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Saturday, June 30, 2007

FTP-File Transfer Protocols

FTP or File Transfer Protocol is used to transfer data from one computer to another over the Internet, or through a network.

Specifically, FTP is a commonly used protocol for exchanging files over any network that supports the TCP/IP protocol (such as the Internet or an intranet). There are two computers involved in an FTP transfer: a server and a client. The FTP server, running FTP server software, listens on the network for connection requests from other computers. The client computer, running FTP client software, initiates a connection to the server. Once connected, the client can do a number of file manipulation operations such as uploading files to the server, download files from the server, rename or delete files on the server and so on. Any software company or individual programmer is able to create FTP server or client software because the protocol is an open standard. Virtually every computer platform supports the FTP protocol. This allows any computer connected to a TCP/IP based network to manipulate files on another computer on that network regardless of which operating systems are involved (if the computers permit FTP access). There are many existing FTP client and server programs. FTP servers can be set up anywhere between game servers, voice servers, internet hosts, and other physical servers.


FTP runs exclusively over TCP. FTP servers by default listen on port 21 for incoming connections from FTP clients. A connection to this port from the FTP Client forms the control stream on which commands are passed to the FTP server from the FTP client and on occasion from the FTP server to the FTP client. For the actual file transfer to take place, a different connection is required which is called the data stream. Depending on the transfer mode, the process of setting up the data stream is different.

In active mode, the FTP client opens a random port (> 1023), sends the FTP server the random port number on which it is listening over the control stream and waits for a connection from the FTP server. When the FTP server initiates the data connection to the FTP client it binds the source port to port 20 on the FTP server.

In order to use active mode, the client sends a PORT command, with the IP and port as argument. The format for the IP and port is "h1,h2,h3,h4,p1,p2". Each field is a decimal representation of 8 bits of the host IP, followed by the chosen data port. For example, a client with an IP of, listening on port 1025 for the data connection will send the command “PORT 192,168,0,1,4,1”. The port fields should be interpreted as 4*256 + 1 = 1025.

In passive mode, the FTP server opens a random port (> 1023), sends the FTP client the server's IP address to connect to and the port on which it is listening (a 16 bit value broken into a high and low byte) over the control stream and waits for a connection from the FTP client. In this case the FTP client binds the source port of the connection to a random port greater than 1023.

To use passive mode, the client sends the PASV command to which the server would reply with something similar to "227 Entering Passive Mode (127,0,0,1,78,52)". The syntax of the IP address and port are the same as for the argument to the PORT command.

In extended passive mode, the FTP server operates exactly the same as passive mode, however it only transmits the port number (not broken into high and low bytes) and the client is to assume that it connects to the same IP address that was originally connected to. Extended passive mode was added by RFC 2428 in September 1998.

While data is being transferred via the data stream, the control stream sits idle. This can cause problems with large data transfers through firewalls which time out sessions after lengthy periods of idleness. While the file may well be successfully transferred, the control session can be disconnected by the firewall, causing an error to be generated.

The FTP protocol supports resuming of interrupted downloads using the REST command. The client passes the number of bytes it has already received as argument to the REST command and restarts the transfer. In some commandline clients for example, there is an often-ignored but valuable command, "reget" (meaning "get again") that will cause an interrupted "get" command to be continued, hopefully to completion, after a communications interruption.

Resuming uploads is not as easy. Although the FTP protocol supports the APPE command to append data to a file on the server, the client does not know the exact position at which a transfer got interrupted. It has to obtain the size of the file some other way, for example over a directory listing or using the SIZE command.

In ASCII mode (see below), resuming transfers can be troublesome if client and server use different end of line characters.

The objectives of FTP, as outlined by its RFC, are:

  1. To promote sharing of files (computer programs and/or data).

  2. To encourage indirect or implicit use of remote computers.

  3. To shield a user from variations in file storage systems among different hosts.

  4. To transfer data reliably, and efficiently.

  5. Criticisms of FTP

    1. Passwords and file contents are sent in clear text, which can be intercepted by eavesdroppers. There are protocol enhancements that circumvent this.

    2. Multiple TCP/IP connections are used, one for the control connection, and one for each download, upload, or directory listing. Firewalls may need additional logic and or configuration changes to account for these connections.

