Web Hosting Control Panels: A Guide for Beginners

Apart from the price, reliability, and other considerations in choosing the best hosting for your personal or business needs, you should look into what type of control panel your web host provider offers.

What Is a Control Panel and Why Is It Important?

A control panel is like your car’s dashboard.  It is the area where you can virtually turn knobs, flip switches, and send commands through your computer screen to the faraway computer (called a server) at your web hosting company where your website will actually reside.

It lets you administer your hosting account – you can do tasks like installing software to create and power your sites, uploading and working with the files that make up these sites, monitor server performance and troubleshoot any possible errors that may come up from time to time, set up email accounts, set up site analytics, and many others. Some hosting providers add extras to their control panels, such as marketing tools and credits.

If your control panel is cluttered, hard to do things with, too advanced, and makes you keep consulting the manual or the instructional videos to get started on anything, then you might have a tough time actually managing your sites and getting things done.

What Your Control Panel Should Have

A good control panel has an intuitive layout that immediately shows you important information about your hosting account, and lets you access within a click all its important functions.

These are some of the crucial info that you should be able to tell at a glance from the dashboard:

  • Your hosting package and what it allows
  • Disk space you’ve already used
  • Your bandwidth usage
  • How many e-mail and domain accounts you have
  • Your IP address and nameserver addresses
  • Any technical, administrative or billing issues that need your attention

Control panels can look and feel differently, but most would have the following basic features:

  • File Manager
  • Email Accounts
  • Applications Installers (for installing software that builds your type of site)
  • Database Manager
  • Security
  • Backups
  • Statistics

There are actually dozens of web hosting control panels available, catering to various technical needs or personal preferences of the site administrator or webmaster (you’re one of them now, congrats). There are free or open-source solutions, but these require some advanced technical know-how to set up and are often used by power users setting up their own servers. So we won’t bother ourselves with these, for now.

Most of what you’ll encounter are proprietary control panels licensed for commercial use by hosting providers, if not custom-made by them. These are chosen or designed especially for their beginner-friendly graphical user interfaces and often feature walk-throughs or wizards to get you started in no time at all.

Windows, Linux, and Mac Control Panels

For now, all you need to know is what operating system your server is running on. Some control panels work only on Windows-based servers, others on Unix/Linux systems only. Some can run on either. A rare few run exclusively on Mac servers.

For beginners with little technical background, it’s a safe bet to choose Linux based hosting, as most basic website software and scripts (WordPress, PHP, MySQL, most shopping carts, etc.) run on Unix-based machines. Choose Windows hosting if you need a site that runs on Windows-only applications, such as MS Access or ASP.NET. Definitely choose Linux if you need Secure Shell (SSH) access.

Top 3 Control Panels You’ll Encounter

Most web hosts use one of these three commercial-use control panels: cPanel, Plesk, and DirectAdmin. Let’s take a brief look at each of them:


1. cPanel

cPanel is one of the most popular control panels, if not the most popular. It is Linux-based, and includes tools that make website creation and management as simple as possible. Its interface is straightforward and non-threatening enough for beginners (and there are videos and wizards to get you up and running quickly).

This does not mean that it lacks functionality. cPanel is still a well-rounded, powerful toolset for running and managing sites, just dressed up in a neat, user-friendly package. More experienced webmasters can perform advanced tasks such as enhancing security features and automating repetitive tasks.

We like cPanel and have written about it in the past, and if you’d like to learn more, check out our cPanel Hosting page.

2. Plesk

Plesk is another popular choice for professionals and beginners alike. Unlike cPanel, Plesk works on both Linux and Windows servers.

This means that if you get comfortable with using this control panel, you can use the same familiar interface in case you need to switch from running sites that require Windows-only applications (like) to those that need to be run on Linux (SSH, for example).

It has a number of built-in applications users can easily install, so people with zero technical background can add as many feature-rich apps into their website. In addition, experienced owners use can also take advantage of other powerful options such as multiple FTP accounts and direct API access.

Learn more about Plesk here.

3. DirectAdmin

DirectAdmin is another feature-rich open source control panel with a graphical interface. New users can rely on simple one-click installation and setup of unlimited websites, e-mails, and task automation. The best thing about it is that other than its ease of use, it also provides users all possible statistics regarding their account. It’s easy to create custom error messages without website coding knowledge.

We’ve only covered the top 3 here. Other control panels, like ISPConfig, ZPanel, SiteWorx, and much more, are available depending on what your hosting service offers. Be sure to check with your potential hosting provider!



Written 2014-03-25 (Updated 2016-10-10)
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Written by David Walsh

David Walsh is the editor in chief here at Web Hosting Search. Having been in the industry for many years now he knows pretty much everything about everything. At least that's what he keeps telling everyone at the office. So, don't hesitate to drop him a line  if you've got a question - david(a)webhostingsearch.com.

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