Why Is FTP Still So Ubiquitous?

Here are some things that happened in 1971:

  • “All In The Family” was the #1 TV show
  • We lost Jim Morrison of the Doors
  • Richard Nixon was Time Magazine’s Man of the Year
  • The first FTP standard (RFC 114) was published

That’s right – it was 44 years ago that the ubiquitous FTP (File Transfer Protocol) was put in place as a means for transferring files over a network. This was before the Internet – in fact, it was even before TCP and IP existed. FTP went through a number of changes over the next few years, finally settling on its current base specification by 1985.

And we still use it today.

One has to ask: why?

Your Best Friend’s Ratty Old Car

If FTP was a car, it’d be that rusty old one your best friend from high school had. It was functional enough – it got them from place to place – but it had a stink that was hard to ignore. It required constant care and plenty of attention, and one just had to accept that sometimes it would break down for no reason. You could never quite trust the duct tape and chewing gum that was holding it together, but in a bind, it got them where they needed to go. Hopefully.

Read the FTP vs. Cloud FastPath Benchmark Results

With the number of well-known problems FTP has, it’s surprising that people still use it so much. For example:

  • It’s insecure, sending usernames and passwords in clear text over the wire. Anyone snooping around could easily grab your credentials and access anything they wish.
  • It’s unreliable, especially in the face of network errors or disruptions. If you are transferring anything large or over long distances, you may well run into trouble and FTP does not fail gracefully – it simply aborts.
  • It’s unfriendly to firewalls, because of the way it can use random ports to connect. Firewalls are often much stricter, making it impossible for certain configurations of FTP to work.
  • It’s unfriendly to users, who are required to utilize cryptic commands and to interpret even more cryptic error messages. We’ve moved way beyond command-line usability in the past 44 years.

While there are certainly alternative versions of FTP that have been built to address these concerns (SFTP for security, UIs like Filezilla for usability, Managed FTP for reliability), each only offers Band-Aid solutions while failing to deal with a bigger problem: users don’t like FTP. That’s exactly why file-sharing systems like Box, ShareFile, and Dropbox have become so popular – and notice they have nothing in common with FTP in any way.

Yet…FTP Still Persists 

So why is our creepy uncle still around? I have a few theories. Here they are:

1. Ignorance 

“FTP is the way you are supposed to transfer files. It’s right there in the name: file transfer protocol. I’d use HTTP if I were moving hypertexts around from server to server, but I don’t even know what a hypertext is! Those people who invented the Internet were pretty ingenious, and they gave us exactly the tool we needed to get large files out to our clients with ease. That’s why we tell our clients to log into our FTP server when they need to access our top-secret designs.”

2. Inertia 

“We’ve used FTP since we first started sharing files electronically, and quite bluntly, no one around here really knows how this thing works anymore. We have our FTP server, which we put files on when we want to share them, and to let our partners access them. If we were to make a change, I’d have to have someone figure out where our FTP server even is. We’d then have to retrain everyone – both our employees and our external customers and partners – and who’s got the time for that? So when it comes to FTP, we don’t need to change.”

3. Fear 

“We use FTP, but honestly we aren’t sure what it’s attached to. If we swapped it out, what would break? Some customer might be using it all the time and we have no idea – then one morning they’d go to access something really important and time-sensitive, and poof! We’d be dealing with an angry customer and we’d have no idea why. Or maybe our payroll system depends on FTP. Do you want us to shut down payroll? Of course not! We shouldn’t touch FTP… who knows what could break?!”

4. Laziness 

“Yeah, I know that FTP is kind of insecure, and it’s somewhat of a pain for our users. But it’d be such an effort to rip it out and replace it. It’s not something we should tackle. We’d have to go and evaluate a bunch of other solutions, and then figure out what’s dependent on our FTP server and start replacing it. People would need new software on their machines. It’s a whole thing. I don’t need to deal with a whole thing. You know what they say: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”

5. Convenience

“I know that FTP is a stupid thing to use, but I had to get this website built and I was looking for the easiest way to do it. My website authoring tools have built-in support for FTP, plus it’s on every terminal already. So of course I used it – it was the least common denominator. Maybe later on, once things are stable, I’ll go back and fix it, but for now it’s working just fine.”

Are You Still Using FTP?

One of the most common uses for FTP today is to move large file trees between servers. There are a number of better ways to do that today. One of them is our product – Cloud FastPath – which moves files 2-50x faster than traditional approaches like FTP. Plus, it’s secure, easy to use, reliable, and fully automated. And, you guessed it, it even includes an FTP adapter! Check it out.

After all, no matter how much that old jalopy was loved, it eventually got replaced with something easier, safer and more reliable!

FTP is Not A Migration Solution. Find Out Why.