WordPress group that I belong to. But over the years I’ve also studied Amazon Web Services, the original cloud provider. There are other cloud providers but really the only other major player is Microsoft Azure. Host on another cloud and you may find out that it won’t last in the long term, or is not a real cloud service. My goal is to eventually demonstrate how to run phpBB in the cloud, starting with the Google Cloud that I am currently exploring, and bring you along for the ride.

Characteristics of cloud services

There are lots of definitions of cloud services and cloud computing. From the perspective of someone who owns and manages a forum, all you probably really want to know about it what makes these services different than your typical web host like Siteground or GoDaddy. You will get lots of answers. Last year I helped move a big forum to Amazon’s EC2 cloud service. I got some preliminary answer from that work. Some differences:

  • Cloud services are scalable. If you have a host like GoDaddy and you outgrow the resources you are allowed to use inside the scope of your contract, you will get a little leeway. But generally you will be asked to move up to a higher class of hosting. This contrasts with cloud services. Its architecture lets your site grow seamlessly, at least if you set it up right, scaling up by a factor of 100 or more as needed, and maybe dropping back down after demand eases. So if you expect to have a forum that will get suddenly very, very popular, hosting with a cloud service should be a big selling point. Whereas, moving to a higher class of hosting at GoDaddy is potentially a lot of hassle.
  • You don’t get handholding with cloud services. Don’t expect to have a support hotline or a phone number that you can call to reach someone to help you struggle with technical issues. You either brings these skills with you or pay someone to leverage them for you.
  • Cloud services are not for cheapskates. It’s not that cloud services are inherently more expensive than traditional hosts. In many cases, cloud hosting is the better buy because you pay for what you use. Cloud services are elastic to scale on demand, so sometimes your costs will go way up for a given month. That’s because you are getting a lot more traffic or are using a lot more space or require additional virtual CPUs. Very tech savvy people who have small sites might be able to host for free in “micro instances” of these cloud services. Here’s a video that shows how a tech savvy person can spin up a site on a cloud service for less than a dollar a month, providing you know your site’s usage will be minimal. But you really have to know what you are doing. 

Why to not use a cloud service

  • You’re not a techie and want to stay that way. If you are paying $20 a month to Siteground, for example, it will seem like a rip off if you can do the same thing for $1 a month on the Google Cloud and it fits in a micro instance. But in most cases, it’s not. With web hosts, someone else is managing the infrastructure, providing 24/7 support and they provide a host of tools like cPanel to easily do things like manage files, create backups and create email addresses. You are free to concentrate more on what matters: your site and its content, and leave the heavy lifting to a company which is probably doing it for hundreds of people using the same machine you are. Someone else worries about security patches, system upgrades and site vulnerabilities. Yes, often if you manage a phpBB forum, you do have to put your hands into the soil, so to speak. You might have to create email addresses or tweak something in a database, generally in a control panel like cPanel or Plesk. But that’s a whole lot easier than trying to upgrade a Linux kernel or managing an email server’s firewall rules.
  • You prefer fixed costs. You don’t like surprises, particularly financial surprises. With a contract and a good web host, you know what you are paying for, for how long, and what you can expect while you host with the provider.
  • You don’t need to worry about your site getting quickly popular. Your forum is not the next Instagram. It may grow some during the year and there may be some spikes in traffic here and there, but it’s manageable.
  • You like having tech support on speed dial. Hosts of course vary in the quality of the technical support they provide, but knowing you can call a technical person on the phone or chat with them online about some weird problem you are having is comforting.

With phpBB in particular, while it can be made to work in the cloud, it is not a cloud-first product. In truth, cloud-services are mostly for developers and large organizations. Generally they want the reliability and high “up time” that cloud services provide. Organizations use cloud services to mitigate their risks and lower costs; maintaining their own servers and technical support staff is expensive. Most of these organizations though do have developers. They are writing or maintaining systems or services to handle lots of needs, and most of these are proprietary, not using off the shelf software like phpBB. The exception is the Software as a Service model. Some companies like salesforce.com offer their solutions as services you can rent, and put their services in either a public or a private cloud of their own.

