If you have a community, at some point, you consider adding a chat application to your site to increase the interaction between users. Nearly all large web communities have a member chat room. Chat room applications come with different price ranges, hosted solutions and platforms so you have to consider a lot of factors while selecting your chat room solution. A few major issues are:
- Platform : This means the language application is coded. Chat room applications are written in different languages ranging from PHP to JAVA but I guess you’ll easily notice that all well developed chat solutions uses JAVA platform to give you the most smooth chat experience.
- Host solution: Some scripts are installed on your server so you need to have your own dedicated server to run them. When you install it to your server you have the advantage of having full control of the application, but this solution also means you’ll be spending your own bandwidth and server power for the chat room. If bandwidth or server power is a bottleneck in your server and your chat room gets crowded you may have problems. On the other hand some chat applications are installed in remote servers and they give you access to your own chat environment which is hosted in their server. In this solution, your server does not spend bandwidth or server power for the chat room.
- Integration: If you have a community, you’ll also consider integrating your chat room application with your community member database so that whenever a member logins to your site, chat application also knows him and grant him certain access you specified according to his credentials and usergroup. To achieve this goal, you have to select a chat room solution which is capable of integrating with your database.
- Price: This is of course a concern. There are a lot of scripts which are simply free or very cheap but there are also expensive chat room solutions which can cost as much as $XXXX range.
I’ve worked with many different chat solutions in client boards and in my own communities and I like to give you my comments about a few remarkable ones which you can consider installing to your community based site (especially vbulletin powered).
Flashchat is a very popular PHP based chat solution. If you patronize small forum communities, I’m sure you have run into that application in one site or another. It is very popular because it is quite cheap (just 5 USD!) and its user interface is pretty charming to end user.
It also have great hacks which integrates it very smoothly with your vbulletin community so many admins who consider to have a chat application, usually starts with FlashChat.
In one my own communities, I also used it for about a year and so and many of my clients still use it in their sites. If you have a small community, it can be a good starting application and I suggest it for admins who do not have large forums.
However IMO, it has a few important disadvantages:
a) It is PHP based, so unlike JAVA based solutions, its chat speed is not so high and smooth. When it comes to chatting, JAVA is the ultimate solution.
b) It puts a high load on the server if ore than a few people enter the chat room. For instance in my server, it couldn’t handle more than 15 people in chat room without taking server load to its tops.
c) 2 years ago a security breach about flashchat is found and it was such a popular script that many exploits have been written to use this breach and many servers which used flashchat have been hacked. Well this can happen to any web application and it has been patched quickly but I don’t blame the script or its author for this but when you use a popular script, its security breaches getting exploited is pretty common so its popularity is also a disadvantage on this aspect.
DIGICHAT: Let’s jump from the cheapest script to most expensive. It has different packages with different features and hosting solutions but the least expensive one starts from $549 so this is the most expensive hosted solution.
I think its charm is its lovely user interface though. It has an awesome design and chatting is very smooth (thanks to its Platform Java). In some more expensive packages it also provides solutions like video chat, voice chat, moderated etc. and it is quite popular chat solution.
If you don’t have budget problems, I can suggest going with digichat as a stand-alone chat solution but frankly speaking it is not my first choice when it comes to integrating it with vbulletin. I don’t find digichat customizable enough in comparison to parachat and realchat when it comes to integration.
REALCHAT: This has been my first suggestion for years for vbulletin communities. A lot of my clients are using it and I like its flexibility to integrate with your member database. But unlike other scripts, it does not come with a remote host solution, so you have to install it your own server (hence have a dedicated server) to use realchat. IMO its user interface is also is not as charming as other chat solutions and in comparison to its price tag, I believe it could be a little more charming. But from developer point of view, I suggest realchat to any large community sites if you don’t have problems running chat application in your own server and can afford it. Its a stable, rock solid, flexible, well supported and customizable chat application.
PARACHAT: I have worked with all of these chat scripts above but didn’t hear about parachat for years. Then one day, when I was looking for a chat solution which is more reasonably priced than digichat and realchat and more powerful than flashchat, I bumped into it and I used it for 1 year in one of my large communities. Well it surprised me and prove to be much better than I expected in the first place.
I find it very flexible when it comes to integration just like realchat so it got a very big plus from my developer side. It has different hosting solutions (remote hosted or dedicated hosted in your own server) and also different packages for different needs and budgets. I used remote hosting of professional package and the service was very stable for the entire year I used it. I haven’t used dedicated hosted solution so I can’t tell anything about its load on the server but as far as I can remember, its license fee was lower than digichat and realchat’s dedicated solutions. It also started to support video / voice chat options but my package didn’t cover them when I used their services so I can’t tell about its quality.
So after this review, let me give you my 2 cents about which solution to use:
* If you have a small community & small budget and your chat room will not be crowded, start your chat experience with flashchat. It is nearly free and will give you everything you need until your chat needs grow.
* When you need a more solid chat room, you can jump to parachat remote hosted solution. You can choose between Advanced or Professional package according to your needs and budget. Since it is remotely hosted, bandwidth, installation, server load or having a dedicated server will not be a concern to you. Your chat room will even work when your site server is down for a reason. I believe parachat will give you everything you need if you own a moderate sized community.
* If your community grows more than that and you need a fully managed, dedicated hosting solution or even a chat server, you can decide between parachat (this time Enterprise package), RealChat or Digichat. If budget and full integration is no concern, you can select digichat which provides the best user interface. But if you need a tighter integration with your community, more flexibility and customization, select between RealChat or Parachat. Both scripts have a free evaluation installation options so I suggest you to install both of them and choose after you and your staff experience them