A look into free control panels
There are many hosting customers out there who would never even consider looking past the usual commercial suspects when it comes to industry standard panels such as Cpanel, Direct Admin and Plesk. There was a time when I was one of those people but just like for everyone else, money has become more sparse so some choices had to be made for those little luxuries, web hosting was one of them. Now for some of you of course, web hosting will be a necessity to support your business and online trade. You can still save a surprising amount of money just by changing a few habits and not loose out with too many of the main features you might look for in a free control panels. Interested? Thought so, in which case we have prepared a series of newbie friendly reviews on some of the free (no that’s not a typo) control panels out there.
Just to note, you will need a VPS or Dedicated Server with SSH/Root access to be able to install any of these.
Vesta Control Panel
Installation level: Very easy
VestaCP is relatively new on the market and is quickly gaining in popularity. Whilst being one of the better looking free CP’s out there with it’s sleek, modern design Vesta does seem to be aimed at the inexperienced webmaster as it is let down by the lack of configurable features and settings needed for the more technical setup. However, where it lacks in technical features it more than makes up for lost ground with simplicity and user friendly interface which is easy-to-navigate with straight forward prompts to help guide you through the normally mundane and sometimes confusing tasks, such as setting up E-Mails, creating databases and so on.
One recurring problem we found when testing Vesta on various different setups is that a little bit of tinkering with various server-side E-Mail settings in order for E-Mails to work properly and even when it did work it seemed unstable. From the perspective of a novice user, the last thing they want to do is to be fiddling around in vi editor to change technical settings.
Another feature which Vesta could really benefit from is a setup wizard to help you set up the default domain and configure the nameservers and other default settings, since this was a little on the fiddly side to do for the first time user.
That said, installation was a complete breeze; by far the easiest of all the free offerings taking 10-15 minutes in total only prompting the user to input basic server details and other information, it even E-Mails you login details once the installation is complete. Once installed Vesta requires very little resources yet is still super fast and generally reliable.
Overall VestaCP is definitely a worthwhile option to consider if you’re comfortable with having to make some adjustments. These may also be resolved over time as Vesta is actively being developed and has an active community where you can seek user-to-user support, however paid technical support is also offered but this defeats the purpose of not having a paid control panel.
A well deserved 4/5
ISP Config 3
Installation level: Difficult/buggy
ISP Config 3 is another free control panel deserving of a mention, considering it is still favoured by many users, often recommended on communities like WHT. ISP Config 3 is much more feature rich than VestaCP and clearly aimed at those who know what they are doing.
The UI is a little dated looking though users of direct admin may warm to the simplistic interface. Most importantly, all the features you would expect from a paid alternative are there, so unlike VestaCP which we reviewed earlier you won’t be lacking in technical features. That said the last time we tried, the ISP Config’s own installation instructions did not work. We had to source an auto-installer script before we could even get ISP Config up and running which was time consuming and very technical.
ISPConfig 3 is still actively maintained and updated by it’s developers, however it offers no free documentation, instead prompting users to pay 5 Euros for their 300 page documentation. Which is a little bit of a let down considering the level of free documentation offered by some of it’s competitors but that said, they do offer links to many detailed guides on installing ISP Config 3. All of which are highly technical and time consuming. Definitely not for the newbies!
Considering how much of a pain in the ass it was to install we wouldn’t recommend ISP Config 3 to anyone who isn’t a professional, well versed in the inner workings of servers. There are much better alternatives!
A disappointing but average 3.5/5
Installation level: Easy
ZPanel is one of the oldest free control panels around and appeals to those familiar with Cpanel due to the striking resemblance between the two both in terms of GUI and general structure, even some paid hosts use ZPanel for their services.
Unlike most of the other free CP’s ZPanel offers the ability to completely customize the look and feel with skins/templates, however the links to the promised skins/templates on the ZPanel website are outdated and redirect back to their home page, a disappointing start. If you’re looking for ZPanel skins/templates then Google will surely yield results for you, there are even complete CPanel templates out there.
