Home arrow vBulletin Review
Compare Forums - vBulletin

 

 

Compare Forums - Part 4

vBulletin Review 

vBulletin overview

vBulletin is commercial forum server software: a paid-for program that resides on a server and creates a website based on a forum. A forum is an interactive message board that enables an online discussion, and it is one of the most popular types of website now. Forums can carry out a multitude of functions, two of the most common being the creation of a dispersed online community centred around an interest, or the technical support resource for a product.

vB is quite simply the best forum there is (but see the Xenforo update at foot of page). Experienced forum admins who have grown up with phpBB might argue with that, but vBulletin is the way to go if you need the best and you are not a phpBB expert. vB is commercial software but inexpensive at around $200, although costs rise if you want it fully-loaded. For a commercial site it's the best choice as the cost is low compared with other expenses, it is easy to manage in basic form, it has all the templates and plugins you will ever need, it does any job forums can do, as a framework it can be easily extended, it will scale up to whatever size you need, and because the SEO capability is far in excess of other offerings (assuming that the monster vbSEO plugin is used).

Installation

It is the usual PHP - MySQL format for popular dynamic webapps. That means you must install it on a standard (LAMP) server, or any other server type that has PHP scripting and MySQL databases on it.

As vB is the most capable of forums, you have MySQLi and InnoDB options. Always use the improved SQL option of MySQLi if your server supports it - MySQLi is the uprated version (and not a 'lite' version of MySQL).

It is probably safe to say this forum is easier to install on a dedicated server than on shared hosting, as its scale is designed with big boards in mind. There have been reports that installation was difficult on shared hosting due to PHP memory limits, but if you run into problems your site hosts should be able to assist you.

Version issues

vB, like all other website software, is of course split across several versions. The older 3.x series has huge support but will gradually fade away now that all the development effort is being put into the 4.x series.

As yet there are fewer templates and plugins for v4.x but this will improve.

There are two major differences with the new series:
1. The template engine has changed in several ways. Old templates cannot be migrated in any way. The new template engine is better, though, and offers improved functionality for future development.
2. The new series now has an integrated CMS option.

Current situation
When vB4.0 was first released in late 2009, and for around six months after, there were a large number of issues. It is not unfair to say that it may have been released too soon, and as a result there are many negative reviews on the web. But if you have read the various reviews here on A3webtech, you will know that we advise caution in the first year of a new major version as it cannot be a fully workable solution out of the box. We think it normally takes about two years to work the bugs out of a new version, and for the community to update sufficient numbers of templates and plugins. 

We think that vBulletin 4.x is of a scale that really requires an expert admin to get the best from it - there is no way that a vB novice could get the best results from it in the way that they could with SMF or IPB, which are a better choice for beginners. We have seen the server support techs at a very high cost host fail miserably when asked to provide a reasonable level of performance by an owner with no server admin of their own: a powerful dedicated server with 16GB of memory crashing with just 10,000 visits a day. vBulletin may need more experience than most server apps to get top performance from - though of course this does not affect small sites.

If you are not sure what version to go with, choose the new 4.x series as v3.x is slowly dying and might be classified obsolete when the new vB5 version comes out soon.

The new CMS version

At last, forum software authors have woken up to the fact that site owners need a lot more than a bare index page with just a list of boards, and that they need more capability and functionality. Some forums are among the largest sites on the web and their owners have had all sorts of issues for years, trying to provide the basic website functionality available to everyone except forum owners.

All across the board, forum developers are finally waking up, and vB has responded by providing a CMS option as a fully-fledged alternative, called the vBulletin Publishing Suite. It is unusual because it is basically the reverse of the usual situation where a forum is provided as a plugin for a CMS - here, the CMS is essentially a plugin for the forum (although it's integrated). It can be switched off though, and the forum run as per usual. This is what we do with some vB sites - to get the full functionality we buy the Publishing Suite but use a real CMS if it turns out we need a full set of features.

The integral vB CMS is as capable as plugin forums for a CMS are - i.e., fairly basic. It will give you modules and menus on the page, which forums are otherwise desperately short of, but don't expect much more than that. Yes, you can now have integral 'web pages' or 'HTML pages' or whatever you would like to call them, for normal website content, but as far as advanced CMS functionality goes - this is not going to be the best solution. It's a big advance on the old situation where you could only have forum lists and posts, but as yet it will not provide advanced functionality.

