FTP is one way of transferring files online. You can think of the websites you visit in your browser as "Internet", but your browser only uses one protocol: HTTP. There are many other protocols that together make up the Internet. For example, IMAP and POP are two protocols that email clients use to send and receive messages. XMPP is a protocol for sending and receiving instant messages. FTP is another such protocol.
FTP stands for "File Transfer Protocol". It's also one of the oldest protocols in use today, and a convenient way to move files around. An FTP server provides access to a directory with subdirectories. Users connect to these servers using an FTP client, software that allows them to download and upload files to the server.
Many internet users will never be able to use FTP, but it has important uses, especially for those who want to study internet data from the ground up. Here's what you should know:
What is FTP for?
FTP is a useful tool for moving information from the computer you work on to the server that hosts a website. For example, if you want to install WordPress on a web server, you will need FTP to copy the files.
It is also used occasionally to share files. One person can upload a file to an FTP server and then share a link to it with another person. This type of usage has become less common in the age of user-friendly cloud services (these are our favorites), but some people prefer to host their files on a home server and use FTP to make this possible.
FTP is one of the simplest and earliest formats created for quickly moving files from one device to another. It dates back to 1971 when the first version of Abhay Bhushan was created and published. In the 1980s, the FTP format was updated to the server-linked version of TCP / IP.
FTP uses two basic channels for operation. The command channel contains information about the task itself – which files are to be accessed, whether commands are registered, etc. The data channel then transfers the actual file data between devices.
These FTP connections can also have active and passive modes. Active modes are the most common and allow open communication between the server and device over both channels, with the server taking an active role in establishing the connection by approving data requests. However, this mode can be interrupted by firewalls and similar problems. Hence, there is also a passive mode in which the server is watching but not actively maintaining the connections so the other device can do all the work.
What exactly is FTP used for?
Not much. Platforms that continue to offer FTP downloads or support transfers are mostly doing so out of habit, and even this is no longer common (more on this below). The two main modern uses for FTP are:
- Hobbies and lessons: FTP is an occasional way to introduce newbies to Internet protocols before moving on to more complex versions. This makes it a good starter tool. Some people also build FTP file systems out of nostalgia or just for fun.
- Moving a large number of server files around the house: Some IT professionals may use FTP when moving server files in a closed system for a company. In this case, there are no security concerns, and FTP is possibly the easiest method that IT staff can use to move large amounts of files.
What does FTP look like?
Although it depends on which client you are using to manage the files, it essentially looks like the other files on your computer. There is a hierarchical folder structure that you can examine much like Windows Explorer or Finder.
You can get an idea of this by browsing a public FTP server. For example, Adobe offers FTP download of all of its software to customers who have software like Photoshop with a valid product key but do not have their installation CD on hand. Browsers like Chrome and Firefox also support exploring FTP servers (but not uploading files).
On Reddit, r / opendirectories is a whole community that is dedicated to releasing publicly accessible FTP servers. However, many of these directories are full of pirated content, porn, and a similar combination thereof.
Using FTP to download files this way is relatively rare. For the most part, FTP is used to upload files from your computer to a server that you work on.
Is FTP Safe?
Not intended, no. FTP dates back to long before cybersecurity was much more than a hypothetical field. This means that FTP transfers are not encrypted. Therefore, it is relatively easy to intercept files for anyone with the ability to track packages.
Because of this, many people use FTPS or SFTP instead. These work essentially like FTP, but they encrypt everything, which means prying eyes won't be able to read files even if they could intercept them. Many servers currently reject unencrypted access and instead only offer FTPS or SFTP. SFTP in particular is an advanced option that uses SSH protocols and packets and, despite the acronym, has little in common with FTP.
Which FTP clients are the best?
FileZilla and CyberDuck are two of our favorite FTP clients that we wholeheartedly recommend. They are fully functional and have been around for years. Hence, user interfaces and tools have been put in place to make your FTP transfer process quick and easy. If you want more examples of good FTP clients, check out our guide to the best of the best FTP clients.
Can I set up my own FTP server?
The short answer is yes. Windows and Mac users can download and run the FileZilla server. Mac users don't need third-party software though: just go to Sharing in System Preferences and enable remote login. This will activate an FTPS server on your Mac so you can securely browse your computer and access files using any FTP client.
However, you will need an FTP client installed on another computer to browse your files. Just use the IP address of the computer you set up as a server earlier.
To be able to access files from outside your home network, you need to set up port forwarding on your router. If you plan to make an FTP server accessible online, you should lock it down using encryption. For more information on setting up an FTP server on your Android phone or tablet, check out our full guide.
The future phasing out of FTP
Support for FTP decreases, especially when replacement options like SFTP make much more sense. FTP has one of the longest runs of any online protocol, but it seems 2020 could be up and running for the last year due to new changes in web browsers. In early 2020, FTP was disabled by default in the latest version of Chrome for the first time. It can still be activated with a command line change, but was completely removed in version 82.
The same applies to Firefox, which removed FTP from its code in spring 2020 and only offers extended support until 2021. Safari can display FTP information, but by default it uses Finder for all directories.
With all of the updates we've discussed, FTP is quickly leaving the realm of practical use and will soon be completely useless. FTP users need to face the hard facts of their fast approaching end and focus on looking for various methods of transferring files.