Introduction to Control Panels

For those unfamiliar with the technical aspects of web hosting, there is no need to worry; control panels combine the most common characteristics into a neat, intuitive software package. While you do need to know your way around a control panel, most are extremely user-friendly offering the most basic and advanced commands. Therefore, a web hosting control panel is web-based interface provided by the hosting company that allows users to manage their website in a single location.
Control panels offer easily-accessible basic information that can be useful to the webmaster or owner. The preview feature of a control panel can be one of the most useful functions as you will be able to view the resources you are have used up to a specific date. This greatly assists with maintaining your current monthly plan. Also, there is usually a section to change your password, set email and language preferences and create notifications.

Advantages of Control Panels
There are many advantages to using web hosting control panels to manage your website which include:
•    Automation
•    Installation
•    Affordability

The greatest advantage of a control panel is the ability to automate specific tasks. Most administrative interfaces simplify tasks. One example is the ability to simply click a single button to create an email account. Additionally, there are a variety of settings that can be changed to automatically occur at specific times each day. For instance, automated backups at preset intervals throughout the day and autoresponders which automatically respond to email messages.

Another benefit of a control panel is automated installation of scripts, applications and blog software. Many control panels grant the ability to install scripts from an online library like Fantastico. Others have the capability of installing blog software like WordPress and content management systems like Joomla with the simple touch of a button. Other systems such as chatrooms, FAQ’s, knowledge bases and more can also be easily installed.

From a time to productivity standpoint, the most popular control panels currently available are easy to use, thus saving a great deal of time (and money) from learning new software. Also, there is a multitude of tutorials available on the Internet. Since many of the standard tasks are automated, it is simple to install scripts, applications and other pieces of software that may normally take much longer without a control panel.
Although the modules found with each control panel may differ, the most common include:
•    Server log file access
•    Website statistics
•    Email accounts
•    Database management
•    Available resources
•    File manager
•    FTP user accounts
•    Miscellaneous

Server Log File Access
Server logs are files created and maintained by the server relaying the amount of activity performed by it throughout the day. These files are only available to the webmaster due to the information included such as the client’s IP address, HTTP code, date and time, page requested, user agent, referrer and bytes server, among others. Much of this information can cause major damage if in the wrong hands which is the exact need for security.
The most common use is to analyze the server log to find review traffic patterns by user agent, referrer, time of day and day of the week. As a result of this information, webmasters can tweak their website administration, sales efforts and adjust hosting resources. In many organizations, marketing departments are trained to understand how these powerful tools work and how they can be applied to improve the company’s products.

Website Statistics
Similar to server log file access, website statistics can reveal further pertinent information about traffic patterns by creating easy-to-read and understand charts and graphs. Most control panels utilize web analytics software that deconstructs the server log file and the values contain within to display who, when and how a specific server was visited. Reports are typically generated instantaneously but these files can be placed into a database so they are available on demand, anytime.
Some of the most commonly reported and useful statistics include; the number of visitors and unique visitors, the length of time the visitor remained at the site, total number of page views, the operating systems used and the type of browsers used. Other indicators include; domains or countries of the hosting provider’s visitors, robots used, the HTTP referrer, any HTTP errors, conversion tracking and the page navigation.

Email Accounts
The email accounts module helps webmasters manage the various email addresses associated with their web hosting account. Also, most control panels allow webmasters to configure the various email accounts. Furthermore, this module allows for the sending and receiving of emails through webmail, an internet-based email client. Other functions include, read receipts, in-message signatures, forwarding and autoresponders.
Database Management
Database management is an extremely important aspect of control panel software. This area allows webmasters to manage the installed databases that organizes stores and retrieves the large amount of data found on websites. This module helps webmasters search, maintain and create data in the database. Since most websites have multiple databases serving a variety of functions, it is important to master this area of any control panel.

Resource Availability
The amount of resources used is available in the resource availability module. This area highlights the amount of disk space currently used on the server as well as the amount of data transfer or bandwidth consumed for the month. Depending on your web hosting plan, if you are over a specific amount of storage space or bandwidth for the month, you will incur overage charges which could be a significant financial expense.
However, some web hosting providers offer unlimited disk space and bandwidth, therefore, this area will not need to be monitored. In addition to the amount of disk space and bandwidth used, additional details regarding hardware resources will be listed within this category of the control panel.

File Manager
The file manager within the control panel software will display a web-based user interface. This allows you to perform the most basic tasks, such as creating, opening, editing, viewing, printing, playing, renaming, moving, coping, deleting, searching/finding and modifying attributes of the files on your website. Other functions include, changing the properties of a file as well as modifying the permissions so specific users are able to perform specific tasks.
The files will typically be displayed in a hierarchal format. Many modern web-based file managers will have features inspired by web browsers to improve navigation like back, forward and home buttons. Additionally, some control panel file managers act as a file transfer protocol (FTP) protocol. Unfortunately, this web-based version does not transfer files as quickly as a desktop client due to the sluggishness of most interfaces.

