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Web Hosting - FTP and Other File Transfer Tools

Matt Williams - 20th April, 2010 

Anything related to the Internet or computers is bound to introduce technical issues pretty soon. One of the earliest challenges that novice web site owners encounter is FTP, which is an acronym for File Transfer Protocol. Seeing it spelled out, it's easy to see why those in the know quickly move to speaking in short hand.

The reason web site owners soon will (or need to) become familiar with FTP is obvious to anyone who has built a site on a remote server. You have to have some way of getting the files to the remote computer and FTP is one of the most common tools. It's also one of the simplest and most efficient.

FTP is composed of two parts: the client software and the server software. It's similar, in a way, to talking to someone on the phone who writes down everything you say. You (the client) make a request ('transfer this file to the server') and the listener (the server) takes the request and acts on it.

That request to copy a file from a local computer to the remote one is carried out (often 'under the covers') by a PUT command, as in PUT this there. You create the web page (in the form of a file) and then PUT the file on the server. To move a file in the opposite direction, from the remote server to your local computer, your client software issues a GET command.

Many FTP clients have graphical interfaces, similar to Windows Explorer, that allow you to drag-and-drop or otherwise copy the file without ever seeing the actual commands that carry it out. But it's helpful sometimes to know what goes on underneath. In tricky cases it can be an advantage to use a command line interface (in Windows, the 'DOS box', with a similar interface familiar to most Linux users).

Knowing the commands and being able to use them in the command line form can sometimes help you diagnose what is going on when the graphical tools misbehave.

But FTP is not the only way to get a file from here to there. In fact, your browser moves files around from a remote computer to your local one all the time. In most cases, when you type in or click on a URL, what happens under the covers is in essence a file transfer process. The web page is transferred from the web server to your local computer then displayed by the browser.

Alternatively, you can sometimes even email a web page/file from your local computer to the remote server, then use an email client on the server itself to get the file and put it in a folder. That requires that you have some form of access to the remote computer. But there are many ways of doing that, such as in-built utilities in the operating system or using commercial remote control programs.

Those alternatives can be helpful to know in cases where the FTP file transfer process is misbehaving. Having more than one way to accomplish the task helps you diagnose what might be going wrong. It also helps you get the job done when the usual tools aren't cooperating.

The more you learn about these sometimes puzzling acronyms, the easier you can accomplish your own goals.

Matt Williams


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