What is File Transfer Protocol (FTP)?

by Jim Donnelly | February 15, 2022

Most people know or have a decent understanding of what File transfer protocol (FTP) is. The word is often thrown around as a blanket term for file transfer…which is not the case. So, what is file transfer protocol exactly? How does it work and how do people use it? We offer these answers below. 

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What is File Transfer Protocol?

File transfer protocol is a network protocol used to transfer files between computers on a Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) network. In other words, the internet (but not always).  

There are all kinds of paid and open-source FTP options available. One of the longest-running FTP services, FileZilla, is an open-source application built in 2001.

Fun fact: FileZilla was conceived as a computer science class project.

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FTP is extremely well established as a file transfer method. It’s been the tool of choice for years for many web developers deploying or updating websites. However, this method has slowly fallen out of favor with the rise of drag-and-drop, WYSIWYG-style web editors.

But FTP’s long history also means it has become somewhat…outdated. Many observers say FTP is an antiquated technology well past its best before date. 

And when you consider that the first-ever File Transfer Protocol, RFC 114, was written by then-student at MIT, Abhay Bushan in the Spring of 1971, they may have a point. 

Regardless, FTP remains in use around the world as a method of transferring files and data.

How Does File Transfer Protocol Work?

Because FTP is a client-server protocol, a sender must first upload files to an FTP server. The server typically requires login credentials, although some FTP servers allow anonymous logins. 

The FTP server is essentially the hub, or midpoint, of the file transfer. After logging in, the file recipient must download data from the same server. Once logged in, users have the ability to perform a number of actions, including uploading and downloading files but also deleting, renaming, or moving them.

FTP uses both a command channel (for commands and responses) and a data channel (for data transfer).

An FTP session runs either in passive or active mode. Active mode means the user proactively requests to make changes to the server, with the server creating a connection back to the user’s computer. As a result, this process that can cause issues with firewalls. Passive mode FTP transfer gets around this by relinquishing all command to the user’s computer.

How to Use File Transfer Protocol?

FTP is typically used in one of three ways:

  • Command-line FTP (accessed through the command prompt in Windows or Terminal for Mac)
  • Through a web browser
  • Via an FTP client.

The latter is by far the most common method used today, with several FTP clients on the market such as the aforementioned FileZilla, along with Cyberduck, WinSCP, WS_FTP, Transmit, and CrossFTP.

However, FTP isn’t usually considered a secure protocol. It doesn’t use encryption and typically uses clear-text usernames and passwords. This leaves FTP servers dangerously exposed to spoofing, brute force, and other rudimentary cyberattacks. 

Newly updated versions of FTP (mentioned below) do include encryption, but the technology is still considered a “security hole” by many IT experts. FTP connections are also notorious for running into frustrating and time-consuming firewall difficulties.

Because installing and using FTP servers requires certain technical skills, it’s also generally a much more time consuming (and potentially frustrating) experience for everyday users compared to simplified drag-and-drop file transfer SaaS tools.

Related: Data Theft: How Hackers Can Steal Your Files Remotely

Types of File Transfer Protocol

Several types of FTP exist, including:

FTP type

Description

Port

Anonymous FTP

Basic FTP without requiring a username or password, and without encryption.

Password-protected FTP

Basic FTP that requires a username and password.

21

FTP Secure (FTPS)

Also known as FTP-SSL (FTP Secure Sockets Layer), FTPS allows implicit Transport Layer Security (TLS)-enabled connections for better security.

990

FTP over explicit SSL/TSL (FTPES)

Allows explicit TSL connections.

21

Secure FTP (SFTP)

Technically not an FTP protocol, SFTP is an encryptable offshoot of Secure Shell protocol (SSH) developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). 

22

Several different data types are transferred using FTP, including ASCII (Type A) for text data, Image (Type I), and EBCDIC (Type E) for plain text.

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The Evolution of File Transfer Protocol

As mentioned up top, FTP first came about in early 1971. It was designed to send files over Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) in the U.S., one of the first-ever public networks (and precursor to the internet) launched in 1969 and decommissioned in 1989. 

Once the internet went mainstream FTP needed several revisions to ensure it worked with TCP/IP: RFC 765 was launched in 1980, and RFC 959 came out in 1985, both of which added new capabilities. RFC 959 emerged in 1997 to improve security, and RFC 2428 appeared in 1999 to handle IPv6.

In the last few years, however, FTP has seen itself fall out of favor in some quarters. Google removed support for FTP file transfer with the release of Chrome 88 in early 2021. It would’ve been even earlier but the pandemic forced a delay.

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You Can Use MASV Instead of FTP

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MASV is an excellent alternative to FTP for those looking to transfer huge files without the hassle of managing an archaic FTP server. Not to mention configuring firewalls and finding people with the knowledge to use FTP efficiently. 

MASV allows any user to start sending files within 60 seconds of login. It has the technical complexity of sending an email. That means you don’t have to sit through tutorials or training to use MASV to send huge files of up to 5TB. Plus, because MASV follows Trusted Partner Network security and compliance standards, you can confidently use MASV as a faster, more robust, and way more secure alternative to FTP.

MASV knows how easily data transfer can be compromised. It’s why we’ve built our transfer solution from the ground up with security in mind.

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