In my next post, I’ll look at the other two models cloud services offer, Platform as a Service and Infrastructure as a Service and explain why neither is a great match for phpBB. That said, sometimes you might want to put phpBB on one of these service types anyhow. We’ll explore why and the tradeoffs involved.

February 2019 work summary

February was a pretty typical months work-wise. Neither too much work nor too little. Nothing particularly challenging. Mostly updates and upgrades, which is typically the bulk of my work.

I did pass 1000 service requests in January. I current stand at 1010 service requests since I started the business in 2006, with 362 distinct clients.

  • Troubleshooting trying to get forum redirection to work. An error message was coming up instead. I chatted with web host and put in a ticket and they eventually solved it. Also upgraded the forum from phpBB 3.2.2 to 3.2.5. I did not update six extensions where updates were available or the Platinum style.
  • Updated a forum from phpBB 3.2.2 to phpBB 3.2.5. Did not update the custom style or any extensions. Registrations emails were not being received. I tested the process. Mine ended up in a spam folder. I then looked on a blacklist site and discovered that client’s host had reported spam from his site. I suggested that he talk with DreamHost about getting off these blacklists. He also wanted some registration text changed, so I made an edit to /language/en/ucp.php, initially, then again after the update since the file had been overwritten. I also changed the email address to the forum to use one for his domain so emails were less likely to be flagged as spam. I installed a beta extension that copies post from one forum to another automatically. Later, I set up a special group the client wanted and set permissions accordingly to NEVER for posting privileges in the one main forum. This work inspired this post.
  • I updated another forum from phpBB 3.2.3 to phpBB 3.2.5. Client reported that there were spam posts that moderators are catching and deleting. There was no obvious reason why, but it was likely that the Q&A spambot countermeasure was guessed and that was being used as a vehicle for creating accounts that were then used to create spam posts. Newly registered users get automatic moderation, which is how they got flagged. I changed the spambot countermeasure to reCaptcha V2 checkbox. Later, I installed the Cleantalk extension. But I went back to Q&A spambot countermeasure because allow_url_fopen PHP setting would not take on Hostgator hosting. Later, I sent info on allow_url_fopen issue for Hostgator for them to take action on. There was an issue with Javascript when creating new registrations. Clearing the cache fixed the issue.
  • Client reported a database error accessing forum. I assumed the issue was with the database credentials but that wasn’t the problem. Four folders did not have 777 permissions, changed to 755 permissions, but it didn’t solve the problem. I checked the database and it reported phpBB 3.2.5 was installed, so I assumed an incorrect upgrade was done. I first copied vendor folder but that didn’t solve the issue. I then copied all the other files from a 3.2.5 reference and that worked, once I had a good set of login credentials.
  • A client had my digests extension installed and blank digests were reported going out. I investigated the issue and found a bug in digests that affects lowly trafficked forums that use the default phpBB cron, documented here. I created a patch and placed it on the domain to test it. I changed the server setting to explicitly use a system cron, even though curl is used in the cron in cPanel. Later, I determined that the old cron job was set up to use http but https is now used on the forum, so a redirect was happening in the cron, causing it to fail. I changed it to use https and added the -k flag to curl to not check the certificate. Later, I updated the forum from phpBB 3.2.3 to phpBB 3.2.5.
  • Updated two forums for the same client that are largely identical, updating the software from phpBB 3.2.3 to phpBB 3.2.5. I also updated the AllanStyle Subsilver style retaining customizations. I updated the Advertisement Management, Google Analytics and Cleantalk extensions. For one forum only, I also updated my Smartfeed extension.
  • I upgraded forum from phpBB 3.0.4 to 3.2.5. This was kind of an emergency because the client’s the host changed PHP version to 7.2 meaning the old software no longer worked. Just figuring out what the client had meant looking inside the database to determine the version of phpBB they were using. The forum has about 440,000 posts. There were some timeouts during upgrade, but I worked around them by removing the migration that did not finish from the migrations table and then restarting the database upgrade. (Using CLI was not an option as SSH was not an option.) I installed the Tapatalk extension. The client had to provide me his Tapatalk key to complete its configuration. I disabled the new contact form feature so it wouldn’t attract spam. I set up a reCaptcha V2 spambot countermeasure. I removed a lot of smilies that were missing images by deleting rows from the smilies table in the database. Then, a test post timed out. I spent an hour on the phone with technical support, trying all sorts of things. What worked was my suggestion to repair all the tables, something I could not do in phpMyAdmin because of hosting timeout. I provided some advice on procuring a SSL certificate and changing tables to the InnoDB storage engine to make future timeouts less likely. I installed a non-default style (Anami) which included an extension as a user interface.
  • Updated a forum from phpBB 3.2.4 to phpBB 3.2.5. FTP was very slow and had lots of errors, timeouts and zero length files. I uploaded archive of vendor folder using the file manager to fix 0 file length errors.

