phpBB 3.3 is released!

Two days ago, the phpBB group released its latest minor version of phpBB: 3.3, also known as Proteus. You can learn more about it on its launch page. To give you some perspective, phpBB 3.2, the last minor version, was released on December 9, 2016. So it’s been three years since the last minor release of phpBB.

I looked at a development version a couple of weeks back. So I was kind of taken by surprise by 3.3’s sudden release. Minor versions tend to introduce some new functionality, and Proteus does. It’s just that for most administrators and users, it won’t seem like that big a deal and things will look and behave pretty much the way they always have. As with phpBB 3.2’s introduction, most of its changes are covert, rather than overt. Unless you know what you are looking for, you won’t notice much.

New logo

One hard-to-miss feature, at least if you use the default proSilver style, is the phpBB logo is different. It’s now a Scalable Vector Graphic (SVG), which makes it look crisp and shiny in all resolutions, including retinal displays. It looks a tad bigger, but also more white and almost glossy. Also, the logo includes the words “forum software”, which is new. Previously, the logo was a transparent GIF.

New phpBB logo
New phpBB logo

Updating is getting easier

Updating phpBB is getting easier too. It won’t compare to updating WordPress, which takes place entirely behind the scenes and can be done with a single click. The exact mechanics of how it will work is unknown until 3.3.1 is released. But the launch page says:

“With our brand new installer updating will be easier than ever in phpBB 3.3! Upload a single folder to your board and all your files will automatically be replaced.”

This will be welcome because updating has always been a hassle. Over time, it may affect my income a bit since a lot of it comes from updates. I expect a lot of my customers will still want me to do this as a service.

You will still need to upload one file, an archive. I also expect there will be a number of other manual steps, because there will always be issues of overwriting custom changes to styles and extensions that may have issues. You will probably have to back up your styles and extensions folder manually before updating. Time will tell.

New PHP requirements

Proteus requires PHP 7.1.3 or higher, and cannot use a version of PHP greater than 7.4. So many administrators will have to upgrade PHP first, which may be an issue for those using PHP 5.4 and 5.6. They will finally have to take the plunge.

Most likely a lot of these boards will have an issue: they will need to edit their config.php file to tell phpBB to use mysqli drivers instead of mysql drivers. So far, fixing this issue has not been intuitive.

Overall, taking the plunge to PHP 7 is good: twice the performance compared with PHP 5 and phpBB can use many new features in PHP 7 too. I have noticed some extensions have issues with PHP 7, however, for example the AWS S3 extension.

Upgrading from phpBB 3.2

The upgrade process from 3.2 is pretty much unchanged from 3.1 to 3.2, and will be more manual in nature than the newer upgrade process. You can see the steps required here.

Improved Emoji support

From a user’s perspective, the exciting feature is likely to be increased Emoji support. Previously, only certain Emoji characters could be used, and only in post text. Now you can use virtually any Emoji character, and you can use them in topic titles too. However, you cannot use Emoji in the subject line of topic replies.

The Emoji in topic titles permission is enabled by default. If you want to disallow it, the easiest way is to change a user role, like Standard Features. ACP > Permissions > Permission roles > User roles > [Role name]. Click on the green wheel for the role. See illustration:

New emoji in topic titles permission
New emoji in topic titles permission

Over time, phpBB forums will look a lot more colorful and visual.

No support for IE before IE11

Also with Proteus, phpBB essentially gives up caring about Internet Explorer versions 7-10. It’s not that phpBB won’t render pages with these older browsers, but certain features won’t work or may behave quirkily. This is because to do fancier things, phpBB relies on a Javascript library called jQuery. It now uses a newer version of jQuery which is not compatible with these older browsers. The phpBB Group’s rationale is that since Microsoft won’t support old versions of Internet Explorer, they don’t have to either.

