10 Joomla extension modules for easier and better websites

If you're using Joomla to develop and administer your website, these tools can help.

With the recent release of Joomla 3.0, the open source content management system is getting a lot of attention lately, as current Joomla users start thinking about upgrading their sites and potential users check it out to see if Joomla's right for them.

It's an opportune time to take a look at some of the more popular Joomla extensions and see how they perform. Specifically, I looked at how they run on Joomla 2.5, the current "stable" release of Joomla. Joomla 3.0, which was released on September 27, 2012, has a lot of great features going for it, but the module ecosystem will still need some time to catch up. If you have moved to version 3.0, check with each specific extension's website to make sure it's compatible.

(One other note: You may notice that many of the extensions are price in Euros. My assumption is that Joomla's ecosystem has become very Euro-centric.)

Here's a diverse collection of extensions designed to make your Joomla site administration a lot easier and extend your site's capabilities.

Akeeba Backup

Developer: Akeeba Ltd.

Version tested: 3.6.6 (Stable)

Certified for: Joomla 2.5, Joomla 3.0

Price: Free (Backup Core); 40 Euros (about $52)/year (Backup Professional)

Like many extensions for the Joomla platform, Akeeba Backup fills a very specific niche: Backing up and (with a little extra script) restoring your Joomla website. I am happy to report that this is an extension that not only works as advertized, it will definitely be a part of my admin collection from now on.

Akeeba Backup is distributed under a freemium model. The Backup Core version is available free of charge; a subscription charge of 40 Euros (about $52) per year gets you Akeeba Backup Professional, with extra features like enabling system restore points, automatic update, email notifications when there are updates or backups, and 128-bit cryptography. Not to mention some better support options.

Akeeba Backup is as easy to install as any other Joomla extension, and running the post-installation configuration is just a matter of clicking a single button and off you go. Backing up is just as simple; click the big blue button in the Akeeba control panel and in just a few minutes the site is backed up.

***Figure akeeba3.png Backing up a site is a one-step process.

Things get a little less simple when you restore a site, but it's not too bad. All you need to do is download the Akeeba Kickstart package, then put all of the Kickstart files into your target restoration directory along with your backup files. Point your browser as kickstart.php, and it will walk you through a series of steps to restore your site, either on the original server or another server if you're moving it.

There is a nice bonus feature with the Kickstart/Backup combo: If you want, you can change several features like the database settings or admin user setting before the restoration, which makes it great for moving sites from one box to another.

Is Akeeba Backup Professional worth the money? I'm unsure. I was able to get a lot done with the Backup Core package, and was impressed with its features. If you have a lot of sites to manage, you will probably need the extra tools and features that come with the Pro version. The choice, though, is really up to you and your checkbook.

AllVideos

Developer: JoomlaWorks

Version tested: 4.4

Certified for: 1.5 Native, Joomla 2.5

Price: Free

Video content is something that every website administrator would really like to have, but often the complexities can be too much to handle.

It's not just the layout problems -- getting the video to be the right size, making sure locally hosted videos have a player with which to view them -- there's also the bandwidth issue. If you are posting a lot of video content, pretty soon any website that's not sitting on a load-balanced rack in some cloud somewhere is going to be crushed by the streaming bandwidth. (And if you don't know what that techno-jargon meant, then yeah, I'm talking to you.)

Enter AllVideos, JoomlaWork's impressive plugin that manages to circumvent many of these issues.

What AllVideos does is simple: It lets you tag videos -- whether they are locally hosted or posted on any one of a slew of sites like YouTube, Ustream or Vimeo -- so they are embedded with your site's content. This may not sound like a big deal, since you can cut and paste HTML code from many of these sites now. But such code is cumbersome, and requires some knowledge of HTML, especially if you want to get the video to display at a certain size.

With AllVideos, you just type an opening tag, the video's URL or unique code, then a closing tag. Whatever WYSIWYG editor you're using will suffice. For my test, I shamelessly stole this guy's video about biking across the country. In the Article Manager, all I did was type a fictitious introductory sentence and then:

{youtube}itHSWj9DMq0{/youtube}

***Figure allvideos2.png Posting a video is very simple with AllVideos.

This kind of functionality is great for small-site admins who don't want to hassle with bandwidth constraints. Just upload the video to your favorite shared video site (such as YouTube) and tag the video to display on your own site. If you want to host your videos locally, however, you can easily do so. The AllVideos documentation spells out exactly how to tag your content so it comes up properly.

The AllVideos configuration screen enables you to set the default parameters for local videos, such as where they are stored and in what format. You can also set the default size for any displayed videos or whether video should be played automatically. You can also set this in the tags for each individual video.

And, in case you were wondering, AllVideos supports audio files too.

CDN for Joomla

Developer: NoNumber

Version tested: 2.1.2

Certified for: 1.5 Native, Joomla 2.5

Price: Free (Basic); 30 Euros or $39 (Pro)

The business of handling website traffic is a tricky one. Most days, your server is just chugging along nicely, handling orders, displaying content and doing all the other things websites do with no muss and no fuss.

Then Oprah mentions she loves your latest product on live television. Suddenly your Web server is about as useful as the melted piece of slag it's about to become.

It doesn't have to be as dramatic as that. Sometimes it's a random DDOS attack probing your site's defenses. Or you have a seasonal store that does a lot of traffic at certain times of the year and is quiet at all the other times. Whatever the reason, you don't want your website to slow down or even come to a screeching halt -- especially if it's your business at stake.

