My personal review of the popular webhosting control panels available today…cPanel, Plesk, DirectAdmin, VirtualMin, VestaCP, CyberPanel, RunCloud, GridPane, Cloudways, and more.
I cover all the following aspects of them:
- who they are designed for
Last update: SEP 4, 2020 (added HestiaCP, CloudPanel, and Aapanel)
Quick history on web control panels
I definitely remember a time when control panels were ugly, unfriendly, and hard to figure things out. UI/UX wasn’t such a refined science back then and if anything, there was an elitist attitude about techy interfaces being hard for normal users so tech nerds could feel more empowered about their positions.
Back then…we had cPanel, Plesk (in USA/Europe) and then some other players around the world (like DirectAdmin, ISPConfig, Froxler, etc and etc). For the most part, they all dominated their local markets and didn’t have much incentive to improve anything about themselves. Features and design pretty much stayed the same for over a decade. If anything, only their business model evolved; adding new license pricing to cater to VPS instances.
But then the market quickly turned. Popular applications were becoming more and more bloated, delivering more code and processing more data than ever. Even the average “small” website was like a miniature app in its own right. Mobile-responsive design, flashy CSS/JS effects, ecommerce plugins, membership scripts. All the things that you used to host elsewhere (like Shopify) could now be bought and plugged into your own webhosting (WooCommerce).
Webhosting clients got sick of slow/limited shared hosting accounts and eventually ventured into the world of VPS. This created an open arms race for 2 new webhosting markets today: one is the “managed webhosting” services (which is ‘premium’ shared hosting), the other is the cloud control panel service (control panel service that doesn’t require sys-admin skills). Meanwhile, you still have the traditional control panel market.
Technically-speaking, they all do the same thing…which is allow a nice graphical user interface to manage web servers (for admins) and webhosting functions (for users). The difference lies in the types of users they are geared towards and the day-to-day workflow that they cater to. Website owners vs developers vs webhosting resellers vs server admins all have different needs.
Let’s go over them!
1. CLOUD control panels
Cloud control panels are made for website owners wanting the high-performance/low-price of VPS. They cater perfectly to tech-savvy webhosting users. They offer many features for managing websites (settings, backup, staging, etc) and all can be done with one simple click. Also, their cloudlike nature and pricing allows you to quickly manage multiple servers if you need.
Some of them are more for website owners (who run their own website); others are more for web developers (who build websites for clients). Website owners prefer performance/stability, ease-of-use, support. Developers prefer features, low-cost.
The only “drawbacks” of cloud control panels (if you want to see it that way) is that they [usually] don’t allow much customization or multiple users to manage the server. This is part of their convenience. The stack is already preconfigured so you don’t have to do it. Fewer options for you but also fewer things to worry about. The idea is that they’re already pre-optimized for what most typical sites would need.
RunCloud (started by a small Malaysian company) is my current favorite cloud control panel. It’s fast, stable, and has a really mature interface. The pricing is very fair (cheap) and the product feels truly refined all around. You can have a pure-NGINX stack (better performance IMO), or a hybrid Apache+NGINX stack (for Apache/.htaccess compatibility). Their performance is above average (behind GridPane and SpinupWP). It’s fast but cannot handle high traffic since server-side caching isn’t enabled off the bat. It’s great if your development many sites and don’t need to handle such high traffic.
Keep in mind their service is still aimed more at developers rather than typical website owners. Installation requires a very short (but doable) visit to the command line. There’s not much support. And their interface is built more for developers. Lots of dials and things (although very cleanly organized). I think their branding/service is very cute and friendly, but not quite simple enough for basic website owners. For the tech-savvy, I think their UI is heaven…chock full of all the features you’d ever want.
Cloudways is a popular cloud control panel (I think Indian ownership) and I’d say the largest of all the cloud control panel services. They’re not the fastest and not the cheapest, but things work well for the most part and there is helpful support available. They don’t officially offer newbie-support but you can get help from time to time. Their support is knowledgeable but can be slow at times. There may also be tiny bugs with certain things that most people won’t ever notice.
I think they’re the most popular because they have the best branding/marketing and easiest to set up. You can install Cloudways without ever touching the command line. My favorite aspects about them are the support (for newbie users), and ability to add other users to your accounts or websites so they can manage your stuff. What I dislike is the slower stack performance and pricing…BUT the average website users won’t mind this at all.
GridPane is a small American company that offers great performance (I think the fastest of all cloud panels) and really simple interface. Their support is also great as well but available more during typical American business hours. The pricing is cheap and all-in-all, it’s a high value product.