Some other features they are highlighting:

  • Clever quotes. Quotes can show a link to the post and post author. It can also show the date and time of the quoted post.
  • Improved reCAPTCHA. Previously only reCAPTCHA V2 Checkbox was allowed for a reCAPTCHA solution. Now you can use the Invisible reCAPTCHA V2. One consequence of this is that the V2 Checkbox is no longer supported, so as part of upgrading phpBB to 3.3 you should have to get a new set of reCAPTCHA keys from Google’s reCAPTCHA site that support this method, and plug them into the Spambot Countermeasures area in the ACP.
  • Notifications are supposed to be very fast now. The whole notifications process has been reengineered. It’s unclear if this means email notifications are sped up. I’m pretty sure they will go into phpBB’s mail queue like they do now, so your Email settings should apply.
  • FontAwesome improvements. In phpBB 3.2, phpBB supported a rather limited set of scalable FontAwesome characters. The number supported are now much larger, and they will all look fine on retinal displays.
  • Symfony 3.4. This is behind the scenes stuff, but phpBB 3.3 uses a newer version of the Symfony PHP libraries, including its heavily used template engine.
  • ACP Statistics screen is now responsive. As noted in my first look, the statistics panel in the ACP now splits statistics into two groups, which has the benefit of making the screen responsive. You can see the new look below:
New ACP Statistics screen
New ACP Statistics screen

Should you upgrade?

You probably don’t want to upgrade right away. This is because some of your extensions may not work and if you made changes to your style, those won’t carry over so they will need to be replicated.

However, the same day the phpBB Group also released phpBB 3.2.9, which brings over some of these features including Emoji support. You might want to update to that version for a few months until extensions and your style becomes compatible with phpBB 3.3.

 

What will be new in phpBB 3.3?

If you’ve been waiting for phpBB 3.3, you’re not alone. The phpBB Group is famous for not setting release dates. They arrive when they arrive. There is no big company like Automattic is for WordPress behind phpBB.

I took a development version of 3.3 (3.3.0-RC2-dev) for a spin today to see what’s new. And the answer is not too much, at least so far. There are only two things I noticed right away:

  • The phpBB logo is now a Scalable Vector Graphic. This means it will scale nicely and always look sharp and fresh.
  • When you access the General tab in the Administration Control Panel, statistics are laid out differently and are arguably a bit confusing. Two tables with statistics? The first block contains counts. The second one contains metadata. It could be better laid out
phpBB 3.3 ACP Statistics
phpBB 3.3 ACP Statistics

What phpBB 3.3 “Proteus” really seems to be about is keeping it up to date. So far I don’t see any new features. A one-click update is supposed to be in 3.3, but I don’t see it. I suspect it got deferred for phpBB 4.0.

How is it keeping it up to date?

  • PHP 7.3 and 7.4 will be supported. These versions of PHP have been out for a while, but phpBB wouldn’t work reliably with them.
  • PHP 5.6 and 7.0 will not be supported. The minimum supported version of PHP will be 7.1.
  • The reCAPTCHA Invisible CAPTCHA will be supported. Currently, only V2 Checkbox is supported. This means CAPTCHA can happen implicitly. You shouldn’t need to click on a checkbox to prove you are a human.
  • Two new password hashing algorithms will be allowed: Arg2i and Arg2id. Passwords are not stored in the database in plain text. But using these newer algorithms, passwords become harder to crack. The 2id version is also much faster than the 2i version.
  • phpBB is dropping support versions of IE below IE11. That’s because the versions of Windows these run on are no longer supported by Microsoft, so they feel free to let them go
  • As a consequence of the above, jQuery 3.4 will be included. This version works with newer versions of browsers and pointedly does not support ancient versions like IE7.

If there are other new features, I’m not finding them. For most users, except for the phpBB logo, it will look and behave as it did under 3.2.

Understanding roles, part five – forum roles

As the name implies, forum roles control the privileges to forums. Forums are the key structure in phpBB and where most of the action happens, so there must be a lot of ways to finely tune access to forums.

Forum roles are most typically used to control forum privileges as they simplify the process. I will also demonstrate a way of circumventing these roles to set more granular forum permissions.

User roles provide a broad set of permissions, many of which extend to work users do in forums. Allowing attachments to posts is one example. Since roles are bundles of permissions, permissions in forum roles may override some user role permissions.

Pre-defined forum roles

The following forum roles come built in to phpBB:

  • No Access. Can neither see nor access the forum. This should be applied when you want to hide a forum from appropriate groups and users. You most typically use it to hide forums from guests and bots.

  • Read Only Access. Can read the forum, but cannot create new topics or reply to posts. You often see this role applied to guests.

  • Limited Access. Can use some forum features, but cannot attach files or use post icons. This role is often applied to newly registered users.

