Wow, we've been open for business less than a week and 400 people have signed up in that time! Clearly there's a demand for the forum, which I have to confess, I didn't think there was.
I thought it might be worthwhile to explain how we got to where we are and what the future might hold for the forum.
So, those of you that have been using Brickset for some time will probably remember that I've always dismissed the idea of having a forum, citing reasons such as 'there are already too many LEGO forums', 'too hard to moderate', 'too much time needed to write one'.
In February this year @rocao
contacted me asking whether I'd considered a forum for Brickset and presented a fairly strong case for having one which convinced me it would be worth a try.
As it happened I had written the core of a discussion forum for a project at work a year or so and got the code working at Brickset, but never launched it. So, for a start I thought I'd ressurect it and rope in a team of people to test it (who are now the current moderation team). It soon become apparent that it was woefully inadequate, particularly in the moderating department (there was none), so that idea was quickly shelved.
I then started looking round for other forum software that could be used on the Brickset server platform (IIS/asp.net) and we tried http://www.jitbit.com/asp-net-forum/
. It showed promise but I didn't like the fact it was an 'old-fashioned' table based forum, plus the fact that the markup it generates is truly awful. I could have purchased the source code and sorted it out but doing so would have prevented upgrading to future official releases which would not have been desirable. It integrated fairly will with Brickset's login system/look and feel but it wasn't quite seamless.
I also looked at Yet Another Forum (http://yetanotherforum.net/)
which is an incredibly fully featured forum system and very easily deployed. However it couldn't be integrated with Brickset's login system, so single-sign-on (SSO) would not have been possible.
I had always intended to have SSO, but having failed to get it working properly, I questioned whether it was actually a 'show-stopper' or not, and if it wasn't, then other options could be explored. I had read about Vanilla on a tech blog I subscribe to (http://boagworld.com/reviews/vanilla/)
but as it was based on the LAMP platform it was not something I could host at Brickset.com (using the skills I have, anyway) and certainly wouldn't integrate in any way with Brickset. But it could of course be hosted elsewhere. So I signed up for the free plan at http://www.vanillaforums.com
and the team of us tested it.
First impressions were not good. After all it was totally different to anything we'd used before. But after a few days we started to appreciate it cleanness and simplicity. How would it scale when loads of people were using it? We didn't know. So I signed up for a monthly payment plan (which also allowed me to 'skin' it to match Brickset) and invited c.80 regular commenters/reviewers to come and join us in testing it. Around 30 did so (the rest were probably <16 and I asked them not to join) and we played with for a couple of weeks. Despite the initial lack of familiarity most of the testers came round to liking it. (they must have done, most are still here :-) )
It held up well. Discussions were interesting and everything looked good. We thought it was time to open the floodgates and do an extended beta. That brings right up to last weekend, the April Fools' day article and the real launch on Saturday.
So, what about the future? As I said above the forum is hosted at vanillaforums.com and can be considered as SaaS (software as a service) which means I don't have to worry about servers, security, configuration, Linux, PHP, capacity, bandwidth, or anything: I'm just paying for a service and the service provider does all the worrying. That leaves me with more time to concentrate on the main site, which is where I think my efforts are best expended.
That's all well and good but it does limit what customisation can be done to Vanilla. If you visit http://www.vanillaforums.org/
you'll see there's a vibrant community developing add-ons for the open source Vanilla platform, some of which would be useful to have here. It's possible to get some of them (the approved ones) added (I got the 'quote' one added) but I'm reliant on their tech support and customising them is generally not possible.
So, if it's felt that this is too restrictive and prevents growth of the forum, there is the option of hosting Vanilla somewhere else where we do have full access to the server and the code. That's not something I'd personally be able to do, since I've not even seen a Linux server let alone installed something on one. But it might be an avenue to explore if expertise is available. I've been told by the company behind Vanilla that they are hoping to make their hosted offering a lot more flexible in the future so that may not be necessary.
The lack of SSO is an annoyance but I don't see it as a show-stopper: after all you've all made the transition here OK, and it does allow us to have one set of rules and roles for the main site and another set here.
Personally, I like it as is: there are things that could be improved upon, but the simplicity is a virtue, both of the forum itself and the 'hassle free' hosting. The decision to transition from beta to live is more likely to be based on whether we can moderate it successfully and if it's 'fun' in here rather than any technical or hosting consideration.
What do you think of it so far, and what do you think the future holds?