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Compare cPanel - Plesk - Ensim

Compare cPanel - Plesk - Ensim

A comparison of server control panels

The control panel on a server is the main control centre for the website. There are several ways the site's management can be accessed, of which the control panel is the central area for main configurations.

Here are the most common ways to access the site and its management:
  • The frontend of the site - what visitors see. This is the main URL or domain, with the web pages and other resources such as downloads.
  • FTP access: this is used for file transfers - sending pages or files up to the server. Mostly, FTP is used as part of the management apparatus since few sites use their public FTP facility.
  • The control panel: this is the main server management apparatus.
  • The webapp admin backend: the CMS / ecommerce / forum / blog administration centre, if the site is not of the plain HTML web page type.
  • SSH access: secure shell access by the command console, which can be used to manage server operations such as database dumps using command prompts. (This is text command operation, like the old DOS system.)
  • Webmail: a direct server access URL to see emails to the domain.
  • Local PC email client: a mail client program that gets email off the server and presents it on the PC.
In addition there are several other less-used methods such as Remote MySQL.

Of all of these, the control panel is probably the most important, as many important configurations can be changed there, in a very easily-used environment.

cPanel vs Plesk vs Ensim

What are the control panel choices? These are the four most common control panels you will find on hosting accounts:

1. cPanel
2. Plesk
3. Ensim
4. Custom panels

cPanel is the most common, and there are several versions or levels you will see, such as cPanel, cPanel X, and cPanel-Accelerated. All are the same except that more facilities are available on some, or there are skin options. This panel is very widely seen on standard hosting deals, as it is the benchmark panel for LAMP servers - the standard, normal webserver.

Click on the graphic to see a larger image of cPanel

Plesk is the only common panel on Windows IIS servers. It is also seen occasionally on LAMP servers, especially dedicated servers.

Ensim is a less-common panel, seen on some higher-cost shared hosting accounts. It is distinguished by its very arty pink or green GUI.

Custom panels are of two types: simple rebuilds of cPanel, or total custom builds.
cPanel is actually a subsidiary panel of WHM, Web Host Manager, the master account control solution available for a LAMP server. On shared hosting, your host has access to WHM and creates your account's cPanel using WHM. On dedicated hosting, where you have your own server (called a dedicated server or 'dedibox'), you yourself create a cPanel account via WHM, for use by each domain name - or the hosts can do it for you.

What can be done in the control panel ?

A large number of operations can be actioned in the most capable panels, though less in the more basic panels. Here are some of the task groups seen on a typical cPanel:
  • File management
  • Email management, including spam filtering, email forwarding, and auto responders 
  • Database management, including MySQL and PostgreSQL
  • Statistics choices
  • Log viewing
  • Password protection of files and directories (folders) 
  • phpMyAdmin for MySQL databases
  • Domain management
  • CGI, Perl and Ruby scripts
  • Cron jobs
  • Account settings

Which is the best server control panel ?

This is an easy question to answer - cPanel by a long mile. Next comes Ensim, and finally Plesk.

The only panel with a full set of facilities, and where the facilities are easy to locate and use, is cPanel. Plesk for example is missing some important features such as email forwarding.

What are custom panels like ?

When they are skinned or customised versions of cPanel, they are likely to be acceptable. Otherwise, custom control panels are to be avoided like the plague. They are only used in order to avoid paying the panel annual license fee, and all those we have seen have been poor, with vital facilities missing.

In general, custom panels often don't even have the basic features that are why a panel exists - such as file management, database management, phpMyAdmin, folder passwording facility, email account management, email forwarding, AWstats and so on. It is much harder to manage sites with this low standard of hosting.

Control panel scores

Here is our rating of the various panels, with a score out of 10:
  • cPanel .................. 9
  • Ensim ................... 6
  • Plesk .................... 5
  • Custom panels ....... 1
cPanel has the most facilities and is by far the easiest to use. All the main functions are on the dashboard, in the form of easily-navigated icons. Ensim has many functions but is harder to use than cPanel as some of the functions are quite well hidden. Plesk is laid out clearly like cPanel, but is missing some obvious functions. Custom panels - at least, the ones we've seen - have several vital functions missing and are therefore of little use.

Dedicated server management

Some server techs prefer to manage a dedicated server that is stripped to the bone, with everything managed by SSH. On these servers - commonly those using a less-common Linux version such as Gentoo, and/or with an alt server app such as NginX - the server specialist in charge may prefer to keep the server skinny, and not install a control panel. This certainly has advantages for a skilled, full-time server admin with a heavily-loaded server, but it has massive disadvantages for a website manager who needs to access all the site configs quickly and easily.

A dedicated server needs cPanel just as much as shared hosting. More so, probably, since the site or sites run on it will be busy, and efficient management will be crucial.

