Whether you are just looking for a hosting control panel for shared hosting or whether you are looking for a control panel for your VPS or Dedicated Server the chances are that you will be considering one of the three main options; cPanel, Directadmin or Plesk.
The Control Panel will allow you to manage all aspects of your server without having to resort to command lines or any other utilities. You will be able to add and delete new users, databases, view the error logs for your server, install popular software, configure email, and perform hundreds of other day-to-day maintenance activities on the server including backup and restoration. A control panel for a Web server can do so much today that it’s almost unimaginable to think of going without one — even though it’s technically possible.
When choosing a control panel, one of the main difficulties lies in the fact that migration between them is difficult. To save yourself much trouble and expense in the future because you change your mind, or you want to move to a host that uses a different control panel it is important to get it right first time.
This article looks at some of the main differences between the various control panels, and goes into a little more detail than you would need if you are only looking for shared hosting and wanting to know the differences in control panel. That being said, if you are looking for a reseller, VPS or dedicated where you often get access to the full functionality the differences are more relevant.
A look at the Interface
Probably the main thing that may influence your choice is the look and design of the control panel interface. Certainly, it doesn’t feel good to get lumbered with an antiquated looking interface, but equally you will want to know that you have easy access to all the common things that you might expect to manage your hosting account, or indeed manage different users and plans for reseller accounts.
cPanel has two main sections. The front end for Users (cPanel) and the Adminitration Area (WHM). We have a short video below (no sound) that just quickly breezes through the two interfaces so you can get an idea of what to expect.
If you want a more thorough look, you can obtain access to the two demos here.
Operating System Compatibility
It’s important to choose a product that plays well with the operating system you’re familiar with. Even though each of these provides a GUI that abstracts the underlying workings of the server, it still helps a great deal to be comfortable with whatever OS the server runs on. Say for example you wish to install a few add-ons from some vendors, you need to make sure that they are compatible with your environment. So your needs and experience will play a huge role in determining which web hosting control panel you want to go with.
|Plesk||Windows Server (2012), Linux (CentOS/CloudLinux/RedHat/Ubuntu/Debian, openSUSE)|
For all its market share, cPanel runs exclusively on Linux systems and it officially supports three versions — CentOS, CloudLinux, and RedHat. Despite this limitation, it’s been able to get by because of the prevalence of Linux in the server marketplace. So if your experience tilts more toward a Windows server, cPanel is probably not the right control panel for your needs unless you wish to obtain some experience with the workings of a Linux environment.
Several years ago, cPanel had released a product that still in the development stage called Enkompass, which was meant to be a Windows rendition of cPanel. Unfortunately, the product never received the attention necessary to make it a success and as it was later offered for free, it stopped generating revenue and therefore wasn’t updated. Finally, the product reached its End-Of-Life stage in early 2014.
Bottom line: if you want a Windows server, you can’t use cPanel.
Unlike cPanel, Plesk offers support for a much wider variety of operating systems including variations within Linux itself. In addition to the three Linux OSs supported by cPanel, Plesk can also run on Ubuntu, Debian, and openSUSE.
But where it really pulls ahead of its primary competitor is in its support for Windows. As of now, Plesk recommends Windows Server 2012 R2 whereas the older versions of Windows have reached their End-Of-Life as new versions get released. Out of the three, Plesk is the only one that provides Windows support. Which means that your choice among these three is pretty much a given if that’s the platform you want to use.
Like cPanel, DirectAdmin also only runs on Linux systems, specifically RedHat, CentOS, FreeBSD, and Debian.
This means that having a Linux server provides you with the widest range of options when it comes to web hosting control panel software. Due to the lack of support by most products for a Windows environment, your choices are drastically narrowed if that is your operating system of choice.
The costs of these three control panels varies widely as does their pricing structure. None of them is open source and only DirectAdmin allows you to purchase what is known as a “Lifetime License” where you can buy it outright for unlimited functionality and where it updates itself in perpetuity. The other two have no such offer and charge regular fees for as long as you continue to use their products.
|Monthly license||$45||$4 (5 domains) to $35 (dedicated server)||$29|
|Owned license||NONE||NONE||$299 (only 90 days tech support included)|
|Monthly VPS license||$20||$15 (unlimited domains)||N/A|
The prices are taken directly from the companies websites, however, you will find that many places will offer discounted licenses as resellers.
The cost of cPanel varies depending on whether or not you install it on a dedicated server or a VPS. The latter costs around half as much as the former with a yearly license of $200 as opposed to $425 for the dedicated version.
In addition, cPanel also offers phone support for $65 per incident. This includes as many calls as necessary to resolve a particular issue and your incident will receive a priority support status. The absolute lowest that you have to pay for a monthly subscription for cPanel is $20 on a VPS.
Like its primary competitor, Plesk also has two separate schemes for VPS and dedicated installations. Unlike cPanel however, Plesk has a much wider range of licenses depending on the number of domains you wish to host, whether or not you want to include packs like WordPress and the developer toolkit, and whether you want to bundle it with CloudLinux.
You can get by with paying as little as $4 per month for Plesk if you restrict yourself to 5 domains!
As far as pricing options go, DirectAdmin certainly has the simplest setup with no distinction between VPS and dedicated environments. For a recurring payment, you can either choose a monthly, quarterly, or yearly license. And of course, you can opt to purchase it outright in perpetuity for a mere $299.
One important distinction is that DirectAdmin includes unlimited technical support in all its packages, unlike cPanel which charges for every incident. While Plesk also offers free technical support, their policies are difficult to find and they depend on what kind of license you purchased and from where. DirectAdmin on the other hand prides itself on its simplicity and this extends to it support policies too.
Note that the unlimited license for DirectAdmin only includes support for 90 days.
