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Forum Setup for Designers: Putting Vanilla to the Test

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In: Articles

By Jessica Neuman Beck

Published on August 20, 2007

Ever since the Romans built their famous meeting place, people have used forums to disseminate information. The internet is no exception. In the early days of the web, we had UBB.classic and a smattering of bulletin board setups to use as information exchanges. In the last couple of years, forum software has gotten easier to use and simpler to install. Now it seems like everyone has a forum. But is setting one up a Herculean task?

A graphic designer may be many things, but code-savvy isn’t necessarily one of them. I think I’m a good example of a typical designer: I know enough JavaScript or PHP to get a rollover to roll, or a form to submit, but anything beyond that has me putting in a call to my system administrator. Luckily, my sysadmin is also my husband. Not every designer is that fortunate, however, so when I decided to see how hard it would be to set up a forum on our site, I wanted to do it myself. After all, the instructions seemed simple enough, and watching the screencast on Lussumo’s Vanilla site made it look like a piece of cake. Cake. Mmm. Is it just me, or does Vanilla make you crave frosting? (Note: I installed a Vanilla forum for this example, but any of the other PHP-based forums, such as PHPBB or PunBB, would have worked just as well.)


Figure 1 The Vanilla download page

To begin, I download the Vanilla zip file from the Lussumo site and extract the files. (Figure 1) The instructions tell me to create a file on my server where I’d like the forum to be located. I name mine vanilla, but most people go with forum, or something similar. Easy! This is going to be a breeze.


Figure 2 Creating a new database

Next, I need to create a database. I have never created a database before, but it turns out to be more simple than I thought. I log into my site’s control panel, click “MySQL Databases,” and click “Create New Database.” (Figure 2) Et voila! I am a savant. A genius. This forum thing is no problem for someone like me.


Figure 3 Vanilla Instructions

Then I hit a hitch. The instructions on the Lussumo site are somewhat…technical. (Figure 3) “Once uploading is complete, Vanilla will need read AND write access to the conf folder, and read access to the extensions, languages, setup, and themes folders. Typically these extensions, languages, setup, and themes permissions are granted by default, and you only need to concern yourself with the conf folder permissions.” Okay. Conf folder. It’s right there in the list of files in the Vanilla package. That’s a good sign, right?

The instructions say I can change permissions through the control panel, or through FTP, or in the command line. Acronyms I do not recognize are added to the mix: SSH, for example. I am pretty sure this is not a suggestion for me to be quiet.

Maybe it’s a good idea to check with my system administrator. “Honey, what am I supposed to do here?” (Note: I do not recommend calling your sysadmin Honey unless you happen to have that sort of special relationship with him.)

Sysadmin: “Just change the permissions in the FTP client. You don’t need to mess with the command line unless you’re into that.”


Figure 4 Changing permissions in the FTP client

I am not into that, so I change the permissions in the FTP client by doing a control-click on the file name (right-click on a PC) and changing the numbers to 777. (Figure 4) I use my browser to navigate to my forum’s folder, where I find the Vanilla installer. But…what is this? It is telling me that I need to change the permissions. The permissions I just changed.

Call #2 to Sysadmin: “Um, so, it didn’t work. It’s still telling me to change the permissions.”

Sysadmin: “Try changing them in the control panel.”


Figure 5 Changing permissions in the control panel

I log into the control panel for our site and find the section for File Management. (Figure 5) Indeed, when I check the permissions, they’re still showing read-only. I change them, and double-check that the changes stuck by logging out and then logging back in again. I no longer feel like a savant.


Figure 6 We came across some problems while checking your permissions…

The Vanilla installer still insists I need to change the permissions. (Figure 6) I am beginning to hate the Vanilla installer.

“Honey,” I say (again: not recommended with just any sysadmin). “It won’t work. I don’t know why it won’t work. Vanilla hates me.”

“Want me to give it a try?” he says.

I tell him sure, give it a try, and I go home and take a bath.

The next day I find his notes on my computer.

Step 1: Go to getvanilla.com, download the zip file.

Step 2: Extract files from zip.

Step 3: Watch this tutorial: http://getvanilla.com/tour/installation/ (flash req’d).

Step 4: Upload extracted files and directories.

Step 5: Browse to the folder where you uploaded the Vanilla files and folders (i.e. http://www.couldbestudios.com/vanilla/). You should be automatically taken to the install script. If for some reason you aren’t, it is located at http://www.couldbestudios.com/vanilla/setup/index.html.


