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What Is FTP?
Jan 14, 2005 - Kenneth W. Richards

In our continuing series of "What Is..." articles, we present you with "What is FTP?" FTP is an acronym for "File Transfer Protocol". It is the most commone method for uploading new pages and other resources to your Web site. It can also be used to download pages and resources to your local computer.

Unless your web server (computer servering the pages that make up your Web site) is the same computer that you are developing your Web site on, you will need to have some way to send files back and forth. These files are the web pages and graphic images and other resources that make up your site.

How FTP Works

FTP works using the same principal as most networking done on the internet. It uses the TCP/IP protocol to send and receive packets of information from one computer to another. The details of how this work are not really important. It is the exact same protocol that your web browser uses to communicate with Web sites.

The steps of communicating via FTP usually go along the lines of:

  1. Open a connection to an FTP server
  2. Receive FTP server welcome and request for username
  3. Send username information
  4. Receive a request for password
  5. Send password information
  6. Receive successful login notification
  7. Send request to list files on FTP site
  8. Receive list of of files/folders in current directory
  9. Send request to change directory
  10. Receive notice that change directory was successful
  11. Send request to download a file
  12. Receive data (download) from remote server
  13. Send logoff request
  14. Receive logoff message
Although, you can run FTP through command line by using the Windows Console program, if you have a good web authoring tool, or even a good text editor, you don't need to worry about all of these commands. Modern software programs will abstract the process and make it is easy as selecting a file and clicking a button.

Using FTP

How FTP works really depends on the web authoring tool that you are using. If you don't have a web authoring tool yet, you might want to make your decision based on how well it supports FTP. Of course, this could be a non-issue if you have some other method of maintaining your Web site (like through a web browser using your host's control panel.)

I use a simple text editor to work with my Web sites. Specifically, I use Ultra Edit. The process for opening a file from FTP includes the following steps:

  • Go to the main menu "File" -> "FTP" -> Open From FTP
  • Select the FTP account to access
  • Click the "Browse Site" button to list files on the site
  • Navigate to the folder where the file resides
  • Click the file to open
  • Click the "open" button
Saving a file follows much the same process as this. Of course, before you select an account to access, you will need to setup the account information. This consists of the FTP site address (usually the same as your Web site) and the username and password for your FTP login.

Stand-Alone FTP Clients

As an alternative to using a web authoring tool with FTP capability, you can use a stand-alone FTP client to upload and download files and then use a separate program to edit and create the web pages and resources. This is generally not recommended because it adds more work on the site creator's end. One benefit is that it does give you more control over the file transfer process.

There are some excellent commercial and free FTP clients written for Windows. If you are considering a commercial product, you should be able to download a trial version of the software to evaluate it before making a purchase. A lot of FTP program are NOT intuitive, so it helps to read the documentation that comes with the software.

Commercial and Free Stand-Alone FTP Clients

I personally use FileZilla which has a surprisingly large number of features and a fairly advanced user interface.

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