Migrating longstanding forum / wiki to Discourse

I have been involved in the back end development of SABRE (http://www.sabre-roads.org.uk) for about 7 years, that was originally set up in 1999. The site talks about the British and Irish road network (preferred driving routes, traffic signals, engineering standards) and is predominantly used for the discussion forums.

Over the past few years, a number of longstanding posters have complained and / or left, believing the site is no longer fun or enjoyable. We discovered that there are numerous posts that do not violate any reasonable off-topic and civility posting guidelines, but are still excessively negative or trolling and lead to an unpleasant atmosphere. (Example : http://www.sabre-roads.org.uk/forum/viewtopic.php?p=826961#p826961) I’ve been aware of Discourse for some time, having been a regular reader of the Coding Horror blog for years, so I’m interested to see what it has to offer.

The site currently runs on a Linode cluster running phpBB3.1 and MediaWiki 1.20 under Debian Linux. There’s quite a bit of custom code (mostly PHP with a side order of Python) to provide a seamless login between the forums, wiki and other pages including the maps area which I wrote. Since Discourse is written in Rails, that immediately means I would need some good political negotiation to explain why I want to put more software on the server, and who would support it if I get run over by a bus (there are enough people around who can support a LAMP stack, but that’s it). Another key requirement is that all data must be kept (over 800,000 forum posts and 130,000 wiki pages by about 2,000 users) and upgraded to any new system in a short amount of time (typically no more than an hour or two). I am sure that migrating this data is not impossible, merely time consuming?

Does Discourse suit our needs? I think the hardest problem is not a technical one of migrating data, but convincing the users that we need this solution.

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I’d recommend importing the data, then re-running the import once that’s complete with the last week’s worth of data. The first import will be what is most time consuming. It would probably take 1-2 days to completely run and then review the import process for the first bulk of data, depending on a number of factors.

Based on the little bit you’ve said it should, it really depends on if you have anything extremely custom that you’d need to retain, if you’re need to implement it into Discourse or pay for someone else to then you should look into that before moving over to be sure you’re confident it’ll be possible.

Be sure to check these two links:

That should give you a rough overview. If you have further questions or needs you should search around on here to see if it’s possible to do everything you want or ask here and I’m sure someone will be able to answer it.

I personally am migrating one of my larger Xenforo boards to Discourse, to ensure a smooth migration I just decided to get their paid hosting, better to have hands-on support by the team that developed Discourse than winging it on your own, but that was more for the migration than anything else. However, having peace of mind for the next year of only having to worry about running and growing the community is a great relief and time saver. That also would solve your issue of if you get run over by a bus someone could still manage the system for you.

Convincing members seemed to be pretty easy for our board, the only challenge was they aren’t used to the layout so that aspect was the toughest sale, the improved features and performance won over the vast majority of the community. It is certainly a conversation you will want to have with your community though.

You’re in luck too, the phpBB3 importer seems to be their most well built one. Here is a link to the howto article on it:


I don’t think paid hosting is going to work, because we don’t have much in the way of funds (we only moved to a Linode because our old hosting provider complained about high traffic use) and our site has much more than just the discussion forum. The Maps area in particular is used by people who never go near the forums, but nevertheless has additional features for logged-in users, such as creating your own maps. The wiki has about 5 bots crawling it all the time - if any page breaks for more than an hour or two, I typically get emails from Google warning me about it.

Posts appear on the forums all the time, with many parallel topics being added to less than a minute apart. To do a sensible upgrade would involve locking the forums so no more posts can be added, stopping mid-air conflict but also stopping the regulars from being able to say anything at all. Users have come to expect a downtime of no less than 1-2 hours, because we always schedule it in a time where we can both do the upgrade, and be around for a few hours longer to spot any teething problems (most often because a stock template or file we overrode has changed and no longer works). It just isn’t practical to wait days due to the lack of resource.

So, the technical challenges are not impossible, but I don’t believe anyone else is particularly “sold” on migrating to Discourse yet. I have asked one or two other people on the management privately, and they’re interested, but I suspect a significant response to be “it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. To give an analogy, I’m comfortable swapping between Windows, OS X and Linux without thinking about it, yet I know non-techs who won’t touch anything that’s not Windows with a barge-pole, complaining OS X is rubbish and user hostile.

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