How to use SFTP

Instructor: David Delony

David is a freelance writer specializing in technology. He holds a BA in communication.

Secure File Transfer Protocol, or SFTP, lets you access remote machines and their files. In this lesson, you'll learn what SFTP is, how to access SFTP from Windows, Mac OS X and Linux, as well as how to move files back and forth from a remote server.

Why Do Need SFTP?

In your work as an IT professional, not only will you find yourself often connecting to remote machines, but also having to download files from one machine and upload them to another. FTP, or File Transfer Protocol, has been around for a long time, but SFTP or Secure File Transfer Protocol, builds on top of FTP to add an extra layer of security.

What Is SFTP Exactly?

As the name implies, SFTP is an extension of the existing FTP, which dates back to the very early days of the Internet. It incorporates SSH, or Secure Shell, which is already a very useful tool for logging into remote servers.

As SSH is a more secure version of Telnet, SFTP is a more secure version of FTP. While FTP is very useful for moving files between different computers across a network, it's a product of an era where security was not really concern. Back in the early '70s, the users of the ARPANET, which eventually became the Internet, were all top computer science researchers who all trusted each other. The concept of a malicious user didn't exist.

Now with the widespread deployment of the Internet, there are also a lot of hackers who would love to get sensitive data such as credit card numbers. This means that IT people have to be careful about logging in.

The key difference between SFTP and FTP, as with Telnet and SSH, is SFTP's use of encryption. SFTP scrambles the connection between computers so that a hacker can't read usernames or passwords when someone logs in.

Most people download files from the World Wide Web these days, so SFTP is mainly used by technical professionals. For example, a web developer might work on a new version of a website on a local machine, then use SFTP to transfer it to a server so it can go live to the rest of the world.

A user might also log into a file server to download some important shared company documents. A few enthusiasts even host home servers for their pictures and video files. Using SFTP, they can download these files from their server at home or even across the Internet safely.

Accessing SFTP Servers

If you're using a Linux or Mac OS X computer, you already have SFTP installed. If you're using a Windows machine, the free PuTTY program includes an SFTP client.

To access a remote server with the username of 'user' on, you'd just type this command in a terminal window:

SFTP command

You'll be prompted for your username and password, unless you've generated a public key for passwordless login with SSH.

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