 

Solving phpBB forum permission issues

I have noted before that phpBB’s permission system is awesome. In one way though it’s a bit defective: it’s hard to troubleshoot issues with permissions, particularly forum permissions.

In this post, I’ll delve into solving forum permission issues. The general problem is that a user typically belongs to more than one group and different groups can have different forum permissions. If you are unfamiliar with the basic phpBB groups, you might want to read this post first. You can also create groups of your own and set forum permissions to those groups.

To solve these issues, you generally you need to start with a test case. This part at least is pretty easy because you usually have a user whose permissions are not working correctly, so you just need their username. You also need one or more forums where their permissions are off. You also need to know what permission isn’t working right, such as permissions to create new topics or reply to topics.

If you dig into phpBB’s documentation, it becomes a little clearer. On permissions, the documentation says:

  • YES will allow a permission setting unless it is overwritten by a NEVER.
  • NO will disallow a permission setting unless it is overwritten by a YES.
  • NEVER will completely disallow a permission setting for a user. It cannot be overwritten by a YES.

So essentially when the NEVER permission is set, it becomes a blocker overriding any other permissions.

Seeing all forum permissions for a user, forum and permission type

How do you see these forum permissions? You need a tool. The good news is that phpBB has just such a tool. The bad news is that they bury it. In fact, it could not be harder to find. In this example, I will use my development forum to see forum permissions for myself.

  1. Go into the Administration Control Panel
  2. Select the Permissions tab
  3. On the left sidebar, go way down to the bottom. You want View forum-based permissions. Click the link.
  4. Pick the forum or forums you want. In this example, I chose the “Your first forum” forum created by default when you create your board. I then pressed SUBMIT.
  5. Now I pick the user. There are various ways to do this with the interface for both users and groups. In this case I choose myself, with a username of “Mark D Hamill”. I entered the username in the “Find a member” field and pressed the View permissions button below the field. This brings up the Viewing permissions page. The colors you see on the permission tabs may vary from mine where the green boxes in each of the tabs basically say “This user or group has YES for ALL permissions under this tab”. Red means “This user or group has NEVER set for all permissions under this tab”. Blue means “This user or group has a mixture of permissions for the permissions in this tab.”
View permissions page
View permissions page
  1. I now want to check out a particular permission. You may have to hunt for the permission you want to check for the user and forum as it may be on a different tab. There is a tiny little icon to the left of each forum permission. That’s what you need to click on. In this case I want to see how permissions are determined for the Can start new topics permission.
Selecting a permission to check
Selecting a permission to check
  1. This generally brings up a popup window. If you don’t see a popup window, you may have to tell your browser to allow popups for the domain. Finally this brings up a useful screen:
Viewing a particular permission
Viewing a particular permission

Now you can see what’s going on for this particular user’s forum permission. Since I am both an administrator and a global moderator, I belong to both those groups, each of which has a group forum permissions too. By default, NO access is allowed to the forum for a user, so it is the first permission. But it is set to YES for Administrators, so the logic continues and the next group is tested. It is set to YES for Global moderators too, so the net permission is still YES. It is set to YES for registered users in this forum too, so it’s still YES. Finally, it looks for any user-specific forum permissions. None were granted, so this permission is NO, but since it is NO and not NEVER the overall YES permission still applied.

