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What Is Anonymous FTP Hosting?

Before we proceed to explain the finer points of anonymous FTP access, we need to get something out of the way – most hosts do not recommend the use of anonymous FTP and some actively advise against it. There are a number of good reasons for their reluctance, but let's take a look at the technology and use cases behind anonymous FTP first.

File transfer protocol (FTP) is a vital network protocol and it's been around for decades. FTP allows users to upload or download files to and from their websites. While popular content management systems like WordPress, Drupal or Joomla come with their own upload interfaces, many webmasters still use FTP on a regular basis. FTP access simply offers a lot of features for power users looking to do more than add a bit of fresh content to their website every once in a while.

FTP access can also be used to make files available to your site's users. This used to be quite common on professional sites some time ago, but at the same time it was impractical. In order to download files via regular FTP access every single user would have to have an FTP account and sign-in to your site. That is simply not an option for high-volume sites and in this day and age it creates a number of potential security issues.

This is where anonymous FTP comes in, for better or for worse.

The dubious case for Anonymous FTP

The most obvious way of getting around these limitations is to simply offer anonymous FTP access, thus allowing anyone to access and download files from your site.

All the user usually needs to do use anonymous FTP is enter 'anonymous' as the user name and usually use their email address as a password. Sometimes the latter is not necessary and for good reason too – since a temporary address can be used anyway, so checking the validity of a submitted email address does not make much sense.

It sounds like a simple way of addressing the issue, but there is a problem. FTP access works both ways, hence it allows users to upload as well as download files, so literally anyone can upload files infected with malicious code or illegal content to your site.

This is why hosts do not like anonymous FTP – it poses a serious security risk.

Setting up Anonymous FTP

So, anonymous FTP is clearly not for everyone, but in case you absolutely need it, there are some precautions you can and should take. Otherwise you would potentially be giving access to your system to everyone on the internet.

It is necessary create a special account and make anonymous FTP files available in the FTP home directory, which should have a special place. You must set up the account's home directory as a mini filesystem, usually with three directories: /bin, /etc and /pub. Anonymous FTP access should be limited to this mini filesystem, preventing access outside the designated root area with symbolic or absolute links.

It is also possible to give users permission to access FTP files without giving them permission to log in. This can be done by setting up an account with a special shell, i.e. / bin/ftponly. This will allow the use of FTP to transfer files, but the account could not be used to log in to the site.

Hostile hosts and limited hosting options

As we pointed out earlier, hosts have a number of reasons for limiting anonymous FTP access. It can pose a significant security risk and, in case it happens to be abused for the distribution of illegal content, there is also reputational risk to consider.

This is why most hosts advise against anonymous FTP and discourage its use even when they allow its use in some hosting packages. Like all businesses, hosting services simply want to keep risks to a minimum.

As a result, very few hosts offer anonymous FTP on entry-level shared web hosting plans, but may offer it on dedicated plans.

It is all about limiting exposure to unnecessary risks – using anonymous FTP on dedicated servers eliminates most of the risks and passes them on to the customer rather than the host. Using anonymous FTP access on a shared server could potentially compromise the rest of the shared server, putting other websites at risk.

Different hosts have different standards, so some may require that you purchase a dedicated IP address for anonymous FTP access, or they could require more paperwork and caveats in their contracts. Therefore it is vital to read the fine print or contact the host directly for clarification and guidelines.

Anonymous FTP Frequently Asked Questions

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