What is FTP (File Transfer Protocol)?


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FTP is a widely used network protocol for transferring files between computers over a TCP/IP-based network, such as the Internet. FTP lets people and applications exchange and share data within their offices and across the Internet. FTP was one of the first technologies developed to solve this common need, and it remains, with several generations of enhancements, the second most popular protocol used today (after HTTP or the "World Wide Web").


Applications of FTP

FTP finds application in many day-to-day business operations that span business-to-business and peer-to-peer data transfer use cases, including:

  • Organizations use FTP to allow employees to share files across different locations and branch offices.
  • Employees use FTP to securely share files with coworkers and external business partners.
  • IT teams use FTP to transfer data back to DR (disaster recovery) sites.
  • Webmaster teams use FTP to transfer Web pages, Web application files, and images to their Web server.

How File Transfer Happens with FTP

FTP works in a client-server model where an FTP server and FTP client perform the file transfer operation. An FTP server is configured in the network, and a specific file storage location (folder/system) is identified to become the shared storage, which will host the files you want to share. The end-users will access this file server via FTP to start copying the files to their local folder/system.


FTP requires a TCP/IP network to function, and relies on the use of one or more FTP clients. The FTP client acts as the communication agent to interact with the server to download or upload files. In other words, the FTP client sends out connections to the FTP server. Upon listening to the request from the client to either upload or download a file, the FTP server performs the file transfer operation.


FTP Client

FTP clients were just command line interface (CLI) applications a few decades ago. They now come in easy-to-use, intuitive interfaces to facilitate and simplify file transfers. FTP clients are used for desktops, servers, and mobile devices, and are available as standalone apps, Web clients, and simple extensions to Web browsers. FTP Voyager® is a FREE Windows® FTP client from Serv-U® that provides a host of built-in functions to simplify file transfer.


FTP Server

The FTP server can support both active and passive connections with the FTP client. In an active FTP connection, the client opens a port and listens while the server actively connects to it. Whereas, in a passive connection, the server opens a port and listens passively, which allows clients to connect to it.

A passive connection is more secure and also preferred by IT admins because data connections are made from the FTP client to the FTP server. This is a more reliable method, and it avoids inbound connections from the Internet back into individual clients. In firewalled deployments, all connections are made from the Internet to the server, not from the server back to the Internet. Passive mode is also known as "firewall-friendly" mode. The more secure file transfer protocols (such as SFTP, FTPS) that the FTP client supports, the more secure it becomes.


History of FTP

FTP has been around for over four decades, and has seen significant changes in encryption standards and file transfer functionality. The chart below chronicles the evolution of FTP and the introduction of Managed File Transfer, which offers support for secure protocols (such as FTPS and SFTP) and advanced administration capabilities for secure and controlled file transfer.


Try Secure FTP Server from Serv-U

Serv-U FTP Server is a secure file transfer solution that allows you to safely and easily exchange files with your trading partners. Serv-U FTP Server is designed for SMBs to enable file transfer via FTP, FTPS, and HTTP. For more robust file transfer requirements and greater scalability and security, Serv-U Managed File Transfer (MFT) Server provides centralized administration, granular control, and integration with your existing IT systems (AD, LDAP, NAS, SAN, SIEM, and more). Serv-U MFT Server supports FTP, FTPS, SFTP, HTTP, and HTTPS protocols for secure file transfer.

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