I will reiterate once again: they have the fastest stack of all the cloud control panels, really simple interface (great for newbies), helpful support, and reasonable pricing. So why aren’t they my favorite? It’s partly because of the minor bugs and expensive entry pricing. Installation often failed for me and also other developers I know who tried their service. The worst part of all is that you can’t fix it yourself; you have to contact support (which is really responsive, but only during business hours). It’s frustrating because you feel dumb and helpless and that no amount of knowledge or forum-reading will help your situation.
For the bugs alone, I don’t consider them mature enough for production use yet…BUT I do feel many people are happy with their service and probably have little or no issues at all. If you only have one server, GridPane is totally fine. But if you’re running over a hundred client accounts (like myself), every little bug here and there quickly adds up. Their entry pricing is now $30/month…totally worth it! But make sure you like them. I will say, my most recent trial of their service (Aug 2019) went perfectly without any major issues. Anything that I thought was broken turned out to be a feature that was unavailable for my plan level and not clearly marked in their UI.
SpinupWP is made by Delicious Brains (Canada), a new player in the cloud-panel market but already well-known and respected for their great plugins like WP Offload Media and WP Migrate DB Pro. Everything they do is really well designed, marketed. Great copy, great functioning. Just a super professional company all around. And with cute colors, and quirky *human* personality.
In my opinion, SpinupWP is best for a developer just needing a place to stash low maintenance sites without giving anybody else access. The performance is good enough (FastCGI caching enabled) but the UI is nowhere near useful for everyday tinkering. I think anybody with serious production or development sites would be better with RunCloud or GridPane. Newbies wanting more tech support can go with Cloudways.
These are other panels that I haven’t tried enough to offer any personal insight about them but I can regurgitate what I’ve heard from others.
- ServerPilot – stable and mature but not all that fast. Their 1-server pricing is nice. I think RunCloud is completely superior in every way.
- LaravelForge – another typical cloud panel service, aimed at developers. I never tried it.
- ClusterCS – another one that I haven’t tried yet. Looks to be geared towards sys-admins rather than regular users. I think it’s interesting that they have clustering options.
- So many others – there are so many other companies doing similar things. I forgot all their names at this moment.
2. TRADITIONAL control panels
Traditional control panels are for webhosting businesses. (For this reason, I also like to call them “business control panels”.) They’re made not only for supreme ease-of-use (for users), but also to integrate with billing software (for the business owner) and allow for resellers as well. Their licensing (pricing) models are very different. They aren’t intended to be setup by typical website owners. You should have at least some Linux skills or a sys-admin handy to manage one of those panels. Once installed, they can be used by anyone.
Choosing between any of these panels ultimately comes down to personal preference. The control panel would be catering to either the admins’ personal preference or the users’ personal preference, but ideally both. You might also prefer a control panel because of how well it integrates with other software or services that you need.
Traditional control panels are also somewhat heavy and aren’t intended for small VPS instances. They also have tons of features that many users won’t need. I only recommend them if you have lots of time to custom-configure everything to your liking. Otherwise, you’re much better served by a cloud control panel which is cheaper to license and faster to get things up and running.
If you’re truly looking to create a webhosting business, I highly recommend making sure that the control panels integrate with your billing software (WHMCS, Blesta, etc). And sure, some of you may think you don’t need billing software or don’t want to pay for it. I highly recommend it even if you have only 20-30 clients. It really does make your life so much easier!
One underrated aspect of traditional panels is the amount of available support. Stuck during business hours or even late night? Jump on a chat or open a support ticket with a tech. They’re very helpful and quickly fix any issue. Want to try fixing things yourself? You can find many helpful forum posts to guide you through it.
Probably the most ubiquitous and most recognized control panel interface in the entire webhosting industry (been around 20-30 years). There have been many arguments going back and forth about its performance, security, and ease-of-use…but there’s no denying this: it is the most popular for a reason!
The reason is that it actually works. cPanel works well! It’s reliable, good performance, tons of guides out for it already, good support from the company, and many newbie users know how to use it. Simple enough for admins, simple enough for users/resellers. And integrates well with many other webhosting software/services/billing/etc.
Although they are still my favorite (and not by too much), they aren’t perfect. Yes, they’re mature and have a clean-enough appearance but their codebase seems too big to adapt to current trends. Small changes and feature improvements take so many months and years before they’re released. They’re still missing some features that many users want nowadays. The interface is still dated in some ways. And you get the feeling cPanel won’t remain the future of webhosting for too much longer.
My final issue about them is the pricing. They’ve recently increased their pricing, making it so much more expensive than it used to be. The price increase is anywhere from 200-800% for some webhosting companies and really cumbersome in how the pricing is determined (base fee + number of accounts). I think it’s a poor business move and one that reflects their business-oriented nature rather than user-oriented nature. Many webhosts are jumping ship and I’m looking to do the same.
