If you’ve ever wanted a “plain vanilla” online discussion forum, Vanilla Forums might just be what you need. It’s a hosted discussion-forum solution (based on an open-source product) that’s quick and easy to set up and to use.
In a way, the name isn’t entirely fair. Forums created through the service have plenty of features, including:
- The ability to control how public the forum is.
- The ability to assign users to several different roles. Each role can be assigned a different level of access, and can even be allowed to invite a certain number of others to join the forum if desired.
- Email notifications of posting activity.
- The ability for users to participate in private conversations.
- Basic spam filtering, through limiting the number of posts and length of comments.
- User profiles and avatars.
- Search capability.
- A customizable URL, like your_name.vanillaforums.com.
What the hosted version of Vanilla doesn’t have, at least right now (the current release is 1.1.8, but version 2 is in beta).
- Themes. If you want a look other than the standard blue-and-white design, you’ll need to host the package yourself (see below).
- Documentation. The hosted version has zero help, although the service does use tool tips and panes with helpful hints like “Here’s some stuff you might want to do.” But I found using the site to be pretty simple.
- Clarity on pricing and features. I’m not sure what storage and activity limitations may be placed on the free hosted version. The web site does mention a premium service, although I couldn’t find anywhere that lists features and prices.
The Vanilla open-source software package for forums is also available, if you want to host a forum yourself. It’s set up so that you can add CSS-based themes, or create them yourself. There is, by the way, considerable documentation for this version, including a wiki and (guess what?) a discussion forum.
All in all, Vanilla Forums is a surprisingly robust alternative to other discussion forum options, and may appeal to those who don’t want to deal with hosting a discussion forum, or who don’t want the hassles of managing something like phpBB.
Have you used Vanilla Forums? What do you use for discussion forums?