Although less common than it once was, it still isn't rare to come across an organization that wants you to transfer files to them over FTP. The technology still sees use in areas where multiple files need to be transferred over at a time. In this post, we'll talk about what FTP is, how it relates to the more commonly seen HTTP, and how you can use modern technology to make your FTP connections more secure.
You may have noticed that FTP sounds very similar to HTTP, the letters you see in front of every URL you visit on the internet. There's a good reason for that. The internet as we know it was designed to transfer HTML files from a remote computer to a client application. The remote computer uses a web server and the client application is a web browser. The protocol that handles the transfer of these HTML files, or Hypertext Market Files, is Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP).
In those same early days of the internet, a protocol was developed that allowed for easy transfer of files between remote computers: file transfer protocol (FTP). FTP differs from HTTP in that it has two connections to the remote computer. One is for sending commands, and the other is for sending data. This makes it more efficient at the task of data transfer than HTTP is. Although backend software running on a web server now allows for easy transfer of multiple files across an HTTP connection, FTP still does the job more efficiently without any additional software. For this reason, there are still people who choose to use the protocol.
By default, the basic FTP protocol has a security feature that HTTP doesn't. Allowing someone to add or remove files from a remote computer would be asking for trouble if there were no safeguards in place. So, unlike HTTP, FTP comes with built-in authentication. Like better file transfer, this is something that can be added to websites through the help of additional software, but it is a key component of FTP. Users of an FTP client must always authenticate themselves before logging into an FTP server.
Let's go back to our HTTP comparison for a little bit. You may have noticed that a lot of sites now have HTTPS in front of them instead of HTTP. The sites that are served through HTTPS usually have a little lock icon in the browser's title bar. HTTPS stands for HTTP Secure. It encrypts the communications between the server and the client using a technology known as Secure Sockets Layer (SSL). This makes the transfer of data more secure. There are similar technologies for FTP. FTPS uses SSL encryption just as HTTPS does. Another alternative, SFTP, uses a different type of encryption known as Secure Shell (SSH).
For the most secure connection over FTP, you should consider using an FTP client that supports either the FTPS or SFTP implementations. This will ensure that your data is encrypted and the transfers are more secure from prying eyes than they would be under the original FTP design.
While FTP is a very old technology and one that, like HTTP, didn't initially come with a great deal of cybersecurity protection built in, it is still a very useful technology. As such, like HTTP, it has evolved into standards that allow for much more security and peace of mind. Because of this, it remains a solid alternative for organizations who need to transfer a large number of files between remote computers as easily as they would between local folders on the same computer. Unlike HTTP-powered cloud-based solutions, FTP can be utilized on a private network and without reliance on any additional third-party providers.