Which cPanel Alternative is Right for You?
One of the most important components of choosing a host and setting up a Web server, particularly for website hosting resellers, is the Web server control panel. These applications control the various “behind the scenes” components of your server on three levels: users, resellers and admins. For users (e.g., you, if you are purchasing hosting from a provider, or your customers if you are providing the hosting), the server administration panel is usually an easy-to-use, graphics-based solution such as cPanel, which gives them the ability to track statistics, modify their website, and set up and manage email. Resellers have access to the standard control panel as well as a hosting panel that lets them set up and manage user accounts and add or remove features from the user control panel. Admins have access to both the user and reseller panels, as well as an administration panel that gives them full control over the physical machine that actually contains both the reseller’s servers and the user sites within them.
For Linux-based servers, cPanel is the leading choice in Web server control panels. In fact, the company claims to be the only “commercially available hosting control panel trusted by America’s leading hosting providers.” But taking advantage of cPanel’s robust feature set comes at a price; yearly licensing fees can total in the hundreds of dollars per server. That might not seem like much of a line item for large or well-established businesses, but for those looking to save money or for those just starting out, a bevy of less expensive (or even free!) options exist to get your servers ready for hosting with the best.
Big Features at a Small Price
If you’re looking for lower-cost alternatives to cPanel that still boast a well-developed suite of features, you might want to take a closer look at DirectAdmin and Interworx. Like cPanel, these control panels offer advanced management and configuration options for all three levels (Interworx uses two levels, with its user control panel branded as “Siteworx” and its reseller and hosting management built into a control panel it calls, “Nodeworx”), but give you more purchasing and licensing options than their bigger competitor. Both companies offer you the choice to own their software a single, lifetime license fee—$299 for DirectAdmin, and $294.99 for Interworx.
Both applications allow your customers access their sites to upload or remove files via FTP, modify their DNS settings, and manage webmail accounts, as well as create, remove or modify unlimited subdomains. Users also get access to advanced security features such as Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption and customizable backups. While both have a strong user-level offering, only Interworx offers support for multiple MySQL (the popular Structured Query Language database management application) databases and advanced server balancing built-in—something to consider if your, or your customers’, sites rely heavily on database applications or need to manage heavy traffic.
Plenty of tools are on offer at the reseller and admin levels as well; these more advanced control panels offer features comparable to cPanel’s Web Hosting Manager (WHM), giving you and your server admins the power you need to create and modify your customers’ accounts, allocate system resources, and perform critical server maintenance. The two applications provide nigh-identical support and options at the reseller level, but if you’re hoping to install either on a VPS, only Interworx supports this tech natively.
The lifetime license option for both DirectAdmin and Interworx comes with free lifetime upgrades. DirectAdmin offers 90 days of technical support with their lifetime license; those interested in continued support can invest in a monthly, quarterly or yearly licensing options at prices comparable to cPanel. In addition to unlimited support, these licenses also offer automatic upgrades, free installation and pricing protection. Interworx provides six months of tech support with their version of the lifetime license, which includes support for “major version” upgrades; extensions can be purchased in six-month increments for $50. They also offer monthly, quarterly and yearly licensing options for those interested in continued support and lifetime upgrades.
One caveat: while both of these applications make a fine substitute for cPanel, they may not support as wide a range of plugins and add-ons. It’s a good idea to verify that your chosen panel supports the features you, and your customers, want and need before you pull the trigger.
You might also want to consider: Parallels Plesk Panel (for Linux), ISPManager
Free, If Not Quite So Easy: No-Cost Control Panels
When paying a little for a lot of great features is still too much, you can take advantage of control panel options that are completely free. These solutions often require both a little patience and a greater degree of tech know-how to install, and may not have all the bells and whistles of their commercial brethren. Two of the most popular open-source, no-cost solutions come from Zpanel and Webmin.
Like their more expensive competitors, both Webmin and Zpanel feature a suite of basic features designed to help you set up and maintain a Web server and provide hosting services. Both are Linux-based and modular, breaking the user, reseller, and admin panels into discrete segments, although their modules differ in number and scope.
For example, the Webmin module called “Usermin” is solely for users and resellers to manage user webmail, while Virtualmin and Cloudmin, the two other core segments, are designed to emulate the more expansive functions of cPanel and WHM, with Cloudmin focusing more heavily on support for VPS management and resource allocation. Webmin supports third-party add-ons as well.
Zpanel has modules for user, reseller, and admin functions, but also breaks email management, database management, File Transfer Protocol (FTP) administration, and advanced development management into their own modules. The base install comes with 20 modules, and you can download more than a hundred third-party modules at the Zpanel community forum.
Both Zpanel and Webmin offer support for application development and scripting, but while the former supports both the PHP Hypertext Preprocessor (PHP) language and MySQL, the latter relies entirely upon Perl. If you or your developers are adding custom content to your site, or using third-party add-ons to manage your content, you may want to take note of their system requirements and choose a panel accordingly.
One caveat: Open-source solutions are a great way to save cash, and are often supported by passionate communities of developers and users. But as with any software you install on your server, be sure the control panel you choose has the right combination of features, security and power you need to keep your customers happy and your data secure.
You might also want to consider: ISPConfig
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