If you build or manage a website, one acronym often surfaces as a crucial skill that every website owner, from beginners to seasoned bloggers, should have in their arsenal: FTP, which stands for File Transfer Protocol. FTP is not just another tech buzzword; it’s a powerful tool that lets website owners transfer files, either uploading or downloading.
In this article, we will explore what it is, why it matters, and how it can transform your experience as a website owner. Whether you’re just starting your blog or you’ve been in the game for a while, understanding FTP is a fundamental skill that can save you time, give you more control, and enhance your ability to manage your website effectively.
Knowing How To Transfer Files is Vital
Before we dig into the specifics of FTP and its applications, let’s take a moment to consider why you should care about this technical nerdy aspect of web management. After all, you’re a content creator, not a programmer, right? Well, that’s precisely why grasping the basics of FTP can be a game-changer.
Your website requires you to have the tools and knowledge to keep it running smoothly, even if you’re not a coding wizard. FTP is one such tool, and by the end of this article, you’ll understand why it’s worth your time to learn it.
So, whether you’re a blogging beginner looking to expand your skill set or a seasoned webmaster eager to enhance your website’s performance, fasten your seatbelt. We’re about to take your website management skills to the next level by learning to transfer files.
What is FTP?
FTP, which stands for File Transfer Protocol, is a fundamental technology that helps to transfer files across the internet. At its core, FTP is a set of rules and conventions that define how files should be transferred from one computer to another over a network, often via the Internet. Think of it as the digital equivalent of a courier service that securely transports your website’s files to and from a remote server.
How Does FTP Work?
FTP works on a client-server model, where one computer plays the role of the client, and another serves as the server. Here’s a simplified breakdown of how it operates:
- FTP Server: The server is a remote computer or hosting server that stores your website’s files. This server is always connected to the internet and configured to listen for incoming FTP connections.
- FTP Client: The client is the software you use on your local computer to connect to the FTP server. It allows you to browse, upload, download, and manage files on the remote server. FTP clients come in various flavours, from simple and user-friendly to more advanced options.
- Transfer Protocol: FTP uses a specific set of rules (parameters) for how data is transferred. It includes commands for listing directories, uploading files, downloading files, and performing various file operations. These commands ensure that files are transmitted accurately and reliably.
- Authentication: To establish a connection, you typically need two pieces of information: a username and a password. These credentials are provided to you by your web hosting provider or server administrator, and they grant you access to your website’s directory on the server. It’s basically like having a digital ID.
The Importance of FTP in Website Management
Now that we have a basic understanding of what FTP is, you might wonder why it’s relevant to website owners and bloggers. The truth is, that FTP is a pivotal tool in managing your website effectively for several reasons:
- Direct Access: FTP gives you direct access to your website’s files, allowing you to transfer files, either by uploading, downloading, editing, or organizing them as needed. This level of control is essential for maintaining and updating your website.
- Speed and Efficiency: When it comes to uploading or downloading large files or batches of files, FTP often outperforms web-based alternatives. It’s especially valuable for bloggers who frequently work with media files, such as images and videos.
- Troubleshooting: In the event of website issues, FTP can be a lifesaver. You can use it to examine your site’s files, diagnose problems, and make necessary adjustments, even if you’re not a coding expert. Once, I had to use FTP to disable a rogue WordPress plugin.
- Backup and Restoration: FTP enables you to back up your entire website or specific files easily. In case of data loss or website crashes, you can swiftly restore your content from your backups. I personally use FTP to back up the Rough Pixels website on a regular basis.
A Real-Life Scenario When FTP Saved Rough Pixels
To truly appreciate the power of FTP (File Transfer Protocol), let me share a real-life scenario from my experience as a website owner. It was a day like any other, filled with the usual tasks of content creation, updates, and maintenance for Rough Pixels. One thing I tell everyone who manages a website is to expect the unexpected.
I updated a WordPress plugin to its latest version, as I often did to ensure optimal functionality and security. However, this seemingly routine task took an unexpected turn. After the update was completed, my website, Rough Pixels, suddenly displayed a dreaded 500 Internal Server Error. Yes, I invented a few new swear words.
Generally, the instinct is to access the WordPress dashboard to deactivate the plugin, but the error locked me out. I was in a catch-22 situation – the plugin update had caused the issue, and I couldn’t access the dashboard to resolve it. This is where FTP came to the rescue.
