When you sign up for web hosting your account will include access to a control panel. In this article, you’ll learn what your control panel options are and how to select one. For developers, we also address advanced issues like multi-server management and scalable clustering.
- What control panels are used for
- What types of options you have
- How to choose a control panel
What Is a Control Panel?
A web hosting control panel is a graphical user interface (GUI) or, in some cases, a web-based interface, that is accessible online and provides tools for managing a website, the web hosting account, and sometimes the server.
In most cases, you will access your control panel via a web browser, though this may vary on occasion. Almost every hosting company has a control panel, and some offer you a choice of control panels. It’s the most visible part of a web hosting plan, and its features and functionality will largely determine the quality of your experience as a web hosting customer.
Why use graphical user interfaces for control panels?
Think about what you expect to see when you turn on your computer. Do you want to type long commands into a black terminal screen with monochrome lettering?
Or would you rather use your mouse to navigate around a GUI, clicking on icons and moving windows around? Most people prefer visual. It’s the same way with web hosting and server management.
Using web hosting without a control panel
You can, in theory, access your web hosting account and server without a dedicated interface using primarily with tools secure shell (SSH) — direct command line access or File Transfer Protocol (FTP).
It’s definitely good to have one (or even both) available options, and you might want to learn the ins and outs of that way of doing things. But most of the time, your life is going to be easier — and your work is going to get done faster — if you use a control panel.
Control Panel Tasks
There are several web and server administration tasks you will be doing from the Control Panel interface:
- Account administration
- Domain management
- One-click installation
- Email management
- Database management
- File management
Some of these tasks might be one-time events like setting up your website and transferring all of your content files. Others will be regular occurrences like updating existing files or looking at your website’s analytics. Knowing what you’ll be using the Control Panel for will help you decide which one is right. You can narrow down your options based on the features available.
Typical account management tasks handled within your control panel include altering your billing profile, plan renewal, updating your password, and similar items.
The software running the control panel will handle your credit card information. If that software is not secure and up to date, it could be a problem. You do not want to be on the hook for things you did not purchase.
All of the following domain name-related features regarding the following will be done in the control panel:
- Domain renewal
- DNS editing
- MX records
- Domain forwarding
- Subdomain management
- Registering new domains
- IP addresses
Generally speaking, domain management, though infrequently done, might be one of the more complex (yet important) things you do. This is one area where you want to make sure you understand how your control panel has things set up.
If you plan to use a popular web application or content management system (CMS) like WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, or ZenCart, the quickest and easiest way to get these loaded onto your hosting server is to use a one-click installer like SimpleScripts or Fantastico. You look up the product you want and click “install.” The installer will take care of the rest.
For example, if you are a WordPress user, you will not have to manually download a copy of the WordPress core, only to then upload it via FTP to your website’s server. If your hosting company provides these services, they will be available from the control panel.
You can also use your control panel to:
- Set up mail accounts
- Set up email forwarders
- Set up email spam filters.
- Manage email accounts
- Delete email accounts
While this may sound minor, it eliminates hefty administrative tasks in the long run.
File transfer protocol
FTP is a process to access files and folders on the server. It is also how you move files around.
Did you create an HTML file for your website on your personal computer? Well, to get that file onto your server and online, you will need to use FTP to transfer the file to your web hosting provider. Setting up FTP accounts and access generally requires access to a control panel.
You will need a database to manage your data and for your database, you will need a control panel. For most people, the MySQL databases that come standard with web hosting packages are sufficient.
As such, many control panels play nice with MySQL. The control panel also allows you to keep tabs on your database and get answers to questions like:
- Is my database online?
- How is it performing?
- Are there any issues with my data, database, or database server that I need to know about?
For example, some hosts will, by default, support PostgreSQL, but if you need to use Microsoft’s SQL Server, your choices will be more limited (and, in most cases, more expensive).
You may want to use FTP instead of a browser-based file manager to manage the files on your server. But if FTP is not for you, most control panels provide some type of browser-based file manager — though their ease of use varies tremendously from system to system.
