Admin tools: A comparison of the main Plesk alternatives

While the market for administration tools for web servers and web hosting packages was still quite clear around the turn of the millennium, this has changed in the meantime. Because today there are at least five management solutions that are known – and also (somewhat) popular – especially in German-speaking countries for their practical handling. In addition to the top dog Plesk (2001) and the "bedrock" cPanel (1996), these include ISPConfig, developed in 2005, DirectAdmin (2003) and the German Froxlor (2010).

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One thing is clear: In Germany, Plesk is the market leader by a clear margin. The almost omnipresent tool for server and webspace management has a similar market power in this country as Google has with search engines. It is therefore common practice that the vast majority of administrators work with exactly this software solution.

But if you look more globally at the topic of web administration software, this impression changes quickly. Internationally, the situation is by far not as clear as in German-speaking countries – although Plesk also leads the rankings here.

One example of this is cPanel: The tool with the crisp acronym for Control Panel is also internationally with 20 percent aggregated market share of all systems clearly behind Plesk. However, the popular alternative surprisingly leads the list on another level: If you only look at the totality of the web hosting packages operated worldwide, the bedrock among the admin tools is ahead of Plesk, ISPConfig, Froxlor and DirectAdmin with a market share of 50%. If we formulate this into numbers, it means: Every six seconds, somewhere in the world, another domain is added on a web hosting system with cPanel!

In the booming market of B2B hosting, the balance of power is not as clear-cut as it seems at first glance when looking at the admin tools used. And this in turn is more than interesting when it comes to the further development in the German-speaking countries – because here cPanel as the internationally most popular Plesk alternative is indeed still comparatively unknown.
Those who are responsible for web administration in Germany and do not want to use Plesk, currently rather use solutions such as Froxlor, ISPConfig or DirectAdmin. However, they are not very well known internationally – and in fact play no role outside our borders.

But where does it come from? And what can the Plesk alternatives do at all? These are the questions we at Host Europe have investigated in detail. The results will be published in this article and will also answer the question why countries with a noticeable digitalization lead rely on a proprietary software solution that is considered an industry standard there, but is still largely unknown in Germany.

Admin tools in comparison

Since Plesk's large, complex feature set can be a problem, especially for many creatives, web designers and freelancers, system administrators should also be well aware of the potential alternatives in order to provide helpful input when questions arise. Today, webworkers who create individual internet presences for their customers do not necessarily have to be professional web administrators – in most cases, profound beginner knowledge is sufficient for the implementation of the most important customer tasks.

A focused, rudimentary concentration of functions on the essentials therefore makes some Plesk alternatives interesting for many of the inexperienced users, as the tools fit their tasks and knowledge levels very well. In concrete terms, this means: The right admin panel makes work noticeably easier, without overtaxing any beginners or semi-professionals right away.

The four Plesk alternatives do not put the same emphasis as the top dog in terms of operating system and server environment. Because they usually only run on Linux or. Unix operating systems. Internationally, however, this limits very few users, as shown especially by the current growth figures at cPanel. And for the typical webhosting end customer it usually makes no difference anyway. Its result remains the same.

Applications: Set up installations with one click?

A common feature of Plesk's competitors ISPConfig and cPanel are the handy auto-installers. As with Plesk, many of the web applications here can be installed easily and automatically with a click of the mouse. Whether it's WordPress, Typo3, Drupal, Joomla! Or Magento – the setup of entire content management systems is almost effortless for the person in charge.

Directadmin unfortunately does not manage this. A limitation that unfortunately Froxlor also shares in part. Because here the auto-installation works so far only script-based. On the other hand, when it comes to domain management, all four known Plesk alternative solutions can score again. Comprehensive as well as secure configuration of desired email accounts, on the other hand, is nowhere a critical challenge. As already known from Plesk, this also works comfortably with all Plesk competitors.

Customization of the user interface

A nice gadget that many users regularly resort to are the "Themes. Froxlor, cPanel and ISPConfig allow you to configure the fonts and colors of the user interface, i.E. The basic design, according to your own ideas.

Directadmin, however, unfortunately falls behind here, the "nice gimmick" for individualizing the design only works to a very limited extent.

PHP versions: Froxlor and cPanel on par with Plesk

When it comes to integrating different PHP versions, some of the Plesk alternatives also cut a good figure – and take on Plesk. This is especially true for cPanel and Froxlor. Here you also don't have to deal with cutbacks if you should have to rely on a certain (older) version of the scripting language, for example after migrating an existing web project.

With ISPConfig it looks a bit different. For PHP versions before 3.0.5 there are restrictions here. Similar is the case with DirectAdmin. Especially when using multiple PHP versions in parallel, the alternative solution reaches its limits.

Plugin selection: cPanel and Plesk are neck and neck

When it comes to extensions, there are definitely the biggest differences between the Plesk alternatives. However, this very point is important when choosing the appropriate configuration tool alternative. So, for a comprehensive and flexible customer-centric experience, the best case scenario is to make few sacrifices when it comes to the number of plugins available.