    3. It is hard to filter active mode FTP traffic on the client side by using a firewall, since the client must open an arbitrary port in order to receive the connection. This problem is largely resolved by using passive mode FTP.

    4. It is possible to abuse the protocol's built-in proxy features to tell a server to send data to an arbitrary port of a third computer; see FXP.

    5. FTP is a high latency protocol due to the number of commands needed to initiate a transfer.

    6. No integrity check on the receiver side. If a transfer is interrupted, the receiver has no way to know if the received file is complete or not. Some servers support extensions to calculate for example a file's MD5 sum (e.g. using the SITE MD5 command) or CRC checksum, however even then the client has to make explicit use of them. In the absence of such extensions, integrity checks have to be managed externally.

    7. No error detection. FTP relies on the underlying TCP layer for error control, which uses a weak checksum by modern standards.

    8. No date/timestamp attribute transfer. Uploaded files are given a new current timestamp, unlike other file transfer protocols such as SFTP, which allow attributes to be included. There is no way in the standard FTP protocol to set the time-last-modified (or time-created) datestamp that most modern filesystems preserve. There is a draft of a proposed extension that adds new commands for this, but as of yet, most of the popular FTP servers do not support it.

    9. Security problems

      The original FTP specification is an inherently insecure method of transferring files because there is no method specified for transferring data in an encrypted fashion. This means that under most network configurations, user names, passwords, FTP commands and transferred files can be "sniffed" or viewed by anyone on the same network using a packet sniffer. This is a problem common to many Internet protocol specifications written prior to the creation of SSL such as HTTP, SMTP and Telnet. The common solution to this problem is to use either SFTP (SSH File Transfer Protocol), or FTPS (FTP over SSL), which adds SSL or TLS encryption to FTP as specified in RFC 4217
      FTP return codes

      FTP server return codes indicate their status by the digits within them. A brief explanation of various digits' meanings are given below:

      • 1xx: Positive Preliminary reply. The action requested is being initiated but there will be another reply before it begins.

      • 2xx: Positive Completion reply. The action requested has been completed. The client may now issue a new command.

      • 3xx: Positive Intermediate reply. The command was successful, but a further command is required before the server can act upon the request.

      • 4xx: Transient Negative Completion reply. The command was not successful, but the client is free to try the command again as the failure is only temporary.

      • 5xx: Permanent Negative Completion reply. The command was not successful and the client should not attempt to repeat it again.

      • x0x: The failure was due to a syntax error.

      • x1x: This response is a reply to a request for information.

      • x2x: This response is a reply relating to connection information.

      • x3x: This response is a reply relating to accounting and authorization.

      • x4x: Unspecified as yet

      • x5x: These responses indicate the status of the Server file system vis-a-vis the requested transfer or other file system action

Anonymous FTP

Many sites that run FTP servers enable anonymous ftp. Under this arrangement, users do not need an account on the server. The user name for anonymous access is typically 'anonymous'. This account does not need a password. Although users are commonly asked to send their email addresses as their passwords for authentication, usually there is trivial or no verification, depending on the FTP server and its configuration. As modern FTP clients hide the login process from the user and usually don't know the user's email address, they supply dummy passwords, for example:

  • Mozilla Firefox (2.0) —
  • KDE Konqueror (3.5) — anonymous@
  • wget (1.10.2) — -wget@
  • lftp (3.4.4) — lftp@

Internet Gopher has been suggested as an alternative to anonymous FTP, as well as Trivial File Transfer Protocol.

Data format

While transferring data over the network, several data representations can be used. The two most common transfer modes are:

While transferring data over the network, several data representations can be used. The two most common transfer modes are:

  1. ASCII mode
  2. Binary mode

The two types differ in the way they send the data. When a file is sent using an ASCII-type transfer, the individual letters, numbers, and characters are sent using their ASCII character codes. The receiving machine saves these in a text file in the appropriate format (for example, a Unix machine saves it in a Unix format, a Windows machine saves it in a Windows format). Hence if an ASCII transfer is used it can be assumed plain text is sent, which is stored by the receiving computer in its own format. Translating between text formats entails substituting the end of line and end of file characters used on the source platform with those on the destination platform, e.g. a Windows machine receiving a file from a Unix machine will replace the line feeds with carriage return-line feed pairs.

