What is SMF? According to simplemachines.org, Simple Machines Forum, or SMF, is a free, professional-grade software package that allows you to set up your own online community within minutes — aka, it’s forum software.

SMF is written in the popular language PHP (Andy may disagree) and uses a MySQL database.

This is an extremely powerful and easy-to-use forum, probably one of the more robust systems I’ve come across. Considering the price — FREE — you can’t beat it.

Here’s a list of some general features:

  • Advanced permission and user management
  • Supports multiple languages at once
  • Open and well-documented source code
  • Tracking of new and old unread topics, not just from your last visit
  • Designed for optimal performance and scalability
  • Multi-media output (XHTML, XML, RSS, WAP)
  • Multi-language support from a large community
  • Package manager that automatically installs or uninstalls mods (also known as hacks) as well as product updates

For an exhaustive list of features, visit the SMF features list here.

The minimum system requirements are as follows (most hosts will easily meet these requirements. If not, reconsider who you’re hosting with) :

  • Any webserver that properly supports PHP, such as Apache or Internet Information Services (IIS).
  • PHP 4.1.0 or higher. The following directives are required to be set correctly in php.ini:
  • MySQL 3.23.4 or higher
  • At least 512 kilobytes of storage space in the database, although more is highly recommended
  • About two and a half megabytes of storage space on the web server, although more is recommended

Our forum, located here, currently has over 100 members, and more than 300 posts and continues to run as smoothly as the day we launched. Granted, I’ll come back to you when we get into the tens of thousands, as that will be the true test of scalability. The update/package manager works like a charm and I’m surprised at how compatible my heavily modified theme has been with each update. An update has yet to break my theme. *knock on wood* The system notifies you when an update is available for SMF itself and any mods that you might have installed. Click the link for the update, and via FTP, SMF automagically downloads the update. Then visit the Package Manager, click the "Apply Mod" link and you’re set.

Free themes are available to customize the look and feel of the forum and install with ease. Modifying a theme is also a breeze if you have any working knowledge of HTML and CSS. Knowledge of PHP is also a great benefit, but not required.

The Simple Machines website offers a ton of mods to make the forum fit your needs. They offer mods for New Features, Feature Enhancements, Themes, Buttons and Avatars, Administrative Functions, BBC, Attachments, Permissions, Postings, and Profiles. They one area that SMF currently seems to lack is the ability to monitor posts easily. As an admin you can subscribe to a board, but that will only notify you of "new" posts, not comments to existing posts. Apparently this is an issue that is to be addressed in the 2.0 version. The first beta release of 2.0 was delivered last August. According to the forums over at Simple Machines, the following is a summary of some of the new features:

  • Database abstraction – with support for PostgreSQL and SQLite planned alongside that of MySQL
  • Automatic installation of packages into themes other than just the default
  • Email templates to simplify customization of forum emails
  • Moderation center including post, topic and attachment moderation – to allow approving of user content before it is made public *WOOHOO*
  • User warning system
  • Additional group functionally including group moderators and requestable/free assignable groups
  • WYSIWYG editor to provide an intuitive user interface to those users not familiar with BBC
  • Permission improvements such as group inheritance and permission profiles to further reduce the complexity of the permissions system
  • File based caching for a performance increase on all forums regardless of whether an accelerator is installed
  • Mail queuing system to stagger the sending of emails to improve performance on large forums
  • Advanced signature settings to allow the administrator of a forum to more tightly control the contents of users signatures
  • Personal messaging improvements including ability to automatically sort incoming messages and a variety of display options
  • Improved upgrade script with better timeout protection and simpler user interface
  • Custom profile fields to enable administrators to add additional member fields from the administration center
  • User configurable posts and topics per page; an improved calendar interface
  • Option to allow guests to vote in polls

Apparently, version 2.0 has been in the works for quite some time. As you can tell, the team is very committed to the success of this open source project and their goal is to provide the next generation of forum software. They are well on their way.

Our forum is currently running on a shared host — iPower. I did need the assistance of the host to get the application installed as it’s not one of the standard apps they natively support. And, as you may well know, shared hosts typically grant very little access to the system. They are apparently upgrading to a new server platform, which will hopefully include Fantastico, giving the user a little more freedom to install software. After the system was installed we did run into an issue where, on certain systems/networks, accessing the forum would result in the index.php not being recognized as a web page, but rather a file — a download dialog would be presented instead of the file being rendered in the browser window. In the end it was a server configuration error of "unknown" somewhere in the PHP installation. Sorry I couldn’t pry more information out of the lovely techs at iPower. However, other individuals experienced this issue and it’s fairly well documented throughout the forums over at simplemachines.org.

Since the forum launched, we have had very few cases of users experiencing usability problems with the forum — partly due to the wonderful theme, maybe? :) It works like any other forum available on the market. This is my first undertaking in administering a forum, and SMF has made life easy for me. As new requirements arise, the mods have been more than helpful in addressing those new requirements. The admin section of the forum provides an abundance of features to organize, monitor, and optimize your forum.

One other bit of functionality worth noting is that of the integration of SMF into various CMS systems. They’ve developed four bridges to help integrate SMF into e107 CMS, Mambo, Xoops, and iGamingCMS. To further entice you to make the switch from your current CMS/forum software, they’ve answered the question, "What about my current content?" They’ve also been nice enough to develop converters, to convert your other forum software into SMF. They offer 35+ different converters.

If you’re looking for an easy-to-use, powerful forum application, consider SMF.

It’s Simple, Effective, Powerful, and Free!