What is a Control Panel? Everything you need to know
Managing web services offered by a hosting provider used to require extensive sysadmin knowledge, including the ability to control server services via CLI. For some experts, this can be an effective way to manage servers. But for most system admins, a control panel with a GUI presents a much easier way to manage and monitor all hosted services you use.
This smoothens how you manage your services – be it web hosting, mailboxes, server databases, DNS settings and more. Monitoring is another important control panel function. And the better website control panels will offer you ways to stay abreast of CPU, memory and bandwidth use.
Superiority and functionality of panels will vary. But what you need to look out for is a user-friendly GUI, the ability to run Cron jobs as well as advanced security features. Let’s go for a full run-through what your next control panel should look like, what to expect, and what you shouldn’t settle for.
Basic elements of a Control Panel
Effectively take charge of a website hosting environment and make sure the website control panel you choose offers the following essential, basic functions.
Domain and DNS Management
You depend on domains to access website resources. Hence, your control panel should have a section that lets you manage everything about the domains you’re hosting on your server. This includes new add-ons and subdomains, or managing existing ones.
Subdomains allow you to create a separate website area or an entirely new website. All while still using your main domain name. So it can be useful to add a prefix to your website domain name, such as support.domain.com. Your control panel needs to allow you to create as many subdomains as you need. The power’s yours!
Most control panels will give you the option to add a number of domains to the hosting environment. You’ll find these as “Add-on domains”. Now, you can choose to assign an add-on domain to a specific website. Or you can simply park it if you currently don’t want the domain to point to any website. Note that a parked domain can point to an existing website. So in this case, every request for that domain is simply redirected to another website of your choice.
Can you imagine if all your DNS data was scattered? You can usually host all the DNS data for a domain on your hosting environment itself. Including the entire range of DNS records, like nameserver and A records, MX records and TXT records. The right hosting control panel for you will allow you to fully customize DNS for each add-on domain you host.
Organization is key. How can you keep track of all your the files on your server? You need an easy way to upload, remove and manage these files. So your control panel should present a GUI that enables quick and easy file management. The simpler, the better. Because whether you use a CMS such as WordPress, or not, file management is a basic daily task for admins. Solving CMS issues is also much quicker with a file manager. There is an alternative – enter FTP (File Transfer Protocol), still supported by most control panels, to be honest. But FTP requires using a separate software application which you’ll need to set up on the side.
You’ll have multiple email accounts (also known as mailboxes) associated with each domain. Your control panel should come to the rescue here too by letting you create, remove and otherwise manage these accounts. It’s common for web hosting packages to include POP3 or even IMAP email free of charge.
Mail forwarding is another important feature you should look out for. Doesn’t matter whether you are forwarding to an internal email account or an email account hosted elsewhere. Another common practice for control panels is allowing you to configure anti-SPAM solutions ( including DKIM, SPF and DMARC ). Handy because it lets you monitor and protect incoming emails against blacklists and open-source filtering databases.
Logging and Monitoring
Every system administrator should stay on top of key usage statistics, such as visitor counts, memory use and the total use of bandwidth. A control panel will help you identify websites which use excessive amounts of server resources. As well as enable you to avoid high bandwidth charges – before it is too late.
Advanced Control Panel Features
Not every control panel offers the same features. Although you should make sure basic elements are covered, we recommend you consider the following features too when you evaluate a control panel.
The ability to manage TLS/SSL is an essential feature of your control panel. These encryption features prevent your confidential data from getting intercepted. So you can protect user credentials and credit card numbers that hackers can effortlessly steal, via something as common as an unsecured wifi connection.
Further Security Features
Here at Plesk, we expect all control panels to offer more advanced security features in this day and age. For example, you can get protection against HotLinking. What’s HotLinking? Well, it’s when an unscrupulous website owner links videos or images on your website. And then they display these media assets as their own content.
There are two problems with this. First, the website is stealing your content. Secondly, it’s stealing your bandwidth. HotLink protection can restrict the access other servers have to image files on your server.
Also, consider that you need to be able to block access to a web server directory in all cases. Unless there’s a file that the web server can load, such as index.html. Leaving directory access unrestricted can lead to security threats taking hold.
Have you thought about unauthorized users? Included in some control panels, ModSecurity is an application firewall that’s operated on an open-source basis. And it helps you monitor applications, while also logging activity and implementing access limits where necessary. One way of blocking access is by blocking IP addresses. ModSecurity will help you do this.
It also helps to have SSH access, which gives you encrypted file transfers and logins. Useful to configure the remaining services that you cannot configure via the control panel.
There’s only so much time in a day, right? And you don’t want to be working round the clock. Automating server maintenance is useful for system administrators because it frees up time they can use for other tasks.
Many control panels allow you to use Cron as a scheduler, which runs scripts at specific times on specific days. Great for automating server tasks like database view updates, performing backups and checking your site for broken links.
Custom Error Pages
Standard rule of System administration – Glitches will happen. And you don’t want to serve an unprofessional error message to customers, revealing who your hosting provider is. This is where the custom error message comes in.
You can customize a range of messages in a worthy control panel, including the typical “404 – not found” message. Your messages can, of course, be more descriptive and contain elements including your company logo and instructions on finding help.
The bigger the website, the more users and the more content involved. Larger websites will manage content by means of a database. Any CMS, such as WordPress, will install a database on your web server. As is the case for most e-commerce platforms.
In turn, many hosting services supply MySQL as an open-source DBMS (Database Management System). Your control panel will let you add, configure and remove databases as you need.
Custom versus Commercial and Open Source Control Panels
Web hosts tend to offer one of two types of control panels. One is a commercial or open source control panel. Usually purchased from a third party, like a million other web hosts around the world. Or you can have a custom panel that is proprietary to the web host, often developed in-house. Custom control panels can be very clean and easy to use. But be aware that they are sometimes unexpectedly limited in functionality.
Some custom control panels, however, are a real mess and become more of an obstacle when it comes to server management tasks. Beginners can also struggle to switch from a custom panel to a more fully-featured panel later on. If you choose a host that uses a popular control panel, like Plesk, you’ll find you can easily switch to another host without needing to re-train your staff on the new control panel.
But if you’re confused, see which made our list of hosting control panels for 2018.
So why have a Control Panel?
You’ll find control panels included in almost all hosting packages. The control panel your host uses is unlikely to be the most important factor you consider when choosing a host, but it’s an important consideration nonetheless.
And as with any software product, the optimal way to evaluate a website control panel is to experience it yourself. Most panels offer a live online preview or free trial which helps you evaluate the functionality and GUI user-friendliness. Plesk offers a free trial, so while you’re here, check it out and see how it feels.
It’s a good idea to try and perform the routine tasks you regularly perform and to compare how long it takes you. A visually-stunning control panel is not necessarily the most effective tool. Luckily we’re a bit of both. But don’t take our word for it. Try it out before you decide, and get in touch with us if you need to.