Monthly Archives: June 2011

Alternative’s to Cpanel: Webmin

I’m going to start a mini series of posts here called Alternatives to Cpanel, first you might ask why not Cpanel and its worth pointing out that Cpanel is arguably one of the most popular and most comprehensive control panel solutions for web hosting out there, it might not be good for some people or some use cases the first of which that comes off the top of my head is using Nginx (pronounce it Engine-X) instead of Apache. granted there are now plugins that allow you to run Nginx in front of Apache on Cpanel, both a paid and free option, both still don’t eliminate Apache completely like Litespeed can do (that’s perhaps content for another blog post)

Today I am going to talk about Webmin, I’m going to briefly recommend install instructions for Debian and talks about some of its strengths and weaknesses. Firstly I should point out that Webmin out of the box is not a web hosting control panel like Cpanel, if you want that level of functionality you need to install the Virtualmin addon package (GPL or paid) which totally extends Webmin into a hosting system. on its own Webmin allows you to just about tweak any setting on your Linux, Windows or even Mac computer – yes I did just say mac, I run it on my local mac to manage Apache vhosts rather than have to pay to use MAMP Pro.

If you have CentOS/Red Hat or Debian/Ubuntu, installing Webmin is actually pretty simple, the install instructions are here: Debian, CentOS, there is one caveat though regarding Debian install instructions, the developer recommends adding both mirror servers to your apt sources list, while there’s arguments for both sides I don’t recommend it purely due to the possibility of the mirrors becoming out of sync and potentially giving out of date information, CentOS and YUM handle this much much better by using the idea of a mirror list and it tests on the fly for the best mirror and uses that one unless there is a problem, as of yet Debian and APT don’t have such a feature. here are the quick Debian install instructions:

edit the /etc/apt/sources.list file on your system and add the lines :

deb sarge contrib

NOTE: I have used only one server despite the instructions saying add both, I would recommend testing the speed of each and picking the fastest for your needs

You should also fetch and install the GPG key with which the repository is signed, with the commands :

cd /root
apt-key add jcameron-key.asc

You will now be able to install with the commands :

apt-get update
apt-get install webmin

All dependencies should be resolved automatically and webmin installed with your root username and password being the default user.

once you have installed you will get a login screen like this if you navigate to yoursiteip:10000 in a browser






What webmin is really powerful with and what makes it brilliant for more advanced server administrators is that it generally parses config files on the fly and writes back to config files on the fly, it doesnt attempt to “take control” of config files like Cpanel and some other Control panel solutions do, which means if you make a command line edit, it will show up in webmin and vice versa, you wont end up fighting ping pong between the 2 if you want to make a change.

there are quite a lot of plugins for webmin as well and its possibly very likely that if it isnt in the core setup that there is possibly a module for that ftp server you use (like vsftpd) however at this time there isnt really a reliable nginx plugin available yet which is a shame because the 2 would go hand in hand with building a very lean production webserver we live in hope for it to mature though, initial work has been done here but needs someone to take it forward.

Another advantage of Webmin is that it runs its own mini-server (originally called now normally i wouldnt recommend spending extra resources if you can avoid it but in this case i make the exception purely because Webmin does use so little resources, and its also another way to access your server if you break ssh or something (note, breaking network settings breaks all services not just ssh!)

I use webmin on most servers i setup that aren’t cpanel purely because the firewall system CSF&LFD (another post another day) has a great webmin module which makes managing your firewall and brute force protection much much easier on non cpanel servers – CSF was originally written for cpanel but then they made it work generically on all linux systems and even wrote the webmin module.

one of the biggest pros of webmin is that its 100% free which is great if your building servers on a budget too

I’ll leave this post here for now, but I would love to hear your comments about Webmin, also I’d love to hear of recommendations for other alternatives to Cpanel

Choosing the Right Host

Customer support, or customer failure?

