File Transfer Protocol

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File Transfer Protocol (FTP) is a standard network protocol used to exchange and manipulate files over a TCP/IP based network, such as the Internet. FTP is built on a client-server architecture and utilizes separate control and data connections between the client and server applications. Applications were originally interactive command-line tools with a standardized command syntax, but graphical user interfaces have been developed for all desktop operating systems in use today. FTP is also often used as an application component to automatically transfer files for program internal functions. FTP can be used with user-based password authentication or with anonymous user access. The Trivial File Transfer Protocol (TFTP) is a similar, but simplified, not interoperable, and unauthenticated version of FTP.



RFC 114 was released on 16 April 1971 and was the original specification of the File Transfer Protocol (FTP). It was obsoleted by RFC 765 on June 1980, which in turn was obsoleted by RFC 959 on October 1985, which is current specification. Several proposed standards amend that RFC, for example RFC 2228 of June 1997 proposes security extensions and RFC 2428 of September 1998 adds support for IPv6 and defines a new type of passive mode.


As outlined by its RFC, FTP is used to:

  • Promote sharing of files (computer programs and/or data).
  • Encourage indirect or implicit use of remote computers.
  • Shield a user from variations in file storage systems among different hosts. (The user does not need to know what the type of file system is.)
  • Transfer data reliably, and efficiently.

Protocol overview

A client makes a connection to the server using TCP port 21. This connection, called the control connection, remains open for the duration of the session, with a second connection on port 20 opened as required to transfer file data. Commands are sent by the client over the control connection in ASCII and terminated by a carriage return and line feed. For example "RETR filename" would transfer the specified file from the server to the client.

The server responds on the control connection with three digit status codes in ASCII with an optional text message, for example "200" (or "200 OK.") means that the last command was successful. A file transfer in progress over the data connection can be aborted using an interrupt message sent over the control connection.

FTP can be run in active mode or passive mode, which control how the second connection is opened. In active mode the client sends the server the IP address port number that the client will use for the data connection, and the server opens the connection. Passive mode was devised for use where the client is behind a firewall and unable to accept incoming TCP connections. The server sends the client an IP address and port number and the client opens the connection to the server. Both modes were updated in September 1998 to add support for IPv6 and made some other changes to passive mode, making it extended passive mode.

While transferring data over the network, four data representations can be used, of which only two are common:

  • ASCII mode: only for plain text. (Any other form of data will be corrupted)
  • Binary mode: the sending machine sends each file byte for byte and as such the recipient stores the bytestream as it receives it. (The FTP standard calls this "IMAGE" or "I" mode)

The other two, EBCDIC and local file type are essentially obsolete. For text files, different format control and record structure can be selected, although these features are also rarely used now. One of threeTemplate:Which? file transfer modes can also be chosen, but the default of "stream" is invariably used now.


The original FTP specification is an inherently unsecure method of transferring files because there is no method specified for transferring data in an encrypted fashion. This means that under most network configurations, user names, passwords, FTP commands and transferred files can be captured by anyone on the same network using a packet sniffer. This is a problem common to many Internet protocol specifications written prior to the creation of SSL, such as HTTP, SMTP and Telnet. The common solution to this problem is to use either SFTP (SSH File Transfer Protocol), or FTPS (FTP over SSL), which adds SSL or TLS encryption to FTP as specified in RFC 4217.

Anonymous FTP

A host that provides an FTP service may additionally provide anonymous FTP access. Users typically login to the service with an 'anonymous' account when prompted for user name. Although users are commonly asked to send their email address in lieu of a password, little to no verification is actually performed on the supplied data.

As modern FTP clients typically hide the anonymous login process from the user, the ftp client will supply dummy data as the password (since the user's email address may not be known to the application).

The Gopher protocol has been suggested as an alternative to anonymous FTP, as well as Trivial File Transfer Protocol and File Service Protocol.[citation needed]

Remote FTP or FTPmail

Where FTP access is restricted, a remote FTP (or FTPmail) service can be used to circumvent the problem. An e-mail containing the FTP commands to be performed is sent to a remote FTP server, which is a mail server that parses the incoming e-mail, executes the FTP commands, and sends back an e-mail with any downloaded files as an attachment. Obviously this is less flexible than an ftp client, as it is not possible to view directories interactively or to modify commands, and there can also be problems with large file attachments in the response not getting through mail servers. As most internet users these days have ready access to FTP, this procedure is no longer in everyday use.

FTP and web browsers

Most recent web browsers and file managers can connect to FTP servers, although they may lack the support for protocol extensions such as FTPS. This allows manipulation of remote files over FTP through an interface similar to that used for local files. This is done via an FTP URL, which takes the form


A password can optionally be given in the URL, e.g.:


Most web-browsers require the use of passive mode FTP, which not all FTP servers are capable of handling. Some browsers, such as Mozilla Firefox and Netscape, allow only the downloading of files, but offer no way to upload files to the server.

FTP and NAT devices

The representation of the IP addresses and port numbers in the PORT command and PASV reply poses another challenge for Network address translation (NAT) devices in handling FTP. The NAT device must alter these values, so that they contain the IP address of the NAT-ed client, and a port chosen by the NAT device for the data connection. The new address and port will probably differ in length in their decimal representation from the original address and port. This means that altering the values on the control connection by the NAT device must be done carefully, changing the TCP Sequence and Acknowledgment fields for all subsequent packets. Such translation is not usually performed in most NAT devices, but special application layer gateways exist for this purpose.

FTP over SSH (not SFTP)

FTP over SSH (not SFTP) refers to the practice of tunneling a normal FTP session over an SSH connection.

Because FTP uses multiple TCP connections (unusual for a TCP/IP protocol that is still in use), it is particularly difficult to tunnel over SSH. With many SSH clients, attempting to set up a tunnel for the control channel (the initial client-to-server connection on port 21) will protect only that channel; when data is transferred, the FTP software at either end will set up new TCP connections (data channels) which will bypass the SSH connection, and thus have no confidentiality, integrity protection, etc.

Otherwise, it is necessary for the SSH client software to have specific knowledge of the FTP protocol, and monitor and rewrite FTP control channel messages and autonomously open new forwardings for FTP data channels. Version 3 of SSH Communications Security's software suite, the GPL licensed FONC, and Co:Z FTP SSH Proxy are three software packages that support this mode.

FTP over SSH is sometimes referred to as secure FTP; this should not be confused with other methods of securing FTP, such as with SSL/TLS (FTPS). Other methods of transferring files using SSH that are not related to FTP include SFTP and SCP; in each of these, the entire conversation (credentials and data) is always protected by the SSH protocol.

See also


Further reading

  • RFC 959 – (Standard) File Transfer Protocol (FTP). J. Postel, J. Reynolds. Oct-1985.
  • RFC 1579 – (Informational) Firewall-Friendly FTP.
  • RFC 2228 – (Proposed Standard) FTP Security Extensions.
  • RFC 2428 – (Proposed Standard) Extensions for IPv6, NAT, and Extended passive mode. Sep-1998.
  • RFC 2640 – (Proposed Standard) Internationalization of the File Transfer Protocol.
  • RFC 3659 – (Proposed Standard) Extensions to FTP. P. Hethmon. March-2007.

External links

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