What is FTP?
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.
FTP access 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.
Do I Need to Use FTP?
FTP access used to be essential for developers.
This is because it used to be the only way for developers to upload files to a server so website viewers could see it.
These files included the code for the site design, every new page, and all of the content on it. Now, content management systems (CMS) make it simple for anyone to create and upload website files.
As a result, FTP isn’t nearly as necessary as it once was.
What are Some Common Uses of FTP?
Even with the emergence of CMS platforms, FTP is still valuable.
The three main uses for FTP are:
- Transfer files between remote computers
- Upload website files to a hosting server (Such as WordPress)
- Download files from a server to a computer (Like free software)
Developers may use it to install a CMS like WordPress, and also to edit the core files. FTP is still in wide use for sharing, transferring, or downloading files.
For example, it’s used to download mp3 music files. It’s often used in university settings for downloading syllabi and other course materials and for sharing student project files.
Thanks to FTP, developers have access to website files from any computer. This means that they can make changes to someone else’s website remotely.
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Limitations of FTP Access
FTP access can be used to make files available to your site’s users. This used to be quite common on professional sites some time ago, but it was also 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 it creates a number of potential security issues.
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.
What is Anonymous FTP?
Anonymous FTP allows individuals to access publicly available files by simply typing in “anonymous” as a username. Often the password is generic or provided to the public.
What is Anonymous FTP Commonly Used For?
Anonymous FTP is typically used to allow people to download open-source software (OSS) or other public files.
Since OSS is freely distributed, everyone needs to be able to access it. And, developers need a way to contribute to it.
How Does Anonymous FTP Work?
All the user usually needs to do use anonymous FTP is enter ‘anonymous’ as the username.
Usually, they use their email address as a password. This is called anonymous authentication.
Sometimes the latter is not necessary and for good reason too – since a temporary address can be used anyway, checking the validity of a submitted email address does not offer any real security.
What are the Downsides of Anonymous FTP?
Anonymous FTP 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 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.
How To Set up an FTP Account
To use FTP, you’ll need an FTP client that’s compatible with the operating system on your computer. There are many popular ones, including Cyberduck and Filezilla.
Filezilla is compatible with the major operating systems and should work well for anyone. An FTP client lets you log into the FTP server and do what you want with the files stored there.
There are three things you need to set up an FTP account:
- The IP address of your domain name
- A username
- A password
Your username and password need to be strong to make it difficult for other users to have access to your files. You don’t want people messing with the design of your website or uploading harmful viruses to it.
Once you enter this information, you can get connected to FTP and instantly access your website files.
Setting up Anonymous FTP: Some Precautions
Anonymous FTP is clearly not for everyone. If you need it, there are some precautions you can and should take.
Otherwise, you could wind up giving access to your system to everyone on the internet.
What is a Directory?
But before we start, it’s important to understand what a directory is. A directory is a file system that contains computer and website files as well as other directories. It’s essentially a structured organizational system to store related files.
The root directory is the directory in the file system that contains all of the other directories. So, when you have root access, you are able to access all of the files in all directories on a server.
How to Set Up Anonymous FTP
To set up an anonymous FTP, It’s necessary to 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.
Setting Up Permissions
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.
Setting up an Anonymous FTP Through Your Host
Depending on your hosting provider, you may be able to access your FTP from your control panel.
Many web hosts include access to the Softaculous script installer. If not, you can install Softaculous yourself by executing certain commands as root.
Using Softaculous, you can install web-based FTP managers which connect your computer to your server so you can download, upload, or edit your website files from your browser.
Using these FTP managers, you can drag and drop files to your server straight from your desktop. And, you can enable anonymous FTP to give the public access to these files.
What is a Virtual FTP Server?
The difference between an FTP server and a virtual FTP server is much like the difference between shared hosting and hosting on a virtual server.
You have more possibilities with a virtual FTP server.
You can give users access to multiple directories and specify permissions for each. This is more secure, as it allows you to only give root access to certain FTP users.
Let’s look at how a virtual FTP.
How Does a Virtual FTP Work?
Instead of giving users access to the actual physical directory that exists on the hard disk of your web server, you’re only giving them access to the virtual directory that represents it.
This is why it’s much more secure. Users will not know where the files are physically located on the server, so they won’t be able to modify the files in the physical directory.
You can create multiple virtual directories with different read and write permissions for each.