  • Limited Access + Polls. As per Limited Access but can also create polls. This role is also often applied to newly registered users.

  • Standard Access. Can use most forum features including attachments and deleting own topics, but cannot lock own topics, and cannot create polls.

  • Standard Access + Polls. Like Standard Access but can also create polls.

  • Full Access. Can use all forum features, including posting of announcements and stickies. Can also ignore the flood limit. Not recommended for normal users. This is often applied to more privileged users such as moderators and administrators.

  • On Moderation Queue. Can use most forum features including attachments, but posts and topics need to be approved by a moderator. This role can be applied to a problematic poster known for making inflammatory posts.

  • Bot Access. This role is recommended for bots and search spiders. It does allow bots to read the forum, so if you don’t want bots to read the forum, the bots groups should use the No Access role.

  • Newly Registered User Access. A role for members of the special newly registered users group; contains NEVER permissions to lock features for new users. This gets around a quirk in phpBB where newly registered users can start new topics (which have to go through moderation) only because they are also in the registered users group. It’s strange that phpBB is not configured this way by default.

There is one other implied role: No role assigned. As the name implies, it indicates a lack of permissions in the defined context, so other forum permissions if they exist are used instead.

Setting forum roles

Generally, it’s best to attach roles to groups. Attaching roles to users can be done, but it makes it hard to fix permissions issues. Most likely, roles already exist for groups accessing your forums. However, when you create new forums, you often need to attach some roles to the users that will use them, generally through group forum permissions: ACP > Forums > Forum based permissions > Group forum permissions.

First, select the user group whose roles you want to change or add. In the Look up usergroup dropdown, select the group then press Submit.

On the next screen, select the forum or forums you want to add or change roles for, in the appropriate Select a forum select list or dropdown. The dropdown is used to select a set of forums inside a category. Then press Submit.

Finally, you have an interface for changing or adding roles for each forum for the user group selected. See screenshot below. In the Role dropdown, select the role to be applied for the forum and user group. When all are set as desired, press the Apply all permissions button at the bottom of the screen.

Assigning roles to forums
Assigning roles to forums

 

Creating new forum roles

You can define a forum role using similar procedures for user, moderator and admin roles: ACP > Permissions > Permission roles > Forum roles > Create role. In general, the existing roles make it unlikely that you will need to create other forum roles.

Overriding role permissions

While not a good idea generally, I should point out you can override forum role permissions for groups and users. Use either:

ACP > Users and groups > Users > User forum permissions

ACP > Users and groups > Groups > Group forum permissions

Here’s an example of how it can be done for a user’s forum permissions.

In this case, Jane Doe is a teacher and in the teacher’s group, so she has Standard Access role’s permissions to the teachers’ forums. This means she cannot post sticky topics, i.e. posts that stick to near the top of the list of topics in a forum.

We would like to allow her to post stickies but not change her permissions otherwise.

User forum permissions, pick user
User forum permissions, pick user

 


We first enter her name by entering it in the Find a member field and pressing Submit. See screenshot above.

User forum permissions, select a forum
User forum permissions, select a forum

Then we pick the forums where we want the permissions applied. In this case, it makes sense to select the Teachers forums category and the forums inside it. Once selected, press Submit. See screenshot above.

On the next screen, the role shows no role assigned because no user role has been applied. The user still has a group role applied. Click on the Advanced permissions link.

You can then select any permissions you want to grant. In this case, I granted the Can post stickies permission by changing it to Yes. Since multiple forums should be show on the screen, do this for each forum in the category. See screenshot below, which shows only the permissions for the category.

 

User forum permissions, advanced permissions
User forum permissions, advanced permissions

Clicking the Apply permissions button will make the permission stick for this forum, or do all then press the Apply all permissions button at the bottom. Now Jane Doe has the necessary added permission, but it was done outside of the forum role.

 

Understanding roles, part four – administrator roles

It’s tempting to think of administrators as one size fits all, but you can have various kinds of administrators. The kinds of administrators are based on the roles they are given.

If you don’t want to be granular about administrator privileges, simply add the user to the administrator’s group: ACP > Users and groups > Groups > Manage groups > Administrators > Members. In the Add Users block, enter the usernames on separate lines that you want to make administrators. Use the Find a member link if needed, and press Submit when done. See the screenshot below.

