Free cPanel Alternatives

March 04, 2021 — Jt Spratley

For those who only use website builders like Wix, Squarespace, Weebly, Shopify, and WordPress.com, cPanel is a control panel application for managing web server functions - files, DNS records, SQL databases, email, security protocols, etc. It's the most popular option for managed server hosting plans with web hosting companies - HostGator, GoDaddy, SiteGround, etc. - using the Red Hat-based CentOS Linux distribution.

cPanel changed their pricing structure to "tiers" per how many cPanel accounts you used within a single web server in 2019. This affected the costs for everyone on managed reseller and virtual private server (VPS) hosting plans with WebHost Manager (WHM) and multiple cPanel accounts (because such users will many times resell web server space to their own customers). It also reminded me that cPanel is proprietary software and I'd been working toward using mostly free open source software (FOSS) for years. This brought a few questions to mind:


What are Reputable, FOSS cPanel Alternatives?

As I've mentioned many times, AlternativeTo.net is my go-to for FOSS substitutions to proprietary software. It doesn't always have the best answer but it is a great start. That's where I found the Webmin/VirtualMin server management suite. I like it so far. It's easy to install. Navigation is straight-forward. It does a lot of the same features as cPanel:

  • File manager
  • Firewall management
  • Third party integrations
  • Email

The website is pretty bare-bones, though. And I'm often get better answers during Webmin troubleshooting from external sources than official documentation. I've heard Webmin had major security issues a few years ago. Not too surprising since the website, at the time I'm writing this, doesn't have a valid SSL certificate.

Last year, someone told me about Control Web Panel (CWP), formerly CentOS Web Panel. I haven't checked it out yet, but it's understandable that someone would focus on CentOS since it is one the most popular Linux distros for server environments. They even have a cPanel-to-CWP migration guide.

It's FOSS, with their great human-readable guides, introduced me to Seafile. I doubt I'll try it anytime soon if ever. Seafile is primarily for data storage sharing than server management. It wouldn't touch server functions or applications like DNS, Apache, or PHP.

Nextcloud is the most popular option for that use case. ownCloud and Samba are up there too. If that is all you really need, you could integrate it with a third party email provider - Gmail, AOL, Zoho, Migadu, etc.

I use Osalt.com sometimes. Other times, I'll simply search the software package manager (apt, yum, etc.) for keywords.

How Much Does cPanel Cost?

This depends on your web hosting plan. Shared hosting, the cheapest cPanel hosting plan a company can offer, is simply a single cPanel account. You're not buying the license yourself. How much you pay for your hosting subscription may have had a small increase due to pricing changes. But it shouldn't be much.

Pricing for all other cPanel server hosting plans (Reseller, VPS, and dedicated) have likely quietly increased by now. Depending on how many cPanel accounts someone uses, that price can shoot up too much for what you're doing. In that case, your best bet would be to merge cPanel accounts into addon domains for a decent return of investment (ROI).

How Much Can I Save with Unmanaged Server Hosting and a cPanel Alternative?

I'll separate "savings" into two parts: money and time/energy.

Money

Unmanaged Linux server hosting is cheaper than cPanel hosting but almost always means no free technical support. This is because an unmanaged server is basically a minimal Linux ISO file. You can do whatever you want on an unmanaged VPS or virtual private cloud (VPC) except edit the kernel. That's not an issue if you have an unmanaged dedicated server.

The difference between a VPS and VPC is that the VPC is generally for developers who don't need the virtual server online 24/7. Unlike other hosting plans, VPCs are charged per seconds or minutes online instead of monthly or annually. A VPC is much cheaper for this reason but not best for hosting a website for branding and marketing purposes.

Shared hosting plans normally start with some sort of discount. But once that annual subscription renewal comes, it's back to a full price. Pay attention to the full price when shopping for web hosting providers, not just the current discounted price.

Since we're talking about free cPanel alternatives, associated costs with any software I've mentioned would be related to any valuable add-on features.