Note that there is a template issue if you use the CMS: not all templates you can buy will cover the CMS pages. This means some pages end up with the default template, which is not overly impressive. As a vB 'style' is actually a suite of templates for different page types, you need to ensure that you buy a template that covers the CMS pages if you have the vB Publishing Suite version.

Documentation

If you log in to vbulletin.com, then the docs become visible. Main support is via the forum on vbulletin.com, but there is also another site, vbulletin.org, that deals with plugins. You need a license to login and derive full benefit from these sites, and this is a feature of commercial software. The twin sites are a little confusing as they each cover some part of the arrangements - you need to go to both. Also, vbseo.com will prove of value - see later.

Support

As this is commercial software, you get support. If you have a query you can't resolve, then an email to the developers should get you an answer. It's not lightning fast and in some cases the answer might be on the lines of, "Look in the forum here at xxxxx and the answer is given", but it does exist.

All modern software is basically supported via forums now, paid or not, so you may as well get used to the idea. You have to pay a lot for software to get a high standard of support, as it's one of the most expensive things to provide.

Templates

Called 'styles' here, there are plenty available. Not so many as yet for the new 4.x series, as can be expected, but the vB machine is fairly large so this will change.

vB allows the installation of multiple templates that any visitor can select. This enables you to provide light and dark templates to accommodate different user's preferences or vision issues. You can also install a cut-down mobile template that weighs in at a tiny 40kB for mobile devices. There are various mobile options now including the Tapatalk plugin, simple mobile skins, or mobile apps you can integrate and change as needed.

All template changes can be made in the admin backend, there is no need to do this by FTP and local machine work. Since you might end up with three or four templates live, it makes sense to install the TMS or template management system plugin, which allows you to make one change that is then applied to all templates. If you do this, you should not make individual template changes outside of TMS as it can create issues.

Plugins

There are zillions of these, and they are easily installed. Make sure to keep them updated as there are a lot of people out there trying to find exploits, forums are among the hackers' favourite targets. Some of the most useful are:

vbStopForumSpam - checks new registrations
Multiple Account Detection & Prevention - stop multiples
TMS - template management
vbSEO - all SEO configs
MGC Chatbox Evo - Mod chat
Miserable Users - fun with trolls
Tabs vbSoporte - menu dropdowns
vBulletin Blog - adds user blogs
Sphinx search - a DB search enhancement
vbSpy - realtime post listing for Mods

Some plugins create a heavy server load and you may want to consider the options. For example, vbSEO probably doubles the server load if not more, because it reprocesses and rewrites everything. MGC Chatbox Evo will create a massive load on a busy forum, we only use it for real-time Moderator chat - for which it is excellent. vbSpy is much the same: a big load creator that is extremely useful for Moderators. Sphinx is a vital addition to the database, don't run without it.

It's easy and cheap to have new plugins coded up unless they have complex functionality. If a new plugin overlaps somewhat with vbSEO then things can get complicated and expensive, though. The main issue with new plugins on a big site is to test very, very thoroughly under all possible conditions.

Bridges

These are ways to connect, typically, a CMS and a forum. You can either use the integral CMS version of vB, or bridge your preferred CMS to it. There are three bridges for Drupal CMS, for example.

A bridge is an item of middleware that sits between two full-scale apps. Its main purpose is to combine the membership lists and the login sessions. It would be wrong to say there are no issues or that bridges are trouble-free, but the advantages can outweigh this for some sites - specifically, those with plenty of traffic on each side and where the CMS has interactive functions and therefore requires a login as well as the forum.

The big question in this area for most site admins will be: is the integral vB CMS what I need, or is it better to have a separate CMS, bridged if necessary?

If your CMS requirements are anything more than a few basic content pages, you will probably find a discrete CMS better. You don't need a bridge unless site members will routinely log in to the CMS for some reason. If they must do that, then unless you have a bridge there will be two different sets of login details and they will need to log in to the two separate parts of the website, and this is inconvenient. So, if you want the best a CMS and forum website can offer, you might need to run vBulletin and for example Drupal CMS. If your members need to log in to Drupal, a bridge is a good idea. If you are running something like eZ Publish or Plone and there is no bridge available, you will probably have the funds to get one coded.