Figure 7 Install a new version of Vanilla

Step 6: Click on the link that says “Click here to install a completely brand new version of Vanilla.” (Figure 7)

Step 7: You will be taken to a screen that gives some very basic instructions on chmoding the conf directory on your server. At the bottom of the page is a link that says, “Click here to check your permissions and proceed to the next step.” If you are lucky, you won’t have to bother with the permissions (although this is unlikely, it’s worth checking). Most likely you are now looking at a screen that says, “We came across some problems while checking your permissions…Vanilla needs to have write permission enabled on the conf folder.” If you are, then you will need to adjust the filesystem permissions on the server you are using.

How you do this will vary depending on where your server is hosted. If you have your own server, then you can probably do it from a command line (terminal) session. Most hosting companies, however, still don’t let you make the sort of connection required to do that.

If you have hosting you pay for, you will most likely have to use the control panel they provide. The good news is it’s actually easier to do that way.

The other option is to do this with your FTP client; however, not all hosting companies allow permission changes via FTP.

Your best bet is to use the solution provided by your hosting company. Most of these have some sort of file manager built into them. Open this up and browse through the filesystem to the folder where you uploaded the Vanilla files and folders. Select the conf folder, and change its permissions, using the file manager, to the ones that Vanilla requires (i.e. “777”, which is just a numeric representation of “read, write, execute” for the folder’s owner, group accounts, and public accounts).

Step 7 (continued): Once you have changed the permissions on the conf folder, go back to your browser and click on the link at the bottom of the screen that says, “Click here to check your permissions and proceed to the next step” again. If you have successfully changed the permissions required, you should be looking at a form that wants some information about your MySQL setup.

Step 8 (MySQL Info): You will need to have an empty database setup on your database server (which is probably also your web server) to continue installing Vanilla. You will also need a MySQL user account which Vanilla can use to administer the database. If you have your own database server, you can create the user and the database in several ways. If you pay for hosting, you will most likely have to use the control panel provided by your hosting company to create these. Use the included tools to create a database and a user account—with all privileges—to the database you created, then assign the user a password.

Back in your browser, on the Vanilla setup screen, you should have a form in front of you that says, “Click here to create Vanilla’s database and proceed to the next step.” You’ll need to provide the following information:

  1. MySQL Server: If your web server and your database server are the same (which is most common), this should be localhost; that’s basically telling the server to look locally for the database. Almost all hosted websites are set up this way.
  2. MySQL Database Name: This is the name you gave the database when you created it. Some hosting companies add on a string specific to your account to database names and database users, so that they can keep your data distinct from other users of their service. Typically, this will be something like accountname_’database name you created,’ etc. In our case, the database we called ‘vanilla’ was created as ‘couldbes_vanilla,’ You’ll be able to see the way your hosting company handles naming once you’ve set up your database in the control panel.
  3. MySQL User: This is the MySQL user account you created earlier.
  4. MySQL Password: This is the password you assigned to the MySQL user account.

Fill out the form and click on the link at the bottom that says, “Click here to create Vanilla’s database and proceed to the next step”.

Step 9 (Set Up Vanilla): At this point in Vanilla’s setup wizard, you’ll be configuring your site. The instructions here are fairly straightforward. You’ll need to create an admin account, set a contact name and email address, and give your forum a name.

When you’ve done that, click the link at the bottom of the page that says, “Click here to complete the setup process.” If all has gone the way it should, you’re pretty much done. You should see a page with links to add-ons, documentation, and the Lussumo Community Forum. You should also see a link at the bottom of the page that says, “Go sign in and have some fun!” Click it, sign in with the admin account you created earlier, and viola!

Notes: Setting up Vanilla is fairly straightforward, but it does require the following technical bits:

  1. Ability to create and manage a MySQL database.
  2. Ability to change filesystem permissions (i.e. chmod 777).

Great list (thanks, Sysadmin Honey!), but I did all that! Well, up to Step 7, anyway. What was my problem?

“I’m the account owner of record,” my husband explained. “Technically, you’re just a user.”


Figure 8 Shiny new forum

So that’s it. (Figure 8) My big problem was that I didn’t have the right privileges. If you’re dealing with hosting you set up yourself, this won’t be an issue for you. But if you find yourself unable to change the permissions on a folder, a quick call to your web host or system administrator should get things rolling.

The upside? Installing a forum requires little technical knowledge and no coding at all. For a designer, it really is a piece of cake.

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Jessica Neuman Beck does a lot of things, but sleeping isn't one of them. She is one-half of couldbe studios and all of Cranky Pals, where you should go (respectively) if you need affordable, accessible web design or creepy freak toys for your kids. Currently she divides her time between geeking, writing and running a business.

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