Most users looking to establish a discussion or support forum on a WordPress site quickly find themselves overwhelmed with options. Between the WordPress plugin options, the SAAS (software-as-a-service)/Hosted options and the various PHP scripts being sold for peanuts, its a daunting task to figure out exactly which one will most closely match their sites' needs.
But, most site owners quickly get to the point where the decision comes down to a PLUGIN vs a HOSTED/SAAS service.
In this article we'll point out the pros and cons with both options
Ease of Set up
The hosted services definitely have an advantage here. A quick sign up process and you'll immediately find yourself with a basic forum. Add a link to any page on your WordPress site and you're good to go.
With a WordPress plugin, you generally have a few more steps and the initial result isn't as visually pleasing as an SAAS service would provide. (SAAS services don't have to deal with the thousands of WordPress themes!)
The drawback with a hosted service of course is the lack of integration with the rest of your WordPress infrastructure. Your end users might end up having to create two different accounts unless you go to the additional trouble of setting up a single-sign-on plugin. However, taking that additional step, of course, erases all the ease of set-up advantages that the SAAS service originally provided.
Again, the SAAS services have the advantage here. Because they don't have to consider anything other than their own design and infrastructure, your forum looks great straight out of the box. Both the admin and end-user experience can be extraordinarily pleasant since the service controls the entire web page.
With WordPress, you are generally using the WordPress admin and end user experience - for better or for worse. In addition, a plugin will only have control over a portion of the ADMIN area and usually only a portion of the front-end page as well (since the theme will have reserved areas for side-bars, headers, footers, etc.)
So, it takes at least a little bit of tweaking to really make things shine on your site.
The upside to using a plugin though, is, if you're willing to do the work, the FORUM can look like (and will be) a seamless part of your site. With an SAAS service, it is usually very obvious that the FORUM is not really a part of your site.
This is where a Forum Plugin can really shine. Most SAAS services have a limited amount of functionality, especially compared to a mature plugin like Simple:Press.
In many cases, the base functionality in the free version of Simple:Press is actually greater than an SAAS service.
Simple:Press has over 60 add-ons, many of which an SAAS service haven't even thought about or have implemented very poorly.
WordPress plugins generally have the advantage here. Take a look at the VanillaForums Price Page - it starts at $689.00(!) per month (data as of Feb 12th 2019).
Most other SAAS services are more reasonable but still far more expensive than most WordPress forum plugins:
- ForumBee starts at 49.00 per month for 100 members, two moderators and 5 "categories" (aka forums).
- websitetoolbox.com starts at 15.00 per month for 10,000 page views.
- Discourse (the current darling of the forum world) starts at 100.00 per month for 100,00 page views and 5 staff members.
Simple:Press starts at 99.00 per year for UNLIMITED everything - unlimited users, unlimited moderators and unlimited page views. It tops out at 199.00 per year with the major differences between levels being the type of support you receive and a few features.
I am sure our competitors are priced at a similar level.
Compared to almost every major SAAS service, most WordPress forum plugins are a bargain!
Permissions and Security
Most SAAS services have basic security but few of them have the ability to accommodate a complex permissions model. So this is another area where WordPress plugins shine.
Some WordPress plugins build all their security on top of the WordPress security model while others build on it and extend it simultaneously. WordPress security is already robust, flexible and battle-tested while most SAAS services are barely a few years old.
So with either approach in a WordPress plugin you usually end up with something that is far more flexible and secure than an SAAS system (assuming that your WordPress installation itself follows industry recommended security practices).
A few areas where SAAS services will struggle to provide flexible security models at a reasonable price include use-cases that:
- Handle multiple physical locations (eg: stores, schools)
- Require separate forums with separate moderators but also have some moderators with cross-forum responsibilities
- Need to really lock-down feature-sets on a user-by-user basis
SAAS services do make Enterprise Authentication easier though - with WordPress you have to do all the work yourself via a single-sign-on plugin, some of which might conflict with your existing plugins.
SAAS services will upgrade your functionality without you lifting a finger (in most cases anyway). This is far more convenient than the WordPress model.
With a WordPress plugin you have to handle all upgrades yourself and test to make sure that nothing is broken across your site.
This is not an issue with an SAAS service!
With WordPress you will be able to control when you upgrade and what upgraded features your customers might be able to access. SAAS services pushes out everything and you either take it on their schedule or cancel the service - you generally have very little choice in the matter. So you do trade upgrade convenience for a schedule you cannot control.
Customization / Flexibility
A WordPress plugin simply stomps all over SAAS services here. There is very little opportunity for customizing most SAAS forum services.
With a WordPress Forum Plugin you can customize to your heart's content. And in many cases, you might be able to do so without locking yourself out of the normal upgrade path.
No SAAS service can match a WordPress plugin in this area - everything is open-source and available to you! If you can imagine it, you can usually build it (assuming you are willing to invest the capital required to do so).
Data Ownership / Lock-in / Backups
This is another area where WordPress forum plugins simply dominate. You own your data - period! Its your site and the data never leaves it. You own the original data and all the backups and you can roll back to any day or week that you have a backup.
SAAS services sometimes can't restore individual forum backups. They can export your data but those are not generally full backups that you can use in case your forum gets destroyed for some reason (by hackers, malicious users or mistakes).
You can control how often you backup your data with a plugin. Every hour, Every day or once a week. And your backup can be fully restored to your site (rolling the full-site back to a point in time).
Some WordPress configurations will even take a database snapshot every 5 mins (eg: running WordPress on Amazon Web Services with an Aurora Database).
In WordPress you can take multiple types of backups as well. Your host can take a backup while you can snapshot a VM and do a secondary backup off-site via something like Updraft Plus. This gives you multiple levels of backups that is personalized for you. With SAAS services there is one backup schedule and you're stuck with it.
Sometimes you cannot tell what will happen to your data on an SAAS site. If you have a forum where sensitive data is shared (eg: assault victim forums), do you really want that data commingled on an SAAS service where they can do whatever they like with it?
Any data sharing promises and legal agreements with an SAAS service also generally gets voided in the event of an ownership transfer or bankruptcy proceeding. So even if the current owner of an SAAS service is honorable you cannot guarantee that will remain the case if ownership is transferred.
Hence, this is yet another area where a WordPress plugin is overwhelmingly the better choice.
So, what is right for you? An SAAS service or a WordPress plugin?
It really comes down to ease-of-use and how badly you want someone to take care of all data handling for you.
Beyond that, A WordPress forum plugin is a better choice in just about every other way!