Guides How to install and host a Discourse community forum

How to install and host a Discourse community forum

Last updatedJune 30, 2024
AuthorKai Forsyth

Discourse is an open-source discussion platform that you can use to host a forum for your community. Installing Discourse on your own server or cloud environment provides flexibility and control compared to using a hosted forum service. However, the installation process can be complex and time-consuming – especially for those with minimal technical experience.

To help understand what is involved, we have written this guide to walk through how to install Discourse from scratch using Docker. The process takes around an hour for those with some basic technical experience. However, if you have never used a terminal, registered a domain name, provisioned a cloud server, or worked with Docker before, self-hosting Discourse may prove challenging.

Hosting Discourse

When considering whether to self-host Discourse or use a managed hosting solution, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons carefully. Self-hosting offers greater control and flexibility, but also comes with added responsibilities and technical challenges.

Pros of hosting Discourse

One of the biggest advantages of self-hosting Discourse is the level of control and customization it offers. With your own installation, you have full access to the server environment and can configure Discourse to match your exact requirements. This includes the ability to install plugins and themes without restrictions, giving you the freedom to extend and tailor your community platform as needed. Self-hosting also ensures you maintain complete ownership and control over your forum data, which may be important for compliance or privacy reasons.

In terms of cost, self-hosting Discourse can be more economical than subscribing to a hosted plan, particularly for larger or high-traffic communities. With self-hosting, you’re responsible for providing the server infrastructure, but you avoid the recurring fees associated with hosted services. If you already have servers or cloud instances available, running Discourse on them could result in significant cost savings over time.

Cons of hosting Discourse

While self-hosting Discourse offers advantages in control and customization, it also comes with significant responsibilities and potential drawbacks. One of the main challenges is the technical expertise required to install, configure, and maintain a self-hosted Discourse instance. You’ll need to be comfortable provisioning servers, managing Docker containers, configuring web and email settings, and troubleshooting issues that may arise. If you don’t have experience with system administration or DevOps, the learning curve can be steep.

Ongoing maintenance is another key consideration when self-hosting Discourse. As the platform owner, you’ll be responsible for keeping your instance updated with the latest features, bug fixes, and security patches. This includes monitoring the Discourse release cycle, testing updates before deploying to production, and being prepared to roll back or troubleshoot if issues occur. You’ll also need to ensure your server infrastructure scales with your community’s growth, manage backups and disaster recovery, and handle any performance or stability problems that come up. For teams without dedicated technical resources, the maintenance overhead can quickly become a burden.

Discourse installation guide

Now that we’ve covered the considerations for self-hosting Discourse, let’s walk through the step-by-step process of installing Discourse on your own server.

Step 1: Prerequisites

Installing Discourse involves:

If those tasks sound unfamiliar or intimidating, you may want to consider a managed Discourse hosting service instead or choosing a cloud-hosted community platform like, like Hall. Using a cloud-hosted and managed community platform trades some flexibility for a simpler and faster setup process. You won’t have full control over the server environment, but for many communities, a hosted solution is a better fit.

Before installing Discourse, you’ll need:

  1. A domain name: Discourse requires a domain name like forum.example.com. The install won’t work with just an IP address. If you don’t already have a domain, you can register one at a registrar like Namecheap or Google Domains.

  2. An SMTP email provider: Discourse requires SMTP credentials to send transactional emails. You can use a free or paid SMTP service – see the Discourse email setup guide for recommendations. You’ll need to configure valid SPF and DKIM records for your domain.

  3. A cloud server or VPS: Discourse needs to run on a 64-bit Linux server with a minimum of 1 GB RAM (2 GB+ recommended). A basic DigitalOcean or Linode VPS works well. I recommend using the latest Ubuntu LTS release.

  4. A SSH key: For security, set up SSH key access to your server instead of relying on password authentication. GitHub has a good guide on generating SSH keys.

If you’re comfortable with the prerequisites listed above and want full control over your Discourse instance, then let’s proceed with the self-hosted installation steps.

Step 2: Install Docker and Git

Once you have your server provisioned, connect to it via SSH:

ssh root@your_server_ip

First, install the Docker container engine and Git:

sudo apt update
sudo apt install docker.io git

Step 3: Download Discourse

We’ll install Discourse in the /var/discourse directory:

sudo -s
git clone https://github.com/discourse/discourse_docker.git /var/discourse
cd /var/discourse

Step 4: Configure Discourse

Discourse provides a handy setup script. Run it and answer the prompts:


Key configuration options:

  • Hostname for your Discourse: Enter the domain name you configured earlier, e.g. forum.example.com
  • Email address for admin account(s): Where to email admin account details
  • SMTP server address, SMTP user name, etc.: Enter the SMTP details from your email provider
  • Let’s Encrypt account email: Entering an email enables free SSL certificates from Let’s Encrypt. Recommended!

