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Old 11-30-2019, 07:49 PM   #1
Xyon
Puts the Fun in Dysfunctional
 
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Default State of the Forum Address 2019

My fellow Orbinauts;


I know things have been quieter around these parts than they used to be, and I want to make it clear that this in no way means our board is being neglected. All the active forum staff are dedicated to keeping the public boards clear of spam, and that takes a lot of effort behind the scenes that you might not see from the public perspective; that means it's working! I've also been putting a lot of work in the last 18 months to get the technologies our servers use and the software we rely on to the latest and most secure versions I can.



To that end, you may have seen my call for vBulletin-5 compliant style assistance a little earlier this year. As long time customers of vBulletin, it initially seemed to make a good deal of sense for us to move from our current, ageing 3.8 version of the software to the newest offering from the same developers, because the upgrade path to that newer version seemed like it would be most straightforward, as compared to migrating to an alternative product. This, however, has not been the case; the call for styling went mostly unanswered, and I hit several other niggling issues with migrating the data onto our test board that I couldn't see a simple path to resolve. On top of this, vBulletin 5 hasn't been the huge stride ahead in modernity that we'd expected, and there are a number of deficiencies in the offering the developers don't seem to want to solve directly, relying instead on the goodwill (and voluntary time) of third-party extension developers.



So, over the last week, I've been looking at alternatives, and I've hit on a couple of likely candidates, the frontrunner at the moment being xenforo. This looks, from front and back-end, like it ticks most of the boxes we want, while having built-in capacity to import data from our version of vBulletin (among others). As well, the developers have given me some assurances that if it proves not to be a solution for our board after a few weeks of usage, we would be able to get a full refund of our license cost, which we'd then potentially put towards a different product.


You can request a free demo of XenForo on their site, and have a click around, both front and backend - it's pretty slick and straightfoward, but crucially, it's a supported piece of software, which is more than can be said for even the current version of vBulletin. The licensing costs, however, are where we've hit a bit of an issue, and before I go into how we got here, I'll just show you a screenshot from this morning when I went to the Orbiter Forum PayPal account to check our balance - something I generally only do once or twice a year;


Click image for larger version

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ID:	16880


All the way back in 2015, I made a post about some issues we were facing with PayPal suspending our account because we had too much money in it, and we'd exceeded a (seemingly arbitrary) threshold wherin they wanted us to prove our identies. Because of the nationality of one of our founding members (that'd be Tim, if you're curious), Orbiter Forum is established as an Australian "company", though not one that turns a profit. At the time, we had a balance just north of 1,000 AUD, which was something like 740 USD on the exchange markets at the time.


PayPal didn't like the evidence we submitted the first few times and eventually suspended our ability to take payments. We couldn't access our funds, and, importantly, all regular donations to the PayPal account were disrupted. PayPal still don't let you pause and resume a recurring payment; either you're paying someone, or you aren't. So when we eventually settled the matter with them, through some serious hard work and repeated phone calls Tim had to make, we had access to our existing balance again, but the recurring donations were gone.


A lot of very observant and generous members realised this and came back to re-establish their recurring donations. Some didn't realise, or just didn't decide to re-start their donation. We take donations extremely gratefully, and I'm really grateful each and every time anybody chooses to donate to our coffers to help cover our server bills. However, it became clear after a month or so that our regular income had diminished after this incident, greatly, and we had to re-balance a few things at the time to keep things as they should be, and we soldiered on.


In 2018, it happened again. Now, I perhaps could've seen it coming the first time, what with the balance slowly increasing and such, but the second time came as a real surprise to us all. We had, or so we thought, resolved the identity issues with PayPal, and once again I had to drag Tim out of his busy life and ask him to get on a phone and argue the toss with PayPal again. This dragged on for a bit, but had the same impact on our PayPal account; once more, all the regular subscriptions were discontinued. We had 1000 AUD in the account at this time, around the start of 2018.


