At this point in time, online forums may have their work cut out for them. There are plenty of established communities around specific topics across the web but there is now more competition with social media and higher expectations like a mobile app or other features. That being said, many of those forums are still successful. Part of that success comes from finding their community and another part is using the right forum software to fit that community. This article is a survey of some of the popular forum solutions available.
phpBB is the classic, free forum software. It has simple system requirements of PHP and MySQL which allows you a wide variety of hosting options. Version 3.1 came out recently and breathed new life into the aging software to restructure the infrastructure to support extensions and the default theme is now responsive, which keeps it a viable option if your audience is on mobile devices.
vBulletin is the classic, paid forum software. With an initial cost, it brings with it some stronger features. Its requirements also center on PHP and MySQL.
SMF is a free software package with features to compete with the two previous software titles. It may not be as popular but its active development is keeping pace and the hosting requirements are the same.
IPS is another paid option but it actually includes much more than just a forum. Pages, calendars, downloads, gallery, blogs, chat, and more, which also integrate nicely. Piece-meal the licenses together for the components you need with a self-hosted option or a subscription to a hosted option.
Discourse is a modern thread-based approach to a forum. It looks great on mobile and has great readability. Its Ruby on Rails infrastructure limits cheap hosting options though.
bbPress integrates with WordPress and provides a forum for your community with the familiar administration back-end.
Vanilla is available as self-hosted open source software or a cloud-based subscription. It is similar to Discourse in allowing category or thread-based navigation of the community.
ExpressionEngine is a CMS that happens to have a forum component to it. If you’re starting your site from scratch, either a new site or a rebuild of another one, I would consider ExpressionEngine, which gained some traction in an anti-WordPress spurt.
Drupal is another CMS that has the main emphasis of creating websites but it can support forums. If that plays to your site’s strengths, check it out. Its popularity can only help when it comes to support and customizations.
XenForo is another one-time cost forum option using PHP and MySQLi. It does the job with some neat features of its own and has converters to bring your content in from other popular forum systems.
MyBB is free and open source that boasts its simplicity and customizability.
PunBB is the baseline forum functionality. Reviewing the changelog, its development seems to be rare. I’d look to other options for long term sustainability and security.
YAF.NET uses MS SQL 2008 and above and C# ASP.NET v4.0 and above. If you are a Windows Server shop, this might be a great option to use your existing infrastructure.
A modern forum that builds off of esoTalk and FluxBB, the developers have experience in the online community software realm. Starting with a new title allows them to take what they have learned and start from scratch with this modern take on a thread-based forum while still using PHP and MySQL on the back-end.
NodeBB is another modern forum. It looks great and adapts to your visitors’ devices. It is offered as a cloud-based subscription or open source self-hosted option.
Forum software still clings to the BB (bulletin board) roots of the Internet. For some, this provides consistency while to others it looks outdated. I think I would break down the list based on your project plan.
Tried and True, need just a forum: Stick with phpBB, vBulletin, Simple Machines Forum, or Vanilla.
Building a site and I want a forum as part of it: Using WordPress? Check out bbPress. Otherwise, check out Invision Power, ExpressionEngine, or Drupal.
Hate the old school look for forums: Check out Discourse, Flarum, or NodeBB. They tend to be considered betas but they’re receiving active development, look great on mobile, and have modern features.