Step 5: Start Discourse

Once configuration is done, the Discourse setup script will automatically begin bootstrapping your instance. This takes anywhere from 4-10 minutes.

When it finishes, visit your Discourse hostname in a web browser. If everything went smoothly, you’ll see a Congratulations page.

Step 6: Create admin account

Click the Register button to create an admin account using one of the email addresses you specified in the setup script. You’ll get an activation email. Click the link to complete registration.

After activating the admin account, you’ll see the Discourse setup wizard.

Go through the wizard to name your community, configure basic settings, and personalize the look and feel.

Step 7: Configure SSL

If you provided a Let’s Encrypt email earlier, Discourse will automatically set up SSL. To enable it, edit your Discourse configuration:

cd /var/discourse
nano containers/app.yml

Add the following lines at the bottom, replacing forum.example.com with your domain:

  - "80:80"
  - "443:443"

  - "LETSENCRYPT_ACCOUNT_EMAIL=you@example.com"
  - "VIRTUAL_HOST=forum.example.com"
  - "VIRTUAL_PROTO=https"

Save and close the file, then rebuild the app:

./launcher rebuild app

Now your Discourse forum will have a valid SSL certificate and redirect users to HTTPS.

Step 8: Explore Discourse

Congratulations, if you made it through all those steps successfully, you should now be ready to start using Discourse! Take some time to familiarize yourself with the admin interface and available configuration options.

A few key areas to review:

  • General settings: Define your site name, contact info, basic layout options and more under the Settings tab.
  • Security settings: Manage sign-up controls, login methods, API access, and other security options.
  • Customize appearance: Upload logos, select a color scheme, and customize your forum’s look and feel under the Customize tab.
  • Manage users: Review user activity, grant admin/moderator privileges, and define user trust levels under the Users tab.
  • Configure backups: Automatically backup your Discourse data on a regular schedule in case of server issues or data loss.

It should be noted that Discourse does not come with many features expected in a community platform, and that additional features will have to be installed and managed via the Discourse plugin system. Popular options include Discourse Chat, enhanced spam protection, and more.

Keep in mind that installing and updating plugins will be your responsibility, similar to maintaining Discourse itself. If specific plugin features are critical to your community, you may be better off with using a cloud-hosted community platform like like Hall that comes bundled with many of these features out-of-the-box.

Troubleshooting Discourse installation issues

During the Discourse installation process, you may encounter issues related to the specific steps involved. Here are some common problems and how to troubleshoot them:

Docker installation issues

If you encounter errors during the Docker installation process, double-check that you’re following the official installation guide for your operating system. Common issues include:

  • Missing dependencies: Ensure you have all the necessary prerequisites installed on your server, such as apt-transport-https and ca-certificates.
  • Permission errors: If you see permission-related errors, make sure you’re running the installation commands with sudo or as the root user.
  • Conflicting packages: If you have previous versions of Docker installed, they may conflict with the new installation. Try removing any existing Docker packages before proceeding. If you continue to have trouble installing Docker, consult the official Docker documentation or seek help from the Docker community forums.

Email configuration issues

Proper email configuration is critical for Discourse to function correctly. If you’re not receiving emails from your Discourse instance or encountering errors related to email delivery, check the following:

  • SMTP credentials: Verify that you’ve entered the correct SMTP hostname, port, username, and password in your Discourse configuration. Test your SMTP settings using a tool like Swaks to ensure they’re working as expected.
  • SPF and DKIM records: Make sure you’ve set up valid SPF and DKIM records for your domain. These records help prevent your emails from being marked as spam. You can use tools like MX Toolbox to check your SPF and DKIM configuration.
  • Firewall and network settings: If you’re using a firewall or network restrictions, ensure that outbound SMTP traffic (usually on port 25, 587, or 465) is allowed from your Discourse server.

If you’ve double-checked your email configuration and are still having issues, take a look at the Discourse troubleshooting guide for email-related problems.

SSL configuration issues

If you’re having trouble enabling SSL for your Discourse instance, first make sure you’ve followed the instructions in the Configure SSL section of this guide. Common issues include:

  • Incorrect domain name: Verify that you’ve entered the correct domain name in the VIRTUAL_HOST parameter in your app.yml file.
  • Port conflicts: Make sure that ports 80 and 443 are not being used by any other applications on your server. You may need to stop or disable other web servers like Apache or Nginx before starting Discourse.
  • Let’s Encrypt rate limits: If you’ve hit Let’s Encrypt’s rate limits for issuing certificates, you may need to wait before requesting a new certificate. You can check your current rate limits at crt.sh.

If you continue to have issues with SSL, consult the Discourse documentation on troubleshooting SSL for more advanced steps and considerations.

