FTP vs. SFTP – What’s The Difference & Why It Matters

FTP vs. SFTP

Trying to understand the difference between FTP and SFTP? Using FTP (or SFTP) is the easiest way to connect directly to your server – but what are the differences between the two protocols & which should you use?

In this article, we’ll compare FTP vs. SFTP as commonly used data transfer protocols, go through their advantages and disadvantages, and discuss the importance of choosing the best protocol for protecting your personal and professional information.

In short, SFTP is better – it’s a lot more secure than FTP which is why we highly recommend using SFTP whenever possible. But, if you’re interested in learning more about the differences – keep reading and we’ll compare FTP vs. SFTP, discuss their advantages & disadvantages, and more…

FTP vs. SFTP – The Differences Explained

To understand how FTP and SFTP are different, we must first explain what each of these file transfer protocols are and how they work.

What is FTP?

FTP, or file transfer protocol, is a network protocol that has been around since the 70s – it predates the modern internet. Made as a secure file transfer protocol that prevents the most common security breaches, FTP transfers data through two channels: the command channel and the data channel. Unlike other protocols, FTP’s channels aren’t encrypted, which is a disadvantage for security.

How does FTP work?

FTP uses two separate channels; the command channel and the data channel.

The command channel is responsible for accepting client connections and executing other simple commands. Generally, it uses server port 21. Clients can connect to this port to initiate a conversation for file transfer and authenticate themselves by sending a username and password. The command channel will remain open until the client disconnects or the server ends the connection due to inactivity or other reasons.

After the authentication is done, the client and server can negotiate a new common server port for the data channel over which the file will be transferred. Once the file transfer is complete, the data channel is shut down, then the control channel takes over and reports whether the file transfer was successful or not.

Advantages of FTP

  • There are many desktop tools like FileZilla, Cyberduck, WinSCP that make FTP easy to use.
  • FTP lets you transfer multiple files at a time. It also resumes file transfer if the connection is lost, and enables you to add items to an upload and download queue and schedule transfers.
  • You can create scripts to automate file transfers.
  • Many FTP clients provide the ability to synchronise files so all your files will be up to date.

Disadvantages of FTP

  • FTP is not safe to use as usernames, passwords, and files, are sent in plain text, so hackers can easily access your information.
  • FTP requires a block of ports to remain open for the data channel to be created. Due to security reasons, companies are limiting the number of server ports that are publicly accessible, which can bring about some complications.
  • Servers can be tricked to send data to random ports on an incorrect computer.

All these security reasons make FTP a non-starter for many companies.

When should you use FTP?

To quickly share and transfer files where security measures aren’t needed, FTP can be a good option. But if security is a major concern, then you should avoid using FTP.

ethernet cables connected to a server

What is SFTP and How Does It Work?

SFTP stands for Secure File Transfer Protocol and is one of the most common alternatives to FTP. Unlike other alternatives like FTPS, which adds an extra layer of safety to the FTP protocol, SFTP is a different protocol altogether.

One important feature of SFTP is that it uses the Secure Shell cryptographic network protocol, more commonly known as SSH. The SSH protocol works by establishing a secure channel over an unsecured network.

SSH encrypts data during its transfer, hiding it from potentially malicious third parties. It’s essentially a more secure upgrade to the basic client-server protocol that FTP uses.

Along with usernames and passwords, SSH also provides public-key authentication, which uses computer-generated cryptographically-secure keys that act as a replacement for a user’s password. The keys can be much longer than a regular password, making it impossible for hackers to replicate during brute-force attacks.

When the recipient connects to the sender’s SFTP server, their client software gives the sender’s public SSH key to the server as part of the authentication process. If the SFTP determines that the public key matches the sender’s private key, as well as the username and password, it will consider the authentication successful.

Advantages of SFTP

  • SFTP is a very secure method for file transfer.
  • Similar to FTP/FTPS, you can use usernames and passwords to authenticate. With SFTP, the credentials are encrypted, making it more secure.
  • You can combine key-based authentication with usernames and passwords, making SFTP more secure.
  • SFTP only uses one server connection to transfer data, and no other server ports need to be open, which increases security and firewall-friendliness.
  • You can obtain much more metadata about the files being transferred, such as date, time and size, which is helpful for logging and analysis purposes.

