What Is FTP?

May 24, 2024

File Transfer Protocol (FTP) is a standard network protocol used for transferring files between a client and server over a computer network. FTP enables users to upload, download, and manage files on remote servers.

what is ftp

What Is FTP?

File Transfer Protocol (FTP) is a standard network protocol designed to facilitate the transfer of files between a client and a server over a computer network. FTP operates within the client-server model, where the client initiates requests and the server responds. The protocol typically uses two separate channels: a command channel, which handles the transmission of commands and responses, and a data channel, which is responsible for the actual transfer of files. This separation allows FTP to efficiently manage both the control instructions and the bulk data transfer processes.

FTP supports different data transfer modes, including active and passive, to navigate various network configurations and firewall restrictions. While active mode requires the client to open a port for the server to connect, passive mode allows the client to initiate all connections, making it more firewall-friendly.

A Short History of FTP

File Transfer Protocol (FTP) was developed in the early 1970s to address the need for a reliable method to transfer files between computers over a network. Initially defined in RFC 114 in 1971, FTP provided a standard way to facilitate file exchanges over the ARPANET, the precursor to the modern internet.

Over the years, FTP underwent several revisions to enhance its functionality and adapt to the evolving networking landscape. Key updates included RFC 765 in 1980, which refined the protocol, and RFC 959 in 1985, which became the most widely recognized and implemented version, establishing a comprehensive and robust framework for file transfers.

Despite the protocol's enduring popularity, the rise of security concerns in the late 1990s and early 2000s led to the development of secure alternatives like FTPS and SFTP, which addressed the inherent security weaknesses of FTP by incorporating encryption and secure authentication methods. While FTP is still in use because of its simplicity and efficiency in transferring large files, its secure variants are preferred in environments where data protection is paramount.

How Does FTP Work?

Here's a step-by-step explanation of how FTP works:

  1. Client initialization. The client software initiates a connection with the FTP server by specifying the server's IP address or hostname.
  2. Authentication. The client sends login credentials (username and password) to the server. Some servers allow anonymous login where no credentials are required.
  3. Command channel establishment. A command channel is established between the client and server to send FTP commands and receive server responses.
  4. Command issuance. The client sends commands over the command channel to perform actions such as listing directories, changing directories, uploading files, or downloading files.
  5. Data channel establishment. For file transfers, a separate data channel is established. Depending on the mode (active or passive), the client or server will open a port for the data connection.
  6. File transfer. The file data is transferred over the data channel. This can include uploading files from the client to the server or downloading files from the server to the client.
  7. Transfer completion. Once the file transfer is complete, the data channel is closed, but the command channel remains open for additional commands.
  8. Session termination. The client can send a command to close the session, at which point the server will terminate the connection.

Why Is FTP Important?

FTP remains a crucial protocol for various reasons, especially in the context of file transfer and network management. Here are the key reasons why FTP is important:

  • Efficient file transfer. FTP is designed to provide reliable and efficient transfer of large files over a network, making it suitable for use in various industries and applications.
  • Platform independence. FTP can be used across different operating systems and platforms, allowing seamless file sharing between diverse systems.
  • Batch transfers. FTP supports batch file transfers, enabling the simultaneous transfer of multiple files or entire directories, which is essential for managing large datasets.
  • Automation capabilities. FTP can be easily automated using scripts and scheduled tasks, facilitating regular and unattended file transfers.
  • Directory management. FTP provides commands for directory management, such as creating, deleting, and listing directories, making it a comprehensive tool for file system management on remote servers.
  • Resume transfers. FTP supports resuming interrupted transfers, allowing users to continue from where they left off in case of a connection drop, saving time and bandwidth.
  • Widespread support. Due to its long history, FTP is widely supported by numerous clients, servers, and networking devices, ensuring broad compatibility and ease of integration.

FTP Use Cases

FTP is widely used in various industries and scenarios due to its robust capabilities for file transfer and management. Here are some key use cases of FTP:

  • Website management. Web developers and administrators use FTP to upload and manage website files on web servers. This includes updating HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and media files, ensuring that website content is current and functional.
  • Software distribution. Software companies use FTP to distribute software updates, patches, and full installation packages to customers and clients. FTP's ability to handle large files and batch transfers makes it ideal for this purpose.
  • Data backup. Organizations use FTP to back up critical data to remote servers or data centers. This ensures that data is safely stored offsite and can be retrieved in case of local data loss or disasters.
  • Collaborative work. Teams working on large projects, such as design, video production, and engineering, use FTP to share and collaborate on large files. FTP enables efficient file sharing and version control across different team members and locations.
  • Log file management System administrators use FTP to transfer and manage log files, servers, and applications. This helps them to monitor, analyze, and troubleshoot issues within the network infrastructure.
  • Data exchange between systems. FTP facilitates the exchange of data between different systems and platforms within an organization. For example, transferring transaction data from an ecommerce platform to an accounting system.
  • Media and content delivery. Media companies use FTP to distribute large multimedia files, such as videos, audio recordings, and images, to clients, partners, or content delivery networks.
  • Remote server management. FTP is used to manage files on remote servers, including configuration files, application files, and other essential data. This is crucial for maintaining and updating server environments in different locations.