Other installation issues

If you encounter other errors during the Discourse installation process, here are a few general troubleshooting tips:

  • Check the logs: Discourse logs can provide valuable information about what’s going wrong. Check the logs in the /var/discourse/shared/standalone/log/rails/production.log file for errors or stack traces.
  • Ensure adequate resources: Make sure your server meets the minimum hardware requirements for running Discourse, especially if you’re seeing performance issues or out-of-memory errors.
  • Seek community support: Search the Discourse Meta forum for posts related to your issue, or create a new topic in the Hosting category to ask for help from other Discourse administrators.

If you’re unable to resolve your installation issues after attempting these troubleshooting steps, it may be worth considering a managed Discourse hosting service or a cloud-hosted community platform like Hall to avoid the complexities of self-hosting.

Maintaining and upgrading Discourse

Because you are hosting Discourse yourself, you are responsible for keeping your instance up-to-date, applying security patches, and maintaining server resources. If something goes wrong with your self-hosted forum, you’ll need to diagnose and fix issues yourself or hire someone to assist you.

Managed Discourse hosting removes this burden, taking care of all updates, patches, backups, and server monitoring on your behalf. The provider handles all maintenance, giving you a single point of contact for support. If maintaining a stable and secure forum while controlling software and server configuration is too much overhead for your team, outsource that complexity to a reputable provider.

To update Discourse to the latest version, visit the /admin/upgrade URL while logged in as an admin. Click the Upgrade button to automatically pull down the latest code changes and rebuild your forum. Stay on top of new Discourse releases to ensure you have the latest features, bug fixes, and security updates.

Scaling with growth

As your community grows, you may need to scale your Discourse instance to handle increased traffic and user activity. Discourse can be scaled vertically by increasing the resources (CPU, RAM, disk space) allocated to your server. This is often the simplest approach and can be done by upgrading your hosting plan or resizing your cloud instance.

For larger communities, horizontal scaling may be necessary. This involves running multiple Discourse instances behind a load balancer to distribute traffic and improve performance. Discourse provides official documentation on configuring a clustered setup for scaling and high availability.

Performance monitoring

Monitoring your Discourse instance’s performance is crucial to ensure a smooth user experience and avoid unexpected downtime. Keep an eye on server CPU, memory, and disk usage to identify potential bottlenecks before they impact your community.

Tools like Netdata or Prometheus can be used to collect and visualize performance metrics for your Discourse server. Discourse also provides a built-in /admin/dashboard URL that shows useful statistics and graphs for monitoring your instance.

Set up alerts to notify you when resource usage exceeds predefined thresholds, so you can take proactive measures to scale or optimize your setup.

Backup and disaster recovery

Regular backups are essential to protect your community data from loss due to server failures, accidents, or security breaches. Discourse provides a built-in backup system that can automatically create daily, weekly, and monthly backups of your instance.

To set up automatic backups, visit the /admin/backups URL in your Discourse instance and configure the backup frequency and retention policy. You can also trigger manual backups from this page.

In addition to the built-in backup system, it’s a good idea to implement an off-site backup strategy. This can involve syncing your backup files to a remote storage service like Amazon S3, Google Cloud Storage, or Backblaze B2. This ensures you have a copy of your data in case of a disaster affecting your primary server.

Test your backups regularly to ensure they can be successfully restored in case of an emergency. Documenting your backup and restoration process is also important, especially if multiple team members are involved in managing your Discourse instance.

Getting support

When you encounter issues or have questions about your self-hosted Discourse instance, you can engage with the official Discourse community at meta.discourse.org. The community forum is a great place to search for solutions, ask for help, and learn from other Discourse administrators.

However, keep in mind that as an open-source project, the level of support you receive may vary compared to a commercial or cloud-hosted solution. While the Discourse community is generally helpful and responsive, there’s no guarantee of immediate or personalized assistance. In contrast, cloud-hosted community platforms like Hall often provide dedicated support channels, SLAs, and professional services to ensure your questions and issues are addressed promptly by experienced staff.


Self-hosting Discourse isn’t for everyone. But if you have the technical expertise and are willing to invest the setup time, running your own Discourse instance is a powerful way to build an engaged community and facilitate meaningful discussions around your product, service, or industry.

Carefully consider the tradeoffs before diving into a self-hosted installation. You’ll have full control and flexibility but also take on the responsibility of server management, software upgrades, and troubleshooting any issues that arise.

For many organizations, a cloud-hosted community platform like Hall offers the right balance of convenience and customization. You can still reap the benefits of Discourse’s vibrant ecosystem while offloading back-end complexities to a trusted partner. You can read our detailed comparison guide of Hall and Discourse to better understand the tradeoffs.

If you do forge ahead with a self-hosted deployment, use this guide as a reference and don’t hesitate to tap into the wealth of community resources available to Discourse admins. With the right approach and ongoing care, your Discourse forum can become a solid foundation that enriches your customer community for years to come.

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