Especially with Froxlor, even experienced web administrators are therefore unfortunately often left out in the cold. Because there are no helpful extensions available here. In case of doubt, this can quickly "fall on your feet" when dealing with customers, as you are not able to fulfill special requests. The situation is similar with DirectAdmin and ISPConfig. Useful plugins are available here, but unfortunately not really in sufficient quantity. Thus, only cPanel is competitive with Plesk in this area – for you as a user, there is a state number of tested and verified program extensions available.

Cpanel the strongest Plesk alternative in comparison

The reason for the international popularity of cPanel could probably now be worked out well. Because if one looks at the characteristics, the functionality and the application variety of the software solution, cPanel scores next to Plesk objectively seen most strongly. The tool not only has a visually and functionally user-friendly interface – but also allows for the broadest implementation of all the alternatives, despite the simplifications.

Reason enough to devote a little more attention to the primal stone among the admin tools at this point. It is the most clever administration tool, if new websites are to be created, planned and built without any great server-side administration effort.

Dashboard and operating structure: Simple and clear

A big plus with cPanel is definitely the graphical user interface. It is not only clearly arranged, but due to its modular structure it is also understandable without much time to get used to it. The descriptive icons support the intuitive usability and the good overview thereby catchy.

Especially beginners appreciate exactly this lean and functional structure. Indeed, with their help, new customer projects – and the content management systems they require – can be installed in just a few clicks. The same applies to file management and FTP accesses. Here, too, administrative laymen need have no "fear of failure", the implementation is quickly accomplished. By the way, with the help of the built-in file manager, it doesn't even require any additional installation effort.

Cron jobs also support the simple management principle of cPanel in this regard. Recurring tasks on individual projects can be automated. Manual interventions are thus superfluous, the punctuality and reliability benefit enormously. However, you could also configure similar automatisms with Froxlor, ISPConfig and DirectAdmin.

Programming and administration skills can also be helpful with cPanel, but are hardly ever required. Even, those who manage multiple web presences do not have to type a single text command line as a system level admin.

Thanks to WHM: More security with less effort

When it comes to professional web space management, one thing should not be taken lightly at all: Cyber security. For creative web service providers, cPanel also scores here. Because the security concept does not allow the web space and server management to go hand in hand. They are rather separated and controlled by different user interfaces. The security on the server is thus mainly the responsibility of the web hoster, but not of the website service provider or even of the end customer. Many problems are thus taken out of the way in advance and do not burden the users.

How this should work? About the server admin interface WHM. The particular "Web Hosting Manager" includes numerous basic, sophisticated and very technical basic settings that already the hosting provider can – and should – configure optimally for the appropriate packages. Anti-virus security is thus part of the basic settings for a successful, responsible cPanel hosting. For webmasters and package administrators, this significantly reduces the effort required without sacrificing security. Nevertheless, it is of course possible to do further custom setups yourself, for example install SSL certificates or set special permissions for new users.

With cPanel there is also a built-in IP blocker available. This makes excluding unwanted IP addresses a bit more comfortable than with Froxlor, ISPConfig and DirectAdmin. Because for these, instead, the "classic" way must be taken via manual exclusion per .Htaccess be stepped on. Moreover, since Plesk relies partly on paid extensions for security, cPanel doesn't have to hide from the top dog in this area either.

Furthermore, it is interesting to note that cPanel has a completely different focus than Plesk for the comprehensive security settings. So it is common here that serveradmin and webmaster access the same interface. Besides the access, the only difference is the range of functions defined by the server admin himself. This can lead to significantly more security configurations ultimately falling into the realm of the user or the end customer.

Numerous plugins are available for cPanel

As shown in the run-up, cPanel scored especially with the extensions. For the configuration tool, in addition to the main functions, there are numerous plugins from (certified) third parties, which allow you to do almost everything at work. The basic system can – depending on the project management – be quickly extended by the external toolkit and its variety of applications can be increased.

By the way, the fact that this is possible is mainly due to the "fanbase" of cPanel. Around the administration panel a quite large community has gathered in the meantime, which provides for a continuous extension of the add-ons on a professional level.

Economical resource consumption

Although the scope of cPanel is extensive and the possibilities for the user are great, but at the same time there is no need to compromise on ease of use, the performance values of the admin tool are also right. The system was not only designed to be lean, but more importantly, efficient. No matter which browser you use to access cPanel, it draws very few resources everywhere, leaving plenty of room on the web server for more beneficial installations.

Cpanel: The balance to the admin tool

If we recapitulate all relevant factors and draw a final balance, one thing has definitely emerged: If you are looking for an alternative to Plesk, you should at least know about cPanel. Because here it is quite possible, despite little technical expertise – even from the administrative "layman's sphere" – to successfully create and skillfully implement comprehensive web projects as a contractor. The developers definitely wanted to make it easy for users – and they succeeded in doing so.

If you want to learn more about the admin tool, you should take a look at the author's latest cPanel workbook, which is available for download free of charge and without any data request.

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