Without delay, I launched my trusted FTP client (in this case, WS_FTP Pro), which allowed me to connect directly to the server where my website files resided. This was my lifeline to the inner workings of my site, and I needed to act swiftly to rectify the problem because Rough Pixels is a “live” website.
Using FTP, I navigated to the directory where WordPress plugins are stored. Once there, I changed the name of the problematic plugin’s folder. By simply appending “-disabled” to the plugin folder’s name, I effectively disabled the plugin without needing access to the WordPress dashboard.
I refreshed my website in my browser to find the 500 Internal Server Error had vanished, and my website was back up and running, albeit without the troublesome plugin. I had successfully regained control of my site’s functionality.
Now that I could log into the WordPress dashboard without encountering errors, I could focus on resolving the plugin issue. I reached out to the plugin’s support team, reported the problem, and received guidance on how to resolve the conflict. Thanks to FTP, I could reinstall a stable version of the plugin and resume normal website operations.
Let’s Recap FTP Terminology
Before we continue here, I just realized that it’s essential to refresh and familiarize ourselves with some nerdy terminology. Understanding these terms will serve as a solid foundation as we explore how to use FTP and transfer files effectively. So, let’s start with the basics:
1. FTP Server:
- Definition: An FTP server is a remote computer or a server specifically set up to store website files and make them accessible over the internet using FTP.
- Role: The FTP server is where your website’s files and directories are located. It acts as the central repository that allows you to upload, download, and manage your site’s content.
2. FTP Client:
- Definition: An FTP client is software installed on your local computer that enables you to connect to an FTP server and perform various file operations.
- Role: As a website owner, you’ll use an FTP client to establish a connection to your web hosting server. This software allows you to navigate, transfer, and manipulate files and directories on the remote server.
3. FTP Credentials:
- Definition: FTP credentials consist of two essential components: a username and a password. These credentials are provided by your web hosting provider or server administrator.
- Role: You need FTP credentials to authenticate yourself when connecting to an FTP server. They grant you access to your website’s directory on the server.
4. FTP Host:
- Definition: The FTP host, also known as the FTP server address or hostname, is the internet address of the remote server where your website’s files are stored.
- Role: To connect to your web server via FTP, you’ll need to enter the FTP host address in your FTP client. It’s akin to specifying the destination of your file transfers.
5. Directory and File Structure:
- Definition: In the context of FTP, the directory structure is like the hierarchical organization of folders (directories) and files on your computer. Directories can contain files or other directories. The overall structure of your WordPress files and folders (directories) is a good example.
- Role: Understanding the directory and file structure of your website on the server is crucial. It allows you to navigate to the right location for uploading, downloading, or managing specific files.
These basic FTP terms will help as we continue with the understanding of how we use FTP to transfer files.
Popular FTP Clients
When it comes to working with FTP, having the right FTP client can make all the difference. Fortunately, there are numerous FTP clients available that cater to various operating systems and user preferences. Below, I’ll introduce you to a selection of popular FTP clients that have earned their reputation in the world of website management. Let’s explore your options:
- Latest Version (as of my last update): FileZilla 3.65.0
- Platform: Windows, macOS, Linux
- Description: FileZilla is a widely used, and free open-source FTP client known for its user-friendly interface and robust features. It offers support for FTP, FTPS (FTP over SSL/TLS), and SFTP (SSH File Transfer Protocol), making it versatile and suitable for various security needs. FileZilla provides drag-and-drop file transfers, a site manager for storing connection details, and a built-in file editor.
- Latest Version (as of my last update): Cyberduck 8.6.0
- Platform: Windows, macOS
- Description: Cyberduck is a popular FTP client that combines simplicity with powerful capabilities. It supports FTP, FTPS, SFTP, and other protocols, making it suitable for various use cases. Cyberduck’s interface is intuitive and easy to navigate, and it includes features like bookmarking, integration with cloud storage services, and a text editor for code editing.
- Latest Version (as of my last update): WinSCP 6.1.2
- Platform: Windows
- Description: WinSCP is a Windows-specific FTP client that excels in its simplicity and focuses on secure file transfers. It supports FTP, SFTP, and SCP (Secure Copy Protocol) and provides an Explorer-like interface for easy file management. WinSCP offers scripting and automation capabilities, making it a favourite among power users and administrators.
