At a time when social networks are so popular, it’s easy to forget that the threaded message board was for many years the “community” of choice for many online.

For businesses and website owners that don’t need all the bells and whistles of a full social network, a message board may be the perfect solution for visitors and customers who would benefit from a place to interact online.

There are a number of PHP-based message board solutions that offer proven track records and low total costs of ownership.

Which one you choose depends on a number of considerations, including:

  • The number of users you expect to serve.
  • The functionality and features those users will demand.
  • The level of support you will require.

Here are a number of solutions that will fit most needs:


Invision Power Board

Invision Power Board, also known as IP.Board, is a fine and suitable message board solution, but it’s closer in functionality to phpBB than vBulletin, thus putting it in a tough spot given its $140 price tag.

While owners of IP.Board have access to a useful owner-only resources website that features a nice selection of modifications and skins, those considering IP.Board may want to take a closer look at phpBB and vBulletin before making a decision.

Cost: $140
Recommended For: Small to medium-sized communities


Phorum

Claiming to be “the original PHP and MySQL based Open Source forum software,” Phorum lacks many of the features found in solutions like vBulletin and phpBB, but if you’re looking for something simple like the support forum MySQL runs, Phorum is well worth giving a test drive.

Cost: Free
Recommended For: Less-demanding communities


phpBB

With millions of installations, phpBB is the most popular open-source message board solution in the world. And it’s easy to see why – for a free piece of software, phpBB offers a considerable amount of functionality and is relatively easy to install, configure and administer.

A library of free design styles is available and “modifications” that extend phpBB’s functionality can be downloaded as well.

Given its large installation base, it’s no surprise that phpBB has an active community, something that is always a plus when dealing with free software. It’s also proven to be scalable (with a little bit of work) – popular role-playing community Gaia Online is powered by phpBB.

Cost: Free
Recommended For: All communities


Simple Machines Forum

Simple Machines Forum, or SMF, is another free message board solution that finds a balance between simplicity and power.

It’s not designed to provide every feature imaginable it does have a reputation for being more secure than some of its competitors.

While I’d probably recommend phpBB over SMF because it is more commonly used, SMF does have a decent community of its own.

Price: Free
Recommended For: Small to medium-sized communities


vBulletin

vBulletin is considered by many to be the crème de la crème of PHP-based message board solutions. Used by some of the largest message board communities, it has earned a reputation as the PHP-based message board solution that “serious” message board community operators turn to.

Its feature set is arguably the most comprehensive and its administrative tools are very robust.

The power of vBulletin doesn’t come free. vBulletin can be obtained on an “owned license” or a “leased license.” Professional services, such as installation and phone support, can also be purchased. Unfortunately, if you’re looking to remove vBulletin’s copyright text from the footer of your pages, it will set you back an additional $170.

Cost: $180 for an “owned license“, $100 for a 1 year “leased license” – bulk discounts available
Recommended For: Larger, more-demanding communities

There is no shortage of other solutions. MyBB is one that is becoming more popular and PunBB is a fast, simple offering that appeals to those who can do without lots of functionality.

For a fuller list of message board solutions and the ability to compare them, check out ForumMatrix.

If you want to see what the largest message boards in the world are using to power their communities, Big-Boards.com is also a useful resource.