The 2nd-most popular control panel in the webhosting industry (been around 20 years). Has some advantages over cPanel and now considered better and easier-to-use than cPanel. I think if you’re familiar with cPanel, you might still prefer cPanel but the compliments about Plesk have their merits.
The big news a few years ago was that Plesk bought out cPanel and many suspected it would run cPanel into the ground. Well…with the recent business decision, that may just be the case.
I do like Plesk. Very friendly and logical user interface. Everything is neatly organized in a logical manner that you can guess where things are very quickly. I only dislike that Plesk is still missing some things that cPanel had, but it does make up for it in the many other features that cPanel doesn’t have.
Ultimately, cPanel is not as logically-organized but still simpler for me to do the tasks I want. Plesk is almost perfect in its features (just needs some tiny ones) and could still clean up certain aspects of its interface. Plesk pricing used to be more than cPanel but now it’s the cheaper one. I think if you’ve started your webhosting experience today or in the last 2 years, you’ll prefer Plesk over cPanel.
The new player to the market (started 1-2 years ago). This company started as an ambitious project to make a native control panel for LiteSpeed web server. I don’t know how they did it but the project was so perfect. Things look nice and work well (really great user interface catering perfectly to current trends). I’ve had very little issues setting things up and figuring out how it worked, even though I never used it before.
It’s clean, it’s simple. It’s lightweight, thanks to it being created just recently. And best of all, it works with my favorite web server (LiteSpeed!). Oh and that’s not all…CyberPanel with OpenLiteSpeed is TOTALLY FREE! Yes, free! Free even for unlimited accounts and websites! YES, I AM EXCITED AS HELL BY THIS!
If you want to use CyberPanel with the paid version of LiteSpeed (Enterprise), then it costs as much as the usual control panel. Either way, I secretly think CyberPanel will be my new favorite control panel with time.
Do I have any complaints or special requests about them? Yes, I do. I wish they had scripts to migrate accounts from cPanel and Plesk (at least these cPanel since it’s the most popular). I also wish they integrated better with WHMCS, but I’m sure they will soon enough. This panel is probably the most rapidly-developed at the moment IMO and with design and features closest to following current webhosting trends.
3. ADMIN control panels
Admin control panels (that’s what I call them) are for sys-admins wanting a GUI for easier management. Again, they are for sys-admins/dev-ops folks who know the command line. Despite whatever other people claim, they are not intended for typical website owners or even really tech-savvy developers. I find them all somewhat tricky to install, lacking many necessary features (for users and user-management), and still requiring too much command line use from time to time. Most of them also don’t integrate with popular billing software, so you’ll be stuck either writing your own billing software or migrating to a more popular control panel eventually (creating hassle for existing users).
One quick glance at the terminology and layout will easily tell you these panels are made for sys-admins wanting to fast-click their way around server management…rather than for website owners wanting to do common webhosting tasks. If you’re the kind of person that’s managing people’s websites for them, these panels can be a great way to save money and help you manage the server better. But if you’re the kind of hands-off business owner preferring to let clients manage their own webhosting functions, I think you’re better off with the traditional control panels. They’ll feel much friendlier and familiar for your customers.
The one major benefit of these admin control panels is they’re often free or very cheaply-priced. For that reason, they’re adored by sys-admins (wanting to speed up their work) or webhosting businesses (hoping to save costs). In my personal opinion, they’re lacking too many features and you’ll end up realizing the extra time you spend handholding clients is not worth the money saved over not getting a more mature panel. Anyway, enough preaching and lets go on with it!
Another aspect of these control panels is that they tend to run OVER your stack rather than IN your stack. In other words, they lay over your existing server and simply allow you to change and configure settings. Traditional control panels tend to be part of your server stack, influencing and dictating your server configurations. You may like its opinionated operation (convenience) or hate it (conflicting with your own custom configurations). For this reason, some sys-admins hate commercial (traditional) control panels that override their settings, and prefer admin panels that allow them to tweak to their heart’s content.
Small Canadian company known as the best competitor to the cPanel/Plesk oligopoly. Great product, easy to use, awesome recent UI redesign (one of the most logical UI out there), helpful support, and very cheap pricing. DirectAdmin also integrates well with most popular webhosting software like billing, etc. Many web admins love them but the user reviews are mixed. Half think DA is better than the typical cPanel, while others prefer the usual cPanel. The older interface (even if you did like it), can feel “cheap” in some places.