This is a more secure way to share public content with anonymous FTP, as you can just create a directory specifically for public viewing and keep everything else restricted from the public.
Connecting to an Anonymous FTP Server
When you connect to an anonymous FTP, you aren’t really anonymous. Even if you don’t give away personal information when you connect to the server, the server admin will still have your domain and IP address. So, if you do anything illegal, it’s still very easy to find you.
FTP servers keep logs of users FTP sessions. This is a record of the activity that occurred when someone made an FTP connection.
What to Do if You Can’t Connect
It may take a couple tries to get anonymous access to a public FTP server. This is because of the popularity of some of the servers.
Instead of spamming login requests to the server, set your FTP client to re-try logging in after server timeout. You don’t want your IP address banned from the server.
What are FTP User Commands?
Users can enter commands into their FTP in order to execute certain actions. Your FTP client will send the commands to the server.
These FTP commands show up in the session log on the server and can thus be monitored by the server admin.
Cheatsheet of Commonly Used FTP Commands
|open||To connect to a remote server or computer.|
|? or Help||Request information about the FTP commands.|
|bye or quit||Disconnect and exit the FTP server.|
|dir||Lists the contents of the remote directory.|
|cd||Change the directory you are accessing on the remote machine.|
|delete||To remove a file from the directory.|
|get||Used to copy a file to your local computer.|
|mget||For copying multiple files from a remote machine to your local computer.|
|put||To copy a file from your local computer to the server or a remote computer.|
|mput||For copying multiple files from your computer to the server or another computer.|
In order to take advantage of the file transfer protocol, you may want to download an FTP program to make the process simple. An FTP can be accessed by:
- FTP client
- Web browser
- Command line
Command Line and Connection
But, you can also connect to FTP via a web browser if you’d rather not download a program to your computer. This is the easiest way to browse large directories. But, web browser connections to FTP are slower and less reliable than using an FTP client.
Using the built-in command line on your computer, you can connect to FTP as well. To get started, just enter the command prompt: ftp (insert your FTP host address here).
If successful, you’ll be prompted for a username and password. If you’re connecting to an anonymous FTP, enter anonymous as your username and your email address as your password.
Connecting to FTP via Web Browser
Anonymous users don’t need an FTP client to get into a public FTP server. But, this will require you to know the syntax of the FTP browser. Some web hosting companies may block FTP connections using a browser to ensure higher security for their client’s websites.
Common Courtesy on Public FTP Servers
If you don’t know what you’re doing, don’t mess around with files on a public FTP server. Since everyone can have access, server admins usually include a readme file to help anonymous users navigate the server files.
You can usually find this readme file in the root directory of the server.
You may also come across guidelines for use of the anonymous FTP server among the server information that you will see after your anonymous login. You may also find rules in the FTP logs.
Finding and Choosing a Web Host for Anonymous FTP
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 a reputational risk to consider.
This is why most hosts advise against anonymous FTP and discourage its use even when they do allow it in some hosting packages. Like all businesses, hosting services simply want to minimize risks.
As a result, very few hosts offer anonymous FTP on entry-level shared web hosting plans but may offer it on dedicated plans.
Web Hosts That Allow Use of Anonymous FTP
The hosting providers that do allow for Anonymous FTP access can make it very easy to create one.
Some web hosts let you enable anonymous FTP on your choice of domains directly from your control panel. You may be able to choose whether you’ll allow anonymous users to only download files or also to upload them.
You can keep this disabled to prevent the public from being able to mess with your website in any way.
Don’t Expect Shared Server Hosting to Allow Anonymous FTP
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 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.
Pros and Cons of Anonymous FTP
Is FTP the right choice for your file transfer needs? Let’s break it down.
- Gain fast access to public files
- Allows open-source software to be downloaded easily for free
- Allows developers to contribute to open-source software
- Easily distribute downloadable material to the public
- Transfer multiple files and directories at the same time
- Upload and download files simultaneously
- Resume file transfers where you left off in the event of a lost connection
- Schedule file transfers ahead of time
- Transfers files extremely quickly
- You have little control over who has access to the FTP server
- Many web hosting providers block anonymous FTP use
- Makes your website vulnerable to the uploading of malicious code or illegal content
My Picks: 2 Top Anonymous FTP Hosts
Web hosting is a crowded marketplace. Add to that the difficulty of finding hosts that will allow use Anonymous FTP, and you may be wondering where to start.
