WTF is FTP? The file transfer protocol, explained

what is ftp and how do i use it data center header
vladimircaribb/123RF
If you hang out with techy people, especially web developers, you might hear the letters “FTP” a lot. Maybe you just nod while pretending you know what it means, but seriously, what is FTP?

Basically, it’s a way to transfer files online. You might think of the sites you visit in your browser as “the internet,” but your browser only uses one protocol: HTTP. There are many others protocols that, collectively, make up the internet. IMAP and POP, for instance, are two protocols that email clients use to send and receive messages. XMPP is a protocol used to send and receive instant messages. And there’s DNS, the protocol used to translate domain names into IP addresses.

FTP is another such protocol, one that stands for “File Transfer Protocol.” It’s also one of the oldest protocols in use today, and is a convenient way to move files around. An FTP server offers access to a directory, with sub-directories. Users connect to these servers with an FTP client, a piece of software that lets you download files from the server, as well as upload files to it.

Many internet users will never have any use for FTP, but if you’re building a website, it’s an essential tool. And because it’s such a fundamental tool on the web, it’s worth knowing about even if you’re not a developer. So here’s everything the average internet user needs to know about FTP, and how to use it.

What is FTP for?

FTP is, for web developers, a way of moving information from the computer you’re working on to the server where a website is hosted. If you want to install WordPress on a web server, for example, you’re going to need FTP to copy the files over.

It’s also occasionally used as a way to share files. One person may upload a file to an FTP server, then share a link to it with another person. This sort of usage has become less common in the age of easy-to-use cloud services, but some people prefer to have their files hosted on a home server, and use FTP to enable that.

What does FTP look like?

Well, it essentially looks like the other files on your computer. There’s a hierarchical folder structure, which you can explore in a similar fashion to Windows Explorer or Finder.

You can get an idea of this by browsing a public FTP server. For example, Adobe offers downloads of all its software via FTP, for customers who own software like Photoshop with a valid product key but broke their CD. Browsers such as Chrome and Firefox also support exploring FTP servers (but not uploading files), which makes it easy to explore public FTP servers.

ftp-adobe

On Reddit, r/opendirectories is an entire community dedicated to sharing publicly-accessible FTP servers. However, many of these directories are full of pirated content, porn, and a similar combination thereof.

Using FTP to download files in this way is relatively rare. For the most part, FTP is used to upload files from your computer to a server you’re working on.

Is FTP secure?

Not by design, no. FTP dates back to 1971, a time long before cybersecurity was much more than a hypothetical field. This means that FTP transfers aren’t encrypted, so it’s relatively easy to intercept files for anyone capable of packet sniffing.

For this reason, many people use FTPS instead. This essentially works in the same manner as FTP, but encrypts everything, meaning prying eyes can’t intercept files. At this point, many servers refuse to offer unencrypted access, and instead, offer only FTPS.

Which FTP clients are the best?

cyberduck-adobe-server

We actually outlined the best FTP clients a couple of years ago, and we stand by that list today. FTP is a technology that’s been around for a while, meaning the best tools out there are quite mature at this point.

Can I set up my own FTP server?

You can! We’ve already outlined how you can turn your Android phone or tablet into an FTP server, which lets you easily share files on your phone via FTP. But you can also quickly set up a server on your home computer.

Windows users can download and run FileZilla server. Mac users, meanwhile, don’t need any third-party software. Just head to Sharing in System Preferences, then enable Remote Login. This will enable an FTPS server on your Mac, thus granting you a secure way to browse your computer and grab files with any FTP client.

mac-sftp-setup

You’ll need an FTP client installed on another computer in order to browse your files, though. Just use the IP address for the computer you previously set up as a server.

Note that, to access files from outside your home network, you’ll need to set up port forwarding on your router. And if you plan on making an FTP server accessible online, it’s a good idea to lock it down with encryption.

Photography

Forget painting-style transfers, this A.I. creates realistic portraits of fake people

Do these images look computer-generated? Nvidia researchers recently published a paper on a new variation on style transfer artificial intelligence that's able to generate entirely new portraits.
Computing

Delete tracking cookies from your system by following these quick steps

Cookies are useful when it comes to saving your login credentials and other data, but they can also be used by advertisers to track your browsing habits across multiple sites. Here's how to clear cookies in the major browsers.
Computing

Convert your PDFs into convenient Word documents

PDF files are great, but few document types are as malleable as those specific to Microsoft Word. Here's how to convert a PDF file into a Word document, whether you prefer to use Adobe's software suite or a freemium alternative.
Computing

Pinning websites to your taskbar is as easy as following these quick steps

Would you like to know how to pin a website to the taskbar in Windows 10 in order to use browser links like apps? Whichever browser you're using, it's easier than you might think. Here's how to get it done.
Computing

Secure your Excel documents with a password by following these quick steps

Excel documents are used by people and businesses all over the world. Given how often they contain sensitive information, it makes sense to keep them from the wrong eyes. Thankfully, it's easy to secure them with a password.
Gaming

With our Steam guide, you can give the gift of gaming this holiday season

The holidays may have passed, but it's always a good time to give the gift of gaming (especially when there's a Steam sale)! Here's our quick guide on how to give a Steam game as a gift.
Computing

Leaked HP laptop listing reveals entry-level Nvidia MX250 GPU

Alongside powerful graphics cards, Nvidia may have more mobile GPUs to show off at next year's CES show in January. The MX250 has been spotted in a listing for an HP laptop, potentially replacing the entry-level MX150.
Computing

ZSpace’s laptop brings education to life with its own 3D technology

The ZSpace laptop wants to overhaul education and training by offering affordable access to 3D mixed reality through a bespoke screen and glasses technology that is already supported by a wide array of applications.
Computing

Former Microsoft intern claims Google may have sabotaged Edge browser

Google's Chrome web browser has been able to establish such dominance that Microsoft is abandoning its web rendering engine, switching Edge over to Chromium, but did Google play dirty in an attempt to force Microsoft to make the decision?
Computing

ViewSonic’s 1080p gaming monitor lets you experience the action in style

ViewSonic is catering to gamers with its latest monitor, the XG240R. Featuring a 1080p 144Hz panel, RGB lighting, and a fast 1ms response time, you can conquer your opponents and do it in style.
Computing

Here’s why you might still be using Wi-Fi after cellular 5G launches

Cellular 5G might be around the corner and promising to deliver lightning fast speeds, but the folks over at the Wi-Fi Alliance have a few reasons why they think you shouldn't dump Wi-Fi just yet.
Computing

Detangle your desk with a mighty wireless mouse. Here are our six favorites

If you're looking for the best wireless mouse on the market, we've got the list for you!. These six models have something for everyone, whether you're a hardcore gamer or simply looking to ward off carpal tunnel.
Web

Canceling Amazon Prime is easy, and you might get a refund

Don't be intimidated. Learning how to cancel Amazon Prime is easier than you might think. You might even get a partial or full refund on the cost, depending on how much you've used it. Check out our quick-hit guide for doing so.
Computing

After rocky start, Windows 10 October 2018 update is finally available to all

The Windows 10 October 2018 update is now available for everyone to download. After a serious bug derailed its initial release, the update is back and users are now able to check for it through Windows Update.