Creating a forum: the best options

Social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and messenger services such as WhatsApp (Facebook’s Messenger too of course) have shaped modern online communication. Via these channels you can exchange ideas with friends, family, and other like-minded people – about everything and anything. Having said all that, it is quite astonishing that the traditional internet forum, one of the oldest forms of virtual exchange, is still in demand.

Web users still appreciate the opportunity to be part of a (usually) free community that is connected by a shared passion, a similar life situation, or a common goal. In addition to the general public discussion platforms and information forums, there are many support forums that offer help for services or products and are usually integrated into the official website of the stores and companies responsible.

Who actually operates the forums?

The structure of the forums alone is no guarantee of success. The platforms for digital contact only attract users when the operator’s concept responds to the desired individual and creates a corresponding community. The goal of a forum, therefore, differs depending on what the forum operator is hoping to achieve. There are four types of forum operators:

  • Voluntary operator with a commercial interest: a large number of forum operators offer a free forum to their community. The forum’s sole purpose is to entertain and offer a place for users to swap information. The forum’s administration and moderation are usually taken on by established members of the community.
  • Company or website operator: included on their own website, company forums are used to offer customers a way of contacting them or providing help. These platforms enable users to describe their problems or give feedback and then receive answers from other customers or from moderators who are employees of the company or are responsible for the website.
  •  Public organizations: many universities, schools, and authorities also run forums. On the one hand, these can be public platforms, which are primarily informative. On the other hand, there are also internal forums designed for school/university exchanges or for specific projects.
  • Private operators with commercial interests: some operators combine running a forum with earning money. They provide the community with the necessary platform and the required structures for the administration but are rarely part of the community themselves. With different concepts e.g. with paid premium memberships, partnerships with companies, or by placing advertisements, the operators generate revenue, provided that the community is large enough.

How can you create a forum?

If you want to offer your customers added value in the form of a support forum or information forum, or create a completely new internet forum, you have a choice of software and hardware structures. The costs associated with these different structures differ, as does the amount of effort needed to go into the installation and administration. You also have the option of whether you would like to host yourself or whether you prefer to rent the appropriate resources from a provider.

Installing, hosting, and maintaining the forum yourself

If you want to have full control over your forum, search for the appropriate forum software and host this on your own private server or a rented one. The requirement for this is comparatively low: for the current version of the very popular open-source forum software, phpBB, (which is based on the scripting language, PHP), you just need a webserver that runs on at least PHP 4.3.3 as well as one SQL database – the manufacturer recommends MySQL 3.23 or higher. Webspace and computing performance don’t pose a big challenge because of how minimal a forum is (mostly text, and few images and file downloads).

Free systems like the aforementioned phpBB are great options for beginners to create a forum free of charge (with the exception of hosting). Fee-based software such as vBulletin is a good idea for ambitious projects that are designed for a large number of users.

There are two possibilities if you are already running a web project based on a content management system and plan to link it to a forum. The first is to run CMS and forum software separately. This usually has the advantage of allowing you to be free to choose which program to use in creating your forum. On the other hand, integrating the forum into an existing content management system and the page and design structure of a website can often prove to be a mammoth task. The second option is much more straightforward: for many modern CMSs like WordPress or Joomla there are now many powerful forum plugins like bbPress or Kunena that are easy to install and extend the website into a forum that is seamlessly integrated into the existing layout. Unlike previously mentioned stand-alone versions, you might have to make do with a limited selection depending on which content management system you’re using.

Hosting forum software with a provider

If you don’t want the responsibility of setting up, maintaining, or hosting, you’re recommended to search for a suitable forum host. These service providers offer you forum software (often free of charge) including the required webspace. You often have the option of booking additional features that increase the functional range of the forum. Thanks to these services taking on a lot of the load, you can concentrate entirely on creating your forum. Not many providers are free and without advertising - it’s more usual that the perspective host places advertisements or text in the forums, which is also the case with the free versions of website building kits.

