June 23 2022

Differences FTP VS SFTP

Which system to choose and prefer between FTP and SFTP to transfer files?

FTP VS SFTP
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The transfer of files, data, information, etc. among hosts on the network is the most common activity in the network environment. FTP and SFTP are the most commonly used and known file transfer protocols. Both protocols have their pros and cons. When you're setting up remote file transfer capabilities for your employees, you want the process to be secure but simple. With that in mind, there is a long debate going on about which is better: FTP vs SFTP?

Therefore, I have brought you this informative article on FTP vs SFTP with the aim of learning more about these options. This article will offer you information on how to successfully transfer your data between hosts without opening it up to potential breaches and compromises.

What is FTP?

FTP is an abbreviation used for File Transfer Protocol, which is an Internet service specifically designed to connect to a specific host or server on the network. Transferring a file from one host to another seems simple enough but there are some problems. For example, the two systems sending and receiving files may have different ways of representing data, or they may have different directory structures or different filename conventions. However, FTP provides adequate solutions to all of the above problems. FTP is slightly different from the traditional client-server application which established two connections between communicating hosts. One is for data transfer and the other is for control information such as commands and responses.

What is an SFTP?

The full form of SFTP is SSH File Transfer Protocol. Just like FTP, it is also used to transfer data from one host to another over a network, but more securely. The problem with FTP was that it required a password to establish a connection with the receiving host. However, the password is in clear text which has a great threat of being intercepted by an attacker. An intercepted password can also compromise the security of the connection and data. Therefore, SFTP was introduced with an additional security layer. It is part of the Secure Shell (SSH) protocol which establishes a secure connection between the sending and receiving end for secure data transfer. The general transmission process of FTP and SFTP is similar but SFTP has a secure channel for secure data transmission.

FTP vs SFTP: which one to use and when?

When to use FTP?

  • Use FTP when you want a simple transmission process without any complications. FTP software is a traditional transmission protocol and most users are familiar with the FTP process.
  • Use FTP when you are transferring unimportant data and the security of that isn't really an issue for you.
  • If you are using legacy systems, it is best to use FTP as most traditional devices do not support any type of encryption.

When to use SFTP?

  • If you are able to install and use SFTP, always try it. It offers more secure and reliable data transmission that also prevents data interception and other security issues when transferring data from one host to another.

If you are an organization, you should choose SFTP for data transmission. Not only will it prevent security attacks on data transmission, it will also prevent compliance issues. Your organization must be subject to compliance guidelines, and nearly all compliance guidelines require encrypted data transmission. SFTP offers data encryption to meet security and compliance constraints as well.

FTP vs SFTP: How Do They Work?

FTP

Whenever a user uses FTP for data transmission, he establishes a connection with a host, which is intended to receive data using the control connection. Next, it establishes the data connection for the file transfer. There are now basically two connections, data connection and control connection. The data connection opens and closes after each transmission while the control connection remains connected for the entire FTP session.

SFTP

SFTP was originally designed as an extension of SSH to provide file transfer capabilities. As mentioned above, this protocol was introduced to offer secure channel transfer or data transmission from one host to another host on the network. Therefore, SFTP only uses SSH ports for both data and control connections and is used on port number 22. The rest of its operations are just like the transmission operation of FTP.

FTP vs SFTP: comparison table

A comprehensive table to highlight are the key differences between FTP and SFTP as mentioned below:

Factors

FTP

SFTP

Cryptography

FTP does not offer any kind of encryption. This protocol transfers plain text, which can be easily intercepted by a hacker or any other malicious user. It's okay if you are sending unimportant data, but it can lead to crucial security threats in case of crucial data transmission. In contrast, SFTP offers a secure shell protection file. It encrypts data before sending it and protects it from unauthorized data interception. This is probably the ideal transfer mode when it comes to secure data transmission. It also uses an encrypted type of fingerprint technology to first verify host keys before any data transfer takes place.

Firewall

When you send a file via FTP, it opens and closes multiple data connections to complete the transfer. While the software and the client site negotiate these channels automatically, the receiving host may need to open multiple ports which can lead the client's firewall to various security vulnerabilities. On the other hand, SFTP offers a rather secure client-side firewall process. It only works on port number 22, which means only one port is needed for both sending and receiving. It not only simplifies firewall configurations, but is also a better choice in terms of file sharing security.

Vulnerability

In terms of vulnerability, the first vulnerability of FTP is that it is prone to human error. Sending the file to the wrong recipient or inadvertently sending the wrong file can cause serious problems.

Data interception is a common risk accompanying FTP. With the right tools and techniques, anyone can easily intercept the data you are transferring.

Again, the receiving host is always vulnerable. A single accidental transfer to the wrong recipient can compromise the entire data file.

On the other hand, SFTP offers a very good level of security which can minimize the potential for human error.

SFTP offers adequate security mechanisms to prevent data interception. It is best to transfer sensitive data via SFTP.

As mentioned above, SFTP uses a secure shell that uses a single port on both the sending and receiving sides, minimizing the security threat to the receiving end.

Compliance

Not using encryption when transmitting data can violate compliance standards. If your organization is subject to any of the following compliance standards, you may face serious consequences:

HIPAA

SOX

ITAR

GLBA

PCI-DSS

SFTP offers strong encryption, so no such hassle.

What are some pros and cons in FTP vs SFTP?

Pros of FTP

  • The directory listing is uniform and machine-readable only.
  • Allows files to take ownership and access restrictions
  • There are no size limits on a single transfer
  • Most FTP clients provide scripting capabilities
  • It allows you to protect information on individual computer systems
  • FTP clients allow you to transfer multiple files and directories
  • Most FTP clients offer synchronization utilities

Cons of FTP

  • It makes scripting jobs more difficult
  • Difficult to activate filtering on FTP connections via your local computer
  • It does not offer server-to-server copy and recursive directory removal
  • Sending data to a random unknown port can be risky as servers can be spoofed by unauthorized computers

Pros of SFTP

  • It offers highly secure data transmission
  • This protocol runs over a secure channel. Therefore, no passwords or cleartext data are transferred over this protocol.
  • It can also redirect uninformed TCP / IP ports through encrypted channels in both directions.
  • You can install and use software with limited functionality even without root privileges.

Cons of SFTP

  • The communication cannot be recorded as it is binary in nature
  • Standards define specific things as recommended or optional, which could cause additional incompatibility issues between different software developed by different vendors.
  • At times, SSH keys can be difficult to manage and validate

FTP vs SFTP - In conclusion

In today's digital world of cloud computing, SaaS businesses, and eCommerce, you need to know your options for secure file transfer. While this article talks about two main protocols for data transmission, it also illustrates which protocol is best for which scenario / user. It goes without saying that SFTP offers more secure data transmission than FTP.

FTP can offer the quickest and easiest method of data transmission. Also, some companies still use legacy systems that don't support any encryption, so FTP is the way to go. However, if the security of your data is an issue for you, always choose the SFTP protocol for data transfer.

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