Fixing the underlying permission issue

With this tool, you should be able to determine where the root of the permissions issue lie from the variance from an expected permission from the actual permission. It’s usually a group permission that needs changing. The most likely solutions are:

  • A NO permission should be NEVER
  • A NEVER permission is blocking everything so it should be changed to NO
  • A NO or NEVER permission is incorrect and should be YES

So adjust the group or user permissions for the forum privilege accordingly. You can use this tool to check to see if the result is correct, or use the feature in the Administration Control Panel to test out a user’s forum permissions.

Usually in these cases, you cannot use the built-in forum roles. Rather you have to click on the Advanced link for each forum and group and change permissions that way instead.

In some cases, you can adjust the permissions for a forum role and have them trickle down accordingly, avoiding the need to use the advanced link when setting forum permissions. I’ll leave you to investigate this option if you want instead. It can get a little hairy to change these because it affects all forums where these permission roles are used.

Setting user-specific forum permissions is always a bad idea. Remove them if you can, and place these forum permissions in groups you create instead. Add people to these groups as necessary to get the desired behavior.

The newly registered users group permission quirk

There are some things that are definitely peculiar about phpBB’s permission system. Newly registered users are also in the registered users group. To start, this makes no sense. In the case of this user, “tester66”, because he is in the newly registered users group, the forum’s permissions for newly registered users does not allow them to start new topics. But because they actually are in the registered users group too, they can start new topics, the exact opposite of what you would expect!

Newly registered users permission quirk
Newly registered users permission quirk

How do you solve this problem? You have to set the permission to NEVER for the newly registered users group by using the group forum permissions function. In it you select the Advanced link to fine tune the permission. After changing the permission, you can see the result:

Fixing the newly registered users group quirk
Fixing the newly registered users group quirk

 

January 2019 work summary

I was on vacation January 5 – 18 so you would think work would slack off this month. But while I was gone a queue of work developed. I was kept reasonably busy when I wasn’t touring Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. In short, despite taking two weeks off, I made my revenue goal for the month thanks to customers who waited patiently for my return.