4. CuteFTP (for Windows):
- Latest Version (as of my last update): Version 9.3.0 (Release Date: 2018)
- Platform: Windows
- Description: CuteFTP is a long-standing FTP client for Windows that balances ease of use with advanced capabilities. It supports FTP, FTPS, and SFTP protocols. CuteFTP offers features like drag-and-drop transfers, folder synchronization, and scheduling for automated tasks. I should note that CuteFTP has not been updated since 2018, although it’s still available.
5. WS_FTP Pro (for Windows):
- Latest Version (as of my last update): Version 12.9 (Release Date: June 2023)
- Platform: Windows
- Description: WS_FTP Pro is a Windows-based FTP client known for its security features. It supports FTP, FTPS, SFTP, and HTTPS. WS_FTP Pro emphasizes data encryption and compliance with industry standards. It includes features like advanced search, scripting, and integration with cloud storage services.
When choosing an FTP client, consider factors such as your operating system, your level of technical expertise, and your specific requirements. The FTP client you select will play a significant role in your website management tasks, so it’s essential to choose one that aligns with your needs and preferences.
Using FTP Clients
Now that you’re acquainted with popular FTP clients, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and learn how to use them effectively. I’ll guide you through the process of using an FTP client to connect to your server, navigate your website’s files, and perform essential file operations. Although my preference is to use WS_FTP Professional, I will use FileZilla, a popular free FTP client, as an example, but the principles apply to most FTP clients.
Step 1: Download and Install FileZilla
Begin by downloading and installing your chosen FTP client. For this guide, I mentioned that we will use FileZilla, which is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux. You can download it from the official FileZilla website and then continue installing it by following the screen prompts.
Step 2: Configure the FileZilla Client
Before we transfer files, I recommend doing a little clean up of the user interface of FileZilla because it can be intimidating with so many window panes being displayed:
I like to keep things simple, so for FileZilla, I have it set up like my WS_FTP Pro client. To do this, go to the top navigation bar and then View. On the dropdown, select the options I have in the screenshot below:
When done, your user interface should look similar to this:
The left pane will be your local files, the right pane will be your remote files location, while the bottom pane will show a live status when you transfer files.
We are now ready to begin the process to connect to a remote website server.
Step 3: Configure Your Site Manager
Your site manager is where we add server credentials. To access the Site Manager, go to:
File > Site Manager
You should get a popup window like this:
To add a website to the Site Manager, we need to click on the New Site button, where we will then begin adding the required information for us to properly connect to our server.
- To connect to your web server, you’ll need to configure your FTP client with at least the following information. You can get this from your hosting provider:
- Host: Enter your FTP server address or hostname. This is typically provided by your web hosting provider.
- Port: The default FTP port is 21, but your hosting provider may use a different port for security reasons. If so, they will provide you with the correct port number.
- Protocol: Choose the appropriate protocol, such as FTP, FTPS, or SFTP, based on your server’s settings and security requirements.
- Logon Type: In most cases, choose “Normal”, Anonymous, Ask For Password, Interactive, or select “Key file”. Your hosting provider will have this info for you.
- Username and Password: Enter your FTP credentials provided by your hosting provider.
In this example, I decided to use SFTP/SSH for the protocol because I prefer all FTP connections to be secured. My particular host uses port 27 when using SFTP/SSH. Again, your host provider will provide you with the necessary credentials to access your host server.
Step 4: Connect to Your Server
Once you’ve entered the necessary information, click the “Connect“. Your FTP client will establish a connection to your server.
If this is your first time connecting to your website from this computer, then FileZilla may show you a certificate (host key) popup.
This is common, but you can stop this by checking the “Always trust this host, add this key to the cache.” and then click on the “OK” button to continue.
FileZilla will now attempt to log in to your website using the credentials you entered.
Step 5: Navigate Your Website’s Files
After a successful connection, you’ll see your local files on the left side of the client interface and your remote server files on the right side. The local files are on your computer, while the remote server files are on your web hosting server.
To access your website’s files, navigate through the directory structure on the remote side. Typically, your website’s files are located in a directory called “public_html“. Remember that directories are actually folders—like you see in the screenshot.
Step 6: Upload Files to Your Server
To transfer files to your server, select the files from your local computer and then drag and drop them into the appropriate directory on the remote side. This action will transfer files to your server.
Step 7: Download Files from Your Server
To download and transfer files from your server to your local computer, select the files on the remote side, and drag them to the desired location on your local side.
