Free alternative for cPanel, DirectAdmin or Plesk?

Alireza Mortazavi
9 min readOct 7, 2020

There are a lot of paid control panels like cPanel, DirectAdmin and Plesk in the market and web developers and system admins have the experience of working with at least one of them in their career, whether on a shared hosting environment, a dedicated server or a VPS.

They have different features and different licensing prices, but in most cases they are a must for hosting your web applications. You definitely don’t want to install the web server, database, DNS, FTP, mail server and everything else all by yourself in the terminal and manage and monitor them manually.

But is there a free web control panel with descent features that can replace these paid control panels and can you really count on it? The prices of these paid control panels like cPanel are not very reasonable for small businesses, early stage startups and developers. Their single-license plans starting at $15 per month which is more than most users pay per month for their cloud servers.

let’s review the available options..

Why do you need a control panel in the first place?

A web server control panel is an online interface that allows you to control different aspects of your web server. Control panels are designed and implemented so that making changes on web servers becomes simpler and easier for users of all skill-levels to work with.

For example, if you want to install a SSL certificate, setup FTP, make changes to your DNS or your mail server, you can do all these through the control panel associated with your web server, because It’s not very convenient to use Putty or Remote Desktop every time you want to make changes, unless you are a geek with a lot of free time!

If you are using a shared hosting environment, you may not have the access to the terminal for security reasons.

What are the most important features that control panels like cPanel and DirectAdmin have?

  • They install and configure the important software packages for you, whether from package managers or directly from source. They also let you choose the versions. They install the Web-server, Database Server and Client, Mail Server, DNS Server, FTP Server and much more. You have the option to include all of them or not.
  • They create the hosting accounts and also other users for ftp, database and mail server and determine the resource limits like the disk space and the bandwidth. They also let you create reseller accounts and connect to a billing software.
  • They let you configure the domains, DNS records, SSL certificates, email accounts, spam filters, IP addresses.
  • There is a simple interface for full or partial backups and also scheduling backups and restores.
  • They manage services and create log files. They also monitor log files for important messages and abuses, like the brute force attacks. They can also be integrated with firewall software.
  • They let you manage Cronjobs very easily.
  • They have a clear, responsive and multi-language interface and their functionality can be extended using plugins.
  • They are actively maintained and updated. They have an active community.

Why do you need a free alternative?

Free is always better, right? Actually No! Paid Control panels like cPanel, DirectAdmin and Plesk are very mature and well maintained. They have a lot of features to offer and most of their bugs and security holes are resolved over the years.

They are the better and obvious choice, but not all the times! Sometimes a free option can do the job without the hassles of acquiring a license for your operating system and the IP address.

Nowadays you can deploy a new cloud server for testing and dev purposes in a minute or so! Then why wait for a license or even pay for it, if there is a free option with all the needed features?

A free control panel may not have all the features that a paid one is offering, but they can do the job and sometime they have some features that paid options don’t have. For example, if you need a web server for only hosting your static assets on a CDN or a server for storing your backups, buying a paid control panel like cPanel can be an overkill!

Enough talking, what is this free control panel?

If you search in the Google, you can definitely find more than one option, but not all of them are actually good. The descent ones that you can test are CWP and ISPConfig. Which one has more features? Its, CWP or the CentOS Web Panel. Let’s review their features and get more technical.

CWP or CentOS Web Panel

CentOS Web Panel is a free Linux Web Hosting Control Panel. As the name suggests, it can only be installed on the CentOS distro. It shouldn’t be a major problem as CentOS is a popular choice for web-servers, but if you want to stick to another Linux flavor, you have to try the other mentioned option, ISPConfig.

Because CWP is designed for CentOS, the installation is pretty straightforward and fast. You just need a fresh OS and it installs the pre-compiled packages. You can also manage your OS with CWP later on.

CWP is Free, but there is a pro version which is paid, with professional support. The free version is packed with features and looks like an enterprise solution. The paid version is also super cheap! You can go pro for just $1.49 per month or $12 per year! It’s almost like a donation!

Let’s explore the CWP features:
CWP installs some pre-compiled packages upon installation and you can completely change them after the installation from the control panel itself. It’s a different approach in comparison with others like cPanel and DirectAdmin, but results in a much faster and easier installation and you can configure everything from the panel itself, rather than the terminal interface.

It installs a full LAMP with Apache, PHP 5.6, MySQL and phpMyAdmin and then you can login to the admin area with your root user and manage everything.

You have a lot of options for the Webserver, you can install Nginx, or use it as a reverse proxy to Apache. You can also choose Litespeed or use Varnish for caching. You can also compile Apache from source and load additional modules, enable ModSecurity and bunch of other security features.

