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TLDR; Our forums have moved to https://www.finalbuilder.com/forums

After years of frustration with Active Forums on Dotnetnuke, we finally got around to moving to a new forums platform. 

The old forums had zero facilities for dealing with spammers, and sure enough every day, spammers would register on the website and post spam on the forums. Even after turning on email verification (where registration required verifying your email), spammers would verify their emails and post spam.

The old forums were also terrible at handling images, code markup etc, and will often completely mangle any content you paste in.

So the hunt was on for a new platform. I've lost count of the number of different forum products I've looked at over the years, none of which totally satisfied my needs/wants. I've even contemplated writing my own, but I have little enough free time as it is, and would much rather focus on our products. 

Discourse  looked interesting, so I installed it on a Ubuntu Server 18.04 virtual machine (it runs in a Docker container). After some initial trouble with email configuration (it didn't handle subdomains properly) it was up and running. I'm not great with linux, I've tinkered with it many times over the years but never really used it for any length of time. I was a little apprehensive about installing Discourse, however their guide is pretty good and I managed just fine. 

The default settings are pretty good, but it is easy to configure. After experimenting with it for a few days (there are a LOT of options), we we liked it a lot, and decided to go with it. 

Discourse is Excellent at handling bad markup, I'm astounded at how well it deals with malformed html and just renders a good looking post (most of the time). Inserting images is a breeze, the editor will accept Markdown or html, and gives an accurate preview while you are writing a post. Posting code snippets works well usng the same markup as github, with syntax highlighting for a bunch of languages (C#, delphi, javascript, vbscript, xml etc). The preview makes it easy to tell when you have things just right. Discourse also works very well on mobile, although our website does not (the login page is usable) - more work to be done there (like a whole new site!). 

Discourse is open source (GPL), so you can either host it yourself (free) or let Discourse.org host if for you (paid, starting at $100pm). Since we had spare capacity on our web servers (which run hypver-v 2016) I chose to host it ourselves. That was 11 days ago. 

My goal was to import the content from the old forums, there are 12 years of valuable posts there which I was loath to lose. 

The first challenge was that Discourse requires unique emails, and our dotnetnuke install did not. After 12 years of upgrades, our database was in a bit of a sorry state. There were many duplicate accounts (some users had 5 accounts), I guess if you can't remember your login you just create a new one, right? I can't totally blame users for that, the password reset email system was unreliable in the past (it should be ok now, check your spam folder!). So we cleaned up the database, removed old accounts that had no licenses and no forum posts. 

The next challenge was enabling single sign on with the website. Someone had written a dotnetnuke extension for it, but I wasn't able to get it working (it was written for an older version), so I spent 2 days writing my own (and almost losing the will to live!). Once that was sorted, I got to work on importing the data. Discourse does have a bunch of import code on github - none of which are for dotnetnuke, and they are all written in Ruby (which I have zero experience with). Fortunately, Discourse does have a rest api - so using C# (with dapper & restsharp) I set about writing a tool to do the import. Since Discourse doesn't allow you to permanently delete topics, this needed to work first time, and be restartable when an error occurred. This took 4 days to write, much of which was just figuring out how to get past the rate limits Discourse imposes. I did this all locally with a back up of the website db and a local discourse instance. The import took several hours, with many restarts (usually due to bad content in the old forums, topics too short etc). 

Backing up the local instance of Discourse was trivial, as was restoring it on the remote server (in LA). We did have to spend several hours fixing a bunch of posts, and then some time with sql fixing dates (editing a post sends it to the top of a category). I did also have to ssh into the container to "rebake" the posts to fix image url issues. Fortunately theres is a wealth of info on Discourse's own forums - and search works really well!

We chose not to migrate the FinalBuilder Server forum (the product was discontinued in 2013) or the Action Studio forum (which gets very few posts).  


I'm sure we'll still be tweaking the forums over the next few weeks, but on the whole we are pretty happy with how they are. Let us know what you think (in the Site Feedback forum!).

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