FTP Types

FTP comes in several forms, each designed to address specific needs and improve functionality or security. Here are the main types of FTP.

Standard FTP

Standard FTP is the original form of the protocol used for transferring files between a client and a server over a network. It operates on port 21 for the command channel and a dynamic range of ports for the data channel. While effective for moving files, standard FTP lacks encryption, making it unsuitable for transferring sensitive data over insecure networks.

Anonymous FTP

Anonymous FTP allows users to access files on a server without needing a unique username and password. Instead, users log in with a generic 'anonymous' username and typically use their email address as the password. This type of FTP is commonly used for public file repositories, where ease of access is prioritized over security.

Secure FTP (FTPS)

FTPS, also known as FTP Secure or FTP-SSL, adds a layer of security to the standard FTP protocol by employing SSL/TLS encryption. This ensures that both the command and data channels are encrypted, protecting the data from interception and unauthorized access. FTPS is ideal for transferring sensitive information over networks where security is a concern.

SSH File Transfer Protocol (SFTP)

SFTP is not an extension of FTP but rather a separate protocol that operates over the Secure Shell (SSH) protocol. It provides secure file transfer capabilities, as well as secure file access and management. SFTP uses a single port (typically port 22) for both commands and data, simplifying firewall configurations and enhancing security through SSH encryption.

FTP over Implicit SSL/TLS

This type of FTP requires SSL/TLS encryption from the very start of the connection. Unlike explicit FTPS, which begins as a standard FTP connection and then upgrades to a secure connection, implicit FTPS automatically uses SSL/TLS for all communications. This method ensures a higher level of security by mandating encryption for the entire session.

TFTP (Trivial File Transfer Protocol)

TFTP is a simplified version of FTP used primarily for transferring small amounts of data where speed and efficiency are crucial. It operates over UDP rather than TCP, which reduces overhead but also eliminates many of the control features of FTP, such as authentication and directory listing. TFTP is commonly used in network booting and firmware updates.

Common FTP Clients

FTP clients are software applications designed to connect to FTP servers and facilitate the transfer and management of files. Here are some popular FTP clients:

  • FileZilla. A widely used, open-source FTP client known for its user-friendly interface and robust set of features, including support for FTPS and SFTP.
  • Cyberduck. A versatile FTP client for both Windows and macOS that supports a wide range of protocols, including FTP, SFTP, WebDAV, and cloud storage services.
  • WinSCP. A popular FTP client for Windows that focuses on secure file transfers, supporting SFTP, SCP, and FTP, and offering powerful scripting capabilities.
  • Transmit. A premium FTP client for macOS that offers a sleek interface and support for multiple protocols, including FTP, SFTP, WebDAV, and cloud storage.
  • CuteFTP. A reliable and feature-rich FTP client for Windows that supports FTP, FTPS, and SFTP, and offers automation tools for advanced users.
  • SmartFTP. A professional-grade FTP client for Windows that supports a variety of protocols, including FTP, FTPS, SFTP, and WebDAV, and provides advanced features like file encryption and scheduling.
  • Core FTP. A free FTP client for Windows that offers a comprehensive set of features, including secure file transfers via FTPS and SFTP, and site-to-site file transfers.
  • Fetch. A simple yet effective FTP client for macOS known for its ease of use and reliable performance, supporting FTP and SFTP protocols.
  • Commander One. A dual-pane file manager for macOS that includes FTP client capabilities, supporting FTP, SFTP, and various cloud storage services.

FTP and Security

In its standard form, FTP lacks built-in security features, making it vulnerable to interception and unauthorized access since data, including credentials, is transmitted in plaintext.

Several FTP variants have been developed to address these security concerns, including FTPS, which adds SSL/TLS encryption, and SFTP, which protects both the data and command channels via SSH encryption. Using these secure versions of FTP is essential for protecting sensitive data and maintaining privacy and integrity during file transfers over potentially insecure networks.


FTP (File Transfer Protocol) and SFTP (SSH File Transfer Protocol) are both protocols used for transferring files, but they differ significantly in terms of security and functionality.

FTP operates over two channels (command and data) and transmits data in plaintext, making it vulnerable to interception and unauthorized access. In contrast, SFTP is inherently secure, as it operates over the SSH (Secure Shell) protocol, encrypting both commands and data, thereby ensuring the confidentiality and integrity of the transmitted information. Additionally, SFTP uses a single port (typically port 22) for both data and commands, simplifying firewall configurations and enhancing security management.

While FTP might be sufficient for transferring non-sensitive files in trusted environments, SFTP is the preferred choice for secure, encrypted file transfers, especially in environments where data security is paramount.

Anastazija is an experienced content writer with knowledge and passion for cloud computing, information technology, and online security. At phoenixNAP, she focuses on answering burning questions about ensuring data robustness and security for all participants in the digital landscape.