Adding an administrator
Adding an administrator

These new administrators will inherit the Standard Admin.

There are four administrator roles:

  • Standard Admin. Has access to most administrative features but is not allowed to use server or system related tools.

  • Full Admin. Has access to all administrative functions of this board. Not recommended.

  • Forum Admin. Can access the forum management and forum permission settings.

  • User and Groups Admin. Can manage groups and users: Able to change permissions, settings, manage bans, and manage ranks.

The main role to worry about is the Full Admin role, because if you grant it, then you are giving the administrator virtually complete control of the board. The administrator is not technically a founder but might as well be since they can do pretty much anything a founder can do too except make themselves a founder or create additional administrators.

If you want to make someone a founder, you first must already have founder privileges.

ACP > Users and Groups > Manage users

Enter the user’s name and press Submit. In the Founder field select Yes and press Submit.

You can also create a new Administrator role if you want similar to the process used for moderators: ACP > Permissions > Permission roles > Admin roles > Create role

Large and busy boards might find a need to assign people to the Forum Admin and User and Group Admin roles.

These new administrators get into the Administration Control Panel the same way as you do: by selecting the link in the navigation bar or from the link that appears in the footer.

Understanding roles, part three – moderator roles

In addition to having global versus forum-specific moderators, phpBB allows you to place moderators into various roles. The permissions of the role determine how much power a moderator has. These moderators roles come out of the box:

  • Standard moderator. This type of moderator can use most moderating tools, but cannot ban users or change the post author.

  • Simple moderator. This type of moderator can only use basic topic actions. They cannot send warnings or use the moderation queue.

  • Full moderator. This type of moderator can use all moderating features, including banning.

  • Queue moderator. This type of moderator can use the Moderation Queue to validate and edit posts, but nothing else.

There is nothing to stop you from changing the default permissions for these moderator roles. The process is similar to changing user roles.

You could create a new moderator role. Let’s say you have a popular and busy forum with a lot of topics that are out of place. You want to keep the primary moderator for handling the bigger duties, but delegate moving topics, splitting topics, merging topics and locking topics to another type of moderator via a moderator role.

ACP > Permissions > Permission Roles > Moderator roles

First I create the role called Special Moderator. Since a Full Moderator has all permissions, I’ll start with its permissions and take away permissions I don’t want the role to have.

Create new moderator role, screen 1
Create new moderator role, screen 1

I enter “Special Moderator” in the Create role field, and select Full Moderator from the Use settings from dropdown, then press Submit.

On the next screen, I first went to the Post actions tab and clicked on the No column to disallow all those privileges. I did the same on the Misc tab. On the Topic actions tab, I left these as is. See the screenshot above. Pressing Submit created the role.

 

Create new moderator role, screen 2
Create new moderator role, screen 2

With the group now defined, I can select members to have this role. Since I want these moderators to do this for any forum, it’s easiest to make them global moderators, but with the Special Moderator user role.

ACP > Permissions > Global permissions > Global moderators

Assigning moderators, screen 1
Assigning moderators, screen 1

See screenshot above. The first step is to add the users to get this role in the Add users block, then pressing the Add permissions button. The Find a member link makes it easy to find the usernames, if you don’t know them.

The next step is to assign the moderator role to these users. In the Role dropdown, I select the Special Moderator role I created, then pressed the Apply all permissions button. See screenshot below.

Assigning moderators, screen 2
Assigning moderators, screen 2

Done!

Understanding roles, part two – user roles

User roles bundle sets of permissions that apply to what users can do on your board. There are six built-in user roles:

  • Standard Features. Can access most but not all user features. Cannot change user name or ignore the flood limit, for instance.

  • Limited Features. Can access some of the user features. Attachments, emails, or instant messages are not allowed.

  • All Features. Can use all available forum features for users, including changing the user name or ignoring the flood limit. Not recommended.

  • No Private Messages. Has a limited feature set, and is not allowed to use Private Messages.

  • No Avatar. Has a limited feature set and is not allowed to use the Avatar feature.

  • Newly Registered User Features. A role for members of the special newly registered users group; contains NEVER permissions to lock features for new users.

If you want to create a new role, there is nothing from stopping you. ACP > Permissions > Permission roles > User roles. Enter the new role name in the Create role field, then select the role you want to inherit the permissions from in the Use settings from dropdown. Then press Submit. Change the permissions as desired for each tab.

