Turbo Charge Your Windows 2003 Hosting Server with this Flexible and Secured Control Panel
By Anand Narayanaswamy
Hosting providers are always on the lookout for faster, more secure server management software for managing the domains, e-mails, and other related activities of their customers. In hosting parlance, we call this software a control panel. Helm and Plesk are two popular control panel products available for Windows 2003 Servers. But both of them have several disadvantages. Helm is built with Classic ASP technology, and it doesn t provide a good file management system. Users must depend on FTP client software to upload files, as the control panel provides only a simple text editor without any features. On the other hand, Plesk comes with an improved interface, but you cannot access the control panel if you are behind a firewall. Moreover, these control panels also consume too many resources on the server. Having used both these control panels for the last several years, I was searching for a new product with more powerful management functionalities.
I finally decided on DotNetPanel. The vendor had offered free beta licenses for hosting companies willing to test drive the product, so I gave it a try. Initially, after browsing their Web site, I thought the product would have fewer features. But once I installed it, I was amazed to see tons of cool features. Even though the product was in beta, it was a stable build (but with fewer features). When the vendor announced the release of the full version, DotNetPanel 1.0, I was happy to see that it addressed all the shortcomings of Helm, Plesk, and the beta build of DotNetPanel I had test driven.
Developed purely from scratch using .NET Framework 2.0, DotNetPanel also makes use of SQL Server 2005 as a back-end database. You cannot take advantage of the rich features included with this product if you use MSDE. The software has been designed and customized using the latest version of DotNetNuke. To download DotNetPanel, you must first register on their Web site (http://www.dotnetpanel.com); the installation package comes as an executable file. Because I had previously installed the beta version on my server, I had to manually migrate to the new version. The vendor provided full support for the migration work and the entire process went smoothly. I suggest you install the product on a server with 512MB or more memory for optimum performance.
Figure 1: The DotNetPanel 1.0 home page.
DotNetPanel is built with a set of DotNetNuke portal modules. Administrators can customize the look and feel of the product using the administration console. Moreover, each reseller or even a single user can be moved to their own DotNetNuke portal, where they can build their own personalized control panel.
DotNetPanel consists of three core applications: Portal, Enterprise Server, and the main server. While the Portal application is developed using DotNetNuke, the Enterprise Server is the heart of the entire system; it includes all the business logic of the product, making it possible to use external Portals. The final application is used for managing remote server resources. The vendor has developed the product by giving great importance to security. The passwords entered using the product are transmitted in encrypted format. Moreover, Web service calls to remote servers use hashing and asymmetric cryptography to avoid malicious attacks. An interesting point to note is that you can optionally use X.509 certificates to make communications even more secure.
Some of the other important features included with the product are a powerful file manager, virtual directory management, mailing list management, user peers, system users, and groups. All future upgrades to DotNetPanel will be provided free of cost. Certain additional modules, such as E-Commerce, SQL Web Manager, and Advanced Reporting, will be available during the middle of this year (for an additional charge). The E-Commerce module will provide a facility to sell hosting packages directly from within the control panel.
DotNetPanel makes use of AJAX technology for password verification and the vendor is working to provide more functionality in future builds. One of the interesting features of DotNetPanel is that the file manager automatically unzips the contents of a ZIP file while uploading.
Figure 2: AJAX in action.
An administrator can either use the Microsoft DNS server, which comes with Windows 2003 server, or Simple DNS Plus. DotNetPanel ships with a built-in wizard for creating new domains. This will enable administrators and resellers to create hosting accounts by providing the contact information, hosting plan, domain name, and password using a single interface. The product ships with a powerful utility called Web Applications Installer, with which you can very easily install various ASP.NET applications, such as Community Server, DotNetNuke, and Starter Kits. But there is some additional work involved to use this feature, and it will be available only if enabled by the server administrator.
The vendor provides excellent support through e-mail and chat. I found that all my support requests were answered within just a few hours (although more complicated questions may take longer). In short, the support provided by the vendor is truly awesome.
To work with the product, an administrator must set up the server using the product. The second task is to decide for whom the account is to be created. This can either be a reseller or direct customer of the administrator. Administrators can manage their customers and resellers using DotNetPanel s master control panel by logging in as an admin. Resellers will have the ability to manage their customers directly using the reseller control panel. Both administrators and resellers can add new domains and create new hosting plans using their control panel. While administrators can always host unlimited domains, resellers can host domains depending upon the resources allocated by the administrator. End users can perform a variety of tasks, such as modification of control panel and FTP passwords, creation of mailboxes, auto responders and databases, statistics configuration, and much more. They can also access File Manager and view the total resources consumed by their domain using the product.
Unlike its beta builds, DotNetPanel 1.0 provides a facility to view the statistics of a domain from within the control panel. The product comes with support for AWStats and SmarterStats 3. DotNetPanel also comes with built-in support for SQL Server 7, 2000, 2005, and MySQL Server 4.0.x, 4.1.x, and 5.x. Moreover, DotNetPanel also provides support for the Standard, Professional, and Enterprise editions of MailEnable and SmarterMail 3.x. The vendor is working to provide support for other mail servers, such as Merak Mail, MDameon, and hMail, and FTP servers like Gene6 FTP.
One of the major features of this product is that it ships with automatic backup and restore capabilities for SQL Server databases and the ability to search for a mailbox from within the user interface. You can also truncate a SQL Server database and back up a MySQL database using DotNetPanel. I am not aware of any other hosting control panel that provides these facilities. However, the vendor doesn t provide support for restoring a MySQL database (because of security issues).
Figure 3: Back up a SQL Server database easily.
I would like to see the vendor provide a facility to automatically upgrade the control panel from within the server when the new build becomes available. Currently, the vendor doesn t provide any documentation for the updated product. It would be great if the vendor provides the same in PDF format so that users can refer to them in case of any doubt. In addition, I strongly recommend the vendor release separate documentation for administrators, resellers, and end users.
You can view a live demo of the product at http://demo.dotnetpanel.com. The vendor offers four types of licenses (http://www.dotnetpanel.com/DotNetPanelreg/Pricing/tabid/67/Default.aspx). They also provide ticket-based support for US$150/year (support requests are limited to 10 tickets per month because it involves direct work by their engineer on your server; each additional support ticket will cost US$20). The vendor provides direct support through a dedicated forum (http://forum.dotnetpanel.com).
If you are looking for a fast, reliable, secure, and competitive control panel for your server, check out DotNetPanel.
Anand Narayanaswamy, a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP), works as an independent consultant and runs NetAns Technologies (http://www.netans.com), which provides Web hosting services based in Trivandrum, India. Anand also works as a technical editor lead for ASPAlliance.com. Find out more about him at http://www.visualanand.net or e-mail him at mailto:[email protected].
Web Site: http://www.dotnetpanel.com