The vbSSO bridge to Wordpress is another one with issues. It should only be used if you understand the problems very well and have a really expert tech admin to support you.

Our advice though is to avoid bridges unless there is no realistic option - there are always issues with them; and you must avoid them totally if you don't have expert coders / devs on your staff. The problems that a bridge can create are not fixable by webmasters.

SEO

As usual with forums, the bare app is terrible for SEO. In addition, forums probably have the worst pagecode of any webapps, leaving aside one or two of the older ecommerce apps; so a combination of poor native SEO and terrible code - all par for the course in forums - is a killer for commercial success.

However there is a good fix for this in the form of the vbSEO plugin. As you virtually must install this if you want any kind of basic web quality score plus easy management of SEO functions, there is not much point in discussing this issue absent vbSEO. It adds to the overall cost, but we are assuming for the purposes of this review that you are running a commercial site - and as far as business costs go, the software is cheap enough.

The vbSEO plugin

If you have any experience of forums you'll know that their SEO score, and thus any level of quality in most areas, is poor (for us, the basic definition of SEO has to do with quality rather than anything else). The vbSEO plugin fixes much of this for vBulletin, correcting over 100 faults and providing easy management of various parameters such as URL shape, metadata, sitemaps and more. It costs ~$150 (more, for the brand-free version) but is well worth it. It does the job of multiple plugins, and you end up with a usable product instead of one that has a lot of rough edges. In fact you shouldn't really consider using vB without vbSEO, unless you prefer a bunch of separate plugins for some reason.

SEF URLs
A selection of URL shapes and types is available. The options could not be bettered. Just remember a year down the line not to change any parameters, since your URLs will change and you'll maybe lose your links. It's true that vB does a good job of redirecting raw to SEF URLs and moved items to their new location - but changing URLs is not a good idea.

Metadata
Excellent options are available through vbSEO. You can do everything you need here. You get auto-metadata for all new forum categories, lists, threads and posts, taken from the content.

Sitemaps
These are generated automatically on a schedule of your choice by vbSEO. This is an excellent arrangement because all large sites have to have their sitemaps generated on the server, client-side sitemap generators fail for one reason or another. On one large site with a couple of million pages, the best client-side (i.e. on-PC) sitemapper we know of ran for several days then crashed as the PC's DB capacity ran out of space...  

These jobs have to be run on the server when sites reach a certain size, and vbSEO does it quickly and efficiently: three million pages will be written to a sitemap series within an hour. Each sitemap's size can be configured, 20,000 pages is a good number, and there is a sitemap index of course. This is a tough job for the server by the way - so schedule it like other major cron jobs for a quiet off-peak time such as 4am at the principal user geolocation (normally US East Coast), as there will be a big load spike while running this task.

There is no need to run a new sitemap more often than once a month, unless you have some important new CMS content and for some reason you think it won't be indexed fully. This would infer you have a smaller site, as larger or more important sites have their new content indexed within an hour. If running a discrete CMS or other webapp such as a blog, you'll need to consider how to get the different sitemaps recognised, since vbSEO will redirect all sitemap requests to its own version and the other sitemaps will then be invisible.

Admin usability

vBulletin has a good backend admin panel. It works fine for smaller forums, and with a giant forum it does well on usability considering the vast size of the task. If you install vbSEO it has its own integral panel to adjust parameters. You can do more or less anything you need including selected word and link censoring, allocating nofollow to named links or types of links, acronym expansion, and anything else a giant community site needs to do.

As vB has a large community, there are n number of plugin options to do just about anything from accepting payments to running live chat. We found that live chat is best restricted to a private staff area, as it canes the server hard; use a Mibbit server for your public live chat needs instead. The same thing applies to the very impressive vbSpy plugin, which gives you a real-time listing of new posts as they are made anywhere on the site: just keep that for Mods if you have a high-traffic site.

ACL

This is a full, granular solution and will do whatever you want, however complex. The downside is that to achieve complex ACL functionality, you need an expert vB admin - but this is to be expected. The usergroup functionality, promotion system, staff management and other features are exceptionally good.