Disadvantages of SFTP

  • It isn’t easy to manage SSH keys.
  • The private keys need to be stored on the device from which you want to transfer files, which needs to be protected against theft or loss.
  • SSH keys take work for administrators to set up for employees.
  • Some training is also required on how SSH keys work.

When should you use SFTP?

SFTP should be used when you want to send or receive sensitive data. It doesn’t matter how big your company is, no one is immune to a data breach. With cyber-hacking on the rise, it’s important that you’re doing everything you can to prevent a catastrophe in case something ever happens to you.

Many companies use cloud-based SFTP file sharing solutions. There are two methods through which you can share file:

Public Cloud – Public cloud-based solutions are hosted by large companies, like AWS or Azure, and server space can be purchased to facilitate your company’s file storage and sharing needs.

Private Cloud – A private cloud can be built and manage the network in the house. Private cloud solutions can also be hosted and managed by outside vendors. The vendor creates a virtual private data centre (VPDC) for each client, which is not on a shared network environment like public cloud options.

So, if your sensitive data does get stolen, having SFTP in place will stop anybody from using it maliciously.

Why Does This Difference Matter?

FTP and SFTP are two entirely different protocols for sharing files, and the difference can have a real impact on users. To see why this matters, we’ll go through the main aspects of these differences that are important for individual users and businesses alike.

Channels

FTP uses two different channels for data and control, both of which are unencrypted, whereas data transferred through SFTP is divided into small packets and uses only one channel of communication for data and control.

The difference in channel usage between these two network protocols is essential for security. FTP causes the client firewall to open multiple ports which can leave the firewall vulnerable to breaches as there are many points of entry.

SFTP provides a more secure option when it comes to channel usage, as it only requires port 22 to be open to transfer data.

Ease of Use And SSH Keys

FTP is a simpler method of transferring data, which is why it is still being used very often, even though it’s less secure. SFTP’s SSH keys are more difficult to manage and validate, which is why users who don’t have a particular need for them tend to opt for FTP more often.

Vulnerabilities

SFTP is safer as compared to FTP in terms of potential vulnerabilities. Any vulnerability has the potential to get exploited and turn into a data breach. During the file transfer process, FTP has a lot of exposure to inherent vulnerabilities.

The first vulnerability is that FTP is prone to human error. Accidentally sending a file to the wrong address or sending the wrong file can lead to some severe problems for your company. You can take potential steps to promote a culture of security awareness within your business to reduce the potential for human error. You can easily intercept data with FTP. With the help of the right tools and knowledge, it becomes easy to take advantage of these vulnerabilities.

SFTP uses host keys to verify a recipient’s identity before a transfer occurs, which FTP doesn’t do.

SFTP is more preferred in terms of security data transfers. The encryption measures are up to compliance standards, and you’re avoiding the inherent vulnerabilities of FTP transfers. Plus, it makes you feel confident when you find a secure SFTP cloud file sharing solution, ensuring that you are taking appropriate steps to protect your data.

Summary –  Should You Use FTP or SFTP?

While FTP is still commonly used because it’s easier to work with, it’s significantly inferior to SFTP when it comes to security. The risk of your personal information or business data falling into the wrong hands is very real. If you’re transferring sensitive files, choose SFTP. Its encryption will get rid of most vulnerabilities that the original FTP comes with.

If the data you’re transferring is neither sensitive nor very important to you, and you want to transfer it as fast as possible, go for FTP.

And, fortunately, if you already manage your servers with RunCloud – you can also take advantage of our built-in file manager which is perfect for most day-to-day file management needs so you wouldn’t need to worry about setting up and configuring an FTP client for simple changes.

Let us know & join the conversation in the comments (or by Tweeting @RunCloud_io) what your preferred server file management process currently looks like! 💬

Categories: Security, Server Management, Technology

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