Open-source discussion forums and software. You may not think much about them until suddenly you're stuck and need an answer fast -- then, they might be all you can think about. These forums can have many forms. Some may be a simple board where a group of people post and track discussions. Others can be an entire website set up for enterprise communication and management.

So what edge do these forums have over, for example, a discussion page hosted on a larger website?

  • They are open-source, so they can be customized for the personal needs of the group using them.

  • They provide private access - only members of the forum can contribute to the discussion.

  • They can be set up to contain and track all conversations, for record-keeping, efficiency, etc.

In an effort to provide as many services as possible, we've teamed up with five different open-source forums to create Blueprints within the CenturyLink Cloud Ecosystem. These Blueprints can be deployed to any cloud server environment with little effort on the part of the customer (you).

Discourse

Discourse, which provides a free 14-day trial, is organized with continuity and simplicity in mind. This API-based, JavaScript site updates conversations in real-time and displays all conversations as a continuous page.

The continuous display allows users to view older conversations by scrolling down the page instead of clicking "next page" buttons. Users can also expand and retract the conversations on the board, which is helpful when trying to navigate different conversations. Notifications can also be enabled so that users receive alerts for, among other things, posts that mention them. Development for the site is done within Github and programmers wishing to contribute to the project are encouraged to fork the project here.

This website is unique in that it was designed for a mobile screen, meaning you can view it comfortably on a mobile device without installing an app. Users seem to like the real-time integration of the site. Replies can be typed while a user views the conversation and receives updates from other users. All replies are also saved immediately - you can start typing a reply on one device and switch devices to finish it without missing a beat.

MyBB

MyBB is appealing for more reasons than just it's price (free). This Linux-configured online forum has benefits for everyone, from the technologically challenged to seasoned developers. It provides features such as mass mailing capabilities, calendars, and extensive documentation and support for those working with their product.

This site is very customizable, offering numerous plugins, templates, and themes. It was designed to be easy-to-use for everyone, so those with little to no development experience don't have to worry about a complicated set-up. However, their design also appeals to developers and programmers; they provide access to their code in github and allow free-reign of the development process (on your own fork, of course). This includes creating customized plugins over and above what has already been developed. Developers also have access to development forums, an IRC channel, and a lot of community-sourced documentation.

phpBB

As you might be able to derive from the name, phpBB is written in the PHP language and is adaptable to UTF-8, which makes it compatible with almost any other programming language. The site also provides a good amount of plugins, with the option to create custom ones with very little effort or code changing.

The site organization is based around the different forums users create. There are also an unlimited number of subforums available in order to create more organization. The options for notifications seem to be robust and easy to deploy. Some of the more unusual features available within the forums are the ability to bookmark topics, the ability to display the most active topics at the top of the page, and the ability to create password-protected private forums.

This site is structured around the ability to customize just about everything. There are even options to create different styles and template within each forum. If a user doesn't like any of the styles available to them, they can also create their own custom templates.

OpenAtrium

OpenAtrium, also built and hosted on the Linux platform, provides a very developer-friendly environment that has an uncommon feature. Users are given a development sandbox where they can test updates and changes before releasing them to the environment. Drupal is the driving force behind this platform, and developers are encouraged to set up a Drupal environment and collaborate with other developers for fixes and upgrades. For those not in the development arena, there is also an option to submit issues to the development community.

OpenAtrium was developed by the Drupal team, so all of the supporting docs and discussions are integrated into the Drupal community. That means you have access to a robust development community. The organization of the site is based around the idea of related microsites that build together to form a whole system. The site also provides the ability to develop a workflow and track documents in various stages. Notifications and the ability to send mass group emails also add to the functionality of the site.

OSQA

OSQA is an acronym that describes the main purpose of the site - Open Source Question and Answer. This totally free site hosted on the Linux platform is best suited for entry-level, small traffic sites with limited requirements. For users who decide they want more, there is also an option to upgrade to a paid version, called AnswerHub. This site was developed in the Python programming language.

The developers of QSQA and AnswerHub have fully immersed themselves in the environments - all supporting documentation, wiki, and discussions are done using their own product. Developers provided a unique feature to this site when they created a "bootstrap" mode. In this mode, newly-created communities allow posts, comments, votes, etc. Once a user base is developed, community members then have the option to impose restrictions on content and contributors. On top of this, the developers have made this site easy to integrate - users can login using Facebook or Twitter, by creating a username and password, or by using OpenID, which allows access without creating a specific username and password for their site. Users can also opt for a variety of notification processes and options for group email distributions.

In addition to the unique features I listed in the above reviews, I also found a few traits that were similar across all the online forums. Some of them are features such as: the ability to set control roles for administrators or moderators, the ability to control who can join (and revoke privileges when necessary), search functionality, private message functionality, and the ability for users or administrators to "rate" other posters based on their content or behavior.

At CenturyLink Cloud, we've worked hard to integrate these forums into our Blueprint offerings. Check out these and other open-source Blueprints available on our cloud platform.