If you've come across the term FTP and are unfamiliar with what it means, you aren't alone. FTP is an older technology that isn't talked about as much as it once was, but it still remains a powerful tool for what it does. So, what does it do? In this guide, we'll break down what FTP is, how it works, and how you can use an FTP client to make use of the technology.
File Transfer Protocol (FTP) is one of the oldest protocols in computer networking. It's been around since 1971! In those days, the internet as we know it didn't exist and even the home computer was still just a dream of what might one day be. But government agencies and large businesses still had access to modems and networking cards that allow their computers to talk to each other remotely.
One of the tasks computers needed to perform over these networks is sharing files. FTP was invented for that purpose. You may have noticed that FTP sounds a lot like the HTTP that you see prefixed to every web URL. HTTP stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol and is how computers send HTML files back and forth. Over the past few decades, modern technology has allowed the backend of HTTP servers the ability to do much more, including easily sharing large numbers of files.
Still, sharing files over an HTTP connection requires special backend software and is using the protocol for something it wasn't designed to do. As it was designed especially for that purpose, FTP still excels when you need to transfer more than a file or two. That's because HTTP shares a single connection for both data and commands. It's meant to request a page, and then use the same connection to pull the data down. FTP, by contrast, splits the data and command functionality across two connections.
User authentication is a similar situation. While special software on the backend allows HTTP connections to require user authentication, the functionality is built directly into FTP.
In order to understand what an FTP client is, we'll continue our comparison between FTP and HTTP. FTP, like HTTP, requires a server in order to operate. For HTTP, this is a web server. When you want to connect to a web server to view the web pages that it has stored, you need a client application. We don't really call them HTTP clients though; we call them web browsers. So, an FTP client is to an FTP server what a web browser is to a web server.
If you need an FTP client, you likely already have one and don't know it. FTP clients serve a nearly identical purpose as the file browsers you use on your desktop: File Explorer on Windows and Finder on Mac. The functionality is so similar, in fact, that both File Explorer and Finder can double as an FTP client!
Users of Windows need only type in an FTP address (preface by FTP://) into the File Explorer location bar and Windows will prompt for login credentials and connect to the remote computer. Apple users can open the Go menu in Finder and choose Connect to Server. From there, it's as easy as typing in the FTP address just as you would in Windows.
There are now several HTTP-based cloud services that will allow you to move and transfer files remotely. Because they require special backend software, all of these solutions require reliance on a third-party solution. FTP servers and clients are great because they are standalone technology. They can even be used on private networks with no reliance on an outside internet connection at all.
FTP is a popular enough option that some software includes built-in support for it. For example, WinZip allows you to share your zipped files across a number of cloud services. With a built-in FTP client, you can use WinZip to share files over FTP just as you would any of the cloud options.