If you've never used an FTP server or an FTP client, these may seem like confusing terms. Especially since FTP is a technology that dates back to the earliest days of the internet, before home computers were even common. But the technology still persists, as does its cousin, HTTP. In this post, we'll go over what FTP is, how it's different from HTTP, and what the two types of FTP software are used for.
In its earliest days, the internet as we know it, at least the part accessed through a web browser, was designed primarily for transferring Hypertext Markup Files, more commonly known as HTML. The files are transferred over a Hypertext Transfer Protocol. That's the HTTP that you see in front of every website you visit. For transferring other types of files, especially in large numbers, a different protocol was used. File Transfer Protocol, or FTP, differs from HTTP in that an FTP client connects to an FTP server using two connections; one controls the data flow and the other controls the command flow. This allows it to work more efficiently than HTTP, which must do both duties using only one connection.
While bandwidth and technological advances now allow you to upload or download multiple files over the internet, the transfer still happens with the HTTP connection switching back and forth between data duty and command duty. HTTP servers also require special backend software to be able to handle the transfer of more than one file at a time in a user-friendly way. Similarly, they require special coding on the part of a web developer to require login credentials to access a site.
FTP sites, hosted by FTP servers, are different. By default, they require a login before anyone can connect to them and begin transferring files. FTP sites also don't look like websites. In fact, with modern FTP software, your interface to an FTP site will look oddly similar to Windows Explorer, Apple's Finder, or whatever local file browser your operating system uses. You can easily drag and drop files or folders just as you would with your native file browser.
The first thing you need to know when searching for the best FTP software is that there are actually two components to using FTP. Which one you need depends on what you'll be using FTP for. If you'd like to host an FTP site where users can connect to and transfer files, you'll need an FTP server. This is similar to a web server in the HTTP world. If you need to connect to someone else's FTP server, you'll need an FTP client. This is similar to a web browser in the HTTP world.
If you're using Windows, you don't need any special software to use FTP. Windows has a built-in FTP server that can be enabled by going to Programs and Features in Control Panel and enabling FTP Server under Internet Information Services from the Turn Windows Features On or Off option. To connect to an FTP server, you can simply type in the FTP address in Windows Explorer the same way you'd type in a web address in a web browser. Just be sure to add the FTP:// in front so Explorer knows what it's looking for.
Similarly, Mac users can use Finder to connect to an FTP site. To do so, simply open the Go menu from Finder and select the Connect to Server options. Enter the URL for the FTP site just as you would in Windows and Finder will make the connection.
The built-in tools will probably provide you with most of the functionality you need, but some programs can make dealing with FTP slightly easier. For example, WinZip has FTP as an option for sharing files that allows you to do so right from within the program. Other software that allows sharing to the cloud may also have FTP as an option.