Step 8: Disconnect from the Server
When you’ve completed your file transfers and other tasks, be sure to disconnect from the server to close the FTP connection. This helps ensure the security of your connection. In the case of FileZilla, go to the top navigation:
Server > Disconnect
That’s a basic overview of using an FTP client like FileZilla to connect to your server and manage your website’s files. The exact steps may vary slightly depending on your chosen FTP client, but the principles remain the same.
FTP vs. Web Host File Managers
As a website owner, you have multiple tools at your disposal for managing your website’s files and directories. Two of the most common options are FTP (File Transfer Protocol) and web host-provided file managers. Each method comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. Let’s compare FTP with web host file managers to help you decide which is the right choice when you need to transfer files.
FTP (File Transfer Protocol):
- Control and Flexibility: FTP provides complete control over your website’s files and directories. You can upload, download, edit, and organize files as needed. This level of control is especially beneficial for website owners who require fine-tuned customization.
- Speed and Efficiency: FTP is known for its speed and efficiency when transferring files, particularly large files or batches of files. This can save you valuable time, especially if you frequently work with media-rich content.
- Troubleshooting Capabilities: In case of website issues or errors, FTP allows you to directly access your website’s files, making it easier to diagnose and resolve problems. You can examine code, configuration files, and log files to pinpoint issues.
- Backup and Restoration: FTP enables you to create backups of your entire website or specific files and directories. In the event of data loss or a website crash, these backups are crucial for swift restoration.
- Learning Curve: FTP can be intimidating for beginners who are not familiar with its terminology and processes. However, the learning curve is manageable with practice.
- Security Considerations: While FTP itself is secure for transferring files, it may not offer the same level of security as more modern protocols like SFTP (SSH File Transfer Protocol) or FTPS (FTP over SSL/TLS). You should use secure FTP variants when available.
Web Host File Managers:
- User-Friendly: Web host-provided file managers are often designed with user-friendliness in mind. They typically have a straightforward interface that requires minimal technical expertise.
- No External Software Required: You don’t need to install additional software like FTP clients to use web host file managers. They are accessible through your web hosting control panel.
- Security: Web host file managers are often configured to operate over secure connections (HTTPS), ensuring the security of your data during file management tasks.
- Limited Control: While web host file managers are convenient, they may not offer the same level of control and flexibility as FTP. Some operations, such as advanced customization, may not be possible through a web host file manager.
- Performance: Uploading or downloading large files or a significant number of files through a web host file manager may be slower compared to FTP.
- Transfer Files Are Limited: With most file managers, you can only upload one file at a time and you cannot upload folders.
- Troubleshooting: When troubleshooting issues, a web host file manager may not provide the same depth of access to your website’s files and server configuration as FTP.
Choosing Between FTP and Web Host File Managers:
The choice between FTP and web host file managers largely depends on your specific needs and preferences. Here are some considerations to help you decide how to transfer files:
- Experience Level: If you’re a beginner or prefer a simple and user-friendly interface, web host file managers may be a suitable choice. They require less technical know-how.
- Control and Customization: If you require fine control over your website’s files, customization, and troubleshooting capabilities, FTP is a valuable tool to have in your toolkit.
- File Transfer Speed: If you frequently work with large media files or need faster file transfers, FTP is likely the better option due to its efficiency.
- Security: Consider using secure variants of FTP like SFTP or FTPS for sensitive data transfers. Web host file managers typically offer secure connections by default.
- Backup and Restoration: Both FTP and web host file managers can be used for backups, but the level of control and automation may vary.
In many cases, website owners find value in using both methods. They may use web host file managers for quick tasks and FTP for more advanced file management and troubleshooting. Ultimately, the choice between FTP and web host file managers depends on your workflow and requirements.
For myself, there are times I use both methods to transfer files. If I need to delete many files and directories quickly, using the host’s file manager is much faster.
Bringing FTP To A Conclusion
We explored the basics of FTP, delved into essential terminology, and introduced you to popular FTP clients. Hopefully, you’ve gained a deeper understanding of the significance of FTP in website management. Whether you’re a beginner blogger or an experienced webmaster, having the skill to transfer files to and from your website is invaluable.
We’ve also compared FTP with web host-provided file managers, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of each approach when you need to transfer files. While web host file managers offer simplicity and accessibility, FTP provides unparalleled control, customization, and efficiency for managing your website’s files.