  • An old phpBB 2 forum on an old free host was somehow upgraded to a newer version of PHP. That caused the old forum to mostly stop working. Many screens were garbled or content was hidden or inaccessible. I was able to infer the phpBB 2 URL for downloading the database by doing a test on my laptop. This allowed me to download the database, but the avatars (since they were images and no FTP was available) remained inaccessible. I was then able to convert it to a phpBB 3.2.4 database which I placed on my domain in a folder for the client to inspect. Currently the client has a converted database that they can move to any host. They have not asked me to take this next step, at least not yet.
  • Updated a forum from phpBB 3.2.3 to 3.2.5. When I tried to make a database backup, I downloaded it and discovered that it was not complete. This was due to annoying shared hosting timeouts on Bluehost, which really metes out resources sparingly to clients, one of the reasons I urge clients to avoid companies owned by the Endurance Group like Bluehost. I eventually made a set of backups by making slices of certain tables using phpMyAdmin. In short, this relatively simple upgrade was something of a pain, mostly because I won’t do an update unless I have a complete recovery path. I had to change the logo size in common.css to put the old logo back. The client’s Advertisement Management extension needs an update, which I later updated.
  • Troubleshooting. A client complained about spam they were getting. This is probably because Contact form was enabled but the enabled Cleantalk extension was not checking it. I enabled Cleantalk to check it. Next was a complaint about users not being able to pass reCaptcha. I created a new set of reCaptcha keys, but this one used the checkbox Captcha that phpBB 3.2 supports, and deleted the old one. Their [youtube] and [vimeo] BBCodes were not embedding properly. I installed the Media Embed extension and disabled the [youtube] BBCode by renaming it so I could use it with Media Embed extension. Vimeo has similar issue but I left that untouched. 248 Youtube and 105 Vimeo embeds were affected. I noted that anyone could edit their own posts to fix the embed issue and provided instructions.
  • What looked like a newly upgraded phpBB 3.2.5 forum needed styling work to make it match a larger website (they were using prosilver). After going through the available styles with the client, he agreed to and I installed the ne_blackgreen style which I then proceeded to tailor to make it match the larger website. I concentrated on header and footer changes to the pages. For the header, the client wanted three image areas across the top, evenly spaced, left side pushed left, center centered, right pushed right, of equal size. I made it responsive … was in previously in a HTML table that was not responsive and did not look good on mobile devices. I installed the NavBar Search extension to put the search bar on the navigation area so I had the full header available. For the page footer, I was asked to add some standard text. I removed many HTML validation errors from using old HTML. I converted the old HTML tables to responsive <div> tags. I changed the PHP version from 5.6 to 7.1. I tried to change the spambot countermeasure to use reCaptcha but it gave a HTTP 500 error, so I reverted to Q&A spambot countermeasure. Forum pages are now responsive. The larger website is still not responsive. This could be take up as a future project. I changed user registration settings to allow people to respond to an email link to complete registration. I changed the base font size to 13px. Added 1cm padding to the top and 2cm padding to bottom. Later, I did another hour of style tweaks, principally to make it look good on mobile devices. There were annoying issues with CloudFlare and no way to refresh its cache, so I had to wait to see changes. Cloudflare was eventually removed by the client.
  • I updated a forum from phpBB 3.2.3 to 3.2.5. I had to reapply one style change to common.css, otherwise it was an easy and normal update with no issues. Afterward, there was an issue with a phpBB Gallery error. I removed the cache file that reported the error and the error went away. I updated domain from PHP 7.0 to 7.2 so user avoids extra fee.
  • I upgraded a forum from phpBB 3.0.13-PL1 to 3.2.5. I started with the default prosilver style, but soon moved to Orange BBE style. I made some customizations. I moved the search interface to navigation bar. I had to resize the logo to 50% of its previous size to make the logo responsive to mobile devices. At screen width of under 700 pixels, I swapped in a logo that was one third of the original logo size. I installed the advertisement management extension because the client was previously using the mod and had ads to be ported. Because MySQL tables existed from the mod where the old ads were placed, there were some tables and columns missing causing some errors when the extension ran. It took some analysis to add what was needed to get it to work as an extension without losing the old ads. Basically, I had to add some columns and indexes. I replicated email, FB and donation links/buttons on the navigation bar. I replicated the background image in the style. I installed the mChat extension. I setup reCaptcha V2 as spambot countermeasure. I disabled the contact page as it is a channel for spam otherwise. I changed PHP to 7.2 for all domains. This client had the same UK host as the previous clients, and the host charged extra if they weren’t using PHP 7.2.
  • This client has a busy site and wanted to do an upgrade from phpBB 3.0 in stages, starting with development environment upgrade that had a copy of the production database. I had to use SSH and FTP to do this work. There is no cPanel or Plesk environment available. In the development environment, I upgraded phpBB from version 3.0.12 to 3.2.5. The database upgrade program look about 3 hours to run, and I had to manually create the phpbb_config_text table first. Next, there was style work to match current style, about 3 hours of labor for that. I installed the Tapatalk, Thanks for the posts, Digests, ACP Add User and Google Analytics extensions. I disabled the contact page. I enabled the reCaptcha V2 spambot countermeasure. I added a home link to the navigation bar. While I installed my digests extension (they have the digests mod installed), I did not set up digests cron, but users’ subscriptions were successfully carried over. The Tapatalk extension may not work correctly until moved to production because it’s in use in the production forum. No ForumRunner extension was available so that functionality was lost. I installed the PM Search extension, a release candidate extension. The Thanks for the posts extension may need permissions set up. The client will be doing some testing of the development environment. When complete, I will upgrade the production forum. That work should show up in next month’s report.
  • Someone sent me a $50 donation for my digests extension, a thank you for finally getting it approved (a 3 year effort!) I had no way to thank them for the donation, and I tried to give it to the phpBB group but could not find a way to donate money to the phpBB group, so I kept it. Thanks, donor!

Integrating your phpBB topics and posts into WordPress … or any web page!

As some know, I am the developer of phpBB’s Smartfeed extension. This extension provides an ATOM, RSS1 or RSS2 feed of posts and topics on your website.

These feeds allow people to read posts on the forum remotely using a newsreader application, like one built into MS Outlook or using feed aggregator sites like feedly.com. The main advantage of feeds is that it allows you to read a forum without actually having to visit the site. If you regularly read lots of sites, using a newsreader is very efficient way to read content compared to actually visiting each site.