Sending a file in binary mode is different. The sending machine sends each file bit for bit and as such the recipient stores the bitstream as it receives it. Any form of data that is not plain text will be corrupted if this mode is not used.

By default, most FTP clients use ASCII mode. Some clients try to determine the required transfer-mode by inspecting the file's name or contents.

The FTP specifications also list the following transfer modes:

  1. EBCDIC mode
  2. Local mode

In practice, these additional transfer modes are rarely used. They are however still used by some legacy mainframe systems.

FTP and web browsers

Most recent web browsers and file managers can connect to FTP servers, although they may lack the support for protocol extensions such as FTPS. This allows manipulation of remote files over FTP through an interface similar to that used for local files. This is done via an FTP URL, which takes the form ftp(s)://<ftpserveraddress> (e.g., [1]). A password can optionally be given in the URL, e.g.: ftp(s)://<login>:<password>@<ftpserveraddress>:<port>. Most web-browsers require the use of passive mode FTP, which not all FTP servers are capable of handling. Some browsers allow only the downloading of files, but offer no way to upload files to the server.

FTP and NAT devices

The representation of the IPs and ports in the PORT command and PASV reply poses another challenge for NAT devices in handling FTP. The NAT device must alter these values, so that they contain the IP of the NAT-ed client, and a port chosen by the NAT device for the data connection. The new IP and port will probably differ in length in their decimal representation from the original IP and port. This means that altering the values on the control connection by the NAT device must be done carefully, changing the TCP Sequence and Acknowledgment fields for all subsequent packets.

For example: A client with an IP of, starting an active mode transfer on port 1025, will send the string "PORT 192,168,0,1,4,1". A NAT device masquerading this client with an IP of, with a chosen port of 2000 for the data connection, will need to replace the above string with "PORT 192,168,15,5,7,208".

The new string is 23 characters long, compared to 20 characters in the original packet. The Acknowledgment field by the server to this packet will need to be decreased by 3 bytes by the NAT device for the client to correctly understand that the PORT command has arrived to the server. If the NAT device is not capable of correcting the Sequence and Acknowledgement fields, it will not be possible to use active mode FTP. Passive mode FTP will work in this case, because the information about the IP and port for the data connection is sent by the server, which doesn't need to be NATed. If NAT is perfomed on the server by the NAT device, then the exact opposite will happen. Active mode will work, but passive mode will fail.

It should be noted that many NAT devices perform this protocol inspection and modify the PORT command without being explicitly told to do so by the user. This can lead to several problems. First of all, there is no guarantee that the used protocol really is FTP, or it might use some extension not understood by the NAT device. One example would be an SSL secured FTP connection. Due to the encryption, the NAT device will be unable to modify the address. As result, active mode transfers will fail only if encryption is used, much to the confusion of the user.

The proper way to solve this is to tell the client which IP address and ports to use for active mode. Furthermore, the NAT device has to be configured to forward the selected range of ports to the client's machine.

FTP over SSH

FTP over SSH refers to the practice of tunneling a normal FTP session over an SSH connection.

Because FTP uses multiple TCP connections (unusual for a TCP/IP protocol that is still in use), it is particularly difficult to tunnel over SSH. With many SSH clients, attempting to set up a tunnel for the control channel (the initial client-to-server connection on port 21) will only protect that channel; when data is transferred, the FTP software at either end will set up new TCP connections (data channels) which will bypass the SSH connection, and thus have no confidentiality, integrity protection, etc.

If the FTP client is configured to use passive mode and to connect to a SOCKS server interface that many SSH clients can present for tunnelling, it is possible to run all the FTP channels over the SSH connection.

Otherwise, it is necessary for the SSH client software to have specific knowledge of the FTP protocol, and monitor and rewrite FTP control channel messages and autonomously open new forwardings for FTP data channels. Version 3 of SSH Communications Security's software suite, and the GPL licensed FONC are two software packages that support this mode.

FTP over SSH is sometimes referred to as secure FTP; this should not be confused with other methods of securing FTP, such as with SSL/TLS (FTPS). Other methods of transferring files using SSH that are not related to FTP include SFTP and SCP; in each of these, the entire conversation (credentials and data) is always protected by the SSH protocol.


You can download File Zilla a freeware to connect to a FTP server.


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