How to Connect to an FTP Server

Instructor: Martin Gibbs

Martin has 16 years experience in Human Resources Information Systems and has a PhD in Information Technology Management. He is an adjunct professor of computer science and computer programming.

When we need to send files to another system, the File Transfer Protocol (FTP) method is safe and secure. To send files, however, we first have to connect to an FTP server. This lesson covers FTP connections and some of the common means of connecting.

Better Than E-Mail

Imagine you are a small business owner, and you need to send some large payroll files to your payroll processor. Or you want to directly download a large number of tax documents from the IRS and don't want to have to go through its website. File Transfer Protocol, or FTP can be a secure way to do this. You can connect to secure sites (your payroll provider) or open/public sites (the IRS) and transfer files.

Modern operating systems (e.g., Windows 7 and later) and current Web browsers now provide simple methods for connecting to an FTP server. Some FTP clients, that is software applications, have more advanced features.

Examples

Let's walk through the major options for connecting to an FTP server.

You can connect through a web browser (which is the least secure), through a client, or through the file explorer in Windows versions 7 or later.

Many FTP servers require that you login by providing a user name and password. Open sites, such as IRS.gov, don't require this. In fact, there you are logging in as an anonymous user. However, the majority of other servers require login, especially if they have data they want to protect! All options described here allow you to enter login information.

Web Browser

You can connect to FTP services through a web browser much as you would access a web page. This approach is slower, however, and has fewer options than a true FTP client. In this example, we'll connect to the IRS file server to download some tax documents.

First things first: Open a web browser, such as Firefox or Chrome, and type the following into the address bar: ftp://ftp.irs.gov/. Notice that we're using ftp as the prefix instead of http. This is not your average web site!


FTP IRS page


When you click in the pub folder, you get more folders and files. These are publications, news, and instructions from the IRS.


FTP Iris main site


This is a basic connection and is fairly wide-open. Some sites might ask for a login and password, but the transmission still is technically over the Internet. This means bad guys could be out there trying to steal information. Public FTP sites such as the IRS site should only have publicly available information, and you definitely shouldn't be trying to UPLOAD anything!

Upload/Download

Because the IRS site is open to all, the site restricts uploading. That is, you are not allowed to send files to the IRS server; you can only download. When you connect to a trusted site, you often are allowed to do both.

Windows 7 and Later

In Windows 7 (and later versions), you can connect to FTP using the File Explorer.


FTP Connect File Explorer


When you are successfully connected, e.g., to IRS.gov, the file folder is available:


FTP Connect File Explorer


FTP Client

The strongest connection method is through a client. An FTP client is a software application that you install on your computer. You set up each connection manually and are able to connect using more secure methods (e.g., SFTP, or Secure FTP).

The small business owner (or even a large corporation) can use FTP to send (upload) and receive (download) files. In these cases, a client is the preferred method because of security.

Several clients out there are free or for purchase. These include FileZilla, Smart FTP, WinSCP, or DirectFTP. Because FileZilla is free software and many organizations use it, we'll use it for our connection examples.

To set up or change connections, click File -> Site Manager. Enter all of the information here.


Filezilla site manager


Once the sites have been set up, all you have to do is pick the site from the drop-down menu, and it will connect:


Filezilla connect


Once you are connected, your files/folders will be on the left pane while the server's information is on the right. You navigate through the folders on either system as you would in a standard file explorer.

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