The File Transfer Protocol (FTP) is a time-tested way to share files between computers over a network connection. Shared files are uploaded to a central server, and team members access them by downloading the files to their local computers with an FTP client.
Compared to emailing attachments, FTP is a much more scalable file sharing solution. The server acts as a central hub for all your documents, and it provides a structured folder/file environment to help keep things organized.
FTP was developed before industry standard encryption mechanisms. As a result, communication between a server and FTP software is sent “in the clear.” Your files, commands, usernames, and even passwords are visible to anybody listening to the network traffic. This makes FTP an inherently insecure way to share files.
As Internet usage took off the 1990s, so did the need for security. To address this, FTP was extended to work with encrypted connections. This gave rise to FTP Secure (FTPS). FTPS enables communication with a server via the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) or Transport Layer Security (TLS) protocols, ensuring encryption for all transmissions. This makes file transfers significantly safer.
The SSH File Transfer Protocol (SFTP) is an alternative to FTPS. It provides similar security benefits, but is based on the Secure Shell (SSH) protocol instead of SSL/TLS. From a user perspective, the two are virtually indistinguishable. Most FTP server providers and software packages offer either SFTP or FTPS support, making plain, unencrypted FTP an unnecessary security risk.
Regardless of which flavor of FTP you choose, you’ll be using the same tools and workflows to share files with your team. The rest of this article walks through some common FTP tasks and compares them to their Dropbox counterparts.