A good web host has good customer and technical support departments. People often believe that if their web host offers 24/7 support, their support is good. Often, this is not the case. Why? Put it this way; would you like to be working a night shift with your eyes droopy, speech slurred with tiredness, working on fixing someone’s hosting account or server? More to the point, would you like this person working on your services? Thought not!

Almost all web hosts that feature 24/7 support will outsource this, usually from a foreign country. It seems a great idea to always have someone to talk to when you have questions or problems – but outsourced support departments often don’t even know the products they are selling/supporting and have very little knowledge other than scripts in front of them.

Outsourced support teams often leave the customer with more problems than they initially had and are rarely of any real help at all.
This is not to say all web hosts who feature 24/7 support have theirs outsourced – but it does pay to check!

Show me your stats!

Does your web host show you the uptime statistics of their servers? Are these statistics live, real and genuine? You’d find it surprising how many hosting companies will claim 100% or 99.99% uptime levels, yet give the customer no real way of checking if this is genuine.

Browse your web host’s site and see if they publish their uptime stats. All good web hosts will show you them – otherwise they have something to hide! If you can’t find your web host’s uptime stats, contact your web host and ask why they aren’t published.

You should also check if your web host is monitoring their uptime levels themselves, or whether they are using an external monitoring company to do so. Internal monitoring can easily be spoofed or changed, so is therefore unreliable, whereas external monitoring usually can’t. The most popular, reputable and genuine uptime monitoring companies are Pingdom, Hyperspin and Watchmouse.

Hosting provider vs. hosting reseller

Is your web host a top-level provider, with their own servers and/or hardware in a data centre, or is your web host buying and reselling from another provider? Whilst there’s absolutely nothing wrong with most reseller web hosts, with some of whom giving better value and support than “leading” providers, it can lead to a brick wall in time.

If your web host is a reseller of another company, this tells you they are not serious about web hosting. This usually means web hosting is not one of their “core” services, but an add-on or extra to generate revenue. This is fine, but if your web host’s main line of work dries up and they suddenly go bankrupt, say goodbye to your web site and all of your data.

It is wise to choose a “real” web host who have their own dedicated servers to host your web sites. This tells you the web host is serious about providing good and reliable hosting services, usually this gets you better value services, and gives you the peace of mind that your web host is focussing solely on hosting thus your web sites and data are safer.

How about “unlimited” web hosting?

Since there’s no such thing as unlimited sized hard disk drives, unlimited speed CPU’s and unlimited Internet uplinks, is there really such a thing as unlimited hosting? As much as we’d like to say yes, unfortunately there’s always a limit.

Web hosts who provide “unlimited” web space and/or bandwidth packages have two main types of customers; those who know very little about web hosting and think “unlimited” is good whilst using minimal resources, then those who know exactly what they are doing and abuse the service with lots of data storage and transfer.

The latter often results in web hosting providers imposing fair/acceptable usage policies limiting how much of your “unlimited” services you can use. Let’s face it – do you really want to be with a web host that mis-sells and lies about their products?

National or International – does it matter?

Does it matter that you or your business is based in one country, but your web host is based in another? You might not think so, but it does matter to your visitors and the search engines. Google and Bing have been degrading web sites’ value in search engines for a while now if they are not hosted in their proprietary country.

The reason for this is simple; the greater the distance between your visitors and your web host, the slower the speed and the higher the ‘latency’(or wait time). If your web site isn’t loading fast enough for your primary visitors, not only will they leave your site and go elsewhere, but the search engines will downrank you because of this.

You should always ensure that your web host is hosting your web site in your own country. Larger web hosts will run servers in multiple countries / locations, sometimes spread over continents, so this shouldn’t be a problem for them to move you. If you’re with a smaller or independent host who aren’t hosting your web site in your own country, you should consider switching web hosts. If your looking for cheap yet reliable shared hosting in the UK or France then Xagga may be a good choice for you.

The above is generally aimed at shared hosting users but the principles are much the same if you have VPS’ or Dedicated Server!