Communication Networks/File Transfer Protocol

File Transfer Protocol (FTP) is a standard network protocol used to exchange and manipulate files over a TCP/IP based network, such as the Internet. FTP is built on a client-server architecture and utilizes separate control and data connections between the client and server applications. FTP is also often used as an application component to automatically transfer files for program internal functions. FTP can be used with user-based password authentication or with anonymous user access.

Purpose edit

Objectives of FTP, as outlined by its RFC, are:

  • To promote sharing of files (computer programs and/or data).
  • To encourage indirect or implicit use of remote computers.
  • To shield a user from variations in file storage systems among different hosts.
  • To transfer data reliably, and efficiently.
  • To grant readability to the end user.

Connection methods edit

FTP runs over the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP). Usually FTP servers listen on the well-known port number 21 (IANA-reserved) for incoming connections from clients. A connection to this port from the FTP client forms the control stream on which commands are passed to the FTP server and responses are collected. FTP uses out-of-band control; it opens dedicated data connections on other port numbers. The parameters for the data streams depend on the specifically requested transport mode. Data connections usually use port number 20.

In active mode, the FTP client opens a dynamic port, sends the FTP server the dynamic 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 49154 for the data connection will send the command "PORT 192,168,0,1,192,2". The port fields should be interpreted as p1×256 + p2 = port, or, in this example, 192×256 + 2 = 49154.

In passive mode, the FTP server opens a dynamic port, 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, as explained above) 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 dynamic port.

To use passive mode, the client sends the PASV command to which the server would reply with something similar to "227 Entering Passive Mode (127,0,0,1,192,52)". 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.

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.

Data format edit

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

  • ASCII mode
  • Binary mode: In "Binary mode", the sending machine sends each file byte for byte and as such the recipient stores the bytestream as it receives it. (The FTP standard calls this "IMAGE" or "I" mode)

In ASCII mode, any form of data that is not plain text will be corrupted. 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 might entail 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. It might also involve translating characters; for example, when transferring from an IBM mainframe to a system using ASCII, EBCDIC characters used on the mainframe will be translated to their ASCII equivalents, and when transferring from the system using ASCII to the mainframe, ASCII characters will be translated to their EBCDIC equivalents.

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, or by determining whether the server is running an operating system with the same text file format.

The FTP specifications also list the following transfer modes:

  • EBCDIC mode - this transfers bytes, except they are encoded in EBCDIC rather than ASCII. Thus, for example, the ASCII mode server
  • Local mode - this is designed for use with systems that are word-oriented rather than byte-oriented. For example mode "L 36" can be used to transfer binary data between two 36-bit machines. In L mode, the words are packed into bytes rather than being padded. Some FTP servers accept "L 8" as being equivalent to "I".

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

The text (ASCII/EBCDIC) modes can also be qualified with the type of carriage control used (e.g. TELNET NVT carriage control, ASA carriage control), although that is rarely used nowadays.

Note that the terminology "mode" is technically incorrect, although commonly used by FTP clients. "MODE" in RFC 959 refers to the format of the protocol data stream (STREAM, BLOCK or COMPRESSED), as opposed to the format of the underlying file. What is commonly called "mode" is actually the "TYPE", which specifies the format of the file rather than the data stream. FTP also supports specification of the file structure ("STRU"), which can be either FILE (stream-oriented files), RECORD (record-oriented files) or PAGE (special type designed for use with TENEX). PAGE STRU is not really useful for non-TENEX systems, and RFC 1123 section recommends that it not be implemented.

FTP return codes edit

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 edit

A host that provides an FTP service may additionally provide anonymous FTP access. Users typically login to the service with an 'anonymous' account when prompted for user name. Although users are commonly asked to send their email address in lieu of a password, little to no verification is actually performed on the supplied data.

As modern FTP clients typically hide the anonymous login process from the user, the ftp client will supply dummy data as the password (since the user's email address may not be known to the application). For example, the following ftp user agents specify the listed passwords for anonymous logins:

  • Mozilla Firefox (3.0.7) —
  • KDE Konqueror (3.5) — anonymous@
  • wget (1.10.2) — -wget@
  • lftp (3.4.4) — lftp@

Commands edit

Enter ftp /? in Windows, or ftp --help in Unix, to get the command parameters.

Once connected to a server, type help to display the different possible commands.

To manipulate the files with the mouth, download a good FTP client which will do the interface (for example this Filezilla doesn't need any installation).