|By Eron Cohen||
|March 11, 2002 12:00 AM EST||
One of the most common database-driven applications on the Internet is the discussion forum.
Internet forums are used for product support, organizational announcements, and corporate discussion areas, and as a place to talk about the theme of a given Web site. They're popular because they offer a convenient way to discuss interests and ideas while keeping a sense of history - something a typical e-mail list doesn't have. They also have the advantage of offering site administrators a high level of control over what's being talked about and how it's discussed.
If you've been considering adding a discussion forum to your Web site, you know there are many competitors. However, one of the best forums applications I've ever used is ColdFusion-based FuseTalk 3.0 from e-Zone Media. FuseTalk is excellent - it's inexpensive, feature-rich, easy to deploy, and a pleasure to maintain.
It took me about 20 minutes to install and configure FuseTalk. The installation comes as an executable .zip file. You get started by unzipping the software to an appropriate directory on your server and then setting up the preferences, such as the data source. I used ColdFusion 5 with SQL Server 2000 for the database back end. FuseTalk also supports MS Access, Oracle, and MySQL; however, if you use SQL Server, you'll have the option of using the full-text search feature.
After you run the ColdFusion-based DHTML installer, simply edit some ini files to finish the initial setup. After that you can use the administrator menus to get your forums going. You can also customize the look and feel of your forums by editing the header and footer files provided in the "\includes\Custom" directory. This is a great place to add your own logos or advertising.
FuseTalk is a secure application that generally requires users to have some kind of account. There are several ways to handle this. The easiest, of course, is the default account management that's built in, but documentation is provided that describes how to use your current site accounts or Windows NT authentication.
Once you have the product installed, you'll want to familiarize yourself with the administrative options.
The e-Zone Media people have really thought of everything. For instance, the moderation and censoring features are very advanced. Moderators can be set up on a per-category basis, and there are levels of moderators that have global privileges. Furthermore, all moderator actions are automatically logged. Administrators can choose which words they want to censor by adding them to a table using the admin screens. If all else fails, ill-behaved users can be banned by IP address, e-mail address, or username.
There are also a few bonus features that put this application over the top. For instance, the software supports clustering. You can even provide a clustering URL in the administrator so the forum cache can be cleared on the clustered server. There's also a chat server in which users can create their own chat rooms, which can be deleted automatically after a set period of inactivity. They even have a "buddy list" feature that lets you know when your friends are logged in to the forums.
Another terrific feature is the ability to post messages to the forums via e-mail. A reverse feature complements this one: users can choose to have all messages posted to the forum automatically e-mailed to them. There's even a survey engine (again, they've thought of everything). But if you feel the forums are missing something, don't worry: this version of FuseTalk takes plug-ins. For instance, e-Zone Media has one available for purchase that allows businesses to use forums for enhanced online support. Others are in the works.
The User Interface
As mentioned before, the user interface is sleek and well designed. Like the administrators, users will be pleased with the features. For instance, individual users can customize the environment colors and see only the categories of messages that interest them. Fun features like "author icons" let each author choose or upload an avatar to convey his or her personality, and insert "emotions" to convey a mood for a particular message posting. Users will also enjoy the ranking feature of FuseTalk - the more they post, the higher rank and credibility they obtain.
The only thing that I feel could be improved, on both the user and administrative sides, is the online help and documentation. It's not bad, but it could be better. To the credit of the FuseTalk developers, I would dub most of the application "self-explanatory"; I configured most of the application without ever needing the docs.
Pricing for FuseTalk is reasonable. If you need only one forum and don't mind encrypted source code, $249 gets you going with the Professional version. If you need to have more than one forum, you'll want to look into the Enterprise version; this allows you 25 forums on one server for $999. As you'd expect, it gets more expensive if you want the unencrypted source code. The Professional version is $369, and the Enterprise version is $1,999. The code is well written and neatly formatted, although somewhat underdocumented, so if you do decide to go with the unencrypted version, you'll be glad to know you won't have to dig through spaghetti code to make your modifications. Demo versions are available for download from the e-Zone Media Web site. You may have already seen this product from a user's perspective - Macromedia uses it to power the ColdFusion forums on their Web site.
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