Are we finally saying goodbye to FTP?

SFTP's pretty secure (with 256 bit encryption), but the user experience is poor.
4 December 2018

FTP is heading the way of the 5 1/4″ floppy. Source: Shutterstock

The writing is on the wall for FTP (File Transfer Protocol). According to a report in Beeping Computer, the developer communities working on Firefox and Chrome browsers are both keen to phase out support for the protocol– 40 years’ honorable service should, perhaps, be rewarded with a retirement.

Like many of the protocols which formed the backbone of the internet, FTP was (to our cynical 21st-century eyes) naively open– designed to allow the free-est possible interchange of information between technology professionals, military officers, and academics.

Security concerns have all but made HTTP (as opposed to HTTPS) go the same way as Gopher and SMBv1, and while SFTP (Secure Shell FTP) and FTPS (FTP over SSL) have removed the security concerns in the main, the protocol has one of those hangovers that betrays its roots in a bygone era– the lack of overall usability by the standards of today’s internet.

Chrome, Firefox, and other browsers all do the best job they can in allowing web users to visualize FTP files and even preview their contents (with the associated security concerns detailed in the Bleeping Computer article). But businesses that still offer a file repository/exchange facility to the outside world via FTP need to start thinking about a replacement.

If your organization needs to move many documents and files around internally, there are a host of document management systems (DMS) on the market that can make this everyday activity child’s play. Some are adjuncts often shipped as part of other platforms, like Microsoft’s Sharepoint, while others are more consumer-oriented, like iCloud or OneDrive.

Sharing multiple files with the outside world – clients, suppliers, partners, communities – is a different matter. Your existing DMS may have the facility to share discrete areas of your data troves with outside users, so it’s worth checking whether this is a feature offered.

But there are several cheap or even free ways which you can use to easily and rapidly exchange files outside the LAN, without asking the third parties to fire up an FTP client like FileZilla.

Google Suite

The web interface to Google Drive, Sheets and Docs is simplicity itself. Just right-click any file or folder and select “Share…” or “Get shareable link…” from the contextual menu.

You can allow others to just view, or edit and delete files and their contents, and this facility can be given to anyone with the URL that’s created, or to specific invitees.

While very easy, however, there are several potential pitfalls:

  • If a link to sensitive files gets disseminated more widely than you intend, what are the consequences?
  • If invited to a shared resource, invitees need a Google account to access them.
  • Users may have Google accounts, but one that’s attached to their personal email, rather than a work address. This means users have to request access to the file(s) manually – this may slow down any collaboration.

Dropbox or Box

By dint of their massive marketing budgets, the two leading suppliers of online data storage services are rapidly becoming household names. As they become more commonly installed (helped by being referred to and utilized by many common apps), these suppliers are gradually becoming the norm for file repositories.

Files can be grouped into folders and are compressed on the fly before being downloaded by collaborators, and the web interface is pretty simple to use for most users. There are also widely installed iOS and Android versions for 360-degree device coverage.

Downsides to these suppliers are:

  • Dropbox has yet to turn a profit. While putting files in the care of any third party is always a risk, it’s probably worth checking out the viability of the company behind the data storage.
  • Users often have personal Dropbox or Box accounts, and so it’s a simple matter for staff and partners to store files wrongly– this may be termed a security risk, or might only be a hindrance to smooth collaborations as files ‘go missing’ when stored incorrectly.

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Niche players and alternatives

If you have a competent IT team, you may wish to investigate installing your own file-sharing service. These offer many of the advantages of a service like Box, but your business entirely controls the resources. In short, you use your own disk space (and encryption/security measures), but a third party’s front end to make the whole process easy and familiar for all users.

Depending on the predominant platform your systems run, there are pure file share alternatives like Seafile or Sparkleshare, plus there are many open source packages that will run email, calendaring and other services as well as file sharing– look to groupware like Nextcloud, for example.

Finally, there are several cloud-based file sharing repository services which compete with Dropbox et al., but are either easier to use, cheaper, or purport to be more secure (for instance, pCloud offers lifetime plans and full encryption).

Good luck with your search, and as you install or deploy the alternative, spare a thought for FTP – it did us well.