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Comparing Transfer Methods: HTTP vs. FTP

Evaluating Switch Strategies: HTTP vs. FTP

HTTP vs. FTP for File Transfer

Hyper Text Transfer Protocol (HTTP) and File Transfer Protocol (FTP) are both application layer protocols that can allow you to transfer files between two systems, but what’s the difference between them – and which one performs better? Or, is there a better solution that outperforms both? Read on to find out!

What is HTTP?

You are probably already familiar with HTTP as this protocol is the foundation of data communication for the World Wide Web (WWW) – as in, the whole WWW runs on it. It’s the backbone of the WWW and it defines the format of messages through which web browsers (Chrome, Firefox, etc.) and web servers communicate. It also defines how a web browser should respond to a specific web request.

HTTP uses Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) as an underlying transport and typically runs on port 80. It’s a stateless protocol since each command is executed independently, without any knowledge of the commands that came prior. A stateless protocol is a communications protocol in which no session information is retained by the receiver, typically a server.

What is FTP?

FTP is a standard network protocol used for the transfer of sensitive files between a client and a server on a computer network. It can be used to exchange and manipulate files over a TCP/Internet Protocol (IP) based network, like the Internet.

FTP is built on a client-server architecture and establishes two separate TCP connections:

  • Control Connection (command port; port 21) to authenticate the user.
  • Data Connection (data port; port 20) to transfer the files.

FTP also requires an authenticated username and password for access.

What’s the Best Way to Secure Data During Transfer?

Learn the difference between top protocols, when to use each one, and how to determine which is the best for your organization in our webinar FTP, FTPS, & SFTP: Which Protocol to Use and When?

How Do They Compare?

A big comparison made often is that, unlike FTP, HTTP can easily maintain multiple sessions simultaneously because it’s stateless. FTP has a stateful control connection, therefore the FTP server will maintain state information like a user’s current directory for a session. This can constrain the total number of sessions FTP can maintain simultaneously. FTP also requires client authentication in order to transfer information successfully, whereas with HTTP, client authentication is not mandatory.

HTTP also essentially fixes many of the issues incurred by FTP. For example, FTP has very little overhead and no metadata, while HTTP provides this. Another thing to consider is that FTP can use non-standard ports, which can make getting through firewalls difficult, especially if you’re using Secure Sockets Layer (SSL). HTTP is a well-known port and is simpler for firewalls to manage.

How HTTP is Similar to FTP

While they both have two words in common, “transfer protocol,” there are substantial differences in their levels of security, ability to maintain multiple sessions and security, as noted earlier. What is similar about HTTP and FTP? They both use TCP as the protocol of choice. In addition, both HTTP and FTP establish a data connection.

So, Which One is Better?

Although FTP may help keep data safer due to the mandatory client authentication, a perk over HTTP, it’s not necessarily the most secure option and can leave your file transfers at risk. For secure transmission that protects the username and password, and encrypts the content, FTP is often secured with SSL/Transport Layer Security (TLS), also known as FTPS. Or, it’s replaced with Secure Shell (SSH) File Transfer Protocol (SFTP).

Although HTTP isn’t encrypted, Hyper Text Transfer Protocol Secure (HTTPS) exists for this reason. HTTPS is the secure version of HTTP where communication(s) between the browser and the website are encrypted by TLS or SSL, its predecessor.

Ultimately, FTP is more efficient at transferring large files, whereas HTTP is better for transferring smaller files such as web pages. Although both utilize TCP as the protocol of choice, HTTP uses a persistent connection, thus making the performance of the TCP better with HTTP than with FTP.

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