Time and Energy

This is where the question about migrating from a cPanel server gets difficult for some. Are you comfortable enough with the Linux command-line interface (CLI), or terminal, and Secure Shell (SSH) to work on a web server without a graphical user interface (GUI)? How much do you need a cPanel-like application to accomplish your goals? This is where ROI comes in.

If you don't want to do everything in the terminal like a Linux system administrator (sysadmin), and/or you're not experienced with it, you have to think about:

  • How much time you'll need to learn essential functions in the new server application
  • Will it do everything you needed and wanted from cPanel efficiently
  • Where you can go for quality documentation and support when troubleshooting - forum, Wiki, IRC channel, etc.
  • The quality of that documentation and support
  • How it will affect your website performance and security

Remember, cPanel is backed by an organization with the manpower to maintain a busy forum, write concise documentation, and release updates for up-to-date security, performance, and server functions on a regular basis. More time configuring new software means less time working on your business, less money due to paying freelance developers for assistance, or maybe both.

There's more to some of these considerations that deserve mentioning.

How Would It Affect Website Performance?

cPanel runs a lot of background processes. Check for yourself with top, htop, or ps -aux in the terminal. Or just use the WHM Process Manager. Those background processes manage email, databases, FTP, and a bunch of other stuff novices would need to read about cPanel logs to understand. If you don't use some of those functions, they're just eating up valuable bandwidth since if you can't disable them (a disadvantage on shared hosting).

Depending on your hosting plan, your server might use performance optimization software like NGINX or PHP-FPM. These are server applications that cache your website to load faster. These are helpful integrations, if configured correctly for your website.

Put simply, the answer isn't as simple as yes or no for everyone. Remember, an unmanaged web server means installing a base Linux distro without anything else that isn't required to run it. So if you maintain a WordPress, Joomla, or other PHP-based content management system (CMS), you'll need to install PHP and MySQL. And there are ways to optimize the speed of both of those that you may or may not be able to configure efficiently to support your website(s).

Do you use Cloudflare or another content delivery network (CDN) service? That's more about DNS (nameservers records usually) then web server management, how you configure Cloudflare can be affected by your jump from cPanel hosting.

Finally, you'll have to research other web hosting providers if your current one doesn't have unmanaged server hosting. I've seen semi-managed server hosting which had some features that are unnecessary for many solo business owners. But why go semi if you want to dedicate all of your server resources to your website(s) and users?

Hosting providers have servers in different locations and different performance configurations within their digital infrastructure. Does yours have one close to you or our target audience? This may not matter if you're using a CDN but it is something to think about.

Finally, how does the server management tool you choose to replace cPanel interact with those other server apps? You won't know the answer to many of these questions unless you talk with other users or test the new setup in a staging environment and compare benchmarks of server usage between them.

My summarized answer to the question: it depends on your hosting provider, ability to disable unnecessary functions on the server management suite, and what you use for website optimization.

How Would It Affect Website Security?

This is just like the performance section above. More so than with optimization software, hosting providers won't openly share what they're using for their web server security solution. Like I listed in my cybersecurity blame game blog, you need a solution for antivirus (AV) scanning, firewalling, and backups.

cPanel has add-ons for those things and hosting providers configure other stuff within managed servers that customers can't see. Regardless of whether you see them or not, they affect your website performance. This is why it is best practice to scan systems and complete server backups during times of low activity.

Your unmanaged server and free cPanel alternative likely won't have such functions built-in. So you'll need to research what server security plugins or integrations with other cybersecurity applications are available. You'll also need to read The Hacker News, DarkReading, and other related cybersecurity news blogs about past security incidents for your cPanel replacement. This is a great time to get familiar with the National Vulnerability Database (NVD) and Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) if you're not already. Wherever you find results for your free cPanel replacement, look for info about how long before they patched the issue and was it a good resolution.

Since even cPanel doesn't always include all of these apps by default, I'll recommend some stand-alone applications for your bare-bones Linux server.

ClamAV is a light-weight, easy to learn, and fully-featured AV scanner. There's one configuration file with user-friendly documentation. You can configure ClamAV for remote file scans and customized automated system scans. ClamAV is so popular, it has GUI integrations for Linux desktops, Mattermost team communications software, Claws Mail, and many other applications.

