So you want to start an online forum, a message board. You discover there are a few options available to you, so – which forum software should you use? The answer is dependent on what your own needs are. Typically your choices will be either vBulletin, phpBB, Vanilla or Xenforo. These are the most popular and hence have the most online support. Going further, for the more technical web users among us, you have more opensource choices like the Stackoverflow style (available on Google code) and now the reddit software, granted you will have a mission on your hands trying to install it on your server and administrating it (unless you’re familiar with linux).
Both phpBB and Vanilla are free, open source options (Vanilla also has a paid service which includes hosting) and have been around for long enough to get a good base of users behind them.
phpBB has been around for a while now and uses the classic forum layout of sections and subforums. There are a wide range of themes and addons available for you to customize your forum and the admin control panel is very user friendly.
Vanilla, regarded as the new kid on the block, uniqely displays a list of latest threads on the homepage, listing forum categories at the side. Vanilla boasts a stylish, simple and user friendly interface giving a new fresh feel compared to the outdated (in my opinion) vbulletin and phpBB, as well as being known for their easy integration with WordPress and other CMS’. Plenty of modifications add-ons and custom templates are available within the developers section of the very helpful community support forum. In their quest to have forums producing quality content, Vanilla have stated they would like to move towards having a global login across all Vanilla forums for both ease of use and to combat spam by giving users a “score” across all profiles. If you’re a hipster or want to try something new, Vanilla is for you.
Lastly, vBulletin and Xenforo. vBulletin is the most popular software to date and probably the best option in terms of support – any problem you’ve had, someone else running vB has probably had it too, for example my post about vbulletin users not receiving activation emails likely has hundreds of duplicate articles or forum posts dealing with the same issue. vBulletin sports a vast quantity of highly customized modifications over at vbulletin.org, and a number of templates to match. The admin control panel is fantastic and vB provides you with all sorts of statistics and logs so you can really see what’s going on in your forum. If you want to pay extra, vB comes with a CMS and a built in blogging platform for your users to blog. With a starting price of $195 (£123) this reflects the quality of the product and you do certainly get what you pay for. In my opinion however, vB needs to rethink things and get with the times. Take a look at the efficiency of reddit and you will see what I mean.
I may not be qualified to comment on Xenforo but from what I can see, it’s a failed attempt at revamping vBulletin. Not to say that it’s bad, it’s a better looking version of vBulletin, but vB needed more than this to bring it into the New Ages (should have gone opensource guys!). The Xenforo software is developed by former vBulletin lead developers Kier Darby and Mike Sullivan, which is evident in it’s similarity. The lower price of ($120) might make it worth buying if it really is just a clone of vB.
On a related note, I recently wrote about the disqus platform. It’s not forum software but since we’re talking about communities here, you could really build a website around the disqus commenting system. It’s slick, and simple to use. No account creation needed, so that first hurdle to creating a community is gone. Check it out – disqus.