As I have mentioned a few times in the past the blog is not the only thing that WinExtra is the home to. Even before there was a blog installed and running here there has always been a set of community forums that has been the home to a really great bunch people. Before the web forums we all got together on an NNTP server that I ran for that purpose. Up until yesterday the forums was using software from Simple Machines Forums (SMF) but I have been getting dissatisfied with the software for some time.
Then yesterday morning I stumbled across a new software package for web forums called Vanilla 1 and after reading up about it on their site and spending some time with an excellent set of screencast for the software I downloaded an installation package for it. I should note that later I found out that one of my fellow writers at Mashable had included Vanilla in a round up of new web forums packages and Doriano also noted the excellent screencasts but together for the software.
Installation was a snap and almost as easy as the famous 5 minute install of WordPress. Once the install was done the majority of the work between yesterday and today when I started redirected folks from the old setup was setting up all the options available and a laundry list of excellent extensions written by Vanilla community members that really fleshed out the basic install.
Having come from a software setup with SMF where setting the permissions for a variety of different member roles was enough to give me the shakes the way that they are handled in Vanilla is nothing short of a breeze. Along with that managing a membership and their profiles is just as simple but very robust. While the base install seems to be really kind of plain jane with very few features the fact is that this is its most powerful feature. Much as WordPress is improved by plugins by 3rd party authors the same applies here as well with Vanilla.
The one interesting thing I did notice as I went through downloading the extensions I wanted for my installation was that there were a number of extensions that were designed for a member’s profile page that would allow them to keep tabs on their social networks. Whether it be things like a person’s Flickr stream, or various gaming related stats and right through to a To-Do List extension the idea appears to be to create a landing zone for your members – they have a reason to stick around longer. Additionally there are a number of extensions that incorporate thing like sharing on Facebook or sharing posts on your other social networks.
The only real draw back I found is that there aren’t as many themes and styles available for Vanilla as I would have thought there would be given the apparent ease of creating them. Hopefully that will change as more people discover this great package. This is made up for though by the number of extensions available because it is these extensions that really expand on what your forums can look like and how they perform. As you can see by the partial list in the graphic to the left installing them is as simple as uploading the extension folder to your site and then enabling them in the Extension List page. Once loaded any that have their own settings will have a link to their settings page added to the sidebar area on the left. to give you a complete idea of some of the extensions available you can have a look at [edit - this ended up being an experiment that didn't go over well with the forum membership so it is no longer available] the WinExtra Forums bling page.
The real downside at this point is that there are very few data importers to be able to convert any other web forums into a Vanilla install. I know there is one for PubBB and Invision but my problem was that I was running a beta of SMF v2.0 and the only importer that is available would be for the 1.1 version of SMF. That said though for blog owners there are a number of integration options available for WordPress, Drupal, Media Wiki and there are ongoing discussions about other platforms as well.
All I can really say is if you are looking to add a forums to your site take a moment and check out our forums and then head over to the Vanilla site and grab yourself a copy to test out yourself – I don’t think you will regret it.
Update: Even thought the current membership of the forums didn’t like the Vanilla software version of their home it doesn’t change the fact that I think it is really good software and if I were to be starting fresh with a new set of web forums for another project I would definitely be using Vanilla 1 to power them.
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