The Difference between FTP, SFTP, and FTPS

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Photo via mptre

This post was initially written by our Director of Customer Support on March 22, 2010. We’ve decided to update the post and share the important information for customers who are interested in the various FTP options available, and what we would recommend. Enjoy!

There’s many ways you can upload your site on A Small Orange. In this post, we’ll take you through three different methods: FTP, SFTP, and FTPS.

1. FTP

FTP means “File Transfer Protocol”.
We have an FTP server running on Port 21 called Pure-FTP, and it handles file transfers and FTP logins.

You can simply connect to it with an FTP login by naming your domain as the server, the server name as the server, an IP address on the server, your neighbor’s domain name as the server- you can choose anything that resolves to the server- as long as it points to the server so that your FTP client knows that it should connect to the correct end machine.

2. FTPS

FTPS means “File Transfer Protocol – Secure” or “File Transfer Protocol – SSL”.

If you want to use FTP over SSL, you MUST use the server name, because FTPS will use SSL encryption, and the certificate that is registered in the Pure-FTP server is the server’s name. If you choose your domain name, you’ll likely get an error and it won’t work.

Both FTP and FTPS run on the FTP server.

Because you can use FTP logins with encryption or without encryption, you cannot use your cPanel Login to login in either of the above ways.

3. SFTP

SFTP means “Secure File Transfer Protocol”. However, this is NOT a part of Pure-FTP, it doesn’t run through the FTP server software, and isn’t a part of FTP in any traditional protocol sense.

It is not possible to login via SFTP to the FTP port. Sure, the name is similar, and it looks identical, but SFTP is totally different and operates over a completely different service. Now that you see the differences, here’s the official definition of SFTP, via Wikipedia.

Secure Shell or SSH is a network protocol that allows data to be exchanged using a secure channel between two networked devices. Used primarily on GNU/Linux andUnix based systems to access shell accounts, SSH was designed as a replacement forTelnet and other insecure remote shells, which send information, notably passwords, in plain text, rendering them susceptible to packet analysis. The encryption used by SSH provides confidentiality and integrity of data over an insecure network, such as the Internet.

On cPanel hosts that offer shell access, generally only your cPanel login is a true Unix user and therefore your cPanel login is the only login you have that has SFTP access.

If you do not have a hosting account with shell access, you do not have SFTP access and have to transfer your files via FTP or FTPS, and you cannot use SFTP.

If you have shell access on your hosting account, you have SFTP available to you and there are a multitude of reasons to use it.

In general, SFTP is technologically superior to FTPS.

An FTPS connection starts off in a non-encrypted state, while an SFTP connection begins encrypted and there is no going to an unencrypted session. One of the benefits nowadays with traffic shaping is that while ISP’s have caught on to throttling on FTP ports because large files are often sent there, they do not have the same attitude towards SFTP traffic and those people sending files from bandwidth throttling ISPs will likely find far superior performance using SFTP.

SFTP is gaining steam as the most preferred method of secure file transfer, particularly in infrastructures that favor Unix, though SFTP is quickly gaining popularity in Windows environments as well.

Our Recommendation
While there are many options, we overall recommend you to follow the most safe and secure method, which is SFTP.
While options like uploading your site through the Cpanel File Manager might be readily available to you, we prefer to err on the side of caution when using the right tools to handle your files and content.

If you have questions about any of this, please contact us at help@asmallorange.com, and a Support Ninja will assist you as soon as possible.

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