Since then, we have been receiving about 25 USD monthly from our remaining regular donators. I am, and I will remain, extremely grateful to anybody who chooses to part with their hard-earned cash by donating some of it to the forum, but the reality is this;
  1. We take 25 USD in from donations on a monthly regular basis
  2. We haven't really taken any one-time donations recently
  3. Our monthly expenses for operating the site is 60 USD
As you can see, there's a pretty big deficit in terms of what's coming in, and what's got to go out to keep this place the way it is - much less consider doing a big forum upgrade to ensure the security and stability of the forum for the next ten to fifteen years of operation!


So this is in part an appeal to those of you who might have had recurring donations in the past, or might not have realised the situation that we're in, but if you can spare a small amount monthly, we'll be able to keep the lights flashing in the server room for a good while to come. I want to be clear, though, we have also a buffer in our hosting provider - about 100 USD - so there's no immediate danger of Orbiter Forum suddenly going offline when the PayPal account runs dry; having been burned twice by PayPal this seemed like a prudent course to take.


Before we can really think about updating to newer software, we need to get the server bills being paid. If we can get the forum's coffers back up to the levels of last January, I can take some of that capital and invest it in a XenForo licence, and this unlocks a few previously locked avenues for further community development, some of which I'll list here;
  1. Single-sign on to a new OHM website using your OF handle - a real, oauth2 SSO, not some janky shared database or cookie hack
  2. Proper OHM integration - again, none of this shared database nonsense. I need an API endpoint on the forum side that just doesn't exist in vBulletin.
  3. Further SSO to services like the Orbiter Forum Discord Server
  4. More, yet to be developed and announced, features involving Orbiter itself.
So, let me close by thanking again everyone who has chosen to donate to Orbiter Forum in the past, who continues to do so, or who can't donate financially but find other ways to contribute to our community, even if that's just by being a stand-up member of it. It's been a privilege to administrate this community for as long as I have (that sounds ominously final, but I'm not going anywhere), and I'm excited to see what we can do for the future of our site, and our little group of probe-hailers.



Thanks for reading.
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Old 11-30-2019, 08:59 PM   #2
Notebook
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Willing to help, but I haven't seen the donation screen in a while.

Is it obvious in plain view and I can't see it? It used to be a horizontal bar on one of the menus.
I thought you had gone onto some other finance?

Edit: found it, on the blue title bar on the main page highlighted in green.
If I can suggest it needs more visibility, I wouldn't have noticed till your post!

Last edited by Notebook; 11-30-2019 at 09:04 PM.
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Old 11-30-2019, 09:05 PM   #3
Traveller
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Donate link in green, center of the bar up top. My annual donation will be coming Real Soon Now.
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Old 11-30-2019, 09:24 PM   #4
Xyon
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Notebook View Post
 Willing to help, but I haven't seen the donation screen in a while.

Is it obvious in plain view and I can't see it? It used to be a horizontal bar on one of the menus.
I thought you had gone onto some other finance?

Edit: found it, on the blue title bar on the main page highlighted in green.
If I can suggest it needs more visibility, I wouldn't have noticed till your post!

Honestly, I only view the forum in the Orbiter style, and I hadn't considered how it looks on other styles. What style are you using?
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Old 11-30-2019, 09:26 PM   #5
Xyon
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As an aside, we requested a demo of XenForo for our own purposes, which you can view here:

https://10a9482b794bac41.demo-xenforo.com/215/index.php

Ignore the banner telling you the old admin password, I have since changed it anyway.
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Old 11-30-2019, 09:39 PM   #6
Notebook
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Xyon View Post
 Honestly, I only view the forum in the Orbiter style, and I hadn't considered how it looks on other styles. What style are you using?
Haven't changed anything, default style.