Some web hosts provide an easy-to-use drag-and-drop system, while others seem to have options that have not been updated since the early 1990s. Furthermore, using FTP does not mean you can eschew the control panel completely. You will still need the control panel to set up your FTP users and you must create the users and grant them the appropriate levels of permissions needed to complete their tasks.
Most control panels include some kind of built-in file backup utility that runs regularly. If this is not the case, you will have access to a third party backup system.
Regardless, your control panel is where you would go to create backups, as well as access any of the backups that have been created. Sometimes, you may also use it to restore a backup.
Live chat support and other on-demand support features are almost always administered through the control panel. Sometimes, you will also find knowledge base documentation and FAQs on pages located in the control panel.
However, some hosts might have these files hosted elsewhere. If so, you will find links to the documents on the control panel itself.
Why You Should Care About Control Panels
You will get very familiar with your web hosting company’s control panel. When you first purchase a new hosting plan, you will see the control panel more often than your new website.
You will have to come back to it on a regular basis — daily if you’re diligent — to check basic stats and server usage and make sure everything is running smoothly. Since you’ll be using it frequently, it’s important to find an option you enjoy using in addition to offering the features and functionality to do your work.
Your control panel and your web hosting experience
The control panel will be your primary experience with your web hosting account. You can’t see the speed and performance of your website and server, but you can see the control panel.
How easy or hard it is to use will be a major determining factor in your overall satisfaction with your web hosting plan.
The right control panel for you
There are some advanced users out there who want a particular tool and can only get it from a particular control panel.
But for most of us, any one of them will get the job done — most control panels do about the same thing. This is a good thing, especially for those with shared hosting plans who do not have many options available.
The matter of preference
Regardless of what your host offers, you are likely to get a good option that will meet your needs and do what you need it to do. With that said, not every one of them will make sense to you.
Each control panel has a different:
- Way of dealing with tasks
If you have a control panel that does everything you need but does not fit your user habits quite right, you won’t enjoy using it.
How To Choose a Web Hosting Control Panel
Most web hosting companies only offer one control panel. Some offer two or three to choose from. Typically, Linux-based plans come with a cPanel WebHost Manager (WHM), while Windows hosting plans come with Plesk.
Honestly, your choice of control panel might very well come down to the operating system your web server is using.
Once you’ve narrowed your hosting choices to just a few based on other factors, check if they have different control panels. If your hosts do offer a variety of options, see if you can get a demo. Many web hosting companies have a “sandbox control panel” that you can try out.
The Most Popular Web Hosting Control Panels: cPanel vs. Plesk
Some people swear by their iPhones, while others will only use phones running the Android operating system. Similarly, both cPanel and Plesk users will argue their system is easier and better, and both are right.
cPanel is a web-based, Linux control panel. There are three tiers comprising the cPanel package, and each tier is used by a different set of personnel:
- End-user website owners
It is web-based so you will be interacting with the product through your web browser. With cPanel, all your applications and tools are categorized into easy-to-find groups, such as:
An ideal interface
Icons in each group can be moved around your interface in a drag-and-drop fashion. This is similar to moving folders on your desktop, and it allows users to simplify their experience by front-loading the tools they use most. Some limitations include not being allowed to move icons from one group to another.
Given such complexity, we will say that once you have chosen cPanel, it can be very difficult for you to move to another option. Essentially, uninstalling cPanel is possible, but it is not probable that you will do so.
Plesk, on the other hand, has an interface heavily influenced by Windows (it also happens to run on Windows servers, which cPanel does not). It combines the icon-based display with more text-based windows, which resemble the Windows Control Panel.
Things like system and domain information, statistical resources, email management tools, and applications are presented in two columns, window-style on the main screen. This makes it easy to find anything you need without any scrolling.
While cPanel splits its product up based on the personnel it expects to use certain features, Plesk does not make such defined distinctions. This is especially between client-side/end-user and server-side/administrative features.
Plesk Extensions allow you to easily add features and functionality to the default installation, as well as integrate with third-party tools.
