We have already talked of using Thunderbird as the email client of choice, Pidgin for real-time (instant) messaging to your friends, WordPress as a blogging tool for disbursing information to people – but what if you required some discussion forum for collaborating on a school /college project? The problem with email is, it's pretty good as long as it is limited to 2-3 people at a time, beyond that, it gets difficult to control. Instant messaging is good – but requires everyone involved to be present at the same time. Blogging it good for one-to-many communication, but it doesn't add up when you want to hold discussions. What you need, is a 'forum software'.
Open source forum softwares have been many, phpBB being among the first and most widely used – at one point of time, because of late, users haven't been that happy about its security track record. If you have used forums earlier, and want 'traditional-looking' forum software, our advice would be to go for an open source project called Simple Machines Forum (SMF). Apart from having the most important features required for a software bundled with it, adding add-ons is easy too – because you have a web-based interface in its administration panel which allows you to directly upload (or by specifying an external URL) ZIP archives of plugins / themes, and it will do the rest. The feel of the forum – both the administration end and the user end are quite similar to phpBB; except that it has stronger security and some nifty features – automatically detecting and generating a mobile version of the forum when a visitor uses a cellphone browser to visit the site.
We would have gone ahead and done a tutorial on SMF, but we didn't – because there is another, fresher voice among the lot that it refreshingly different; and it's open source and it's called Vanilla Forum. Also using PHP and MySQL, Vanilla is different right from the first byte of the page it loads. Unlike other forum software (including SMF) which use HTML tables to render the layout, Vanilla uses CSS to position elements. In plain English, that means that if you already have an existing website to which you want to add a forum, then you can much more easily retain the look of the rest of the site in your new Vanilla forum.
As we said, Vanilla has a totally fresh looking interface; instead of the usual table-based format, a Vanilla discussion forum looks a lot like an email message inbox. Your forum users will either like the change – or completely hate it; so we advise you to take a poll of at least a sampling of the people who would sign up for your forum to see what they are comfortable with. Whether you choose SMF or Vanilla, be assured of a good user experience.
You might be interested to know that the members of The Open Source Weekend themselves used Vanilla forums to coordinate discussions during the creation of this site. We thought of writing full extensive tutorials for Vanilla too, but the software is so easy-to-use that we are going to leave it to the end user himself to see how intuitive everything is.