The Art of Hosting: Control Panel

Takeshi EtoIn the past when web hosting was in its infancy there were no automated tools but these days consumers expect a certain level of self-service and expect to use a hosting control panel. So then comes the next question. What does a host use as their control panel?

There are different ways to approach the issue of the Control Panel. The host can (1) use an off-the-shelf control panel, (2) build their own control panel, (3) use an open source control panel, (4) customize an off-the-shelf content management system (CMS). So let’s look at the pros and cons of each of these options for control panels from the host’s point of view and the consumers point of view.

Buy or License a Solution

Pros Cons
Hosting Provider Buying/Licensing a control panel solution is by far the fastest way to enter into the web hosting market and there are several control panel vendors out there to choose from. Using a popular control panel used by many hosts can mean that there are many resources out there in addition to the vendor for information and support. There will also be a larger pool of talent that the host could potentially hire with previous experience on the platform. Corollary: The natural evolution of the “buy” option is that some hosters introduce a “rent” option – where the host will pre-install a control panel on a server and rent the server out as part of a “reseller hosting” plan. Corollary: If the host’s goal is to grow and then sell their company, using an off-the-shelf solution can ease the transition to a new owner. There was once a large ecosystem of hosting control panel vendors, but many of them have sold their companies or gone out of business and are now defunct. So one problem for the host is that they are essentially tied to the control panel vendor for their control panel and product development. That’s why you’ll sometimes see a host that has two control panels – one for legacy customers and one for new customers. Having to support many different control panels is a resource drain for the host and continuing to use a defunct control panel could lead to many issues in the future (e.g. security, compatibility with new OS versions…etc.), since there is no support and no more updates to the old code base. Corollary: If the control panel vendor is successful in getting a lot of adoption by other hosting providers, then it is that much easier for customers to leave and have the same experience with another host. Corollary: Another issue is that if the host becomes dependent on a control panel vendor and has no other options, then the vendor can increase licensing pricing and the host will need to pay up or incur disruption.
Hosting Customer If the control panel is used by a lot of hosts then the customer can move from host to host and have pretty much the same experience. In addition, since the host does not have to invest in the development and maintanance of a control panel, the savings can be passed down to customers with lower pricing. The customer is also dependent on the control panel vendor for product development. If a new technology is released, the control panel vendor may or may not update their panel in a timely fashion. If the control panel vendor goes out of business or decides to focus on something else, the customer will need to choose to remain on an unsupported control panel or migrate to another control panel system – which can be disruptive.

Build Your Own Control Panel Solution

Pros Cons
Hosting Provider If the host builds their own control panel they are no longer beholden to a third party vendor for their control panel and product development. The host is on their own timetable with the launch of new features and does not have to worry about a large install base of other hosters and different business models. The host may be able to introduce new features faster and they can have unique features that no other hosts have. Building a control panel system takes a lot of investment of resources. And it isn’t a one time investment. The control panel will always need to be maintained and improved – with bug fixes, new updates, and new features. The host will need to become in part a software development company.
Hosting Customer A well maintained and updated proprietary panel are not subject to disruptions encountered with off-the-shelf vendors being sold or going out of business. The customer can benefit from unique tools/features. The customer may get new features faster than customers hosting elsewhere. Every control panel is different so the customer will need to learn the workflow of each proprietary control panel. While a well maintained and updated proprietary panel can be great, a non-maintained and seldom updated panel can be a nightmare.

Open Source Control Panel Solution

Pros Cons
Hosting Provider & Customers There are some control panel code that is available as open source. This is a free option for hosting providers so there is zero cost to obtain a control panel. The savings by the host can flow to the customer as lower pricing. With an active community, crowd-sourced apps can grow quickly and with regularity. The cadence of updates can be much faster than a proprietary or commercial vendor with an active community. You can check out the open source control panel’s forums to see the activity and review the updates and suggest features. Technical support for an open source app is provided by the community as well as its development. In general, there is no vendor to turn to for support. If the host runs into a problem and cannot resolve the problem themselves, their only recourse is to post on a forum and hope someone can help. If the community loses interest in the application, the host will need to make their own investments or hire consultants to keep their control panel updated. The open source apps may not have billing system integration.

Customize a CMS

Pros Cons
Hosting Provider & Customers With the availability of mature open source and commercial CMS applications, some hosts customize CMS applications as their control panel. A modern CMS application has built-in customer registration, login, and content management systems that the host does not need to develop themselves. This could potentially speed up the development of the control panel. CMS apps are not created as a hosting control panel so depending on the app, the hosting control panel solution can be very elegant or can be a hack. As with any open source project, the community interests will drive its development. If the community loses interest, then the CMS app may not evolve with new technology updates. If the app is a commerical app, the host is dependent on the application vendor whose focus may change depending on the interests of their larger CMS user base. Most CMS apps do not have billing system integration so billing is something that the host will need to figure out how to do and determine if it is possible to integrate the billing solution into their CMS control panel. You may have seen hosts that have a control panel and a separate system for billing.

What we decided to do at DiscountASP.NET
We launched in 2003 with the intent to focus on ASP.NET Hosting. Because of our focus, we thought it would be important to have a control panel developed using ASP.NET. That is, we thought our claim of being ASP.NET hosting experts would not be convincing if we used a PHP-based control panel or Active Server Pages (ASP) solution.

Of course, we did look out there to see if there were any ASP.NET-based hosting control panels back then. We found none. Furthermore, ASP.NET was also in its infancy so there were no mature CMS applications out there that we would be confident to use as a foundational platform. Therefore, we decided to build our own control panel using .NET and commit to its maintenance and updates.

Our decision had ramifications. There was a lot of resources invested into building a hosting automation system and control panel. Our first control panel version was very rudimentary. For example, our first control panel embarrassingly did not support SQL databases – but you have to launch sometime. Today our control panel has many features that are not found in other off-the-shelf control panels and we are able to keep up to date with Microsoft’s release schedule for new technology. But it took a lot of work and investment to get to where we are today and we continue to invest in making updates and improving the control panel.

The control panel is an important self-service tool for the host and for their customers. What control panel the host uses tells you something about the host. How the host keeps up with new technologies and control panel updates or doesn’t, tells you something about the host and their prioirties.

As the end user, you may want to check out a demo of the control panel to see what the host is using and which category they fall into in the segments discussed above. You may want to check out the host’s news, press release, blog, and forum content to understand the cadence of control panel improvements. By reviewing the news content, you can get an sense of where the host is making investments and if the host’s actions/vision meshes well with your business and site requirements.

If you have suggestions for topics or areas that you are curious about, let us know in the comments below.

3 thoughts on “The Art of Hosting: Control Panel

  1. You do have a really good control panel, I have only one suggestion. It would be excellent to see a subdomain management feature built in the system.

  2. I enjoy reading your articles because you manage to break down technical ideas into terms that make the average user, like me, comprehend the subject. There’s one topic which you’ve not discussed in your blog that I’m curious about though; that is, the relationship between cloud computing and ASP.Net web hosting.

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