Once a new role is created, you generally want to assign groups or users to the role. Use one of the following paths:

ACP > Users and groups > Users > Manage users

ACP > Users and groups > Groups > Manage groups

Understanding roles, part one

What is a role?

Roles are one of phpBB’s most useful but most obscure features. It can be a little hard to understand what roles are intended to do.

Roles essentially are a collection of permissions with a name. This collection of permissions can be assigned broadly to users of various types (users, administrators or moderators). For example, the Standard Features user role describes the privileges users with this role have.

You can view and change these permissions: ACP > Permissions > Permission roles > User roles > Standard Features > Edit

User role permissions
User role permissions

The screenshot shows some of these user permissions for the Standard Features role. The permissions comes in four sets, represented by a tab. The Post permissions are shown. It is green because all permissions are set to Yes. Change just one of these to No or Never, and the green turns into blue. The Profile, Misc and Private messages tab are blue, letting you know that at least one of the permissions on these tabs is not Yes. If the color is red, all the permissions on the tab are either No or Never.

Since these are user permissions, any user granted the Standard Features role will get these permissions, such as the ability to attach files. These are the default permissions. Forum permissions may override these settings.

What’s neat about roles is that you can change them at any time. Don’t want to allow this role to attach files? Change it to No or Never and the permission goes away immediately. A No permission might be overridden by a subsequent Yes permission, but a Never permission cannot be overridden.

Types of Roles

Four categories of roles exist:

  • User roles. These are broad permissions that apply to any user of your board.

  • Administrator roles

  • Moderator roles

  • Forum roles. These allow permissions to be finely tuned for individual forums. They are applied after any user role permissions and may override any user role permissions.

You don’t generally need to backup all of your tables before updating phpBB

Updated October 13, 2019 to mention that the phpbb_migrations table is always changed with an update.

When updating phpBB, you should backup your database. That’s the guidance given by the phpBB Group. Updates occur when you are moving from one micro version of phpBB to another, say 3.2.6 to 3.2.7. When moving from minor versions, like 3.1 to 3.2, you are doing an upgrade and different procedures apply.

It’s never a bad idea to backup your database. It can be done manually in phpBB: ACP > Maintenance > Backup. This method though is not foolproof. Particularly on larger forums or on shared hosting, backups can time out. Sometimes you think you have a complete backup and you don’t. The only way to know for sure is to download it, and examine it in an editor. If the bottom of the file shows the phpbb_zebra table is being populated and ends with a semicolon, it should be complete. Web hosts often offer features that make automatic database and file backups for you.

But it turns out that when making updates, generally not much of your forum’s database actually changes. Only two tables are guaranteed to change: phpbb_config and phpbb_migrations. (I use phpbb_ as your table prefix. Yours may be different. You can see your actual table prefix in your forum’s config.php file.) This is because phpBB always tracks the current version of phpBB installed, and it is stored as a row in this table. And with each update, one or more rows are added to the phpbb_migrations table to indicate what migrations were made.

Most updates don’t affect many tables. In fact, it’s typical that only the phpbb_config and phpbb_migration tables are affected.

So there is no point in making a full backup of your database prior to updating if you don’t need to. It’s a real hassle on larger forums.

It turns out that if you look through phpBB’s code you can figure out which tables are updated. The /phpbb/db/migration folder contains a number of subfolders. The programs in these subfolders do the work of changing your database during updates.

For example, there is a v320 folder. This contains the migration programs used to bring phpBB up to version 3.2.0.

There is also a v32x folder. This contains the migration programs used for each version update of phpBB 3.2. You can infer from the file names which these are. For example, v321.php and v321rc1.php are used to update from phpBB 3.2.0 to 3.2.1. “rc” in the file name means “release candidate”. There is typically at least one release candidate before an official release. So it’s a matter of reading these programs to see what tables are actually affected.

That’s what I did, and you can see the results on my Do I need to update page. Or you can examine them yourself. I’ll keep the update page updated as new micro releases occur. You might want to bookmark it and refer to it before doing your own update.

Of course, I do updating as a service. You can see my pricing here and send me a service inquiry if you’d like to get started.

