Everyone knows what a website is. You are using one now. But fewer people have heard of an FTP site. What exactly is an FTP site? Why would you want to use one? How do you connect to one? In this post, we'll answer all of those questions and more as we examine one of the earliest protocols in computer networking, one that still holds relevance and popularity today.
Let's talk more about websites. More specifically, how they get to you from the remote computer. You probably know the answer to this as well, they arrive to you from a web server. More specifically, they arrive to you from an HTTP server. Websites are delivered in the form of HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) and HTTP stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol. Therefore, it's easy to see that a web server is actually an HTTP server and your web browser is an HTTP client.
This client server relationship is the backbone of nearly all computer networking technologies, but not all such technologies are designed to serve up websites. There are many other reasons organizations would want to connect two computers and have them communicate with one another. A big reason is to transfer files between them. Modern cloud-based solutions allow you to transfer multiple files onto their web servers and then onto a different computer. This requires special software on the web server and reliance on a third party. But this is a new solution to a very old problem.
File Transfer Protocol (FTP) is a technology that's been around since the early 1970s to solve the same problem, all without dependence on external providers. When you connect to an FTP server, you are able to transfer files between that server and your computer just as easily as you would transfer them between two folders on the same computer.
Before we tell you how to access an FTP site, allow us to tell you a little more about exactly what one is. Just as a web server and a web site aren't exactly the same thing, an FTP server and an FTP site aren't the same either. An FTP site refers to a specific folder that is being shared by an FTP server. This is an important distinction because it gives the owner of the FTP site control over what gets shared and with whom.
So, how do you connect to one of these FTP sites and begin sharing files? When we said earlier that it was just as easy as sharing files between folders on your local computer, that wasn't an exaggeration. In fact, both Windows Explorer and Apple's Finder have built in support for FTP! That means you can access an FTP site and transfer files to and from it using the exact same tools that you use to do so locally. Let's look at how.
On Windows, this is easy. With File Explorer open, simply type in the address of the FTP site into the location bar at the top. Keep in mind that you'll need to prefix the site with FTP:// to let Explorer know that it needs to connect to an FTP server instead of looking locally for the location. Once you do that, Windows will prompt you for login credentials and display the FTP site just like it would a local folder.
Apple users don't have many more additional steps. From the Finder menu, select the Go option and then open the Connect to Server dialog. From here, you type in the FTP address just as you would in Windows and Finder will connect to the server, prompt you for credentials, and open a Finder window with the FTP site.
When you need to transfer many files at the same time and don't want to Zip them into a single file every time, FTP is a great solution. Many organizations use it for that exact reason rather than relying on third-party cloud-based solutions. Unlike those cloud-based solutions, FTP can even run over a private network. Some software even has its own built-in support for FTP, so you don't need to use the middle man of your operating system's file browser. For example, if you do need to transfer a Zip file over FTP, WinZip has that as one of their options along with several cloud providers.