You can install any version of PHP that you want, compile it from source and load the required modules. It lets you install modules very easily, even the ones like FFMPEG and ionCube. If you go pro, you can use the PHP selector and use different PHP versions per user and also per folder!

You have all the basic stuffs for managing users, IP addresses, Email, FTP, DNS, Database, SSL and AutoSSL with free LetsEncrypt certs.

The backup manager is great, you can schedule daily, weekly or monthly backups on your local storage or a remote server.

There are a lot of informative pages for your software and hardware and you can do live monitoring too.

CWP offers some other cool features that most of the paid control panels like cPanel and DirectAdmin lack. For example, you can install and manage a MongoDB which is a popular NoSQL database. You can watch another tech debate about MongoDB if you need to learn more about it or the NoSQL itself.

WP also has an online terminal emulator, a root file manager, supports PostgreSQL, and also phpPgAdmin and other tools to manage your OS.

With CWP, most of times, you don’t need the shell access to manage things. You can change network configs, update linux packages, tune system parameters, change host-name and a lot more right from the control panel.

In terms of security, CWP can install and manage CSF firewall. You can use Comodo and OWASP rulesets with your ModSecurity with the one click installer. CWP also takes care of automatic updates. You can also use the ClamAV antivirus and SpamAssasin for the emails.

There are other security measures for Denial of Service protection, CloudLinux and CageFS support for the shell users, IP access control and many more. CWP takes security very seriously and you have a lot of options in terms of security which you can turn on and configure.

The list of features goes on and on, it requires a complete review, but overall, you will be pleased. You may start thinking, you don’t need cPanel after a while! It even provides a migration tool for cPanel users if they have that feeling and think the migration is a hassle.

You can extend the functionality with 3rd party software like CloudLinux, Softaculous and LiteSpeed Enterprise. There is an API for easier account management, and also WHMCS billing integration. You can easily use CWP on your Ded server and start selling web hosts. It can also be installed on a NATed machine.

You can test it using the online demo, but the data and configs are not persistent as expected and are wiped every hour. So it is much better if you can test it on your server. These days you can deploy a cloud server for a limited time and test it.

You can also find installation instructions on the site. It’s very easy and requires running a few commands and the rest can be done from the admin area itself. You can check the system requirements too. As you can see, you can even install it on a server with a gigabyte of ram.

If you have any questions, you can check the wiki, write on the forum or contact the support.

ISPConfig

ISPConfig is a free and open-source control panel with over 40K downloads per month. It also offers enterprise support. You can manage one or more servers from the control panel.

Unlike CWP, you can install it on many Linux Distributions like Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora or CentOS. The recommended ones are Debian or Ubuntu Server. You can find a lot of installation instructions at howtoforge.com.

It is translated into more than 20 languages, has four access levels for admins, resellers, users and email clients. The software selection is more limited compared to CWP. You can only install Apache2 or Nginx as webserver, so no Nginx Reverse proxy, Litespeed or Varnish cache options here.

It manages a lot of services, but in comparison to the CWP, it has less features, but you have the important ones like SSL, AutoSSL, FTP, MySQL, DNS, Cron Jobs, Email and more.

Let’s view the services and functions that it is providing in details
As you can see it has Webalizer and AWStats for providing and visualizing the metrics. The available PHP modes for Apache are mod_php, FCGI, CGI, HHVM and SuPHP; and for nginx it’s PHP-FPM and HHVM. You can have Individual PHP settings per website and these are the features that are not available in the free version of CWP.

If you install Apache, you can have Ruby or Python too. You can have jailed and non-jailed shell users. You can use DKIM and Dmarc for your emails. It has a billing module too, but it is paid and you have to buy it.

You can try the online demo to see the different user areas. If you like this control panel, you can also donate to support the development of the ISPConfig and get the user manual.

The user interface is not that modern, compared to the other control panels, but it does the job decently.

One of the big cons of ISPConfig is the lack of a file manager! You have to use a FTP client and it’s not convenient all the times, especially if you want to upload a zip archive and unpack it on the server.

You should note that the online demo is on a test server and it’s not that fast. It is recommended to install it on your server and then do the final evaluation.

Conclusion

These control panels are free, but don’t forget to donate to support the continuous development of them. You can also report bugs and suggest new features to help them grow more. Having free options means more flexibility, when it is needed!

That’s it for now, if you like this video, do forget to hit the thumb up. If there is any other free control panel that you use, you can include it in the comments. Don’t forget to subscribe for more tech debates like this one.

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