If you do it yourself, follow the official procedures on phpBB’s update page. But you may decide to backup only the tables that are actually changed to save yourself extra hassle. If an error occurs, restore these tables and recover your files.

 

Using unapproved extensions is dangerous

As more phpBB extensions are developed, they are becoming more popular. Extensions add functionality to phpBB beyond what is available by default. Based on my work with clients, most have extensions installed, so I factor them in when updating or upgrading their forums. They often need to be upgraded as well when a forum is upgraded or updated.

The phpBB Group maintains a database of approved extensions. Both the phpBB Group and me recommend that if you install an extension that you only install extensions downloaded from this database. This is because approved extensions are quality checked by the phpBB Extensions Review Team. The team thoroughly inspects the extension and ensures they adhere to all coding standards as well as use best practices to minimize security issues. An extension typically goes through a number of reviews before it is accepted, if it is accepted. So you can have confidence that if you download an official extension it is of high quality and secure.

If you are not familiar with how to install extensions, the instructions are on the Manage extensions page: ACP > Customise > Manage extensions.

Unapproved extensions fall into two categories:

  • Extensions in development
  • Third-party extensions

Extensions in development

Extensions don’t appear out of nowhere. Like all software, they go through a development process. You can see a list of extensions in development on that forum. The topic title is prefixed by the state of the extension in brackets. Links to the extension for downloading are in the first post. If you have feedback on the extension, you leave it as a post on the topic.

The phpBB group has extension authors self-certify the quality of the extension they are creating. This is similar to other software. The levels from most risky to least risky are:

  • [DEV] – Development – the extension is very recent and is being issued for feedback and to refine features. It should only be used on a test board.
  • [ALPHA] – Alpha – The extension is no longer in development. The feature set is largely set and the code quality has been refined. Traditionally an alpha release has meant that it is to be used “within an organization”. Alpha release testers are expected to provide feedback and significant bugs and security issues may be experienced. “Within the organization” has no meaning with phpBB so it simply indicates it’s out of the principle early development phase. Using it on a live, production board is quite risky and definitely not recommended. A download link is usually provided.
  • [BETA] – Beta – The extension is designed to be used and tested by a larger group of people. There may be significant bugs and security issues. It should not be used on a production forum, but the code quality should be pretty high at this point and most bugs should have been addressed. A download link is required.
  • [RC] – Release candidate – Most of the bugs have been found and fixed. The release candidate could be submitted for formal review for inclusion as an extension if no more issues are discovered as a result of testing. The extension should be stable with no more features anticipated. Using it on a production forum is not recommended, but if you choose to do so anyhow it is likely to work as intended and not show any problems. Release candidates are submitted to the phpBB Group extension review team at the author’s discretion.
  • [CDB] – Customise database. You will see this in the Extensions in development forum. It means that the extension is approved. There should be a link to take you to its official page on phpbb.com. The topic is locked.
  • [ABD] – Abandoned. The extension author abandoned work on the extension. It is not approved, should not be used but some other extension author could take up working on the extension. These are placed in their own abandoned extensions forum.

There may be multiple versions of the extension in each phase. Generally extensions in development start with 0.1 and as an extension reaches Alpha or Beta stage it becomes 1.0. But there is no fixed standard for version numbers other than the PHP Composer guidelines. The extension is usually suffixed by the build quality, ex: 0.1.0-dev. The extension is usually downloaded from GitHub.

Third-party extensions

Third-party extensions are usually developed by commercial companies and typically tie into existing products outside of phpBB. Companies can submit their extensions for review by the phpBB group but usually don’t. This is because a review is time consuming. It can take months to get a review, then multiple issues must be fixed, and the extension resubmitted. This is not agile enough for many companies. In addition, the phpBB Group frowns on software that does not use an open source license. Many third-party extensions are issued with open source licenses but tie into products or services that are not.

When you use one of these extensions, you are assuming significant risk. Obviously, these companies don’t want their reputation besmirched, so generally they will take the time to write a quality extension and possibly adhere to the coding standards for extensions. But since in most cases they aren’t approved extensions, they are risky because they were not reviewed by the phpBB group to ensure their quality. They are typically downloaded from the company’s website or from their GitHub page.