The visitor experience

A nice-looking forum that's easy to use by reasonably experienced visitors. Any visitor usability issues revolve entirely around the templates, here, so fixing any problem is a template issue. In practice, the forum looks good and works well. The templates are intrinsically better than those for some other forums, with bigger menus and bigger buttons, which is good for usability. Some users prefer a dark template, some a light one - it's easy to provide both so that there are no arguments.

There is a template chooser spinbox at the bottom left of all pages. If nothing else, install an optional minimalist mobile template (there's one that comes in at 40KB), as this will suit people on poor connections in remote locations, as well as those with slow mobile service. Forums can be very slow for people on slow connections, if using fully-loaded templates.

Mobile suitability

vBulletin is very capable here as there are numerous options:
1. Start by just adding a free mobile template.
2. Add the Tapatalk plugin at basic cost.
3. Get the full vB Mobile Suite plugin and go for broke.

It handles mobiles better than most webserver apps and won't let you down.

Security

Not bad, as big boards that suffer an intense level of attacks only seem to get a problem every six months or so, which counts as a win these days. Make sure to keep both the core app and all plugins patched to the latest version immediately the patches are issued. This applies especially to vbSEO as it is such a large plugin that there can be security issues otherwise.

There is an excellent choice of plugins to block spammers, attackers, trolls and multiple ID registrants. A giant forum without these add-ons would soon be buried under a torrent of spam, loonies and exploits, but vB copes very well.

Considering the scale of some sites, and the way forums are attacked, vB is very robust. Exploits are as likely to be via the server than through the app or plugins, Apache sometimes being the culprit. Another route is old, unused plugins - so uninstall them and delete their files off the server. Also watch out for old, partly-installed plugins as they won't show up in the vB admin backend and may have exploits. You have to do an FTP search for these files as they don't show up any other way.

Make sure to protect your application fileset in some way, so that in the event of an exploit you can quickly track down the errant files. What we are talking about here is sitelogs that tell you when files are altered; a backup fileset created every time you make any sort of alteration, so you always have a good fileset to revert to; and so on. Otherwise, trying to track down injected code somewhere in 50,000 files will be a nightmare and take several days of very hard work. Ways of stopping or locating encrypted JS are useful here because that is what normally ends up in a file somewhere, perhaps due to a server or plugin exploit resulting in SQL injection or XSS scripting.

Developer costs

You can find plenty of free plugins and templates. Some capable plugins cost, but generally they are cheap. The all-singing all-dancing vbSEO plugin costs as much as the core app but is well worth it.

If you have a large, high-traffic site then you will need your own tech admin as it is hard to get the best results from a server unless you have someone who knows vB well.They will need to be familiar with Sphinx intallation for example.

A good vB / server admin will get double the traffic from any given dedicated server than the host's tech support will be able to - and we know that this applies even with the most expensive dedicated hosting you can get. Of course, we are not talking about specialist vB or named dynamic app hosts here, but high-cost dedicated server hosts who advertise widely and offer colocation and all the other bells and whistles. Specialist knowledge is everything.

If you don't have your own server admin and have a high-traffic site, you might try looking for a firm who offer specialised server clusters for well-known CMS such as Drupal, as they will be far better positioned to help you than generalised webhosts who may charge plenty but don't know these apps intimately. Run a mile if for example they offer you cloudservers, unless your forum is small and fairly quiet - a high-traffic forum is about the worst possible candidate for cloudservers that there is. As the DB is being written to dozens if not hundreds of times a second, it is impossible to sync multiple remote databases. What you need when traffic gets heavy and you have to do something about it is server clusters, not cloudservers. First split off the database to its own dedicated DB server, and make sure it has the latest version of Sphinx. You'll need a gigabit switch and gigabit NIC cards for this.

Monetising

vB works well for income generation. Using the CMS option you can publish all types of content, and monetise it as for regular websites. As there are different templates for each type of page in the forum - main index, forum category lists, post lists, posts, blogs - you can select what position on any given page type your adverts are shown or not shown. In adddition there are almost unlimited conditionals that can be applied, so that any usergroup or variation can be addressed or excepted. Along with geotargeting in your adserver, full options for CPM or CPA ads on any position on any page for any usergroup in any country are all there.

Adserver integration

Openx on-server or remote hosted adserver works well. With your own server/s you will find that the on-server option is better, as it is faster and more flexible. With geotargeting, and positioning of the ad invocation code block anywhere on any page type for any user type, you can take full advantage of all options. Openx is free and does what you need.

