Can I host a Discourse forum for free?

In short…

Short answer: no.

Less short answer: technically, yes, but you may face technical difficulties, and your server will probably have very low specs, resulting in a slow, sometimes hanging forum. It’s also likely you’ll need a credit card, even without fees.

Basically, if you need a fully functional Discourse forum and a good user experience, you can’t have this for free.

Why can’t I easily set up a Discourse forum for free?

Discourse has some requirements. You need a Linux server with SSH access, an email provider and a domain name. While you can find some free services, there are always severe limitations. They also often require a credit card number for various reasons.

What if I really want to set up a Discourse forum for free?

Third party hosting

Free servers

Here’s a list of companies that can provide free, Discourse-compatible servers:

Offer Specs and limitations Requirements Additional info
Oracle Cloud Free Tier 1/8 OCPU, 1 GB RAM, 100GB HDD[1] Credit Card (Can not be a gift card) Installation guide
Amazon AWS Free Tier 1/8 OCPU, 1 GB RAM, 30GB SSD (max), and 750 hours per month[2] Credit Card (Can be a gift card) Installation guide

:warning: WARNING: If you stop your AWS instance, even for a minute, the IP will be rerolled and Discourse will die. Use this at your own risk.

Free email sending services

You can theoretically use any service that offers SMTP, but free services like Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail… Or any ISP email provider usually explicitly forbid this usage in their terms of service.
Plus, there will probably be severe rate limitations that can interfere with the proper functioning of Discourse’s features.

Offer Limitations Requirements
Sendinblue 300 emails/day Phone number

Free domain name

A domain name is needed for Discourse.

Offer Domain Types Requirements
Freenom .tk and .ml domain names for 1 year (renewable) None

Self-hosting

Self-hosting Discourse is an advanced solution that requires proper technical skills, hardware, software, bandwidth, and a domain name. Unless you really know what you’re doing, this is not a solution.

Conclusion

Hosting Discourse for free is not the way to go. You won’t be able to have decent service and will face inconveniences, and you’ll probably need a credit card/gift card as well.

And if you have a credit card, you’ll have access to cheap servers that can handle Discourse very well, as well as cheap email sending services and a cheap domain name.
You’ll be able to host your Discourse forum for the price of a good sandwich per month.


  1. Because of the low specs and HDD, Discourse will be very slow. ↩︎

  2. If you host a site on AWS along with another VM, then you will go past the 750 hours more than likely and you will be charged about $0.0125 per hour. In short, only host your Discourse site on your AWS account. If you go over your SSD or hours limit, then you will be charged. If you can’t pay then your AWS account will be suspended. ↩︎

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Additionally, the web hosting for your community is the cheapest part by far.

The biggest cost is the time and energy it will take from you and your seeded members to make it a success. If you’re hung up on the cost for hosting, you might not fully appreciate what you are taking on.

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That sounds nice, but only sounds it. At hobbylevel in the meaning ”no one gets money at all or enough” hosting is the most expensive part and it has nothing to do with how much or little one appreciates.

Around 240 USD/EUR/what ever a year goes from bank account. Time and energy not.

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Agree that cashflow is a different kind of resource than time and energy. But for the record, here are my 12 month (cash) costs for the larger of my two small forums:

  • domain (namecheap) $14.16
  • hosting (digital ocean) $72
  • mail service (mailgun) $15.74

which comes to just over $100 (although I paid in pounds sterling).

Another thought about cost: if you might in future need to shut down your forum because you can’t afford it, that’s a strong negative for your community even from the beginning. You need to have commitment to keep the thing running. So be prepared to bear the cost, or be explicit about the need for an annual funding drive, if that’s what will be needed.

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Time may not go through a bank account, but you’re spending it and it’s much more valuable than cash.

One can make more money. You can spend some, and replace it.

You can’t really make more time (Leaving aside leverage for the moment). Once it’s spent, it’s gone. You can’t really put deposits in that bank account, but it has a balance.

How one values their time monetarily is personal of course. But I would imagine for most people that number would be greater than the dollar a day hosting will cost.

So from that standpoint, hosting is by far the least expensive thing… unless one values their time at less than 13c per working hour. (Dollar a day divided by eight working hours)

So I say again, if the hosting cost seems like an obstacle, that person is not aware of the full effort that it’s going to take to launch and build a community.

Which might be good in a way, because if they did know, they probably wouldn’t launch it :joy:

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As a freelancer, absolutely can atest to TIME = MONEY!!

Your original point was well made!

On my biggest forum I’ve definitely poured more money in the form of missed earnings than it’s cost to run the infrastructure, I would imagine at least by a factor of 50x, if not more.

Then again, there’s no putting a value on how rewarding the hobby can be and how it contributes to others lives too?

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I may be wrong, but I have the feeling that most of the people asking for free hosting on meta are teenagers. They often say they have no credit card and when it’s not mentioned, they seem almost always very reluctant to spend even 1 cent.

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I think that’s a fair assumption, at least I don’t have any data to refute it.

Good for teenagers to think about how they value their time too!

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And they have a lot of time, presumably :slight_smile:

In my day as a teenager I worked in a restaurant and many of my friends did a paper round.

$20 a month is not a lot to gather if you get a job (in many countries), even as a young person. You could also do some work for your parents or elder siblings who can supervise you and teach you skills.

Probably the best thing is to speak to a parent or guardian about what you want to do, why, how and what you need.

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Is 20 a lot when there is ten or twenty bills of 20 buck each?

Or shall we think no one is using cloud services, streaming services etc, they are just using Discourse :wink:

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Regarding this edit, I’d be in favor of not mentioning paid plans on this faq since it is specifically about free services, but because a wiki is a community-based work, it’d be good to hear more opinions :slight_smile:

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‘Running Discourse on a Budget’ could be its own topic, but I think there is value in going over the various things needed (e.g. VPS, domain, email), clarifying whether each is realistically obtainable for free, and in cases where that’s not the case, offering examples - ideally not many - of low-cost options. It will almost certainly be the next question the reader will have, so addressing it makes sense to me.

If you feel it’s an example of scope creep, it’s your topic and I respect your choice on the matter.

My preference would be not to remove them, as even if there was another topic for low-cost options, I think repeatedly saying “see [same link every time] for more info” would make it less enjoyable to read.

 
edit: Just to clarify, I haven’t personally edited the OP. I only saw this topic when you posted in it.

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The hosting part is the most expensive and low-cost options are covered here:
Recommended Hosting Providers for Self Hosters (it’s linked in the wiki by the way)
I think there is somewhere a discussion about email providers, and as for the registrars, I don’t know.

No, it’s a community topic. :slightly_smiling_face: :handshake: :slightly_smiling_face:

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I got curious about freenom after reading this topic and looked it up. There is people saying it’s a scam, and that their business model is taking back domains that have some traffic and parking them

You’d would probably be better served with a subdomain, like {yourname}.duckdns.org

For a testing instance, I would try Google cloud run, because it can scale to zero, that means when there isn’t anyone using it it’s turned off, and it gets on automatically when needed

I haven’t run into any issues with them given I’ve never used it all that much, I e just used it for smaller things and when I can’t afford a domain. They seem fine though.