Tapatalk

Tapatalk is a smartphone app that allows you to use the same user interface to access multiple forums, phpBB or otherwise. Prior to phpBB 3.1 the Tapatalk modification was widely used because styles for phpBB were not responsive, i.e. did not resize intelligently for mobile devices. Since phpBB 3.1, approved styles must be responsive, so users can use a browser on their smartphone to access the forum without the hassle of the past. Still, many people like the convenience of using one app to access multiple forums, so Tapatalk developed an extension. It creates an interface between phpBB and the Tapatalk app.

This extension is not approved and likely would never be approved by the phpBB Group. Why? When you install the extension, although an interface is seen in the /ext folder as usual, there is also a /mobiquo folder installed in your forum’s root directory. The software in the /mobiquo folder does most of the work of communicating between phpBB and the Tapatalk app. Tapatalk is available for other forum solutions too, and they use a similar architecture. The /mobiquo folder does all the data munging, so it is unique and proprietary. phpBB’s extension architecture requires that all extensions work within the /ext folder. Since Tapatalk doesn’t do this and its data munging is proprietary, it’s unlikely to ever be approved. It’s clear that Tapatalk developers don’t want to try.

More importantly, Tapatalk injects a major vulnerability in that it can bypass phpBB’s functions that do important work like posting to the database. This makes it dangerous. You should encourage your users to use a mobile browser instead of Tapatalk to access your forum. Ideally, you should disable and uninstall the extension.

Cleantalk

Cleantalk is an antispam service. Cleantalk’s extension for phpBB is approved, but it’s very old (2016 as of this writing). It may be that a newer version of the extension has been submitted for review, but the version on phpBB.com probably won’t work on phpBB 3.2. If it does, it’s missing many features. So as a practical matter, if you use Cleantalk you will want to get its most recent published version off of GitHub. Just bear in mind it’s a version that has not been approved by the phpBB Group, so using it may be risky.

Proprietary style user interfaces

Many proprietary (paid) phpBB styles come with a user interface that makes it easier to customize the style, doing things like changing background colors easily, swapping in different logos, changing fonts, etc. Because these styles are proprietary, they are not free and thus not allowed on the list of approved styles for phpBB. Consequently, extensions bundled with their styles are not approved as well. Using a proprietary style incurs some risk by itself. Using an extension used to manage the style adds additional risk.

The phpBB file structure

I try to write at least one “tip” post a month. Today I want to dig into phpBB’s file structure. Looking at the folder and file names, a lot of it is self explanatory, but not all of it is.

To start, the file structure has two parts: data and software. Most of it is software which is replaced with upgrades or updates. But some of it is pure data and must be carefully avoided when upgrading or updating. Note that most of your content is actually stored in a database attached to your forum.

Data folders

There are three data folders:

  • /files contains any files that are uploaded by users, with a few exceptions. Mostly these are images attached to posts, but sometimes they are documents attached to posts if permissions allow. If you go into the files folder though, you will see file names that don’t look the least bit like images and lack the file suffix you would expect, such as a .jpg, .gif or .png. The file names look all scrambled, such as “2_09acd47ea11adef5e4d9cac2903e4ddc”. This is mostly a random hexadecimal file name created by the phpBB software. Its purpose is to hide the intent of the file. If a file represents a thumbnail, it is prefixed with thumb_. phpBB uses a database table, the phpbb_attachments table, and a program called download/file.php to actually render the file. file.php sends HTTP headers that tell the browser how to interpret the file, such as a JPEG image. It’s actually quite clever — security through obscurity! Unless you are on the forum reading a topic, you have no idea what the uploaded file name was, its file type, or who uploaded it. Moreover, you can only indirectly download it. You don’t want to tamper with this folder as it must be consistent with the phpbb_attachments table. Since uploaded files must be stored, this folder must have 777 file permissions.
  • /images contains images, which is not too surprising but not any images users attached to posts, as they are in the /files folder. If you drill down into the folder you will see a bunch of subfolders that describe the content of images placed inside them, such as /avatars, /ranks and /smilies. If you allow users to upload an avatar, they are stored in the /images/avatars/upload folder, which is why this folder should have 777 file permissions. If you add rank images or smilies packs, they must be uploaded with FTP into the appropriate folder to be seen and used. In general, you don’t need to mess with this folder. Just leave it alone. But since there is no software inside it, it’s a pure data folder.
  • /store contains miscellaneous files that may be created by phpBB. It is most often used to store an extract of your database, which you can do: ACP > Maintenance > Backup. If you recover your database, it will read the file placed here using the ACP > Maintenance > Restore function. It has occasional other uses. When upgrading or updating phpBB, lock files are created here. If things go awry you may have to manually delete them. Extensions that store data outside of the database may also write data here. These folders must be identified by the vendor and extension name. For example, my digests extension uses a /store/phpbbservices/digests folder.

