FTP Basic Concepts

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File Transfer Protocol (FTP) powers one of the most fundamental Internet functions: the transfer of files between computers. Prior to 1995, FTP generated more traffic on the Internet than any other service. Today, Web developers use FTP protocols to upload/update their web sites and download other information.

A basic understanding about the FTP process and software programs is important for every Web developer. You’ll use to post and modify your Web pages at your Web host’s server.

Terms to know

Let’s review some basic FTP terms.

  • Anonymous FTP: Transfers files from the public portion of an FTP server. “Anonymous” means that you don’t have to have an account on the server. In most cases, use anonymous as your user name and your email address as your password.
  • Archive: An FTP site that contains a selection of files for download.
  • Download: Also called “Get”. Copy a file from an FTP site to another computer. If you’re merely downloading shared files an anonymous account is usually sufficient. However, if you’re downloading Web pages for update, a password and user privileges is usually required.
  • FTP site: A Web site that stores files for download. You can access the sites with a Web browser by typing in the address. All FTP site addresses begin with ftp:// (instead of http://).
  • Upload: Also called “Put”. Place files on an FTP server. Upload privileges are usually password protected to keep unauthorized users from placing files that could contain viruses or other malicious code on the server.

FTP For The Web Developer

When you purchase a web hosting account, the host assigns you a username and password for this purpose. Depending your preference (and your Web host’s capabilities), you may access an FTP connection directly using UNIX commands or use an interface. Unless you’re comfortable with UNIX commands, you probably use an FTP interface.

You web host will generally provide specific instructions about how to access their FTP server, but it’s important that you understand the basic process:

  • Open your FTP program and use your username and password to establish a connection with the server. You may also need to know the server’s name.
  • Find and open the directory that you want to copy your page to. Note: you may need to create a new directory or create a subdirectory in an existing directory.
  • Choose the transfer mode: this will be either binary or ASCII.
File Type Usage Description
ASCII Text files Use for all HTML files
Binary Raw data (graphics, multimedia, executable files) Use for all graphics and multimedia files
  • Upload your files to the appropriate director on the server.
  • Disconnect from the server. This is important! You’d be surprised to know how many sites are disabled by careless webmasters who make changes by accident.
  • Test the pages with a web browser to ensure that everything uploaded properly.

What Kind of FTP Program Do You Need?

If your Web page editor doesn’t provide an FTP interface or if you code your pages by hand, you can choose from many FTP programs that don’t require extensive UNIX knowledge. They provide a drag-and-drop interface familiar to Windows and Mac users.

WS_FTP is a popular FTP package for PC’s while many Mac users employ FTP programs like Fetch and Anarchie. FTP is platform independent: you can use it to upload files from a Mac to a UNIX server without any trouble.

You may actually have already used FTP and never realized it. If you developed your site in FrontPage, the simple “Publish Web” option posted it using the FrontPage extensions installed with your account on your Web host’s server. If you have FrontPage extensions installed within your site, you should only use FrontPage to send and edit your Web files.

There are three basic ways to use FTP – your choice depends on how you plan to use it.

  • FTP using a Web browser. This is most commonly used for anonymous FTP – like downloading software. Always run a current virus scan program on anything you download! No extra software is required.
  • FTP using an HTML editor. Many Web page editors bundle this interface into their products. You don’t need to install a separate FTP program.
  • FTP using a standalone program. Use this if you’re administering a complex site with CGI programming or if you need to administer file permissions remotely. Very large, complex sites may require commercial FTP packages; otherwise, evaluate the freeware and shareware programs available for download.

FTP Knowledge Increases Your Options

Even if you use an HTML editor that makes the FTP process almost invisible, it’s still important to have a basic understanding of the process. If you rely solely on a single method, you limit your options unnecessarily. FTP-literate developers aren’t constrained by particular tools or methods. They’re free to choose Web design packages and web hosts based on their overall value – not just their FTP features.

Download a free FTP package (remember the virus scan!) and practice with it for a few hours. It’s easier than you think and well worth your time.


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