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SFTP vs. FTP: Understanding the Difference
Martin Horan

By: Martin Horan on August 21st, 2019

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SFTP vs. FTP: Understanding the Difference

FTP Solutions

Data is a valuable asset, one that’s important for businesses to protect. Because data is important, it’s vital that businesses put a lot of thought into how data is stored, used, and transferred. Opening data up to transfers via the internet can also mean opening data up to potential breaches and compromises.

Let’s look at two common file transfer options – SFTP vs. FTP. Learning more about these options will give you insight into how you can properly share your company’s data.

 

What are FTP and SFTP?

FTP is the traditional file transfer protocol. It’s a basic way of using the Internet to share files. SFTP (or Secure File Transfer Protocol) is an alternative to FTP that also allows you to transfer files, but adds a layer of security to the process. SFTP uses SSH (or secure shell) encryption to protect data as it’s being transferred. This means data is not exposed to outside entities on the Internet when it is sent to another party.

In terms of SFTP, you have a couple of options for managing transfers. A cloud-based managed SFTP file sharing solution is a common choice for businesses. There are two types of solutions you can choose from – public and private cloud SFTP solutions. 

  • Public Cloud - These are cloud-based solutions that are hosted by large companies, like AWS or Azure, and server space can be purchased to facilitate your company’s file storage and sharing needs. 
  • Private Cloud - One way to create a private cloud solution is building and managing the network in house. Private cloud solutions can also be hosted and managed by outside vendors. The vendor creates a Virtual Private Data Center (VPDC) for each client and these are not on a shared network environment like public cloud options.

Businesses often choose SFTP solutions due to enhanced security. However, many others still rely on FTP to facilitate data transfers. To better understand which file sharing option can meet your company’s needs, let’s look at the differences between SFTP vs. FTP. Understanding how these file transfer options differ will help you choose which option is best to transfer your data. There are three key areas in which SFTP vs. FTP differ: encryption, firewalls, and potential vulnerabilities. 

 

Encryption 

Transferring data is a vital, day-to-day task for many businesses. While some data transfers may not require protection, other files may house sensitive information – information that is too sensitive to fall into the wrong hands. This is why encrypting your data is essential. Encryption scrambles data, making it decipherable only by the sender and the recipient, ensuring that even if a file is intercepted, it won’t be intelligible to any unintended parties. 

So, how does encryption impact your choice between SFTP vs. FTP? The traditional file transfer protocol (FTP) is a simple way of transferring data, but it offers nothing in terms of data protection. Files are transferred without encryption, making data readable for anyone who intercepts it. While this is fine if you’re just sending unimportant files, this could lead to major data compromises if you’re sending crucial data. 

SFTP, in contrast, offers a secure shell protecting files. Because files are encrypted, you don’t have to worry about data falling into the wrong hands. This is the ideal mode of transfer for any file that you want to protect. SFTP uses an encrypted type of fingerprint technology to first verify host keys before any data transfer has taken place.

In terms of compliance, encryption makes a huge difference. If your organization is subject to compliance standards (including, but not limited to, the ones listed below), you could face serious consequences if you fail to encrypt data:

  • HIPAA
  • ITAR
  • PCI-DSS
  • SOX
  • GLBA

Encryption isn’t just a feature offered by SFTP that’s nice to have. It’s an essential step you should take to protect your data. If you fail to comply with these standards, your business could be subject to some serious fines.

 

Firewalls

Another way in which FTP and SFTP differ is how channels are used. When you send files via FTP, this protocol needs to open multiple channels in order to complete the transfer. While the client and software negotiate these channels automatically, the client-side firewalls need to open multiple ports. Opening multiple channels can also open the client’s firewalls to vulnerability.

SFTP presents a more secure process for the client-side firewall. Only port 22 will need to be open to send and receive data. This simplifies firewall configurations and is a better choice in terms of file sharing security.

 

Vulnerabilities

In addition to encryption and firewalls, SFTP beats FTP in terms of potential vulnerabilities, too. Any vulnerability can potentially be exploited and turned into a data breach. When it comes to inherent vulnerabilities in the file transfer process, FTP has a number of prominent ones.

The first vulnerability is that FTP is prone to human error. Sending a file to the wrong recipient or sending the wrong file altogether can lead to some serious problems for your company. With a greater level of security provided by SFTP, you can minimize the potential for human error. You can also take steps to promote a culture of security awareness within your business to reduce the potential for human error.

Intercepting data is simple with FTP, too. All it takes is the right tools and a little bit of knowledge to take advantage of these vulnerabilities. Even the most amateur hackers can intercept an FTP transfer. Sensitive data is often worth too much to risk a breach. 

Again, host keys can present vulnerabilities. Unlike SFTP which uses host keys to verify a recipient's identity before a transfer takes place, FTP does not. This is yet another way FTP transfers are less secure. All it takes is one accidental transfer to a wrong recipient for a file to be compromised. 

When it comes to secure data transfers, SFTP is your best option. You can feel confident that encryption measures are up to compliance standards, and you’re avoiding the inherent vulnerabilities of FTP transfers. Plus, when you find a secure SFTP cloud file sharing solution, you’ll feel confident that you’re taking the appropriate steps to protect your data.


Which SFTP cloud file sharing option is best for your business? Download this free comparison guide to learn more about your options.

About Martin Horan

Founder of FTP Today and an expert in secure file transfer and Internet protocols. A software and IT geek since a young age, Martin has successfully led his companies through the digital age by spotting market niches and filling them with quality IT services.

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