Backend/Frontend and Functionality
If you’ve used cPanel from a client’s perspective as opposed to someone who runs their own server, you may never even have heard of WHM. WHM is the “backend” of cPanel and is a software used by server administrators to perform all the functions that cPanel users can’t. It ranges from setting up DNS clusters, comprehensive security rules, creating and assigning packages, server level configuration, and a host of other functions unavailable through cPanel.
If you are a client who has just purchased a shared hosting plan, however, you would never even see WHM. Your username/password combination would be used to log directly into cPanel either as a regular user or a reseller. The options available in WHM are so comprehensive and detailed that it’s impossible even to know where to start.
The other two products — Plesk and DirectAdmin — have no such split personalities. What you can and cannot do depends entirely on the permissions assigned to you. The interface will look pretty much the same with certain options enabled and disabled.
|Configurable reseller hosting packages||YES||YES||YES|
|CSS-brandable reseller experience||NO||YES||YES|
|CSS-based theme system||NO||YES||YES|
|Multiple language packs||YES||YES||YES|
|Manage all daemons from one screen||NO||NO||NO|
|One screen shows full system health||NO||NO||NO|
|Fast, RPM-based installation||~35 MIN||~20 MIN||N/A|
|Full API Coverage (SOAP, XMLRPC, and CLI interfaces)||NO||XML AND CLI||NO|
|Advanced IPv6 Management via IPv6 Pools||NO||NO||NO|
|Multiple IPs (v4 and v6) per domain||NO||YES||NO|
|IPv6 diagnostic tools||NO||NO||NO|
|Manage MySQL databases, users, & permissions||YES||YES||YES|
|View & terminate running queries||NO||NO||NO|
|Email, Spam, & Viruses||cPanel||Plesk||DirectAdmin|
|Configurable mailboxes, forwarders, quotas||YES||YES||YES|
|Configurable spam filtering||YES||YES||YES|
|E-mail virus protection||YES||YES||LIMITED|
|Domainkeys (DKIM) & SPF records||YES||LIMITED||YES|
|Global white & black lists||YES||YES||YES|
|Secure Remote Assistance Feature||YES||YES||NO|
|Problem Detection/Notification/Repair System||NO||YES||NO|
|Graphical Real Time Usage Statistics||LIMITED||LIMITED||LIMITED|
|High availability load balancing||NO||NO||NO|
|External MySQL servers (one or multiple)||NO||YES||NO|
|External file servers||NO||YES||NO|
|External DNS syncronization||YES||YES||NO|
|Real-time graphs of clustered servers||NO||NO||NO|
|DNS||BIND||MSDNS OR BIND||BIND|
As an extension of the above discussion, the security models for cPanel, Plesk, and DirectAdmin is quite different in the way they handle permissions for the different accounts or sub-accounts.
|Avg. days to acknowledge an exploit||9||1||0|
|Avg. days to resolve an exploit||28||9||64|
|Website owners can create sub-users||NO||NO||NO|
|Server admin. & reseller-level sub-users||NO||YES||NO|
|Permission settings for all sub-users||NO||YES||NO|
With cPanel/WHM, you have someone who can access WHM and create individual cPanel accounts for each user. The capabilities of each account, as well as the resources it can use, depend on what packages are assigned to it.
Plesk, on the other hand, has the concept of “subscriptions”. Each subscription is linked to a specific service plan that lays out the necessary resources that a user can access.
DirectAdmin also uses the concept of packages that are assigned to users. New users can be created either via a reseller of via the admin.
The differences between these three products are a matter of terminology and implementation. It’s one of the reasons why migration between these platforms is so problematic. Finding a set of parameters that creates a one-to-one correspondence between them is extremely tricky.
By default, a fresh install of almost any control panel has its security issues, and you will need to check the list of best practices for each control panel in relation to your server install.
You can find the various recommendations here: cPanel, Plesk, DirectAdmin. As you will see when you read the recommendations, server security for these control panels is a little more in-depth than we can discuss in the scope of this article.
Another important factor when deciding between the different control panels, especially in the age where vulnerabilities are common and frequently being taken advantage of when discovered is the time it takes for the exploits to be fixed. In a white paper by Rackspace, it was shown that out of the 3 control panels Plesk came out ahead by a significant margin in the time it took for them to resolve an exploit.
This is by necessity a subjective evaluation. With cPanel and WHM, the extreme power, flexibility, and the sheer number of options provided by this combination merge to create a somewhat more complicated interface compared to the other two. This is ameliorated somewhat by the fact that WHM and cPanel have a separate back-end meaning that much of the complexity is abstracted from regular users.
When it comes to Plesk, many find the aesthetics and clean layout preferable to that of cPanel. Combine this with the fact that there is no division between the front-end and the backend, and you have a system that is arguably easier to use and master.
DirectAdmin, however, has an interface that is the simplest and easiest of all. Out of the three, they are the only one that pitches ease-of-use and simplicity as its unique selling point. This manifests itself not only in their interface but also in the structure of their plans as we saw earlier.
Each of these three web hosting control panel products has its strengths and weaknesses. Operating system compatibility, pricing, technical support, ease-of-use, add-ons and plug-ins create a unique usability profile for every individual purchaser. I hope that enough information has been provided in this article to help facilitate a highly difficult choice!
Jonathan Griffin Editor, SEO Consultant, & Developer.
Jonathan Griffin is The Webmaster's Editor & CEO, managing day-to-day editorial operations across all our publications. Jonathan writes about Development, Hosting, and SEO topics for The Webmaster and The Search Review with more than nine years of experience. Jonathan also manages his own SEO consultancy, offering SEO developer services. He is an expert on site-structure, strategy, Schema, AMP, and technical SEO. You can find Jonathan on Twitter as @thewebmastercom.