What is File Transfer Protocol FTP?

FTP, or File Transfer Protocol, is a set of rules used for transferring files over a network. FTP uses the same TCP/IP protocols that standard networks and HTTP connections use, however, FTP was designed as a text-based system and uses a file structure that is closer to your local computer than any regular web page.  FTP was the backbone of the original internet, allowing FTP servers to host documents and information that were retrieved by users elsewhere.  It has become synonymous with sending and receiving files, to the point that FTP is now a verb, as in “FTP it to me.”

Facts About FTP

From Visually.


Graphic Interface and Usage

While FTP was originally a text-based system (and still has the same structure) multiple FTP clients have been developed with graphic user interfaces.  Since FTP servers are data storage and access servers, these clients display often display the site like any normal computer browser.  FTP servers allow for rapid access of site materials and content.  Because of this, sites upload and adjust their content via an FTP server which hosts the site itself.  Many content-only sites don’t even use a regular browser site, simply an FTP server that is accessible via login or anonymously using an FTP client.

Dedicated FTP clients are the most powerful way to utilize FTP servers.  However, due to how often FTP connections are used when building and updating websites, many web coding and design suites (such as Dreamweaver) include a built-in FTP client for rapid access and testing of your new pages.  Web browsers such as Chrome and Firefox also come with very light FTP clients built into their code.  The browser simply translates the server into a simple navigable link interface

Drawbacks to FTP connections are the lack of security difficulty in maintaining connections through NAT and firewalls.  The FTP protocols themselves are extremely insecure, which is why either SFTP or FTPS (both security protocols for encryption) are used to protect user data and logins.  FTP connections work by having the server establish contact with a client.  A request is sent and the server attempts to establish a connection back along the same path.  Unfortunately, since there isn’t always a dedicated port for this communication, FTP connections have trouble navigating through firewalls and NATs.

Differences Between FTP and HTTP

Most of this sounds very similar to how HTTP works, from connecting over TCP/IP to translating the data pulled from a server.  That’s because HTTP is a set of protocols that fixed many of the issues with FTP.  While FTP is still far better for data organization and file transfers, HTTP does a much better job of making the web navigable.  HTTP also uses a dedicated port, making it easy to navigate through both NAT and firewalls.  At the end of the day, both protocols access a server and display fetch information for your computer.  The difference is that FTP pulls files directly (whether those are images, full text, or videos) while HTTP displays a graphic interface that’s simple for humans to understand and is not meant for sending files to a server, only for accessing the server itself.

To summarize:

  • FTP is for transferring files across the internet
  • Websites use FTP to move files to and from their server

HTTP uses the same TCP/IP connection but only pulls specific pages and files from the server

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