Styles folder

The /styles folder can be considered a data folder, but only if you made custom changes to the styles. Your custom changes will get overwritten with a phpBB upgrade or update, or if you update a non prosilver style. As a general practice, you should backup all your folders and files before upgrading or updating. But if you made custom changes to a style, you really need to back these up and reapply them if desired after an update or upgrade. You might want to read my post on creating a custom style to minimize the impact of these changes.

Cache folder

The /cache folder hints on its function: it creates a “cache” of PHP scripts that speed up the process of rendering web pages. For example, your style creates a unique look for your site, so parts of the web page are actually a .php program placed here dynamically created by phpBB.

The cache folder is new since phpBB 3.0, but since phpBB 3.2 there are two major subfolders: /cache/production contains your “production” cache and /cache/installer is used during updating or upgrading phpBB. The cache folder itself must have 777 permissions so they can be publicly written to. The same is true with all folders and files inside it: folders must have 777 file permissions and files must have 666 file permissions.

When you click on the “Purge the cache” button in the ACP, you are destroying files in the /cache/production folder. If you accidentally delete files in the cache folder outside of phpBB, they will get recreated. You will notice a little lag rendering these web pages while the cache files are recreated.

Tip: if you get weird error messages that seem to lock up your board, use your FTP program or web host control panel file manager to delete the files and folders in the /cache/production folder. Often, the site will come back up with a page refresh!

config.php file

This is a critical file in your forum’s root folder that is essentially a data file and should not normally be messed with. Why? This joins phpBB software to your database, so it contains your database host server, name and the credentials of the account (including the password!) to your database. Consequently, don’t mess with this file unless you know what you are doing and do not allow it to be publicly readable. Ideally, the file will have 600 file permissions.

Tip: if you move from PHP 5.x to 7.x and you get a message saying mysql drivers are not supported, edit the line in this file:

$dbms = 'mysql';

changing to:

$dbms = 'mysqli';

and your forum should come up! PHP 7 does not support older mysql drivers and requires the newer mysqli (i is for “interactive”) drivers.

Software folders

With the exception of the above files and folders, all the other folders and files are software. I use the term “software” liberally. Technically, only PHP programs and Javascript files are “software” in that they implement programmatic logic. In reality though there are a host of technologies used to render phpBB including HTML, CSS, jQuery and XML. 

For the most part the folder name describes what they do, so I’ll concentrate on important folders.

  • Principle programs. The principle programs are in the forum’s root file. For example, index.php renders the index and viewtopic.php assembles and presents all posts in a topic. Obviously you don’t want to edit any of these.
  • /adm contains the styles used inside the Administration Control Panel. The actual ACP software is in /includes/acp.
  • /ext folder contains extensions. Extensions are additional functionality that developers write that does not come “out of the box” with phpBB. They are placed in an ext/vendor/package folder. For example, my digests extension if installed is in the /ext/phpbbservices/digests. The vendor is phpbbservices and the extension name is digests. These must be uploaded with FTP then enabled: ACP > Customise > Manage extensions
  • /includes contains key support programs used by the principle programs.
  • /language contains various language translations. British English is provided. If you install one or more language packs, they are uploaded to this folder. For example, a French language translation will be in a /language/fr folder.
  • /phpbb contains a set of phpBB objects and services that “object-orient” phpBB. This object-orientation became system-wide starting in phpBB 3.1. Most programs in the /includes folder as well as the key programs use one or more objects or services in these folders.
  • /vendor contains third-party software than phpBB needs to run. Since phpBB 3.1, phpBB has depended on a number of high-quality, 3rd-party software solutions. If you look inside the /vendor folder you can see all of them. For example, phpBB uses the /vendor/twig folder’s software for handing its templates, i.e. inserting dynamic data into web pages.

Hopefully this gives you a good idea of how phpBB’s file organization works.