ConfigServer Security & Firewall (CSF) is also light-weight, easy to grasp, and packed with features. Opening ports is as simple as typing the port number in a large, human-readable configuration file.

For backups, I can only say you should find something that handles your preferred compression algorithm well - zip, tar, 7z, etc. CLI applications for those compression algorithms are usually natively installed in the Linus distro.

You might learn more about Linux server security and cPanel from my 2020 recap podcast.

How Long Will It Take to Learn a Free cPanel Alternative?

I'll try to break down some core functions you'll need to learn for common server setups.

DNS changes. DNS record changes (A, MX, CNAME, TXT, etc.) and DNS clustering can sometimes be made within the hosting provider's website. If not, this is a biggie. Creating new DNS records with a specific time-to-live (TTL) should be painless and take less than a few minutes to figure out. You can check DNS propagation (time before DNS records update) with online tools like DNS Checker.

File editing with syntax highlighting is always easier. This is possible with VIM or Nano terminal text editors, but then you need to have a terminal emulator in your free cPanel alternative. It shouldn't take more than a minute or two to understand if the feature is there. Otherwise, you'll have to use SSH or file transfer protocol (FTP).

File uploads, like editing, should be possible in your free cPanel alternative. If not, your best bet is probably scp (with SSH configured) or FTP with FileZilla. FTP is easy to configure. Open port 21 in your server local network firewall. Type your server hostname, server username, and password into FileZilla. Drag and drop files to and from your server.

It takes a bit more time to setup ssh because you have to manage SSH keys.

Database management preferences depends on how and how often you work on databases. MySQL/MariaDB, PostgreSQL, and MongoDB have CLI applications but that's a pain. Even cPanel uses third-party applications for editing database tables: phpMyAdmin for MySQL and pgAdmin for PostgreSQL). Neither take long to learn since there's a search bar to find tables and the layout is user-friendly. More advanced DB managers might use a desktop app like MySQL Workbench with port 3306 open.

Email account management is a valuable feature but you might need a stand-alone installation like Roundcube to send and receive email. Roundcube is easy to use, like Mozilla Thunderbird and Microsoft Outlook. I'm unsure about configuring email accounts for domains.

Adding additional domains, subdomains, and aliases (domains that redirects to a primary domain) is hard for me to guess because there are multiple methods with DNS, server redirects, file directory management. A subdomain can simply be a sub-directory (e.g. /blog). I think this one depends on how you want to configure such domains.

Creating and automating server backups should be one of the easiest things to learn on this list. It should also be a simple process to download backups from the browser or send backups to a remote location - Google Drive, Amazon Web Services (AWS), etc. Backups should be created at least monthly.

Domain-validated (DV) SSL certificates for HTTPS connections are essential these days. This might be the hardest task listed here. If you can't install Let's Encrypt SSLs in your free cPanel alternative, try Certbot which auto-renews SSLs before they expire.

Viewing system information - RAM, available disk space, largest files and directories, etc. should be the easiest thing to learn on this list. There should be some graphs showing all of these stats.

Cron jobs for automating backups, Certbot, and other tasks are easy to create. They look painful but there many online cron job creators like Crontab Generator and Crontab Guru. Usually, your CMS (WordPress, GRAV, PrestaShop, etc.) makes cron jobs as needed. But if you need to create custom crons, it shouldn't be hard to create and edit them in your server management application.

Error and other web server logs should be easily accessible. They're important because they hold different data than Matomo, Google, Clicky web analytics software. This should be another quick learning session.

Would I Recommend an cPanel Alternative?

Depends. Everything I said above doesn't apply to everyone. For some, it would be better to simply stick with cPanel since it is so user-friendly and there's always support for it.

FOSS advocates and Linux terminal experts, see what the hosting provider has in their customer dashboard and look for solutions addressing what they don't have in there. Then, look into other ways to enhance your website: accessibility, search engine optimization (SEO), etc.

Questions? Thoughts? Contact options are at the bottom.

Tags: linux, web-design