Since my former web host gave me the boot for fairly ridiculous reasons, I’ve had the pleasure of getting extremely familiar with a server and software of my very own. Part of the setup I’ve got going on now involves CPanel, which escentially lets me set up a website, email address, or any number of other things automatically inside of about 5 seconds as opposed to doing the configuring all manual like and probably contributing to my brain damage in the process. It actually isn’t too different from the control panel software the old host uses–except that they insist theirs is custom-made, but you’ll have that. There’s the occasional minor issue with the software, but over all they can be worked around or otherwise plain ignored if they aren’t already in the process of being fixed (see also: IPV6 eventually). I can’t say I love CPanel, but I’m fairly sure it wants me to. And it’s almost convinced me. Almost, except for one minor problem.
I like to be able to tweak, adjust, reshuffle, arange, configure and otherwise mess with pretty much anything I can get my hands on. If it can be changed and not result in flatlining the server, I’m all over it like white on rice. For the most part, CPanel lets me do this thing and doesn’t complain too much. Try something funky with spam settings? Sure, here ya go. Shove an extra layer of security over web trafick? Let me help you with that. And if by some freak accident I completely bork the thing, I’m usually only about two commands away from tossing the breakage aside and restoring to a last known reasonably good configuration–thank christ, since one thing doing this on my own has shown me is I’m an absolute fail at storing my pieces of configuration files in 50 million places. But where CPanel’s limits show up isn’t necessarily in CPanel itself but rather in the software it chooses to support.
Fast forward to my only real, niggling issue with CPanel. Hardly a dealbreaker, but it would definitely work towards making me a lot more open to not trying to roll my own. CPanel doesn’t handle email quite the way I’m used to it handling–even when I wasn’t hosting my own email. For starters, CPanel installs Exim as its mail transport agent (MTA). Now, don’t get me wrong–Exim’s good for what it does. I have no real complaints with Exim. I just can’t do anything overly useful with it without recompiling the source–something CPanel doesn’t do, and so if I were to attempt it, I’d probably be walked over as soon as the nightly updates ran. It’s not as flexible with logging as I’d prefer either, giving too much information in some areas and yet too little in others.
I’d have much rathered if CPanel supported, either natively or otherwise, the use of Postfix for its mail relaying. I’ve started advocating for as much on their feature requests site in recent days. Based on what I know, the two are very similar. But for all their similarities, the way they handle is almost completely different–at least if you’re me. For starters, Postfix leaves more to the configuration files and less hardcoded so direct access to the source is required–again, useful given CPanel doesn’t compile its MTA and doesn’t give you the option of doing so. Additionally, Postfix is a more security-focused MTA, in the sense that it can be jailed/chrooted without breaking the rest of the system similar to how cPanel already gives you the option of locking individual users into a jailed environment so they can’t affect anything outside their own space. The ability for Postfix to drop priveleges doesn’t hurt its case any either. Postfix also tends to handle message delivery differently from Exim–generating a message for each individual address, rather than grouping messages addressed to more than one recipient into one bulk message. This has the added advantage of a single address that generates a temporary failure doesn’t cause the MTA to hold back on delivering that or any other message to anyone else who just so happens to be using the same mail destination–something that’s come up to very occasionally annoy me.
I’m noticing as well that Exim, unlike Postfix, is relatively quiet when potential problems crop up. For instance, Postfix can be configured to send email on certain types of failure, not just to BCC you when the server itself generates a delivery status notification. So if Postfix is encountering a resource issue, let’s say it’s close to running out of diskspace, it can alert you by email. It can also log the details of an SMTP interaction for more involved diagnosing. For instance: figuring out at which point in the transaction is a connection falling apart, so I can better figure out what needs a good solid tweak in the nose to do what it’s told.
I like CPanel well enough, now that I’m not improv learning it as I go–or having to fight with it to do what it aught to be doing pretty well out of the box. I’d like it even more if it supported the Postfix mail agent. And for that, I’d even be willing-ish to say please. Now if we could just skip right down to the part where all I have to do is flip a switch, we’ll be in business. Your move, CPanel.