What is FTP?

Do you know how to transfer large files or collections of files effectively? Explore FTP, the File Transfer Protocol in more depth, and learn more about FTP alternatives like SFTP as a service.

What does FTP stand for?

FTP stands for File Transfer Protocol. Let’s break this down. Essentially, a 'protocol' is a set of procedures or rules that allow electronic devices to communicate with one another. FTP is the set of rules that devices on a TCP/IP network (the Internet) use to transfer files. When you use the Internet, you’re actually using a range of different protocols. For browsing, you’ll use HTTP. For sending and receiving instant messages, you’ll use XMPP. FTP is simply the protocol used to move files around.

What is an FTP server?

FTP servers are the software applications that enable the transfer of files from one device to another. It might sound complicated, but essentially, FTP servers are just computers that have an FTP address and are dedicated to receiving FTP connections. They perform two simple tasks: 'get' and 'put'. In short, you can either 'get' files from the FTP server or 'put' files on the FTP server. When you upload files, they’ll be transferred from your personal device to the server. Alternatively, when you download files, they’ll be transferred from the server to your personal device. At the most basic level, therefore, FTP servers are the halfway point between the recipient and the sender.

How does FTP work?

FTP is a client-server protocol. In other words, the client requests the files, and the server provides them. As such, FTP requires two basic channels to establish a connection: the command channel (initiates the instruction, carries basic information, i.e. which files are to be accessed) and the data channel (transfers the file data between the two devices). To establish a connection, users will need to provide credentials to the FTP server, which typically uses port number 21 as its default mode of communication. It’s also important to note that there are two distinct FTP connection modes: active and passive.

In the active mode, the server takes an active role by approving a request for data. However, the active mode can sometimes run into issues with firewalls, which block unauthorised sessions from third parties. That’s when the passive mode comes into play. In passive mode, the server doesn’t actively maintain the connection, meaning that the user establishes both the data channel and the command channel. Essentially, the server 'listens', but doesn’t actively participate, allowing the other device to handle the bulk of the work.

What problems does FTP solve?

FTP is often used to handle large numbers of files, which is why it can often come in handy in web development. When making changes to a website, you can manage file transfers with an FTP session, which provides a simple way upload specific files, add image files, move web templates and so on. Similarly, IT professionals may also use the File Transfer Protocol to transfer large batches of server files within a closed system.

What are the pros and cons of FTP?

FTP has a couple of benefits that are important to mention. Since it’s been around for a long period of time, most people are already familiar with the protocol, and there are lots of desktop tools – including FileZilla, WinSCP, Cyberduck and more – that make using FTP reasonably straightforward. It’s also worth noting that FTP has a couple of useful features, such as the ability to transfer multiple files at the same time, the ability to resume a transfer if the connection is lost and the ability to schedule transfers.

However, there’s one significant drawback associated with FTP, and that’s the lack of security. FTP was invented in the 1970s, and as such, it predates many of the cybersecurity measures that we’ve come to rely on in the modern world. It wasn’t designed to be a secure protocol and FTP transfers aren’t encrypted, which means that your passwords, usernames and other sensitive data can be read relatively easily by hackers capturing your data packets (i.e. via a packet capture attack).

Because of these security holes, support for FTP is dropping and a range of different replacement options have come onto the market, including SFTP, HTTPS, AS2 and FTPS. As of 2020, Google Chrome switches off FTP by default and Firefox has removed FTP from its code. So, if you’re still using FTP servers for important business functions, it may be a good time to look for an alternative. Now, let’s look at one of these FTP replacements – SFTP – in a little more detail.

What is SFTP?

If you’ve been researching FTP, you’ll probably have encountered the term 'SFTP' at some point. So, what is SFTP? Essentially, SFTP (also known as the SSH File Transfer Protocol) is a separate protocol that works over the Secure Shell (SSH) data stream to provide a higher level of protection when you’re transferring files. Unlike FTP clients, which use port number 21, SFTP uses port number 22. Because FTP is an insecure protocol, SFTP is often preferable, as it provides underlying security features and offers the ability to piggyback on an SSH connection.

How can Dropbox be used in place of an FTP server?

As support for FTP dwindles and cyber security threats become increasingly sophisticated, it could pay to look for alternative options for accessing, transferring and managing your business’s files. Dropbox can be an effective ftp alternative, offering a secure and stress-free way to share files. How? Simple. Dropbox Transfer is a simple and secure file transfer service that’s ideal for delivering large files (you can transfer up to 100 GB to anyone, regardless of whether they have a Dropbox account). In addition, Dropbox Transfer will confirm delivery of your file transfers with download notifications and provides you with the ability to control access with password protection, helping to ensure that your files are only viewed by the people who need to see them.

Final word

So, what is FTP? Well, while FTP is an effective way to transfer files, it’s somewhat outdated and has been surpassed by some of the other network protocols, such as SFTP as a service, that are now available. Moreover, Dropbox could offer an effective file sharing solution for businesses looking for a way to quickly and easily transfer a large file or collection of files.

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