10 Joomla extension modules for easier and better websites

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

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CDN for Joomla

Developer: NoNumber Version tested: 2.1.2 Certified for: Joomla 1.5/2.5

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 in a live television interview. 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 worse, 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 bona fides 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.

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: Joomlapolis Version tested: 1.8.1 Certified for: Joomla 1.0/1.5/2.5

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.

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: Joomla 1.5/2.5

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.

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: Joomla 1.5/2.5

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.

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.

By far my favorite tool in that massive toolbar is the Full Screen toggle button, which expands the entire editor out to the entire browser screen. My second-favorite control is the Toggle Editor link just about the JCE field that hides that four-row toolbar so it's out of the way to let me do what I like to do: write.

There are a few add-ons available for JCE, such as a Media Manager and an extended Image Manager, and yes, there's a subscription required to access these plug-ins, starting at 25 euros (about $32), with renewals starting a 15 euros (about $20). There's a nice demo site available if you want to see if the plug-ins are right for you.

If you want to fine-tune the look and feel of your site's content, then I would definitely recommend JCE.

JEvents

Developer: JEvents Version tested: 2.2.7 (for Joomla 2.5) Certified for: Joomla 1.5/2.5

Price: Free (Modules, themes extra)

Like many of the other modules within this review, JEvents, an events and calendar extension, has a free central component that has a number of additional add-ons and support services available. But this is a tool that's so complete as is, you may be hard pressed to need the additional features.

That's a little bit of hyperbole, but not very much. Right after installing JEvents, the main configuration screen pops up for you to get things squared away; there are a lot of options with which to work, including enabling the import/exports of iCal files and setting up an RSS feed for your events.

Setting a calendar up is straightforward: Just create a menu items and point the item to one of the many JEvents options that are available.

One thing to remember: You can't directly populate a calendar with events. You have to add a Create JEvents menu item that will enable that functionality.

This is not the smoothest plug-in in this collection, but with a little legwork, you can get exactly what you need out of JEvents.

Jtouch Mobile Template

Developer: JtouchMobile.com Version tested: 2.5.12 Certified for: Joomla 1.5/2.5

Price: Free

Of all of the tools examined in this roundup, this one's different. It's not a plug-in or extension -- it's actually a template designed specifically for presenting your site on mobile devices such as smartphones and templates.

The package you download has two main components: The actual template itself and the extra Mobile Controller plug-in that detects an incoming browser to see if it qualifies as a mobile platform.

The template is easy to configure as far as look and feel; it shows up well on smartphones.

I also appreciate how you can set up the Controller plugin to also display the mobile version of the site on tablet devices. This worked quite well on my iPad.

There are other mobile-suitable templates available for Joomla -- for example, the same developer also offers the Kunena Mobile Template and the Joom2Mobile Bootstrap Template. However, the variations on a theme that you can configure using Jtouch Mobile Template make this among the best of the bunch, especially for the price tag: Free.

Simple Image Gallery

Developer: JoomlaWorks Version tested: 2.2_j1.6 Certified for: Joomla 1.5/2.5

Price: Free (basic); 14.90 euros (about $19.50) (Pro)

If you're looking for a fast way to display your photos in a slide-show manner on any page in your site, look no further. This is probably the easiest way I have seen to date to just drop photos onto your pages.

Simple Image Gallery is from JoomlaWorks, the same team that put together AllVideos. And, Simple Image Gallery works in much the same way.

All you need to do is upload all the images from a particular event or theme into a single folder of your choosing in Joomla's Media Manager. Then, using the {gallery} tag, you basically add the gallery of images to any page you want. The format is just: {gallery}Name_of_Folder{/gallery}.

That's it.

Of course, there's more you can do with this plugin. If you opt for the Simple Image Gallery Pro tool, you can get additional gallery themes, different popup engines and captioning features. For the flat fee, I would definitely pick up the Pro version, especially if you like to display images on your site.

VirtueMart

Developer: VirtueMart eCommerce Solution Version tested: 2.0.12b Certified for: Joomla 1.5/1.7/2.5

Price: Free

This is not the first time I have taken a look at VirtueMart, and it's had some nice updates in the intervening time.

And it's been noticed. VirtueMart is mentioned in nearly every Joomla tools list out there, and there's a burgeoning ecosystem that's growing up around plugins just for this shopping cart framework. The last time I reviewed this product, this ecosystem was a mere "healthy" -- now it's on steroids.

Compared to other e-commerce platforms, VirtueMart is still a bit light out of the box, but that is far outweighed by the sheer volume of all of the additional tools you can get. And even as is, VirtueMart has a lot of tools under the hood.

If you need a Joomla-specific commerce system, then VirtueMart would definitely be the place to start.

Brian Proffitt is a veteran IT writer with experience in open source, mobile and big data technologies. An unrepentant Hoosier, he can be followed on Twitter: @TheTechScribe.

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