Every web hosting service needs to include some kind of advanced control panel — a platform from which users with more complicated web design needs can access manage the files, images, security, and other deeply technical aspects of website ownership.
If you ever plan to move on from shared hosting and gain the extra control and reliability that comes from hosting your website on a virtual private server, you’ll want to find a control panel that lets you run that server the way you want.
Linux is one of the most popular operating systems for hosting websites, and in recent years, cPanel has come to dominate the market for programs that let users access and control those servers. cPanel is bundled with WebHost Manager (WHM) but the two aren’t the same: WHM is used by domain resellers like GoDaddy to manage entire servers, while cPanel is an end-user product that manages a single hosted account.
A large part of cPanel’s ubiquity comes from it being the standard control panel for WordPress powered sites — and given WordPress’s huge market share, it’s not surprising cPanel has come to rule this part of the web world. But is it always the best choice?
Also not surprising, the answer is no (if one tool were really good for every single eventuality, this wouldn’t be the internet). cPanel has a lot of flaws. First of all, it’s not free like many of its alternatives, and in fact, the price keeps going up. Second, it’s famously hard to uninstall without reconfiguring your entire server. Third, it doesn’t support Windows servers at all, only Linux.
And perhaps worst of all, in 2019, it was found to have a massive security flaw that made it easy for malicious actors to obtain website data — and that wasn’t even the first time.
So if you want to host your own website on a Linux or Windows server, but you don’t want to pay for cPanel (or risk its security flaws) what other options do you have? The good news is that there are now several free and open-source alternatives. Today, we wanted to run down the best.
Ajenti, the free control panel built by web developers and server admins, invokes a famous Star Wars quote on its from page: it’s the “admin’s tool for a more civilized age.” It’s a creative way to make it clear that they’re aiming for a new era of humanist hosting management.
For no charge, Ajenti allows you to use a simple and clean interface to remotely manage every aspect of your server. It’s focused on being lightweight and supportive and allows less-technical website owners to avoid harrowing searches for copy-paste code fixes. Their development team is also continually iterating and loves hearing from its users.
Additional features of Ajenti include a robust monitoring and analytics dashboard, a customizable firewall, and a well-used forum where it’s almost guaranteed somebody is having the same problem as you.
Who is it for?
Organizations on a budget, like schools, small businesses, and individual web developers. One of their most prominent users, the Academic and Research Network of Slovenia, praises the way Ajenti fulfilled their requirement of easily giving limited access to a large number of administrators.
- Does its best to keep your existing server configuration intact
- Friendly for users with fewer needs
- Only works with Linux servers
- A limited number of options
The CentOS Linux distribution is the result of a developer effort to create a rich, stable platform for future users to build on. These future users include those in need of web hosting, and since its inception in 2004, CentOS has been used to configure many web servers.
Now, there’s a control panel built specifically for websites hosted on CentOS-configured virtual private servers. CentOS Web Panel offers those site managers a long list of features, including user management, custom theme design, database implementation, firewall management, and analytics to monitor resource use and system health.
Who is it for?
Developers of commercial websites who like the stability and community offered by the CentOS distribution. CentOS Web Panel’s auto-fixer feature, which corrects file changes it senses would cause inadvertent damage to the server, makes it friendlier to more regular users.
- Access to the freedom of a private server through the widely supported easily learned CentOS environment
- A fine level of control over the core system
- Easy to learn
- Only available for the limited number of servers running CentOS
- Less friendly interface
- No multi-server support
Almost all services aiming to compete with cPanel bill themselves as “lightweight,” but Froxlor comes the closest to defining what the word really means. This open-source platform, the result of an effort by a committed team of “Froxies” to build a free panel for the entire internet, features an easy-to-use customizable interface and fast performance that won’t be a drag on your systems.
Features include SQL database management, PHP configuration, and security through SSL and Let’s Encrypt. It also matches cPanel’s WHM counterpart by including customer management, making it a great choice for domain resellers.
Its ticketing system also makes it an optimal choice for web developers who work for clients, as it’s easy to access the server and make changes in response to customer issues.
Who is it for?
