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What's a Control Panel?

A web hosting control panel is a graphical user interface, accessible online, that provides tools for managing a website and the web hosting account. Almost every hosting company has one, and some offer a choice. It’s the most visible part of a web hosting plan, and it will largely determine the quality of your experience as a web hosting customer.

When you turn on your computer, what do you expect to see? 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 graphical interface, clicking on icons and moving windows around?

Most people would prefer visual. Its the same way with web hosting.

You can, in theory, access your web hosting account primarily with tools like SSH (secure shell — direct command line access) or FTP (File Transfer Protocol). In fact, it’s definitely a good thing to have available, 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 a number of web administration tasks you will be doing from the Control Panel. Some of these are might be one-time events (like setting up your website), and some will be regular occurrences. Knowing what you’ll be using the Control Panel for will help you decide which one is right for you.

Account Administration — All of your account management tasks, billing profile, plan renewal, and similar items will be done from the control panel. This is particularly meaningful because it means that the software running the control panel will be handling your credit card information. If that software is not secure and up to date, it could be a problem.

Domain Management — Domain renewal, DNS editing, MX records, domain forwarding, subdomain management, and registering new domains will all be done in the control panel.

One Click Installation — If you plan to use a popular web application like WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, or ZenCart, the quickest and easiest way to get it loaded onto your hosting server is to use a One-Click Installer like Simple Scripts or Fantastico. If your hosting company provides these services, they will be available from the control panel.

Email management — Setting up new email accounts, email forwarders, and email spam filters are all control panel activities.

File Management — You may want to use FTP instead of a browser-based file manager. But if not, most control panels provide one — though their ease of use varies tremendously from system to system. (Also, if you do want to use FTP, you’ll still need to set up FTP users from within the control panel.)

Backups — Most control panels include some kind of built-in backup utility, or provide access to a third party backup system.

Support — Live chat support is almost always administered through the control panel. Knowledge Base documentation and FAQs sometimes are, but are sometimes held on a separate website.

Why you should care about Control Panels

You are going to 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.

The control panel will be your primary experience of your web hosting account. You can’t see speed and performance, 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.

For the average user, most control panels do about the same thing. 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.

But not any one of them will make sense to you. Each control panel has a different interface, a different design, a different way of dealing with tasks. If you have a control panel that does everything you need, but doesn’t fit your user habits quite right, it will be a bad experience.

How to select a control panel

Most web hosting companies only offer one control panel. Some offer two or three to choose from. Once you’ve narrowed down your hosting choices to just a few based on other factors, you should see if they have different control panels. If they do, see if they offer a demo. Many web hosting companies have a sandbox control panel that you can try out.

Most Popular Web Hosting Control Panels:

cPanel is the most widely used control panel, with Plesk coming in second. Much like some people swear by their iPhones, while others will only use Android, both cPanel and Plesk users will argue their system is easier and better, and both are right. With cPanel, all your applications and tools are categorized in easy-to-find groups (files, databases, software, etc.), and each group can be moved around in a drag and drop fashion, similar to moving folders on your desktop. This allows users to simplify their experience by front-loading the categories they use most. But there are some limitations, such as not being allowed to move icons from one group to another.

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. System and domain information, statistic resources, email management tools, and applications are presented in two columns, window-style on the main screen, making it easy to find anything you need without any scrolling.

Other control panels all offer slightly different approaches to accomplish the same tasks. Interworx provides a tabbed environment, limiting the content on each screen. 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. Some users find this convenient, while other 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.

Several other control panels are available, all of which organize tools in their own unique way, and some hosts use their own custom control panels, or customized versions of cPanel, Plesk, etc. 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. You can find links to detailed reviews specific control panels below.

Hosting Control Panels - Final Thoughts

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 with different operating systems. With virtual private hosting (VPS), you may have more options available.

In some cases, if your host provides root access, you will be able to install your own control panel, though this is not guaranteed. If you do 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 be 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 features that are included 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 a number of 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.

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