January 17, 2007

Easy discussions with Simple Machines Forums

Author: Ben McGrath

Many Web sites host discussion boards to bring together people with common interests, to help diagnose problems, or to gain a following for a project. Popular discussion board software includes phpBB, Invision Power Board, and, on the low end, PunBB. One system that is growing in popularity is Simple Machines Forum (SMF), which offers extended features while keeping to a minimalistic approach.

SMF forked from a project called YaBB SE to add advanced templating to the original software. It is free (as in beer) and distributed under its own license. It claims to have minimal server impact while providing the features and abilities that larger forum systems carry around. The software itself is written in PHP, and uses MySQL databases to store user profiles, post counts, and so on. Its use of server-side includes also allows the forum system to be easily integrated into Web sites.

SMF is lightweight, easy to use, but still full of features. Besides basic community features, such as private messaging, user icons, and individual profiles, SMF has a unique package management system that allows board administrators to update or install modifications with a few clicks. With many other forum systems, the process involves manually editing key files and reuploading. Security issues are not prevalent, but when they pop up, the developers are quick to nip the issues in the bud.

The software logs most major functions, such as an administrator changing a template piece or reordering a page, with the time and the IP address under which they were done. Administration may be "time locked," wherein the action is restricted to only so many tries within a certain time period. Login attempts to regular user accounts from any one IP address can be time locked and limited too.

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Simple Machines offers administrators several different courses of action for dealing with troublesome users. The system allows for three different types of bans: a full ban, in which the user is kicked off the board; a "no-post ban," which allows the user to view the board and read topics, but not to post replies; or a timed ban, where a user can be banned for anywhere from an hour to days, or longer.

Simple Machines boards support Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) as well. When someone accesses a page using a WAP, WAP2, or I-mode protocol, the software detects that and displays a page that's reduced in size, without unnecessary elements such as borders, larger graphics, or other media. You can view replies, make replies, and browse; however, in my experience, posting new messages and the log in/out functions don't always function properly in a WAP setting. They work fine in WAP2/I-mode, though, which are both essentially equivalent to the WAP environment.

All in all, Simple Machines Forums works well. The system can cater to a large or small community. It's versatile, secure, and easy to set up. If you need help, you can read a list of Frequently Asked Questions at the software's Web site, and communicate with an entire community of other Simple Machines users that can help and answer questions. An online manual gives an overview of almost every function you could need. With helpful developers, a secure system, and tons of possibilities, Simple Machines Forums is a good choice for a community setup.

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