Anybody developing a website on a Debian-configured VPS, who wants an easy way to access it and counter a wide variety of potential problems. As mentioned above, it’s especially nice for client developers and resellers. It’s also great for people who love to be part of building something, since the process of continuous improvement is right out in the open.
- Low system load
- Friendly, themeable interface
- Reseller support
- Engaged community
- No file manager–users have to set up their own FTP
- Only works on Debian servers has to be hacked for any other server OS
- All-volunteer upkeep means bugs take longer to resolve
Another open-source cPanel alternative, ISPConfig is currently experiencing explosive user growth. Their recent success owes a lot to a feature that surpasses both cPanel and many of its other alternatives: one ISPConfig control panel allows you to manage multiple servers.
Anybody managing websites on more than one server should breathe a sigh of relief at the ability to standardize functionality without going through a tedious download process for each separate site.
At the server level, ISPConfig offers control that’s competitive with other free panels on the market: Apache webserver configuration, personal email hosting, support for IPv4 and IPv6, et cetera. It also includes access levels for clients, resellers, and administrators, making it ideal for domain sales. And if all that wasn’t enough, it’s one of the most flexible panels available, supporting Debian, Ubuntu, CentOS, Fedora, and OpenSuSE Linux configurations.
Who is it for?
Advanced developers who like well-documented panels they can easily configure, and managers of multiple Linux web servers who want a consistent experience across each one.
- Works with a wide range of Linux server configurations
- Control multiple servers from one panel
- Competitive range of control features
- Potentially too complex for new users
- Manual installation required (no one-click)
- No tech support
5. Vesta CP
Here’s one that’s shooting to corner the market for less experienced users. Right on their front page, Vesta announces that they hope to make things simple and easy to use, and their design bears that out: a clear one-bar interface makes it no trouble to reach any function with a single click.
This focus on good design also extends to server health monitoring — graphs make it easier to cross-reference site issues with traffic and diagnose how your site is using resources. Speaking of resource use, Vesta is also one of the most lightweight builds on this list, making minimal demands on your server and client systems.
It’s important to note that Vesta CP was in the news for security issues in summer 2018, but quickly added new features such as enforced keys to secure its SSH connections. This is either a disquieting sign of its vulnerability or an encouraging report that Vesta’s developers are alert about responding to problems. You’ll have to decide for yourself.
Who is it for?
First-time VPS users who want a cleanly-designed introduction to all the features that make up a server control panel.
- Great-looking user interface and analytics
- Simple auto-installer
- Works with CentOS, Debian, and Ubuntu
- Customer support is fee-based
- Some security vulnerabilities
More than just a cPanel alternative, Webmin’s features and value surpass cPanel’s by almost every metric, allowing much finer control than the leading option. And did we mention it’s free?
Let’s dive deeper. Do you need to monitor server health and bandwidth? Administer user accounts? Directly access and make changes to your files and content databases? Webmin allows you to do all these things that cPanel would make you pay (increasingly higher prices) for. It’s also completely open-source, allowing unprecedented control over not only your server but also Webmin itself.
This is good because Webmin isn’t trying very hard to be user-friendly. In fact, re-theming its muddled interface is one of the first things most users do with access to the source code. Authentic Theme is a popular choice. One good thing about the interface, though, is that it’s responsive, allowing you to manage your server from a mobile device.
Virtualmin is Webmin’s answer to cPanel’s WHM — it’s a module that lets a Webmin user manage multiple servers from a single interface, much like ISPConnect.
Who is it for?
Advanced developers who are willing to exchange an underwhelming look for unprecedented levels of control, and who want to trade cPanel for a free and open-source option with almost identical features. ISPs and resellers will want to use Virtualmin.
- Offers almost all of cPanel’s paid features for free
- Virtualmin allows control of multiple servers
- Community makes plenty of source code changes available
- Poorly-designed interface makes features hard to find
- Many options lead to a high learning curve
- Only works on Linux servers running Ubuntu, Debian, or CentOS
YunoHost is on a mission to “democratize self-hosting” and make the freedom of a private server available to everybody. Another open-source platform run by committed volunteers, YunoHost is completely free and does its best to document its functions for server hosts new to advanced technology.
