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What is FTP anyway?

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If you have a website and you’ve created some pages for it, you’ll need to transfer those files to the website’s server. The best way to accomplish this task is to use FTP. What is FTP? FTP stands for File Transfer Protocol. It’s the mechanism that allows users to transfer files between computers that are connected to the Internet. The easiest way to perform these transfers is by using an FTP client, which is a simple software product you run on your computer that allows you to drag and drop selected files to a remote server. Let’s take a look at some basic facts about FTP and compare the strengths and weaknesses of some popular FTP clients.

Understanding FTP

Not only is FTP a simple protocol, it’s also one of the oldest ones; in fact, it’s decades older than the HTTP protocol that serves as the basis of communication on the web. In the earlier days of the Internet, FTP was more popular than it is today, but it’s still commonly used for transferring files to a public web server.

One potential problem with standard FTP is its relative lack of security. Secure FTP (SFTP) is a specific type of FTP: It works the same way as traditional FTP, except it encrypts the files that are transmitted. Most of the well-known FTP software products offer SFTP, and its use is highly recommended. Although the settings can be a bit more complicated than a standard configuration, the security benefits justify the effort.

Using an FTP Client

A few key pieces of information are required in order to use an FTP client to transfer files. You’ll need your server name, your username and password to log in. The server name should be either your domain name or a subdomain of that domain name. The username and password should be the ones you use to log into your web hosting account. If you have trouble locating any of this information, your web hosting company should be able to help. You may be prompted to have your computer remember your password in the future; if you’re using a public or shared computer, skip this option.

Once you log in, you’ll see a list of files in the home directory of your website’s server. Take note of the “public_html” directory: This is where you’ll place any files that you want to be visible on the web.

If you make changes to files on your computer, you’ll have to upload them again in order to see those changes reflected on your website. Many FTP clients allow you to edit files directly on the remote server and skip the step of re-uploading them. You can always check your uploaded files by viewing them in a browser. If you’ve uploaded the index.html file, just enter the URL for your domain and you should see the file. If the file had a different name, you’ll have to specify that in the URL. For example, if you uploaded a file named aboutme.html, the URL for it would be: http://www.yourdomainname.com/aboutme.html. Don’t forget to reload your page each time you’ve uploaded changes in order to see the most recent version of the page.

Best FTP Clients

A variety of FTP clients are available for download. Each one has its own unique benefits, but all are solid choices that will get the job done. While many excellent free products are available, a handful of premium clients offer advanced capabilities that professional users may appreciate.

FileZilla

This free, open-source client is a perennial favorite, and there are good reasons for its popularity. It runs on Mac, Windows and Linux, and the thorough documentation makes it a great tool for beginners. FileZilla also boasts useful features such as bookmarking and remote file searching. No tool is perfect, and some users complain that it’s easy to misplace files when using the drag-and-drop functionality. The client’s interface could also be a bit more user-friendly. Overall, FileZilla is a safe bet for most casual users, and it’s currently available in 47 different languages.

filezilla

CyberDuck

Users seeking a free FTP product with a user-friendly interface should check out CyberDuck, another open-source client. This client is simple to use and offers a range of advanced features. One especially useful feature allows users to edit files with their choice of applications while the files are still on a remote server. CyberDuck also provides robust bookmarking functionality.

cyberduck

AndFTP

If you need a mobile FTP product, AndFTP could be the ideal solution. This client was developed for the Android operating system; it supports SFTP and provides plenty of handy features. This app doesn’t have the most user-friendly interface: Uploading a file to your website’s server requires several steps performed in an order that isn’t exactly intuitive. However, this free client offers excellent FTP functionality for all your Android devices.

Transmit

Transmit is a premium product and is regarded as one of the fastest FTP clients on the market. It’s extremely user-friendly and includes a variety of professional-level features, including multi-connection transfer and support for Amazon S3. At $34, this reliable product is a good deal; you can also give Transmit a test drive with a 7-day free trial.

transmit

CuteFTP

CuteFTP is a bit more costly than Transmit, but it has the benefit of running on both Windows and Mac. The two versions are not identical: CuteFTP for Windows sports a number of features that aren’t available on the Mac version, such as Unicode support and advanced search functionality. CuteFTP has recently added a secure mobile file-sharing application called Tappin to the client, which allows users to share files on their computer with any other mobile device. The product can be purchased for $59.99, but a 30-day free trial gives you a chance to try before you buy.

Many website owners find themselves asking: “What is FTP?” This overview of the protocol can serve as a helpful introduction to the protocol. While the popularity of FTP has waned since the advent of cloud-based services, it remains an effective way for website owners to upload files to their sites. All of the FTP clients recommended in this article are excellent, and your choice of client will depend on your budget and individual preferences. If you plan to use your FTP software heavily, the power of Transmit might justify the cost; however, a more casual user should find that a free client like Cyberduck or FileZilla is sufficient. Try a couple different products and see which one is the best fit for your own needs.

Main image: Michael Coughlan