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Stop your BBS shopping & try FUDforum
The best forum software for small sites just got better

(LinuxWorld) — I just finished setting up discussion board forums using an open source package called FUDforum version 2.3.2. So far, I'm extremely impressed.

I used to host my own Web servers out of my home in California. In preparation for the move to North Carolina, I moved everything from the two primary servers I hosted to a low-cost commercial hosting service called iPowerWeb. At first, all I moved were my email accounts and my non-profit weblog sites, including VarLinux.org. I had hosted discussion board forums on my own servers as well. They were based on a much earlier version of FUDforum.

I didn't bother to move the forums to the iPowerWeb servers because they had so little activity. Two things changed my mind and inspired me to try the forums on the iPowerWeb servers. First, I had a few requests from readers to set up the forums again. However, I ignored them until I realized that my sites are much faster for others now that they're hosted on iPowerWeb rather than behind my DSL connection. I never noticed the poor speed in the past because I had direct access to the servers, so I never realized that the sites were sluggish.

The difference must be noticeable, because with the speed improvements came more page views. VarLinux.org gets more hits than ever now, undoubtedly because it's not as much of a burden to view it. Once I knew the speed improvement could attract more visitors, it was time to see if the low activity on the forums was due to the lack of responsiveness of my connection. So I figured I'd install the latest version of FUDforum and see what happens.

One file to rule them all

The first thing I really appreciate about FUDforum 2.3.2 is that the entire installation is done from a single install.php file. This saves me the trouble of uploading multiple files to the iPowerWeb servers. Once the file is on the server, I point my browser to the install.php file. Up comes the first installation screen. All I have to do at this point is specify the directories where I will install the portion of FUDforum I want everyone to access, and a directory that I plan to protect from public access. Then I tell the installation program the information it needs to connect to a mySQL or PostgreSQL database. The FUDforum installation program automatically creates all the tables, so all I have to do before reaching this step is create a new database and assign a user name and password to access it. I fill in couple more minor details, click the mouse and, voila, FUDforum is installed. As they say on TV, it's just that simple.

FUDforum runs the gamut of features you'd expect in discussion board software. First, all the standard features are there. You can view the discussion as a single message with a threaded tree of subjects for the remaining responses, or you can see the whole discussion as a flat series of messages in chronological order. I would have liked to see a third option that threads and slightly indents the messages in a flat view so you could read the different offshoots of any discussion. Most software avoids this option because as the discussions get lengthy, you run out of room for text as the indents push it toward the right of the screen. Nevertheless, I'd still like to have the option to view messages that way, as long as I could turn off that view when discussions got out of hand.

You can reply to any message with or without quoting the content of that message. You can edit your own messages after you post them, assuming the administrator has that option enabled. You can set some threads to be moderated, others not, and you can define several different administrators and moderators if you like. Even if you don't set the forums to be moderated, people can still report offending messages to the administrator, or rate a thread. If all else fails, users can "ignore" other participants so that the contents of their posts won't show up.

FUDforum lets users create their own polls, which they can embellish with descriptive text that will show up below the poll. There's an option on the home forum page that lets you view only the polls, ostensibly for those people who like voting and browsing the results of polls more than reading messages. You can email discussions to a friend and send private messages to other registered users.

Users can select their own avatars (although you'll have to supply your own -- FUDforum doesn't seem to come with default avatars). The system allows users to upload custom avatars, which are forwarded to the administrator for approval. Once the administrator approves an avatar, the user is notified by private message, and the avatar immediately shows up in all his or her posts.

The message composition features are some of the nicest I've seen. You get the automatic interpretation of URLs, emoticons (smileys), and there is a handy toolbar above the edit box that lets you change formatting options such as font, text color, insertion of images, and automatic construction of numbered or bulleted lists. FUDforum uses a simplified way of formatting text manually if you prefer to do it that way. The custom markup tags are called FUDcode. You enclose text with tags like [b][/b] for bold, [color=yellow][/color], etc. FUDforum has help screens for new users that elaborate on how to use FUDcode, along with the other features of the forum.

FUDforum has a broad range of administrator options. You can turn on and off all the obvious settings for various types of users. For example, you can make it possible for anonymous users to browse messages but not post or reply. Alternatively, you could let anonymous users post and reply, but not edit or delete their messages. You can set up the forums so that registered users can edit their posts anytime after making them, or only allow them to edit their messages for a duration after posting that you define. I have my forums set to limit the editing time to 5 minutes so that people have enough time to reconsider what they wrote when they cool down, but not enough time to change ancient history.

There are many more features than I've listed here, such as buddy lists, signatures, mass emails, and email notifications of private messages or new posts. However, among the most significant new features in FUDforum is that it lets you customize the look and feel by creating or editing templates. The template system is powerful and quite comprehensive, and the FUDforum programmers deserve an award for adding comments to many of the fields you can customize so that you can get an idea of what you're doing. It's not perfect, as you'll see.

The FUD on FUDforum

Everything has been working without a hitch thus far, so I only have a couple of minor gripes about FUDforum. The template system is more difficult to use than it should be. Even with the comments that document some of the settings, it is still quite difficult to find out what to change in the template editor in order to get the results you want. Obviously, the programmers are aware of this issue (since they include the descriptive comments, which was an unexpected treat), so I'm sure this will get easier with time.

Another minor annoyance is that I was returned to a blank page with only a "Back to control panel" link whenever I saved changes to the template. Either this is a quirk in using Mozilla, or I suspect the program may force you to take this step because it compiles your changes whenever you save them. It wouldn't be so bad if you could change several different template settings before saving, but you can't. If you change the "general text" format without saving and then change the "general link" format, the changes you made to the former will be lost.

The other problem that annoyed me was the fact that the installation process sets the user and group ID for all the files it installs to what I assume is the default user and group for the web server. This won't be a problem if you have shell access to the server you are managing, but I don't have shell access to my accounts at iPowerWeb, so it was a problem for me -- at first. I discovered that I couldn't manage the FUDforum files from my ftp program or from the iPowerWeb web management interface, because those both assume a different user and group. I might have been able to customize the installation process so that it ran with my account (either by changing the code or by setting the execute-as-user bit).

Then I eventually discovered that FUDforum comes with a file manager program, which I could have used. Since it is the FUDforum software that is running the file manager, it runs it as the same user and group as the one it used during installation, thus providing me with the rights to touch the files. (The file manager isn't well hidden, I'm just not as observant as I should be.)

Regardless, I don't like the fact that I'm forced to use the FUDforum file manager, since it is often easier to upload files via FTP. When I do upload files via FTP, they are automatically set as owned by my own account name and group, not the ones used by FUDforum by default. If you use more than one method to upload files, things can get messy.

The only other complaint I have is that user rights management can get confusing, but as far as I can tell, this is an unavoidable consequence of FUDforum giving you so much flexibility with respect to setting forum, group, and user privileges.

Overall, I find FUDforum to be a remarkable piece of work, from the installation to the actual quality of code (programmers could learn a lot from browsing the code to see how things are done). Kudos to all the talented folks who produced this fine piece of work. I strongly recommend that you try FUDforum for yourself if you are even the least bit intrigued by what you've read so far.

I'll be looking at some attractive alternatives, as well, and let you know what I find (some are listed in the resources section below).

About Nicholas Petreley
Nicholas Petreley is a computer consultant and author in Asheville, NC.

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