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Our Foobar University is currently in the planning stages of moving their web hosting services to an enterprise hosting automation panel system like Plesk or cPanel. Is anyone out there in a University environment that has gone down this path and has a roadmap with resource requirements, pitfalls, and issues? Is there another product on the market that you would recommend that we may have overlooked?

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We're looking at a similar sort of endeavor for my large umbrella department at a university, but we're shying away from control panels like plesk &c and are looking more at Virtuozzo and providing people with their own (small) VM slices within a cloud when they are unable to use our normal CMS engine. The main issue is control and containerization, because anyone who works in a university environment knows how fast cruft builds up.

When looking at shared hosting, you've got some pitfalls already. First, some bad code on one person's site (or someone getting slashdotted -- which might be important when you're hosting things like the original images of Tux the Linux Penguin like we are...) can bring down everyone else. This gets especially important when you're dealing with control panels, which can rewrite your apache configuration. In our U's case, the main campus website and a bunch of departmental websites are hosted on one cluster that's under the central computer group, and it has a tendency to break like it did last week, which meant that people visiting our main (school).edu website got a 403 error for about a half hour until they managed to untangle what happened.

Looking at control panels exclusively, unless you have staff with a lot of experience with them, the untangling part can actually be the hardest. They're complex systems, and the law of unintended consequence bites hard when you jack up the complexity that way. At least with the Virtuozzo containers, the damage that any one misconfiguration can do is limited.

Completely separate from the issues revolving around Control Panels of any sort: In a university web hosting environment, there are a bunch of things you can get audited on and a break in those policies usually ends up falling on the system administrator. (At least by my university system's policies and my state's laws...) You will be required to police the content on servers you are managing for customers who may post sensitive student information that's insufficiently protected from the internet. This is the main reason we avoided shared web hosting: I don't want my butt in a grinder when some dumb prof posts an entire list of names and grades to his website, or has old (real) social security numbers in some ancient data file for a computer science project.

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We use WHM/cPanel in a university setting and it's been a lifesaver, for the most part. We're a graduate school of journalism so we do a lot of publishing, and a lot of custom domains for our classes and faculty. Rather than running one or two domains like most university departments, we had essentially become a hosting business for our department, where our sub-groups needed a lot of custom configuration.

The upsides: Lots more self-service than we had before. Classes and faculty able to create their own mailing lists, databases, subdomains, etc. without bothering us for them. The additional security from the auto-firewalling capabilities of ConfigServer Firewall (a drop-in WHM/cPanel must-have) is worth the price of admission alone. Makes a HUGE difference in how much time you spend dealing with bad guys.

Downside: Many universities, including ours, disallows vanilla FTP completely due to security. SFTP only. Easy enough to set the quota for allowed number of FTP accounts to zero, but cPanel doesn't like to let you create new add-on domains or subdomains that don't include FTP accounts. Bit of a hassle but not a huge deal. Also we host a number of Django sites, but WHM/cPanel doesn't include a built-in Django hosting option. You can build an apache module for mod_wsgi yourself, but every time you run easy_apache it wipes out your custom apache modules, only compiling the ones it knows about. This is a major pain, but there's a fair bit of interest on the official cPanel ticket asking for Django support.

Big picture: Going to cPanel/WHM is the best decision we ever made when it comes to preserving the sanity of an overworked and very small admin/webmaster team.

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