Moving data from one point to another is fundamental to digital connectivity. On a high level, it’s the basis of how the entire Internet works! One typical example is when website owners transfer data from their devices to remote web hosting servers.
Even before the Internet, system administrators needed to move data across networks. Over several decades, we’ve developed various transfer methods, including FTP, otherwise known as File Transfer Protocol.
What is FTP? (File Transfer Protocol)
FTP is a set of instructions that governs how we can move data from one device to another, replacing the Network Control Program (NCP). The protocol was developed by Abhay Bhushan and his team at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1971.
Since then, FTP has become one of the most popular ways to move files around on the internet and within private networks. It’s been around long enough to undergo various iterations, and several modes and multiple FTP clients now co-exist.
The essential element of FTP to remember is that this protocol is simple and easily usable by anyone.
How Does FTP Work?
FTP works on the Client/Server model. This model has one device acting as the Server that “listens” for an incoming request from a Client. Once a request is detected, TCP/IP is the transport protocol that allows data transfers.
The most basic way of using FTP is via the command line. All you need to do is type one command to establish the connection. Another command will then begin the transfer of files. Thanks to the many FTP clients available today, most users won’t even need to remember those commands.
FTP clients often provide a Graphic User Interface (GUI) that allows connections at the click of a button. You can then perform file transfers via a drag-and-drop system.
There are two main FTP modes; Active and Passive.
1. Active FTP Mode
Your computer connects directly to the server and begins sending commands to it immediately. This mode is useful when trying to download something quickly or upload something that needs immediate attention from a remote host.
2. Passive FTP Mode
Your computer will wait until the remote host contacts it before beginning any transfers. This mode ensures that your connection accepts only a few requests simultaneously. Passive mode helps provide better overall performance for large data transfers where latency might be an issue.
What Types of FTP Are There?
Aside from the two primary FTP modes, FTP comes in several variants.
- Anonymous FTP
The most basic and does not include any user authentication. Data transfers can commence immediately as soon as connections take place.
- Authenticated FTP
Adds a layer of protection by requiring that Clients provide login credentials to the Server. Connections are only accepted once the credentials are verified.
- FTP Secure
Refers to FTP with an added layer of encryption. Transport Layer Security (TLS) facilitates encryption during the connection.
- Secure FTP
Different from FTP Secure, it works like regular FTP but is more like the Secure Shell protocol (SSH).
How to Use FTP to Transfer Data to a Web Host
Although we use FTP in many scenarios, moving files from a local machine to a web hosting server is one of the most common use cases. When signing up for a web hosting plan, users will receive FTP instructions, including the server IP address and login credentials.
The process itself is relatively simple;
- Connect to the server IP using a command line interface or FTP Client application. An example of an FTP login command is “ftp 184.108.40.206“
- Enter the login credentials provided by the web host.
- Start sending the required files. This activity uses the “put” command. For example, “put c:\files\transfer1.html“
Naturally, it would be easier to use an FTP client since that will help you avoid typing commands repetitively. Note that the best web hosts often provide a more secure FTP option, such as SFTP.
Other uses for FTP include;
- Remote data backup
- File sharing
- Transferring files between two servers
Examples of FTP Clients
Many excellent FTP Clients around today can help make your FTP experience as painless as possible. Some great options are free; you can download and use them for as long as you want.
- FileZilla is one of the most popular free FTP applications. It’s been around for ages and works well in most scenarios. The app is also open-sourced and free to use. It’s available for Windows, macOS, and Linux.
- WinSCP is another free option, but it’s less portable since you can only use it on Windows. However, it provides more choices in transfer protocols, supporting FTP, FTPS, SCP, SFTP, WebDAV, and S3.
- Classic FTP File Transfer Software is a lightweight option that sports an old-school design. You get the bare minimum, and it’s suitable for those that prefer the original FTP client design. It’s another free option that’s only available for Windows.
Understanding Security and Encryption in FTP
It’s important to note that FTP is not a secure protocol. It does not encrypt your data during transmission, so if you’re concerned about the confidentiality of information sent over the network, you should use an encrypted protocol like SFTP or TLS/SSL.
However, there are some ways to make FTP more secure. If you’re transferring sensitive information, such as user passwords or credit card numbers, consider using an encrypted FTP Client/Server system.
FTP is Simple, Fast, and Effective
Even today, FTP remains a common way of moving files around. However, it’s notable that security threats mean that we use more secure variants of FTP, such as SFTP. Still, there is little noticeable difference on the user end beside the need for login credentials.
While secure FTP does mean additional overhead, the usage pattern remains the same. It may cause slower file transfers on slower devices, but that’s unavoidable, given the extra overhead caused by an encryption algorithm.