With their colorful suite of apps, clean interface, and a name derived from a meme, Yunohost is well-branded to place them in opposition to drab old-timers like cPanel. Since the team’s main objective is to help users host their own websites, and not to offer the highest possible level of control, there aren’t as many options here as advanced users might crave.
Instead of a direct control panel, Yunohost is a platform that permits you to install a suite of apps that will get your server looking the way you want. These apps, which only take a few clicks to deploy, range from a full email stack and an instant messaging platform to a security manager. It’s all controlled through a clean and sensitive interface.
Who is it for?
People who want to host a website on their own server, but otherwise have no technical or administrative experience. No other cPanel alternative can make such a claim to being the Squarespace of control panels (except it’s free!).
- Extremely easy to use
- A wide selection of market-tested apps
- Low system load
- An available and passionate team of devs
- Only officially supports Debian
- No control outside of apps
- No support for multiple servers
Are you tired of reading about free cPanel alternatives that sound amazing but don’t offer you any control over OSX or Windows servers? Feeling like the Linux guys are having all the fun, as usual? Look no further than ZPanel: the free cPanel alternative that works on Windows and OSX.
As far as features go, ZPanel offers all the usual suspects — hosted email, file management, database management, and an interface for controlling all of it. You can also host multiple domains on one server, a feature that’s increasingly in demand. According to ZPanel’s website, they’re already helping home users, companies, and hosting resellers manage their servers. And of course, their community is constantly on the lookout for new contributions — much of ZPanel’s features have been added by early adopters.
If there are any downsides, it’s that this isn’t one of the more beginner-friendly options. Instead, ZPanel is the kind of tool that works best when you already know what you’re doing. It’s also not currently very well secured: features like firewalls and SSL management aren’t yet live. So if you’re switching away from cPanel because you’re trying to secure sensitive information or financial transactions, ZPanel might not be the best choice.
Who is it for?
Developers working with Windows and OSX servers who want a comparable alternative to cPanel but aren’t able to pay for Plesk, and who aren’t working with secure information or e-commerce.
- Works on a more flexible range of servers
- Interface based directly on cPanel’s
- Completely open-source
- Very little built-in security
- Not friendly to non-technical users
No Control Panel
There is always the option of no cPanel alternative. The highest goal of a server administrator is to be able to manage their own server without any control panel at all, using only the server’s own interface. This requires coding knowledge, study, and a lot of patience, but if you decide to go this route, you’ll be able to lord it over all those other server admins who need their hands held.
It’s important to remember that the ‘no-panel’ option is a tool for a specific situation, just like all the other cPanel alternatives. If you’re a beginner, all you’ll do is waste time learning about SSH keys that you could be using to build your website.
On the other hand, if you’re a reseller or ISP, forgoing a control panel is a bit like being the mayor of a city and going door-to-door every day to ask every citizen if they’re doing OK. It’s not feasible. Thus, control panels are useful for administrators on all parts of the spectrum.
Who is it for?
People managing a few servers at most, who are willing to put in a lot of work to learn a whole new skill and way of looking at the internet.
- Trial-by-fire learning experience
- No higher level of control is possible
- Never pay for tech support again
- Contribute to other people’s control panels
- Huge time commitment
- Not guaranteed that you won’t break the server
Which cPanel alternative is right for me?
If you’ve decided to step out into the light of private server hosting, congratulations! You’ve made a bold move that will free up a lot of options for your personal project or business in the long run. It won’t always be easy, but with these free tools, you’ll have everything you need to get started.
If you’re a technical neophyte, or you’ve never run a server before, try Vesta CP, YunoHost, Ajenti, or Froxlor. If what you really want is a great interface, YunoHost or Vesta are the way to go. If keeping system demands light is the most important to you, go with Froxlor. If you want something that will keep pace with you as you gain technical experience, get Ajenti.
More advanced users should choose based on their server configuration. If you’re running CentOS, get CentOS Web Panel. Ubuntu and Debian users will like Webmin best. If your server runs Windows or OSX, get ZPanel.
If you’re a reseller or ISP looking to manage multiple servers from the same interface, get ISPConnect, although Virtualmin is an alternative option in that space.
It’s a brave new world out there for web hosting: no longer do we have to be shackled to cPanel’s monopoly. Let them raise their prices to the sky — users of all skill levels now have the resources to strike out on our own.