Smartfeed is not the only extension that does this. In fact, if you don’t need to support the RSS format and only want to show posts in public forums, an ATOM Feed has been built into phpBB since version 3.0.6. You might want to read the knowledge base article to learn the syntax to use. You can control your feeds in the Administration Control Panel: ACP > General tab > Board configuration > Feed settings.

Sometimes you want to highlight recent topics and posts on your larger website, or on another domain. For example, you may have a phpBB forum in a folder on a WordPress site. You might want to use a WordPress widget to highlight current topics and posts on a sidebar of your WordPress site. The links in the sidebar will take people directly to the post or topic of interest.

I will demonstrate how to do this using WordPress. However, conceptually you don’t need WordPress to do this. You just need something that can read an ATOM or RSS feed of your forum, and parse its XML into HTML for display, or write your own program to do this. For example, if you are familiar with jQuery, there are a number of jQuery feed plugins that would work. The PHP SimpleXML library is one way you can do it in PHP with a short PHP program.

Here’s one way to do it in WordPress:

  1. Spend some time figuring out what you want to highlight in WordPress: recent posts or recent topics. I will show a list of recent posts. In this example, I first installed my Smartfeed extension. This is because I got a SimplePie parser error when I used phpBB’s ATOM feed. This is due to a bug when parsing ISO dates in ATOM feeds using the SimplePie library. SimplePie is bundled with WordPress. I reported the bug. The resulting URLs for the feed can be seen if Smartfeed is installed. It is in the HTML source for the forum. I will use the second link because the ?y=2 parameter creates a RSS feed instead of an ATOM feed to avoid the SimplePie bug.
<link rel="alternate" type="application/atom+xml" title="ATOM" href="/phpbb/app.php/smartfeed/feed" />
<link rel="alternate" type="application/rss+xml" title="RSS" href="/phpbb/app.php/smartfeed/feed?y=2" />
  1. Note: if using Smartfeed, and you want a list of recent topics only, the resulting URL will look something like this. You should be logged out when using the Smartfeed interface. Note that you can refine the URL in the Smartfeed user interface. lp=1 limits the feed to the last post in the topic only, t=2 suppresses the time limit for retrieving posts, s=1 gives a standard sort from most recent to least recent, i=0 means to not require a minimum number of words in the post, y=2 forces a RSS2 feed, d=3 sets the feed style to use HTML, w=0 means not to limit the maximum number of words in the post, and tt=1 means to show topic titles only. There are lots of variations so use the Smartfeed interface to get the output just the way you like it.  
http://127.0.0.1/phpbb/app.php/smartfeed/feed?lp=1&t=2&s=1&i=0&y=2&d=3&w=0&tt=1
  1. Presumably you have installed WordPress already. If you haven’t, it can be downloaded from wordpress.org. Or you can usually install it from Plesk or cPanel.
  2. Login to WordPress as an administrator and go to the WordPress dashboard.
  3. WordPress comes with a RSS Widget preinstalled that also can handle ATOM feeds. You can find it off the dashboard: Appearance > Widgets
  4. Click on the RSS Widget then press the Add Widget button which appears, which by default appears on the sidebar.
  5. In the sidebar, click on the RSS Widget that was added. Enter the URL for the feed and give it an optional description. Note that it needs to be the full URL, not the partial one shown above. Then press Save.

    Configuring RSS Widget
    Configuring RSS Widget
  1. I dragged the widget to the top of the sidebar so it would appear first on the sidebar. Of course, you can place it anywhere on the sidebar that you like.
  2. Go to your WordPress site and find it on the sidebar.

    List of recent forum posts in the WordPress sidebar
    List of recent forum posts in the WordPress sidebar

Note that this works for any domain, providing the feed is publicly accessible. So you can promote this approach to have similar sites show your list of recent topics or posts. Note also that my Smartfeed extension has a number of options to make the post subject or topic title prettier if the default looks too wordy.

Digests extension approved

It took three years, but the phpBB extension review team has approved my digests extension. Given its complexity, my less than stellar skills at programming in the new extensions architecture, and the long lag time for getting a review, it’s not too surprising that it took so long.

The extension can be found here.

Further support questions should be addressed here.