What is FTP and Why is it Important

Chances are you’ve downloaded files from the internet—music, books, TV shows, movies, games and any other file type. You’ve probably even used cloud-based services to share files with others. Without even knowing it, you’ve been using FTP this entire time. But what exactly is FTP and why is it so important?

What the FTP?

FTP is the acronym for File Transfer Protocol. In simple terms, a protocol is a set of procedures that computers on a network used to communicate with each other. FTP is the language pathway that computers on a TCP/IP network, i.e. the internet, use to transfer files from one to the other.

FTP in Everyday Computer Use

Anyone that has downloaded or uploaded files on the internet has used FTP without even realizing it. During the early days of the internet, in order to this, an FTP Client was needed in the form of a software application in order to send files. Today, however, with web browser upgrades, users are able to download files by way of FTP right without the browser window.

Making the entire file transfer process, quicker and convenient, when downloading 1-3 files. Conversely, the browser download method of file transfer leaves little to be desired in terms of flexibility and there are limitations. For instance, if you wanted to ask the server questions you would be restricted. You would also be restricted from forcing a particular transfer mode and you can’t upload.

In addition to these restrictions, web browser based file transfer can pose certain security risks. For more advanced FTP options you will require a wider range of functionality.

FTP Clients

Remember the mention of the FTP Client? Well, in order to use the full range of file transfer flexibility with added security measures through a secure data connection, you will need an aboveboard FTP client.

When using an FTP client, you can use the application to log into a secure FTP server, browse the server’s file folder structure and upload or download files. That’s the prime function of all FTP clients. They differ from the built-in file transfer protocol of today’s web browsers because they are tailored specifically for those functions.

Now, fully-loaded web editor software like Dreamweaver and RapidWeaver come to equip with built-in FTP functions. If you’re looking for a stand-alone FTP client for major file transfers there are a plethora on the market to choose from. FTP clients can run the gamut from free to expensive.

Why is FTP Important?

Self-hosting your website through a hosting environment purchased from your hosting provider comes with a lot of technical hoops to jump through. When it is time to build your site and upload files to your directories, you will want to have an excellent FTP client on your site to ensure safe and secure file transfers. Bulk files can be transferred easily using an FTP client.

Quick Rundown of how an FTP Session Works

1. Logging in

Like connecting to any server on the web, an FTP log in operates in the same vein. You’re required to provide a server address (when you’re on a website that is the actual URL), a user name and a password before you can communicate and exchange information with the server.

2. Anonymous FTP

While using any FTP service, in-browser FTP, or client, your transfer is never truly anonymous. While your identity is not necessarily logged your ISP information is via your IP address. Therefore transferring any material that is illegal or deemed covered under copyright laws is prohibited. You can face being prosecuted, fined, or blocked by your ISP. FTP does not include true anonymity.

3. Server Logs

FTP clients keep a record of every file that is transferred or downloaded through the client. You can check server logs to see all actions that transpired. It is also a great tool to learn the inner workings of how FTP functions stripped to the bare bones of each operation.

4. Transfer Modes and Automatic detection

With FTP there are two types of transfer modes available. This depends on the types of files you are sending. ASCII and Binary. ASCI stands for American Standard Code for Information Interchange and involves any file that contains text elements like HTML for example. While Binary files have a different structure entirely and require a different mode of transfer. Most FTP clients can distinguish the mode of transfer automatically based on the files. The usual default mode of transfer setting for FTP Clients is binary. This is because sending both file types  through binary mode is easier. However, when sending text-based files exclusively, using ASCII mode is much faster.

Types of Files based on Transfer Modes

These file types are safe for fast ASCII transfer:

  • Text-based files
  • HTML files
  • CGI scripts

Ensure you transfer these file types in binary mode:

  • Images
  • Applications
  • .zip, .sit or .tar packages
  • Proprietary file formats such as .doc, .xls, .fla, .swf
  • Any file that does not consist entirely of text characters

How to choose a winning FTP Client

In terms of price point, you can find a worthwhile FTP client for free, while on average paid ones start at about £50. These clients would come packed with the base features you’ll need to successfully use FTP.

When making the choice between what is the best FTP client you should look for the following strong points:

  • The client has a user-friendly interface that clearly displays both the local (your computer) and remote (the FTP server) locations.
  • It has a tool to manage multiple login accounts on multiple servers.
  • It logs all of your FTP sessions
  • The client provides a way to select between active and passive FTP when connecting to servers.
  • It is important to note that the client auto-detects or gives a warning alert when a file transfer requires ASCII mode.
  • The client permits you to set folder and file permissions on the server (crucial when installing a server-side application such as Movable Type).
  • The client allows ‘anonymous’ FTP.

Important Points to Remember

Using an FTP client to transfer files to your website’s directory is the best option for your hosted website. Remember that while FTP can be technically anonymous it does not cloak you entirely so transfer responsibly. Web-based FTP clients are great and easy to use for personal file transfers and singular use but the most effective use for heavy-duty transfer is a trusted FTP client.