Alternatives to Plesk and cPanel
You do not have to use Plesk or cPanel if you do not want to — there are many other control panel options available. All of them organize tools in their own unique way and offer slightly different approaches to accomplishing the same tasks. Some hosts use their own custom control panels, or customized versions of cPanel, Plesk, and so on.
For example, InterWorx provides a tabbed environment, limiting the content on each screen. And vDeck<> sports a very similar look and feel as cPanel, but categorizes items by purpose rather than type, so your database, file manager, and website creator are all lumped under the ‘website’ category.
Different routes to the same outcome
Some users find vDeck’s approach convenient, while others find it less intuitive than cPanel’s organization.
Both InterWorx and vDeck auto-create a common items category, where your most commonly used applications and tools are stored. Ultimately, regardless of the control panel your host offers, you will still be able to accomplish all the same tasks. But you may find it easier to navigate one over the other.
Here are nine options you might be interested in:
DirectAdmin is an easy-to-use, performant, and highly stable control panel option for Linux users. In addition to backing its product with top-notch support, DirectAdmin offers a wide variety of licensing options to fit the needs of websites both small and large.
First released in 2003, the product has been continuously updated since then. The company prides itself on keeping up with current technologies. And if you need a control panel with a multilingual interface, DirectAdmin supports most of the popular website-related tools, including MySQL/MariaDB, Apache, NGINX, Litespeed, PHP, and more.
H-Sphere is a cross-platform control panel written in Java that works with any SQL-type server/database. It is a more advanced hosting option, with features including:
- Scalable clustering
- Multilingual support
- E-commerce functions
- An email system
- Site building tools
- SSL support
Note: It is not the easiest-to-use option. With great power comes a steep learning curve and a user interface that is not a candidate for best on the web. H-Sphere comes with solid documentation and has a robust community. Though the product itself may be tricky, you will find it easy to get help should you need it.
InterWorx is technically the umbrella name for two products:
- NodeWorx: used by server sysadmins to manage servers
- SiteWorx: used by a website owner to manage websites
Obviously, if you are looking for a control panel, you will be interested in SiteWorx, which comes with all of the functionality you expect from a control panel. Yet its control panel does feature extra focusing on server cluster management and load balancing.
Graphical user interface and requirements
InterWorx offers the web-based GUI you expect, but note that all functions can be done via command line or Application Programming Interface (API) as well.
If you need a control panel option that is as lightweight as possible, InterWorx is definitely an option to consider. The system requirements are minimal, and some have used it to run server clusters on Raspberry Pi devices.
A stable, secure, and performant option, it comes with lots of documentation and a large community that is able and willing to help. If you need enterprise-level functionality, ISPConfig ships with some.
ISPConfig’s feature set includes:
- Single or multi-server management, including cluster configuration and mirroring options
- Support for Apache and NGINX options
- Email management and security
- DNS and domain management
- Granular access controls
- Data analytics
There are two versions of ISPmanager: Lite (for personal use) and Business (for those providing shared hosting services).
Full version and available extensions
The full ISPmanager option might be a bit too much in terms of features for the everyday user, and if this is you, consider the ISPmanager Lite. It is a simpler option that allows you to manage your personal server and websites. If you need to add to the functionality that ships with ISPmanager, you can do so by installing extensions.
ISPmanager’s support for third-party software is wide-ranging and includes things like Apache, NGINX, MySQL, PostgreSQL, Sendmail, Exim, and Postfix. You can use the open API to integrate and deploy changes to your web hosting.
vDeck prides itself on its easy-to-use tools and easy-to-navigate interface. It is very similar to Plesk and cPanel (including its looks and appearance), but it comes with more advanced tools and features built-in.
More specifically, you will get the website, email, domain, and account management features you expect from a control panel, but you will also get e-commerce and marketing-related services.
Virtualmin is an open-source control panel designed for use on both physical servers and cloud servers running Linux or BSD. There are two versions of Virtualmin.
Different versions of Virtualmin
First, there is an open-source, community-maintained version that can be used by anyone free of charge.
Yet there is also a premium version of Virtualmin that is more feature-filled than the open-source version and comes with added support. The paid, premium version is great for those who need a more robust control panel for their website or web app.