The trick to handling a lot of traffic is sharing the load. The one-server-trying-to-do-it-all model will only go so far -- for the really heavy lifting, your site needs more machines to handle the incoming requests for content. That's the very essence of content delivery networks (CDNs): In times of heavy traffic, these sites will take over serving parts of your site so your core site's database and e-commerce engine can function properly.

These CDNs are separate services for which you have to sign up. Once you have your bonafides established with a CDN like MaxCDN, Amazon CloudFront or CloudCache, then you can use the CDN for Joomla extension to connect your site to your chosen service.

CDN for Joomla comes in two flavors: the Basic version is free, while the Pro version costs 30 Euros (about $39). The major difference between the two versions is that the Pro edition will support secure https transfers as well as multiple CDN roots. Having multiple roots is a very handy thing for larger sites, since you can have one CDN handling your multimedia content, another handling your images, and so on. The free version is also ad-supported.

***Figure CDN1.png Connecting to your CDN service.

Configuring CDN for Joomla is a snap: After obtaining the relevant information from the CDN service you are using, you type the information into the plug-in manager. You can then set the file types you want the CDN to actually start grabbing when traffic gets heavy.

CDN for Joomla works for CDNs that support pull zones -- meaning that you don't have to upload any files to the CDN's servers; the CDN will "pull" the content types you specify up to its servers as the need arises. This set-and-forget elasticity is what makes CDNs so nice to have, and a plug-in like CDN for Joomla so useful.

Community Builder

Developer: Joomlaopolis

Version tested: 1.8.1

Certified for: Joomla 1.0, 1.5 Native, Joomla 2.5

Price: Free (Add-ons extra)

There are lots of community-oriented packages out there for Joomla, with many different approaches to introducing elements of community site management into a site. For flexibility, Community Builder from Joomlapolis seems the current favorite.

It's not that I don't agree with this assessment, but you should be very clear about what you're getting with Community Builder versus other modules in this category. If you're expecting a rich, full-featured everything-you-could-ever-want-in-a-community-site package, then you're probably going to be disappointed.

Until you realize that Community Builder is offering something better.

What Community Builder delivers is a framework for a community site, not the entire pantheon of community site tools. So instead of getting a package that includes a blogging, forum or messaging system that you have to live with, Community Builder essentially enables you to use many of the tools you prefer to use already and -- this is the best part -- gets them to talk to each other.

Anyone who has put together a site that has a range of complex tools knows that the worst thing to deal with is the requirement for users to sign into one part of the site and then have to sign in again when they use another part of the site. Single sign-on is the Holy Grail for such sites, and you can pick and choose add-ons within Community Builder for many modules that will enable you to do just that.

Right out of the box, Community Builder starts setting up the single sign-on process by seamlessly integrating with your site's existing base login system. From there, it's just a matter of finding the right add-on for the tool you're already using or planning to use.

***Figure communitybuilder1.png Community Builder neatly replaces your site's default user management system with something more robust.

There are some drawbacks to Community Builder; for example, installing it is not a simple upload and go process. A total of four packages have to be installed, and then there a number of additional configuration steps you have to take to get things set just so. (The good news is this is all laid out in the README file in the downloaded package, and there's a lot of other documentation available on the Community Builder site.)

And then there's the bit with the add-ons. Community Builder is free of charge as delivered; it comes with its solid core features and the framework is all there. But to get the add-ons, you will need to upgrade to one of three additional subscription plans: Advanced, Professional or Developer. Those plans cost 65 Euros (about $84), 95 Euros (about $124) and 295 Euros (about $385) annually, which isn't exactly cheap if you're running a small site.

There's a lot of high-grade integration in this framework, which makes this a strong candidate for your site. Just be sure it can do what you need at a price you can afford.

Googlemaps Plugin

Developer: Mike Reumer

Version tested: 2.17

Certified for: 1.5 Native, Joomla 2.5

Price: Free

Happiness is a dead-simple plug-in that works right out of the box. That's what developer Mike Reumer has put together with his nicely designed Googlemaps Plugin.

Once enabled, you just enter a special tag (by default, {mosmap}) for the plug-in to appear within any page. The tag's default view can be easily set within the configuration settings or parameters can be added to have the displayed map show any location you wish in a variety of sizes and overlay choices.

***Figure googlemaps1.png This is a great plug-in to add mapping functionality to your site.

I'd say more about this plug-in, but that's pretty much it. I was tickled to play around with the parameters (which aren't that hard to work with) to get some seriously cool interactive maps in place, and can't wait to figure out how to add these to my own site.

JCE

Developer: Widget Factory Ltd.

Version tested: 2.2.8.3 (for Joomla 2.5)

Certified for: 1.5 Native, Joomla 2.5

Price: Free (Add-ons extra)

I'm a little ambivalent about this next plug-in, the Joomla Content Editor, also known as JCE. But it's not through any fault of the plug-in itself.

As a writer, I like my writing tools very simple and free from distraction. I need to focus on the words themselves, not all the dandified formatting and alignment tools that can be a big distraction. That's why I like tools like GNU Emacs or iA Writer depending on the platform I'm using, and that's why I can appreciate using the default editor within Joomla, TinyMCE. TinyMCE is simple, has some straightforward formatting tools, and there you are.

But putting my own idiosyncrasies aside, I have to say that for getting the look and feel of your site really crafted well, JCE has no peer. JCE doesn't replace TinyMCE, it adds on to what's there to give you a really robust editing tool.

Installation of JCE is easy; to activate it, you simply go into your site's Global Configuration settings and select JCE as your Default Editor.

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