If you don't have your own tech admins then Google DFP is a better option - it's a fast, hosted service that offers all options including showing your own ads and prioritising for them.

Good points

The excellent ACL.
The powerful promotion system for members.
The wide range of plugins.
Good SEO if you use the vbSEO plugin.
Scales very well, is stable, handles millions of pages well.
Very well suited to dedicated server, large site use - a full range of database options for example. The DB can be remoted on a separate server easily.
Easy to monetise.
Works just as well for small sites on shared hosting, by using the default options.
An excellent big-board solution where the Admin / Mod team is very large - lots of options for a private section for the staff, including private staff-only chat and a huge range of tools for admin such as multiple ID reporting, vbSpy realtime post view, all kinds of custom views of posts in different boards or categories, and so on.

Problems

No deal-breakers here. The usual minor glitches, especially those caused by upgrading between major versions, of course. The upgrade from v3.x to 4.x can be a major task on a large forum - no way is it a one-hour job and back online quick 'n easy. This type of task has to be done on a dev server first.

You might find that something done by a plugin in v3 cannot be done in v4, so check before you upgrade; e.g. social groups was a major bugbear in the last versions of v3 and the first versions of v4.

To be perfectly honest vB4 is a bit of a clunker, especially when vbSEO is added (and it must be used, in reality). Nevertheless it's still a better option than the alternatives - but keep an eye on Xenforo. Forums have always been a problem area with overall quality, code quality, and admin usability; they qualify as the worst apps on the web, taken as a whole. Even ecommerce apps beat them and some of those are awful in every respect. No forum or ecommerce app comes close to the quality of a good CMS like Plone, and Joomla CMS is orders of magnitude better in quality in almost every way.

One day some forum coders will figure out how to write a quality forum app. Obviously it can't be an easy task. Xenforo has some excellent reports and is now worth looking at. As regards phpBB: it's best for expert webmasters who like it, because there is no plugin system and the core files have to be hacked for every extension, leading to difficulties when upgrading and patching, since every hacked file needs special attention.

High-traffic sites

A high-traffic forum loads a server harder than any other server application. Because of this you will run out of server capacity faster than with any other type of app.

A monster site will slow down unless your servers are very well managed - but that's par for the course... As an example of the load on a big forum, you set the cache to ~15 seconds :-) 

The DB server, if separate, needs to be strong: the I/O load can be intense with >1,000 online.

SSD disks on vBulletin

If you are not familiar with high-traffic sites then don't make the mistake of buying into solid state drives - unless you get expensive enterprise-grade ones. They may be faster - but they also die fast. Nobody seems to know why, but their life expectancy is only ~6 months for a high-load forum. You don't need the issues when they start to crash. As examples, the Kingston and Crucial brands are for PCs or low-traffic sites. For a high-traffic forum you need to spend a lot more money than that or see your data vapourising before long. In contrast 15,000rpm SAS disks hold up much better (unless you pay a lot of beer coupons for your SSDs).

Here is a list of some current SSD options at Q4 2012:

Crucial - consumer grade, PC use only, not for servers
Kingston (most models) - consumer grade, not for servers
Kingston HyperX - light traffic server
Intel 520 - consumer grade, not for servers
Intel 710 - low-grade enterprise, mid-traffic server (cost = ~$400)
OCZ Deneva 2R - mid-range enterprise, good value though not cheap
Talos 2R - mid-range enterprise, good value though not cheap
Fusion IO - mid-range enterprise, expensive

vBulletin scaling

vBulletin scales well, and copes with heavy loads, high traffic, and lots of extensions. Due to the nature of the beast it tends to be heavily extended (has a lot of plugins installed). It slows down of course, but keeps on keeping on. You will find that vbSEO accounts for as much as half the server load in this situation - but that's unavoidable as it is rewriting just about everything. Not really a problem in the end, just add more server capacity.

A weak or poorly-managed dedicated server will start to crack up at around 10,000 visits a day; a strong one that is well-managed will go to 40,000 plus. Then you go to multi-server, and the best way to do that is to split it to a DB backend server and a web-facing server with the application files. This is called server clustering.