Why you need a good control panel

A business website needs proper web hosting, which is available from about £30 / $50 a year and up. At this price you can get 5 databases or more, FTP, and cPanel. Why anyone would want to pay more for a hosting account with less facilities than this is a bit of a mystery. At £100 / $150 a year or so you can get ultra high quality shared hosting with 50 sites per server or thereabouts (normal shared hosting might have 200 sites or more per server). Don't pay more, there is no point. Equally, hosting with less facilities than this is hardly a bargain. It depends on how difficult you would like your life to be.

Control panel FAQs

I'm on Windows hosting, can I get cPanel ?
No, Plesk is the panel you will find offered on Windows hosting. It is not as good as the other two best-known panels but a Windows server generally isn't as easily-managed as a LAMP server. Most things are a little harder to do, or are slower, or cost more. On some Windows hosting accounts you will have to ask the hosts to do all the things that are taken for granted on a normal webserver. For example you cannot easily create an email forwarder in 20 seconds, or create a SEF URL for a page, as you can on a LAMP server. 
One drawback unrelated to panels is that is that a Windows server cannot ordinarily create the vital SEF URLs for a PHP webapp that are available on a normal server, as there is no htaccess file. An IIS server (aka Windows server) is best for ASP / .NET webapps. The hosts carry out all the normal webmastering tasks, in the IIS Manager - on shared hosting, the site owner cannot carry out some basic webmastering tasks.

My webhost doesn't have a control panel, does it matter ?
Hosts without a control panel, with only FTP access, are suitable for small home page sites and similar - just as are those with a control panel but no FTP facility, or those with 1 database per account and so on. They are not proper webhosts, and such a facility is not a real web hosting account. You can get better facilities on free webhosts, never mind on some of the better economy paid hosts. An exception is a large commercial site with a fulltime server tech who prefers to use SSH for all tasks. In this case the website manager will be dependent on the server tech for all routine webmastering jobs.

My host has cPanel but no FTP, does this matter ?
This again is a major drawback and only seen on a few, restricted hosts. It is not suitable for any kind of business account, just simple home page sites. With FTP you can upload bulk files quickly, unzip packages on the server, and change any file within 10 seconds. You can get a much faster and clearer view of the web files. You can quickly edit files and adjust file permissions with FTP.

I can't see my htaccess file, how to fix it ?
It's easiest to view these dot-files via FTP. You might need to adjust the view configs so that 'invisible' files can be seen, or go to 'Advanced File Listing'. On your control panel you might need to Set Invisible Files as Visible, in the file manager.

My control panel has no password facility, what can I do ?
This isn't a real control panel like cPanel. You can contact the hosts and get them to give you a copy of the two htaccess files you need to place on the server to password-protect a folder or file. Alternatively you could research something like 'htaccess password protect files'.

How do I create databases ?
In cPanel this is directly available from the dashboard, it's a very simple procedure. First create a DB, then create a User, then allocate the user to the DB, with all privileges. That username and pass is then given to your webapp to use. Note that a DB has no password itself, the user has the pass.

When creating a DB, give it a name like 'cms1', then later it will be easier for you to recognise its purpose. Note that the final database name will be your account name on the server, joined with an underscore to your chosen name, of the form: fredsmith_cms1 -- this is what you make a note of as it's the name your webapp will need. The DB username you create will also be in this form. You can make it 'user1' for example, and then the username will be fredsmith_user1, which - along with the password - is what you need to record. Vary these names slightly for security.

How do I view the contents of a database ?
The best way is to look at it using phpMyAdmin, which is the GUI for MySQL - the skin or windows view that allows you to manipulate a DB in your browser. Just follow the link in cPanel, it's at the bottom of the database creation page, if the link icon is not directly on the dashboard. With phpMyAdmin you can easily do things like change a user's permissions or password.

What is Fantastico ?
This is a script installer. It's a rapid way of intalling a CMS or blog and so on. These webapps are sometimes referred to as 'scripts'. In fact they might be ten megabytes and thousands of script files of course. Fantastico should always be used if available, as it makes the job so easy. You can install a CMS in 5 minutes with this.

There are one or two minor negatives to installing a webapp this way, but no deal-breaker. You'll need to remember a couple of things though:

1. Install your main webapp direct to the webroot, not into a directory. (This was a big drawback to Fantastico in the past, but they fixed it, and now you have a choice.) However, you should install a second webapp to its own directory.

2. Make sure to grab all the usernames and passwords shown at the end of the install.

3. Don't delete any files in the webroot you don't recognise - they will be the Fantastico management files, for upgrades and the like. If you delete them, the server Fantastico install becomes corrupt. It might not be able to install another webapp if your databases are limited in number, for example.

4. Run upgrades and patches through the Fantastico interface unless you know exactly what you are doing.

And that was our website control panel round-up for the SEO Hosting section, featuring cPanel compared, Ensim compared, Plesk compared, server panels comparison.

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