Not a problem now I remember where it is!
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Old 11-30-2019, 10:22 PM   #7
dbeachy1
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Thanks, all!! FWIW, I'm now a monthly donator as well.
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Old 12-01-2019, 12:29 AM   #8
Linguofreak
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Have you considered an alternate vendor for donations, maybe Patreon?
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Old 12-01-2019, 01:02 AM   #9
4throck
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Why not move to something free like phpBB?
Is is missing any crucial forum feature ? OH integration perhaps?
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Old 12-01-2019, 07:58 AM   #10
Xyon
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We have considered quite a few forum engines, some free, some paid. I've been sorely tempted to write my own because of the available product range. An incomplete list of the considered products follows:
  • vBulletin 4.x
  • vBulletin 5.x
  • phpBB 3.x
  • simple machines forum
  • Invision powerboards
  • NodeBB
  • Conrod (dummy name for a bespoke one written in house)
  • XenForo 2.x

To date, XenForo has been the only commercially supported product that ticks a vast quantity of the boxes we need ticking. Commercial support really helps us if we have issues with the product, and while I'm a big believer in FOSS and commercial-free software, I operate OF similarly to how I run services at work, with a high degree of caution.

I hope that answers a little bit why I think XenForo is a good way forwards, despite costing money. If you look at the demo, and compare that experience to phpBB (many phpBB sites exist, most clear one is the phpBB community site), I think that makes it quite clear that XenForo is a much more complete and slick experience.
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Old 12-01-2019, 08:09 AM   #11
Xyon
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Linguofreak View Post
 Have you considered an alternate vendor for donations, maybe Patreon?

No, mostly because of ignorance. I thought Patreon was for content creators?
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Old 12-01-2019, 08:30 AM   #12
Face
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Xyon View Post
 To date, XenForo has been the only commercially supported product that ticks a vast quantity of the boxes we need ticking.
Could you elaborate a bit on what those boxes are? E.g. features, security (you mentioned proper OAuth2 for SSO, so that's a point, I suppose), technology, activeness etc.?

Quote:
Originally Posted by Xyon View Post
 If you look at the demo, and compare that experience to phpBB (many phpBB sites exist, most clear one is the phpBB community site), I think that makes it quite clear that XenForo is a much more complete and slick experience.
I must admit that it looks very plain to me, compared to other boards. But that might just be personal taste regarding "modern" designs. I guess as long as it offers a stable place to put threads on - with the ability to format posts with things like code, formulas, enumerations and basic font styling - it is a good choice from the PoV of the users.

Thanks for caring for the past, present and future of the forums, BTW!
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Old 12-01-2019, 12:22 PM   #13
Xyon
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Face View Post
 Could you elaborate a bit on what those boxes are? E.g. features, security (you mentioned proper OAuth2 for SSO, so that's a point, I suppose), technology, activeness etc.?



I must admit that it looks very plain to me, compared to other boards. But that might just be personal taste regarding "modern" designs. I guess as long as it offers a stable place to put threads on - with the ability to format posts with things like code, formulas, enumerations and basic font styling - it is a good choice from the PoV of the users.

Thanks for caring for the past, present and future of the forums, BTW!

Remember that what you're seeing on the demo is the base style, I will certainly look to make any solution our own and give users choices of themes where I can.



In terms of boxes ticked that I mentioned earlier, my primary concerns, this time in some semblance of priority order:


  1. Stability; you would be amazed what is necessary to keep vBulletin 3.8 on life support, really.
  2. Security: highly important is that our users and our community are protected against exploits and gaps in the security coverage by the system. We've seen and prevented a few incidents now of exploits to vBulletin vulnerabilities.
  3. Support: the first two tie in to support. No software is bug free, but we need to know there's an outfit looking after their product, keeping it moving forward and fixing issues as they're discovered.
  4. New features or platform for new feature development: those things I mentioned in my previous post, like oauth2 SSO, become possible with a more extensible base.
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Old 12-01-2019, 12:34 PM   #14
jedidia
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Would you be planning on just buying a license and running with it for as long as it runs, or renewing it every year to stay up to date? Which payed extensions would you require?
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Old 12-01-2019, 01:32 PM   #15
Xyon
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Quote:
Originally Posted by jedidia View Post
 Would you be planning on just buying a license and running with it for as long as it runs, or renewing it every year to stay up to date? Which payed extensions would you require?

The base forum, plus the resource manager and media extensions from the same developers, is a one off cost for the year. We'll run on that, and there's options for support renewal and security updates year on year.



I'm not able to guess at this stage at other paid extensions as I haven't had a copy of the software to explore fully in that regard, but from initial impressions I can say that a lot of the functionality we currently get from addons is built in.
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