Tip

With 1&1 IONOS’s WordPress Hosting packages, you can benefit from three forum options which can be installed for free and in just a few clicks!

Due to how popular some solutions have become, many classic forum software providers have decided to add their own hosting options to their portfolio. For example, vBulletin is also available in the cloud edition. Choose one of three tariffs and you will get access to a ready-to-use vBulletin installation including web space, backups, and tariff-specific bandwidth. By using an external hosting service provider, you save a lot of time that you would otherwise have had to use to install and update forum systems and server software.

The two forum options in direct comparison

You don’t know exactly how to create your forum? In the following, we consider the strengths and weaknesses of the two options by taking the different criteria into account.

Installation and maintenance

By opting for a forum hosting provider, you will always have a more comfortable start into forum creation. Applications are installed on an executable server structure and are kept up-to-date so you can focus on configuring your forum. If you use your own server, you’re responsible for the necessary hardware resources as well as installing and updating web servers, forum software, and database. You need to allow time for extra workload.

Flexibility

Hosting the forum yourself gives you a high degree of freedom. For example, you are free to choose which forum software or web server you want to use. Hosting providers only offer a small selection of systems or are limited to a single one that applies to the version of the respective program. This can become a problem if you consider making big changes to the application later. Another advantage of self-hosting is having the option of integrating the forum directly into your CMS via module.

Security

As with any web project, security plays an important role for forums. Protection against attacks (especially spam) and a good backup strategy are compulsory. Many hosts comply with this, but ultimately there’s not much you can do to influence it yourself. Therefore, when choosing your provider, you should pay particular attention to their security measures. When it comes to self-hosting, you should never take the issue lightly. If you don’t have the necessary expertise, you should consult an expert.

Data protection

When creating and running a forum, there’s no way around the topic of data protection. Users often enter at least their e-mail address when they register on forums. In addition, IP addresses often end up in the server log and – depending on what is required – personal information can also find its way into the database, which must then be protected. You should check with your forum host: for servers located in the US, data protection is relatively lax. If you are hosting the forum software yourself, but are renting the corresponding web space, you should still check so as to be on the safe side.

Scalability

If you start with a small forum and minimal resources, but your community and the demands are steadily growing, you might need to have to increase your web space and bandwidth. For this reason, many forum hosts offer cloud solutions that enable flexible resource management. This also applies in case you need a temporary or permanent reduction in performance at some point in the future. With your own server, you can act accordingly depending on how your project is developing and upgrade when needed. It is much more difficult to scale down. You technically only have to sell the relevant hardware, but you may suffer some financial loss.

Costs

Renting web hosting facilities isn’t as expensive as it used to be a few years ago. Forum hosting, which additionally contains the installation and maintenance of the software components, is very affordable for this reason. If you can manage without your own domain, it’s even possible to create and manage a forum completely free of charge with some providers. This cost exemption, however, is associated with advertising and a subdomain. In order to directly integrate the forum into your own domain, it is necessary to take the hosting into your own hands and to buy or rent the necessary resources. With good planning you can save a lot of money when it comes to the software and hardware.

Forum software: host yourself or use an external service?

There are so many possibilities for creating your own forum that it’s difficult to know which variant is right for your project. The definition of how both scenarios are used could help you: when hosting and installing software yourself, you can create a forum that is directly linked to your used content management system. The same applies if you want to have free rein in choosing your software as well as possessing the maximum access rights. If data protection plays a specific role, you should either acquire the underlying server structures or rent them from a trustworthy service.

If you want to create a simple forum that is free and independent but doesn’t run under a specific domain, renting a forum host could be the perfect option for you. A great advantage of this method is its ease of use, as providers not only take care of the tedious setup and maintenance of the appropriate hosting structures, but they also take responsibility for the installation and maintenance of all required software components as well as your forum’s security. In addition, you have a direct contact in case you have technical problems or questions about the forum software being used.