A client makes a TCP connection to the server's port 21. This connection, called the control connection, remains open for the duration of the session, with a second connection, called the data connection, opened by the server from its port 20 to a client port (specified in the negotiation dialog) as required to transfer file data
1. The original specification for the File Transfer Protocol was written by Abhay Bhushan and published as RFC 114 on 16 April 1971 and later replaced by RFC 765 (June 1980) and RFC 959 (October 1985), the current specification. Several proposed standards amend RFC 959, for example RFC 2228 (June 1997) proposes security extensions and RFC 2428 (September 1998) adds support for IPv6 and defines a new type of passive mode.
2. A client makes a TCP connection to the server's port 21. This connection, called the control connection, remains open for the duration of the session, with a second connection, called the data connection, opened by the server from its port 20 to a client port (specified in the negotiation dialog) as required to transfer file data
3. The control connection is used for session administration, exchanged between the client and server using a telnet-like protocol. For example "RETR filename" would transfer the specified file from the server to the client. Due to this two-port structure, FTP is considered an out-of-band, as opposed to an in-band protocol such as HTTP.
While transferring data over the network, four data representations can be used:
- ASCII mode: used for text. Data is converted, if needed, from the sending host's character representation to "8-bit ASCII" before transmission, and (again, if necessary) to the receiving host's character representation. As a consequence, this mode is inappropriate for files that contain data other than plain text.
- Image mode (commonly called Binary mode): the sending machine sends each file byte for byte, and the recipient stores the bytestream as it receives it. (Image mode support has been recommended for all implementations of FTP).
- EBCDIC mode: use for plain text between hosts using the EBCDIC character set. This mode is otherwise like ASCII mode.
- Local mode: Allows two computers with identical setups to send data in a proprietary format without the need to convert it to ASCII
Data transfer can be done in any of three modes:
- Stream mode: Data is sent as a continuous stream, relieving FTP from doing any processing. Rather, all processing is left up to TCP. No End-of-file indicator is needed, unless the data is divided into records.
- Block mode: FTP breaks the data into several blocks (block header, byte count, and data field) and then passes it on to TCP.
- Compressed mode: Data is compressed using a single algorithm (usually Run-length encoding).
FTP was not designed to be a secure protocol—especially by today's standards—and has many security weaknesses
FTP was not designed to encrypt its traffic; all transmissions are in clear text, and user names, passwords, commands and data can be easily read by anyone able to perform packet capture (sniffing) on the network
A host that provides an FTP service may additionally provide anonymous FTP access. Users typically log into 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, no verification is actually performed on the supplied data.
Remote FTP or FTPmail
Where FTP access is restricted, a remote FTP (or FTPmail) service can be used to circumvent the problem. An e-mail containing the FTP commands to be performed is sent to a remote FTP server, which is a mail server that parses the incoming e-mail, executes the FTP commands, and sends back an e-mail with any downloaded files as an attachment. Obviously this is less flexible than an FTP client, as it is not possible to view directories interactively or to modify commands, and there can also be problems with large file attachments in the response not getting through mail servers. As most internet users these days have ready access to FTP, this procedure is no longer in everyday use.
NAT and Firewall traversal
FTP normally transfers data by having the server connect back to the client, after the PORT command is sent by the client. This is problematic for both NATs and firewalls, which do not allow connections from the Internet towards internal hosts. For NATs, an additional complication is the representation of the IP addresses and port number in the PORT command refer to the internal host's IP address and port, rather than the public IP address and port of the NAT.
There are two approaches to this problem. One is that the FTP client and FTP server use the PASV command, which causes the data connection to be established from the FTP client to the server. This is widely used by modern FTP clients. Another approach is for the NAT to alter the values of the PORT command, using an application layer gateways for this purpose.
FTP over SSH (not SFTP)
FTP over SSH (not SFTP) 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 thecontrol channel (the initial client-to-server connection on port 21) will protect only that channel; when data is transferred, the FTP software at either end will set up new TCP connections (data channels), which bypass the SSH connection, and thus have no confidentiality, integrity protection, etc.
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, the GPL licensed FONC, and Co:Z FTPSSH Proxy are three 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.