Here are my personal favorites: these 2 hosts do allow for Anonymous FTP use.
I hope these suggestions help you with your search.
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Anonymous FTP Frequently Asked Questions
- If it’s so dangerous, why would anyone use anonymous FTP?
The use of anonymous FTP is on the decline, as more modern CMS applications have made sharing massive amounts of information easier than ever. However, there are still cases where having the ability to share entire folders worth of documents and other files may be necessary.
In particular, if you want users to be able to quickly select and download multiple files from your site, FTP is the easiest way to handle it. Users can simply highlight the files they need, just like they would in File Explorer, and drag them to their system.
If this type of sharing is necessary for your team or business, and creating logins for each user is not feasible, anonymous FTP may still be the best approach. However, be sure to further research your options before committing to it.
- Are there size limits for downloads over anonymous FTP?
No. This is one of the big advantages to FTP. While your browser may place limits on the file size, FTP clients typically do not.
- Can anonymous FTP be set up for download only?
Yes. The exact procedure will vary depending on the type of host server you’re running, but you should be able to disable write and upload capabilities to your anonymous FTP site.
In this way, anyone can access and download the content you share while minimizing the risk of someone uploading dangerous files to your server.
Of course, even with read-only access, there is always risk involved with giving the world access to your server. Be sure to fully research all of your security measures prior to adopting any type of anonymous FTP.
- Does anonymous FTP allow you to download multiple items simultaneously, or does it download one at a time?
While you can select as many files as you want to download, most FTP clients set a limit to how many files they will download simultaneously. The remaining files will be queued until another download stream opens up.
- Can I restrict anonymous FTP to a select group, such as employees at a single IP address?
Yes. By limiting access to a single IP address, you would be creating an internal network access to that FTP site, which can be an effective way to limit the risk involved with using anonymous FTP. Anyone outside IP addresses would be restricted from accessing the site.
Of course, this method still requires you to give access to everyone at that IP address, so you should give it some serious thought before committing to it.
Any host should be able to set up some type of IP address restriction; however, whether it can be done at a directory level versus an entire site level may vary.
- Can I use a download manager with an anonymous FTP site?
Yes, but you probably don’t need to. Most FTP clients have a built-in download manager, because FTP protocols already allow you to resume a transfer if the connection is lost. In addition, many FTP clients allow you to schedule transfers.
- How is anonymous FTP different from peer to peer file sharing?
The key difference is where the files are stored. With anonymous FTP, the files you wish to share are stored in a folder or multiple folders on your server. In a security situation, it could bring down your entire site. Plus, if you’re on a shared hosting plan it could impact everyone sharing that server space.
With peer to peer file sharing, you are typically sharing a folder on your personal computer. While this still poses a number of potential security risks, they are limited to your own machine. Your website and server won’t be impacted.
- Can I use command line to access an anonymous FTP site?
Yes. All of the commands available for access a typical FTP site will also work with an anonymous FTP site.
- Are there more secure alternatives to anonymous FTP?
Better security is one of the primary reasons many sites are moving away from anonymous FTP. There are other solutions available to share files more securely, so why put your server at risk?
For sharing within your organization, tools like Dropbox or a local intranet may provide a better option.
For sharing a large number of files publicly, your CMS probably offers a better system, if not by default than through plugins. Also, programs like Simple Files allow users to download multiple files at once, just like they would using anonymous FTP.
Of course, before choosing any of these alternatives you should do plenty of research and make sure you take all the necessary security precautions.
- Can I access an anonymous FTP site from a web browser?
Yes, but doing so will limit the features available, in particular, the ability to download multiple files or an entire directory. However, most browsers are capable of exploring FTP sites and downloading individual files.
- Who still uses anonymous FTP?
Anonymous FTP is still used by a number of organizations.
The open-source community still relies heavily on anonymous FTP because their software is free to download and often consists of multiple files. As such, anonymous FTP is an ideal solution for sharing open-source software.
- How should I go about setting up a secure anonymous FTP site?
The first thing you’ll want to do is talk to your hosting provider. If they allow anonymous FTP hosting, they may have security measures already available.
After that, do your homework. There are plenty of sites that can help you set up an anonymous FTP server. Pay particular attention to the security features.
If you know someone who is already running an anonymous FTP server, talk to them. If you don’t know them personally, don’t worry. The open source community is usually more than happy to help each other out.