ZPanel, as you would expect from a well matured control panel has all the functionality of industry standard panels, however many users within hosting communities have expressed security concerns.
Installation was pretty straight forward without any major issues and performed well. That said we wouldn’t recommended this control panel as a secure alternative for business use due to the constant rumblings of security concerns from it’s users. These rumblings are probably well justified, particularly because ZPanel rewrites all the server-side components such as Apache with it’s own versions. However if you’re looking to provide free hosting or host personal sites, it should do fine if you’re not one who fusses over security and inner workings.
ZPanel does seem to be maintained still, although the last update was in March of 2014 according to their website but that itself is a disappointing mess of dead & redirected links and lack of an official community. Which is surely a concern that will set alarm bells ringing for any prospective user looking to get information on their product.
We can’t recommend ZPanel with any great confidence, so a lonesome 2/5. We expected much better!
Webmin & Virtualmin
Installation level: Easy-medium
Webmin & Virtualmin is another long-standing free control panel that has stood the test of time. At first glance, we’ll admit it’s not much of a looker but don’t let it’s minimalist looks fool you, it packs one hell of a punch and is frequently recommended by seasoned professionals.
What’s the difference between Webmin & Virtualmin? Well Virtualmin is a plugin for Webmin – a systems administration tool – which allows you to host websites, databases, e-mails and such so you will need both of these installed. Installation was simple enough, but took us a whopping 30-45 minutes to install and the screen would frequently look like it has frozen with no output but this will undoubtedly vary depending on your system.
Webmin & Virtualmin combined offer everything you could possibly need from a control panel with some nice little extras to boot and you can configure just about every configurable setting on your server, as well as edit those all-important .conf files without fidgeting around in vi editor or the likes. There’s also a handy little script installer from where you can install essential tools (including the support for 3rd party modules/plugins) such as Phpmyadmin, Squirrelmail & Roundcube but you will have to update this library first as many of the versions we found distributed with Webmin/Virtualmin were outdated but all updates can be done from within the control panel which itself is regularly updated by developers! If you don’t like the look, there are also a selection of skins available through the Webmin website.
Amidst all the bells and whistles, Webmin/Virtualmin does have a few drawbacks and niggles to report. Many of the menus are confusing, with various settings and functions cropping up where you wouldn’t expect them. The creation of extra E-Mail and FTP Accounts is a hell of a kerfuffle until you get the hang of it as you have to specify things such as directories, access groups and other technical details that really aren’t necessary when other panels perform the same tasks effortlessly.
Niggles aside, Webmin/Virtualmin performs magnificently with no recurring issues and minimal maintenance, even on low RAM systems but we would recommend 1-2GB of RAM for peak efficiency. Despite the aforementioned negatives, we would definitely recommend Webmin/Virtualmin as a viable free alternative to paid control panels for both personal and business use.
Still needs improvement in some areas but still a no-brainer 4.5/5
Froxlor is a pretty new competitor, having launched only in 2009, however we feel it’s more than deserving of a mention. Froxlor is similar to VestaCP, in the sense that it aims to simplify the management of your hosting services, it’s also one of the better looking control panels with an aesthetically pleasing yet clean design and user friendly, themeable interface.
Installation was a breeze taking only a few minutes, with minimal user input required. Following setup there are some additional configurations required within the panel, however Froxlor automatically generates files & commands based on your desired settings, leaving you to copy, paste and save. A very thoughtful feature! There are some other neat features too, such as built-in Google font support and a support ticket system, which many would pay good money for alone.
Froxlor seems to perform well with no major issues to report, however it doesn’t currently support CentOS but as Froxlor is still in it’s early years this is something that will hopefully change in the near future with it’s currently active development.
Froxlor is surely heading in the right direction, so it’s one to watch for the future. A sturdy 3.5/5