Note that a high-traffic forum is the worst possible candidate for cloudservers, as the DB is very heavily loaded and being written to multiple times a second. It is very difficult (or impossible) to sync the DBs across multiple cloud servers - there will be timelag and disk meltdown, as every DB has to write every other DB's traffic.

vBulletin - conclusion

In our view this is the best solution both for big boards and smaller sites that need a full range of functionality. It is far easier to manage than phpBB, and functions better in every way as far as we are concerned. Every possible management function is there, a good plugin system, and the ability to scale up to whatever size you want. A thousand users plus online and 4,000 posts a day is possible on one powerful and correctly-managed server, though best practice is to split the DB and application servers to allow for redundancy and future growth.

If your needs are somewhat smaller, you can use vB in the knowledge that when your board takes off you have the best solution available and are gaining the experience you'll need to manage a busy forum site. The startup cost is $350 or so (vB + vbSEO) but it is worth the money. With a few more paid-for plugins you can easily get to double that, but this level of performance in forums has a cost. It is well-developed and constantly being improved. If you buy the branding-free versions the cost goes up, but you may feel it worth the money, especially on a big site, as that way you don't give out three or four million free links to the vB and vbSEO authors, which has an SEO hit for the originating site.

One of our vBulletin sites has several hundred boards, thousands of posts a day, and a staff of over twenty. The idea of trying to run that site on anything other than vB is, frankly, frightening. It also has several thousand Google #1 positions, traffic doubles every year, and it is fun to be associated with, despite the workload. It's hard to see how all these things would apply if we weren't running on vB.

Miserable User plugin
No review of vBulletin would be complete without a reference to this famous plugin.

Every forum admin knows that online forums attract both the best and the worst in contributors - people who with great skill and patience will help anyone anywhere, and also those who just want to destroy, or who have mental issues that mean their only outlet is probably the web. A forum has to be able to cope with all of these and survive. 

One solution is to ban troublemakers and block their subsequent attempts to re-register. Another option in vB is to use the cunning Miserable User plugin. This allocates various 'anti-privileges' to a troublesome user: a 25%, variable, chance of lost posts, meaningless redirects, blank pages on any click, redirects to the front page instead of the required post, and so forth. With luck they get tired of it and go and troll somewhere else. If a gentle hint does not suffice, they can be banned...

Forum Application: Tech Spec

cost: $200 - $400, ~$600 with all options
type: PHP - MySQL
version reviewed: 4.x series
zip installer size: 8.5MB for vBPS [also needs vbSEO]
choice of templates: 1000's [but not too many for the new 4.x series yet]
number of plugins (estimate): 2,000 +
example sites: start from the central site's forum members

Resources:
vbulletin.com
vbulletin.org
vbseo.com
big-boards.com

review date: Q2 2011
latest update: Q3 2012

Xenforo

At Q3 2012 we also need to mention Xenforo as it is a vB fork that supposedly attempts to be an efficiently-functioning version of vB + vbSEO rewritten from scratch. If this is true in practice, then it is certainly worth a look.

When vB was bought out a couple of years back, the core devs left and created a fork called Xenforo. It is reported that they rewrote the app from scratch, attempting to create a smoother version of vB + vbSEO that had the same advantages without all the negatives. What was true about a year ago at Q1 2012 is that vB + vbSEO was the best forum solution by a long chalk as it was the easiest to use, it was highly capable, plus it had by far the best SEO. If, at the end of 2012, Xenforo does all that without the negatives, then it will certainly be worth considering. We need to get more familiar with it before we can write a full review.

And be aware that vB + vbSEO does have a pile of negatives:

  • It produces an excellent final result but it is far, far too complex
  • It has a massive additional and unnecessary server load - about double what it should have, or more, because vbSEO rewrites almost everything
  • The complexity and hidden code of vbSEO is impossible to work with for some purposes
  • A heavily extended forum with 50 usergroups, 50 plugins, multiple template choices, multiple mobile options, and multiple advertising conditionals, is immensely difficult to work with, and is only for the top experts

If Xenforo is half as good and does it simpler, then it will be worth trying out for your particular application - vB is starting to have too many issues now as vB4 is a real clunker. It's becoming almost as hard to work with as phpBB; though vB5 is out soon...


tags: vbulletin review, compare vbulletin, vbulletin comparison, forum software reviews, ssd drives for servers

 
Web Business Managers