Connection to Webmin
Virtualmin is built on top of (and still integrates well with) Webmin, which we discuss immediately below. Virtualmin differentiates itself from Webmin by branding itself as an option for serious system administrators who need lots of features for managing their infrastructure.
Virtualmin stands out by supporting features not typically found in control panels, such as:
- Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) and two-factor authentication
- Command line management
- Advanced access controls
Other stand-out features in Virtualmin include:
- A full API
- Sysadmin-friendly default settings
- Robust security
Strictly speaking, Webmin is not like a control panel when it comes to the features offered — it is a server sys admin tool for managing servers. But it may be useful, especially if you grow to the point where you manage multiple servers for your website or web app. Webmin was once available only on *nix systems, but it can also be installed on Windows servers.
Though a single software developer created and manages Webmin, it is based on modules, making it easy to customize the product to suit your needs. Furthermore, anyone who wants to create a module can do so.
WHM, like Webmin, is a multi-server management tool used by admins — and sometimes resellers — to manage hosting accounts on a web server. It is a sister product to cPanel.
While cPanel focuses on the client-side functionality (that is, those needed to manage the website), WHM focuses more on server-side features and functionality. If you use WHM, you will likely be using it in conjunction with cPanel.
Regardless of whether you have opted for shared, reseller, VPS, or dedicated web hosting, control panels are a crucial part of your website management experience, so be sure to pick the option that best fits your needs, both in terms of features and preferences.
Frequently Asked Questions About Control Panels
Are different control panels available for different operating systems?
Yes. The most popular control panel, cPanel, is only available on CentOS, RedHat, and CloudLinux. On the other hand, Plesk is available on Windows and many Linux installations.
Most control panels will run on Linux, as most hosting plans are Linux-based. If you choose a Windows server, your options will be much more limited, but there are still quite a few options.
If I stick with the same control panel, will I always have the same programs available for one-click installation?
Not always. The one-click installer your host provides is not based on the control panel, though it may be limited by the control panel.
The big three script libraries, Fantastico, Softaculous, and SimpleScripts, can be run on most popular control panels and most hosting companies will use one of these.
Fortunately, regardless of the script library your host offers, the most commonly installed applications will be available. However, if you have a preference, this may be one more thing to research when selecting your host.
Can I change my control panel?
That depends on the plan and your host. In most cases, shared hosting plans come with a single, preinstalled control plan. Some hosts offer different control panels with different plans or operating systems. With VPS, you may have more options available.
In some cases, if your host provides root access, you can install your own control panel, though this is not guaranteed. If you wish to install your own, you should check with the host before committing.
With a dedicated server, you should have root access, which means you can purchase and install any control panel you desire, provided it’s available for self-installation. Of course, if you prefer not to mess around with setting up or paying for your own control panel, you can just stick with the one your host provides.
Is cPanel the same from one host to another?
In general, your cPanel experience should be the same regardless of the host. Your host has some control over the included features and may offer different services for installing web applications, but the organization and tools will be the same.
The same goes for most other control panels, and for very good reason. Just as Microsoft doesn’t care if you’re using a Dell or HP, the team behind cPanel doesn’t care who your host is, so long as you keep picking hosts that use their control panel.
Some hosts will customize their control panel, but this is typically done in much the same way Samsung and HTC offer a custom Android experience. While the look may be slightly different, the user experience will be nearly identical.
As a host, what advantages are there to one control panel compared to another?
While the difference for clients mostly comes down to cosmetics and organization, for the host, different control panels offer a variety of tools and features. cPanel offers the obvious benefit of being able to say you provide the most popular control panel.
Nodeworx, the admin side of Interworx, offers advanced permissions management, tools for handling clustering, branding capabilities for resellers, and many other features to make a host’s life easier.
Plesk gives more capabilities to clients, which can reduce the administrator’s workload. It also structures its databases around customers as opposed to domains, making it easier to set up reseller accounts.
There is also the issue of cost, which will carry over to your hosting accounts. Some control panels, particularly open-source or home-built solutions, can offer substantial savings, but you will need to weigh this against offering a control panel that clients are familiar and comfortable with.