For all intents and purposes, DirectAdmin should have been in the “traditional control panel” section up above but I don’t consider them so. The main reason is because their control panel still lacks some very basic features. Simple things like generating SSL’s still require the command line…which is an absolute no-no for webhosting users. Setting up DA was also a bit tricky and it didn’t preconfigure many necessary things like security and what not. The forums were mostly unhelpful/frustrating with many comments referring to older versions of DA.
The support while being helpful, is more of a “we help you do it” rather than “we do it for you”. There’s no doubt in my mind that DirectAdmin will soon grow and revamp itself to be mature enough to absorb all the angry folks leaving cPanel but in my opinion, it’s not ready for that just yet. It may be ok if you only have to manage one server, but not smooth enough if you had to manage dozens of servers.
I want to give DirectAdmin a little more time and hopefully review them again in a few months. I think they’ve had the most to gain during this cPanel fallout. I like the pricing, support attitude, and new theme redesign. Play around with the theme options and layouts, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. I think even some cPanel users may feel it’s a more modern upgrade of cPanel.
A truly solid product and very comprehensive; also, it’s FREE! This panel is about as close as you can get to truly turning every command line task into a clickable GUI. I think only sys-admins or anybody wanting to learn how to be a sys-admin can appreciate this panel.
But if you’re just a website owner wanting to manage your website, or a webhosting business owner wanting to quickly manage users and their accounts….this panel is way overwhelming. Too many settings and options (like an airplane cockpit) related to server management rather than for webhosting functions. Completely overwhelming and feels bloated. Also tough to setup.
I think it’s annoying even if you are a sys-admin, since you’ll probably prefer to do most things from a command line and need the GUI only for the common tasks. But then again, many other admins like being able to see every feature in GUI. Webmin interface definitely has the most “features” of any control panel I’ve ever seen. (Imagine comparing a dictionary to a comic book, lol).
I’m really liking this one. It’s new, very light, clean interface that has enough advanced features for admins but still easy enough for end-users. I like the UI a lot. And it’s single-user design makes it super simple. Common tasks are easy to find. Less common tasks are only a click away.
- Stack is Debian, pure NGINX, Percona DB, redis installed by default.
- Very admin friendly.
- Initial dashboard is nice chart of server resource loads.
- Easy to manage sites, domains, emails, services, databases, SSL.
- Also easy to do advanced admin stuff like SSH, remote DB.
- Quick access to server access log and error log.
- Doesn’t have a built-in File Manager (I would have really loved this.)
- Auto-login into phpMyAdmin (THANK YOU!)
- No mucking around with DNS and EMAIL functions or other end-user type stuff.
I’m a big fan of this one. Works perfectly with my admin-centric workflow. If they had a File Manager and 1-click install for WordPress, it would easily be my #1 favorite free admin panel. I also wish the left panel would keep the text labels showing on wide-enough screens…as the icons are too ambiguous.
A fork of VestaCP that aims to be better maintained and with less bugs. I tried it recently and it’s nice (see review). Simple and functional. I only wish it was just a tiny bit easier for end users but unfortunately not. It’s good for admins (and admin-centric UI) if you want a free simple control panel. I’m not a fan of the NGINX-hybrid stack but everything did work smoothly. (I did hear you can make it pure-NGINX with a few CLI commands.)
- Simple, clean.
- Works well with less bugs and better maintained than VestaCP.
- Has a File Manager. HOORAY!
- Well-maintained and active support for forums.
- Enabling HSTS by default. I hate this. It’s a total UX breaker. And then having to manually generate SSL from CLI next was also no fun.
- Can’t auto-login into phpMyAdmin. I had to get the mysql root pass in CLI.
- The UI looks a little retro. Not a dealbreaker, but I’d like something more modern looking.
- I think the post-installation notes could be more useful. Put the mysql root pass and SSL generate command there for the hostname.
Many admins like this since it works well, integrates with NGINX natively, and has a really simple UI. I personally don’t like that little annoying bugs pop up from time to time and you often go months before a fix is released. Any random bugs will have you scouring their forums for random configuration hacks until something works. It’s not production-ready and while it may seem friendly-enough for non-techy users, it really isn’t ready for that.
I don’t recommend VestaCP for production servers unless you’re comfortable working from the command line and know exactly which config files to visit when things go awry. It’s also missing many ease-of-use features that typical webhosting users would expect. Some sys-admins really like it while others complained about its bad reputation for security. I believe all control panels have security issues at one point or another. It’s the nature of software technology. Heck, even large banks get hacked.
