Moving things about the internet? Seems easy enough. Open your favorite email app and attach some file and off you go. Truth is, most times it is that easy. However, there are times when email just doesn’t cut it. Enter FTP.

What is FTP?

File Transfer Protocol (FTP) is a standard network protocol used to transfer files from one host to another host over a TCP-based network, such as the Internet.

Wikipedia

Email has it’s limits. While ubiquitous and easy to understand, caveats exist. For one, there are imposed size limits for transactions. Secondly, while technically communicative, it’s limited in the collaborative bi-directional sharing of files. Also, email can be less secure too.

FTP solves these issues by allowing one entity to send another entity large amounts of files, to a drop folder they both share and over a secure connection that’s safer than email. FTP has been around for quite some time. You might have already been using such a service without even knowing it. Have you uploaded photos to Facebook? Logged into Gmail and uploaded documents to Google Docs? Or, even signed in and posted a headshot or audio sample somewhere? These are all tell tale signs you’ve been using FTP. So, How does it work?

For this protocol to work, two systems need to be able to communicate over a network, usually the internet. One computer acts as server, storing the user accounts, log in credentials, directories (folders) and documents. The other computer (client) logs into the server via web interface or dedicated program and authenticates with his/her credentials, thus proving identity and opening a portal to send and download files from the host. It’s a simple process that makes sending large amounts of data easy.

Is it fast?

That depends on your internet connection. When you log into an FTP server and download files, you’re utilizing your given download speed from your ISP (internet service provider) which is often faster than upload. A typical internet connection is split by download / upload speeds, where upload often falls very short compared to download. If these are identical we’d use the term ‘Symmetrical’.

Typical Internet Speeds
Notice difference in Download vs. Upload

Why the difference? Well, most internet usage relies on pulling assets from servers. We request pages, media and data and for that we use download, so it’s no coincidence that the ‘bps’ (bits per second) speed here is larger. Upload speeds matter when either hosting your own servers, and thus pages/media/data to the internet, or, when uploading material to other servers. Your internet service provider more than likely frowns on this practice, unless of course you pay for such privileges, thus the decreased rate of speed when uploading.

So with the explanation of FTP out of the way, let’s put this into practice.

There are two ways to upload/download files via FTP. If the host provides a web interface, logging in is as easy as putting the URL into the web bar and hitting enter, followed of course by your credentials.

Dropbox – Web interface log in box

Log in prompt in browser (Firefox)

Following this route is easy, the interface is simplified with some generic action buttons like ‘Upload’, ‘Download’, ‘Create New Folder’ and ‘Delete’. Often this will be the way you interact with companies and it’s likely you’re already familiar with this way of working.

The other route is a tiny bit more complicated, but offers more functionality. For this process, we need to download a dedicated FTP program. We’ll be using FileZilla from Mozilla (Firefox) as it’s free and supported on both Mac and PC. Let’s go download that now.

FileZilla Download Link

The link above will take you to a download page where you can choose your version.

Once downloaded and installed, let’s open the program.

Filezilla Interface
1. Host = URL of FTP Server (i.e. ftp.somesite.com)
2. Username = Login Name
3. Password
4. File Explorer For Local Computer
5. File Explorer For Remote Server

Let’s check out the interface.

  1. Host = URL of FTP Server (i.e. ftp.somesite.com)
  2. Username = Login Name
  3. Password
  4. File Explorer For Local Computer
  5. File Explorer For Remote Server

To connect to a remote server you’ll need to have the host (URL) address, username and password. Once we input the credentials we can click ‘QUICK CONNECT’ and open a connection. The program allows us to explore directories on our computer as well as the server. We can find the files we would like to upload by locating the folder where they reside, highlighting those files and simply drag them into the correct location on the right. It’s that simple!

We can automate some of this process for sites we connect to often by opening the ‘Site Manager’ and saving our credentials there.

First open the Site Manager, then create New Site and name it accordingly. Fill in the host address, username and password and click save. That’s it. Now we don’t have to remember the credentials each time we want to send / receive data. FileZilla also offers a nice button for connecting to the last used site.

Using FTP is a great way to send large files, multiple files, sync directories and share data. The main benefits here are fairly obvious. A user is able to organize, upload and download materials from remote servers simply by dragging files between windows.

One more point of interest. FTP works on PORT 21. Most programs will auto-fill in this information for you but if not, be sure to enter the number when connecting. FTP is relatively secure for most purposes but when called into question, some companies opt for SECURE FTP. This process is almost identical to using the regular FTP protocol, however, secure traffic travels over PORT 22 and must be set up on the server side to work before becoming available to clients.

And that’s it. Go have fun sending files!

While we used the very capable and free app FileZilla for this tutorial, there are many other similar apps that work just as well if not better. Remember, the process of FTP is almost the same for every app, it’s dependant on the intrnet connection speeds you have. That being said, some other apps offer more functionality than the simple interface we’ve seen here. Below are some of those apps.