Why FTP Remains a Tenacious Internet Survivor

April 8th, 2011 by

 

In 1969, a young Indian graduate from IIT Kanpur made his way to MIT to complete a master’s degree in electrical engineering.

He happened to be at exactly the right place at the right time since the U.S. Air Force and The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) had accepted a proposal from Paul Baran of the RAND institute to explore new network technology called ‘packet switching’ which promised novel ways to share information between computers in different locations.

The graduate’s name was Abhay Bhushan, one that would become forever associated with one of the greatest achievements related to the formation of the Internet: File Transfer Protocol (FTP).

Bhushan is a name you are probably unfamiliar with but the technology he helped invent remains a backbone for deploying a public-facing website to a remote web hosting server.

“When we first started there was no such thing as computer networks and computer communications… everything was in the stage of infancy and no one had any idea, including myself, that some day it would become the Internet and that you could tie all the world’s information systems together,” said Bhushan.

FTP is a standard network protocol used to copy a file, usually from your local drive, to a remote server over a TCP-based network, such as the Internet.  While incredibly easy to use and effective, it does have some flaws, especially in terms of security.

This issue was magnified recently by NASA who uncovered a susceptibility to an FTP bounce attack which involves using FTP to gain access to a firewalled server that a hacker then uses to conduct vulnerability scans on other machines on the network.

Nevertheless, over the last decade FTP has evolved and matured to a point where it is now available in an array of intriguing incantations and is likely to remain a critical tool for web developers and designers around the world.

Here are some of my favorites:

 

FTP AS OPEN SOURCE

The open-source revolution has given us many things, often F-R-E-E. But, zero cost to entry does not necessarily mean lower quality.   One of them, Filezilla remains the 800-pound gorilla in this community offering free client and server versions.  It was started as a computer science project in 2001 by two classmates who had no idea at the time how wildly popular this software would become.

 

FTP AS PAID SOFTWARE

Okay, there are too many products to list here and everyone has his or her favorites. But, here are two that regularly come up in discussions, forums or debates around the world.

CuteFTP, employing a typical GUI approach; it continues to offer easy, powerful ways to bring information up and down from a server on your Windows platform.

FETCH remains one of the most popular Mac based FTP clients. Now in version 5.6 and available on the App Store it was first released way back in 1989. The software supports secure features such as FTPS and SFTP along with other must-haves such as auto-restart and one-click editing of remote files.

 

BROWSER BASED FTP

Yip, our handy browser is starting to feel more and more like an Operating System. In fact, Google is fanatically pushing this angle with its Chrome OS.

But, in terms of FTP most propeller heads turn to Firefox and its nifty, free, secure, cross platform FTP/SFTP client called FireFTP.  Over 19 million users have downloaded this open-source gem, which is completely cross-platform.

 

WEBSITE BASED FTP

Ever wished there was a way to allow your clients to easily send large files to your ftp server from your own website?  Well, DesignFTP has built a business model around that concept.

Additionally, they also allow you to implement white label branding around your domain to offer your customers a seamless experience in their communications with you.

My only reservation with their approach is they don’t seem to authenticate customers who come to your site to use the uploader. This appears to be left up to you as the owner of the website.

 

HOSTED FTP IN THE CLOUD

HostedFTP quips that their FTP in the Cloud solution is so good you can expect to lose one file (ONLY) every 100 billion years or so.

“We started with a rock solid FTP server. Added web browser support. And, made it 100% cloud,” says HostedFTP.

It’s a clever angle since Google insights shows two competing trends for FTP and Cloud Services respectively: FTP searches are declining while cloud searches are rising.

It appears HostedFTP has taken advantage of both trends including backing up files and data on Amazon S3/ RDS/ EC2 servers to magnify their cloud pedigree. They currently offer a 21-day free trial.

 

A NEW KIND OF FTP

A company called Aspera has decided to start from scratch and build a new more efficient transfer process that recognizes the requirements of the video age where publications such as the New York Times need to allow their reporters in Africa and the Middle East to transfer gigantic multimedia files, often from their Smartphones.

“Aspera’s fasp transfer technology is an innovative software that eliminates the fundamental bottlenecks of conventional file transfer technologies such as FTP, HTTP, and Windows CIFS, and dramatically speeds transfers over public and private IP networks,” said Aspera.

Just for kicks check out their free Mobile Uploader, which they claim, is 3x faster on today’s 3G networks.

FTP, a cornerstone of the Internet along with its famous brother, Email, is here to stay.  While it now available in several different flavours, it continues to do the job it was originally designed for remarkably well, even after 40 years!

 

Guest Blogger: Jason Stevens from jason-stevens.com / Freelance web developer, tech writer and follower of cloud computing trends. Follow him on Twitter @_jason_stevens_

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