My latest qualm about Vesta? I have a server running off Vesta with the annoying SSL error of late (sudo /usr/local/vesta/bin/v-update-letsencrypt-ssl). It’s crap like this that makes me not take Vesta seriously. Will it go away if I completely rebuild the server from scratch? Probably…but that sure as heck isn’t the way to mass-roll updates on multiple servers. They also don’t maintain it much. VestaCP gets a big NO from me.
I dismissed it in 2017 without even trying because of all the less-than-stellar reviews about it. That it was buggy, no maintained, potentially abandoned, or not looking like anything more than a BETA project.
Then in 2020, I heard exciting things about it offering OpenLiteSpeed support. That’s awesome since not many panels are built for OLS right now. (Maybe 2 or 3?)
I’ve also heard new discussions on forums about it being awesome and what not. Of course, you have to take it with a grain of salt as those reviews typically come from cheapskate users not wanting to pay for anything better. As you already know, “the best of free” doesn’t mean “the best all around”.
So I tried it myself and can say I really don’t like it. The features are fine. The performance I didn’t even get to. I’ll make this short:
- Didn’t like the SSL hiccups after panel install. If you try to setup SSL during panel install, you will end up with HSTS issue. Then have to remove panel SSL and it works using IP. But if you bind the IP to a convenient domain name, the IP version doesn’t work (or so the notes say).
- Overwhelming UI. I understand it just fine but it feels way more clutter-ey than it needs to be. You’ve got 10 main sections on the left side, some of them when clicked on will bring up another control-center looking thing in the middle with 10 more subsections within it. Ewww. Not a fan.
- The app store idea is nice but half-baked.
I hate to say it but Aapanel still feels very much like a beta product. I’m sure it’s stable. I do like that the devs are very responsive on the forums. I also like all the granular options this panel provides. But the overall user experience is not smooth enough. Personally…it feels like an old panel that was constantly added to over time instead of being refactored from scratch.
4. OTHER control panels
Basically, these are all the ones I haven’t tried. So I’m not 100% accurate whether they’re truly intended as TRADITIONAL control panels or ADMIN control panels. Them not being so popular despite being around long enough tells me enough. Some were even temporarily abandoned and then later redeveloped so you might hear conflicting reviews.
Many of them, I visited their websites and just wasn’t inspired to try based on what I saw. They seemed outdated and not enough user-base to keep the project active and alive. Many unanswered feature requests and bug complaints. It seems they all lack some essential functions. No thanks, I’m happy to pay a little more for something mature.
Last but not least, these control panels quickly remind me how much of a control panel’s job is not only to work well but also to look good. They have to look friendly!…especially to non-technical users! Some of them could probably be #1 if only they were redesigned better.
Anyway, if you want to explore, here are some others out there in the wild (and I’ve also included some secondhand comments that I’ve heard about them before). Again, I’ve never tried many of these in depth.
- ISPConfig (traditional) – like DirectAdmin, it’s another popular alternative to cPanel/Plesk. The UI looks plain/drab (like a draft mode) but actually laid out very logically. I haven’t personally used it much. I hear its difficult to set up.
- Interworx (traditional) – another popular alternative to cPanel. Some much prefer it over cPanel and lots of raving about great support but I haven’t tried. Their site looks outdated and I hear comments about their development being dead in the water. I think they’re a great choice if you like their current features.
- CentOS Web Panel (traditional) – highly acclaimed for its working functionality and FREE price. It looks like a free version of cPanel (similar layout) but in sad gray color. They look one reskin away from world domination if it wasn’t for bug complaints here and there.
- Froxler (traditional) – I believe this one is popular in Europe and I can see why. The recent redesign is clean, simple, and things laid out intuitively. I just don’t have much experience with it. Judging by design appearance alone, this one is the best of the “other panels”.
- Ajenti (admin) – feels more like community project rather than production-ready control panel. Very basic and lacking many necessary features.
- Sentora (admin) – feels more like community project rather than production-ready control panel. Abandoned.
- KeyHelp (traditional) – this one looks very nice and I’ve heard great feedback! Polished UI. Seems like a new company since I’ve never heard of it before.
- Aapanel (admin) – was once considered to be abandoned by now active again and with support for OpenLiteSpeed. Many people like its simplicity and reliability.
My personal advice
If you’ve got an important production site, you should only be using the most matured panels. These will be most stable, most secure, and least likely give you issues. And if you’ve got many customers or many servers, you should use only the most popular panels. They will be easier to use for your customers (with tons of guides available for them to figure things out themselves) and also most easily integrated with other software.
It may be fun, or financially-tempting to try a less common solution but you end up paying for it when little bugs add up over time. Those with only 1 or 2 servers and lots of sys-admin skills are free to use whatever they want.
As with anything, I recommend you try it before you buy it. 🙂