FTP User Accounts
Finally, the FTP user accounts section helps the webmaster maintain the accounts that can be utilized to access the server files via FTP client. The webmaster has the ability to change the permissions on various accounts to read or edit depending on the level they wish to permit. If work is being done on a website by a hired professional, the webmaster will often grant this user full rights to be able to move freely throughout the website.

In addition to the functions above, most control panels will have so much more than you are likely to ever use. There are a variety of advanced options available with the ability to manage different sections of your site. Additional functions include:
•    MIME types
•    Domain management
•    Network tools
•    Cron jobs
•    CGI center
•    Apache handlers
•    PHPMyAdmin
•    MySQL settings

Types of Control Panels
Although control panel software is standard with any web hosting monthly package, the quality of the program can vary greatly. There are numerous control panels available, however the top ten best control panels include:
•    cPanel - used most commonly, easiest and is available at
•    Plesk
•    H-Sphere
•    Ensim
•    DirectAdmin
•    Helm
•    InsPanel
•    CWIPanel
•    Hosting Accelerator
•    Interworx

cPanel is, by far, the best and most popular control panel currently available. The software is designed for users and allows them to control every aspect of a website. The interface is clean, navigable and offers more features than any other control panel. Additionally, cPanel is extremely inexpensive for web hosting providers.

Plesk is another extremely powerful control panel which should be considered. It is available for Linux and Windows-based server operating systems. The interface resembles Windows XP with large icons and soft colors. The software contains similar features as cPanel with excellent integrated applications.

Developed by Positive Software, H-Sphere is another high caliber control panel that allows webmasters to perform almost any task. Like Plesk, this software is compatible with Linux and Windows web hosts. H-Sphere has excellent automation capabilities accompanied by many features. Despite the excellent traits of the control panel, it appears to be lacking something.

As another Linux and Windows-compatible system, Ensim claims to be built to manage any type of website. While the interface is appealing and easily navigable, the software comes up short compared to the capabilities of the competition.

DirectAdmin has made the claim that they are the easiest control panel to use in the industry. While the software boasts many features similar to the competition, it does not support Windows and is only compatible with a handful of Linux versions. The interface is well-organized and easy on the eyes but lacks many of the features available with cPanel and Plesk. The low cost is one of the main reasons for its popularity.

Helm is a unique control panel as it only supports Windows web hosting. The interface is fairly standard with a variety of features. Another unique function is the ability to view your billing information from inside the control panel interface. Most control panels do not integrate billing information from the web hosting provider.

As another Windows-only control panel, InsPanel provides an interface that is well-organized and clean. Since control panels are built to be used continuous, they must be easily navigable and aesthetically pleasing. InsPanel is an average control panel with plenty of features. Since it is not as widely used as many other platforms, troubleshooting could be an issue.

The software’s motto is, “Unleash the power of your Windows server!” Despite this motto, CWIPanel also supports Linux as one available feature is Fantastico. Their features are fairly consistent with the other Windows-only software. CWIPanel holds a small shared of the control panel market.

Hosting Accelerator
As another Windows-only control panel, Hosting Accelerator boasts standard features with few, if any, thrills. Unfortunately, the interface for the control panel is extremely busy and cluttered. Therefore, organization and navigation can be difficult with too many options on each screen. As a result, someone new to the web hosting industry may struggle or become overwhelmed using this software.

Interworx is a Linux-only control panel and is one of the most feature rich platforms currently available. One interesting feature is the site usage snapshot which provides an easy-to-read chart that displays your upstreams and downstreams. The interface is easily navigable, clean and well-organized.

Proprietary Control Panels
In addition to these commercial control panels, many web hosting providers use proprietary control panels. This gives them the option to fully customize every aspect of the interface and programming. While that is an advantage of a proprietary control panel, most of the popular programs allow for full customization, therefore, the benefit is not that much better than commercial software. 
With so many versions and features, the control panel marketplace has become extremely competitive. With cPanel and Plesk in the top two spots, most other control panel development companies are attempting to follow-suit while holding a small share of the market. cPanel and Plesk continue to create innovative ideas that help webmasters simplify and automate their website management experience.
Control panels are the brain of any website. It helps webmasters make all decisions and manage the site effectively and efficiently. Since control panels have so many features, installation, management and modification have become simple tasks. As control panels will only continue to be more powerful and efficient, it is evident the most popular control panel software development companies have big ideas for the future.