Is FTP the Right Solution for Your Organization?

“Please get that file to me.” I said. “Sure,” he said, “I’ll put it up on my ftp server. You get a client that does ftp to a server, and you’ll be able to pull it down.” Simple and quick? Sure. Secure and scalable?  Definitely not.

It’s kind of like shopping for something big, like a car. As a consumer, when you’re looking to make a large purchase, you make decisions by evaluating your need, ability and objectives. Shopping around is a critical aspect of the process. You wouldn’t buy the first sports car you saw on the lot when you have five children and two dogs, right?

The same is true for selecting the right solution for transferring files within your organization. Many companies recognize the importance file transfer technology plays in their enterprise, and have adopted strategic solutions that meet a broad set of requirements around reliability, scalability and security. In other companies, file transfer is synonymous with “ftp to a server.” The latter may work well for ad hoc transfers within the corporate network between somewhat technical users, but it doesn’t take into account the broader scope of use cases and requirements.

Where does “ftp to a server” play well?  How does that contrast with the capabilities delivered in a more comprehensive managed file transfer (MFT) solution?

Consider the following contrast between FTP and MFT:

FTP to a Server: Managed File Transfer:
  • Lower initial cost – FTP solutions are an inexpensive way to transfer files, photos and video clips, which enable businesses of all sizes to find a solution to fit their budget.
  • Higher initial cost – MFT solutions often cost more to implement, but making an upfront investment can pay off in the long run.
  • Needs a command line or drag-and-drop user interface – command line FTP is a bit of a challenge for your standard business users. GUI drag-and-drop clients help, but they have to be deployed to the user’s workstation to be used.
  • Browser user interface and email integration – In addition to supporting traditional command line and GUI drag-and-drop clients, MFT solutions provide more intuitive browser-based user interfaces and plugins that support even large file transfers through email.
  • Clumsy automation – FTP automation is typically done through scripts.  Any author of FTP-based scripts can share with you the challenges associated with ensuring that an FTP transfer to a server has actually completed successfully so that the processing that needs to happen after the transfer is able to get started.
  • Simplified automation – Good MFT solutions build error recovery and post-processing right into the file transfer commands. This means that scripters don’t have to wrap scripting around the file transfer command to cover those needs.
  • No error recovery – FTP doesn’t have the inherent ability to recover from an error or alert an administrator when a problem occurs.
  • Graceful error recovery – MFT solutions offer a recovery mechanism when transfers fail.  Many MFT solutions automatically attempt to retry failed file transfer attempts. Most have built-in alerting when an error is detected so that administrators know as soon as a problem occurs.
  • No data protection – Even though FTP is a convenient option for transferring files, there are some security risks.  Usernames and Passwords are not encrypted as they are exchanged over the network. Also, unless encryption technologies external to FTP are used (such as PGP), the payload of the transfer is not encrypted over the network.
  • Encryption is built in – MFT solutions offer a higher level of security for transferring files. Information is encrypted as it is exchanged over the network. Good MFT solutions are DMZ-friendly, removing the requirement that sensitive files sit exposed to the Internet while they wait to be downloaded.
  • File size limits – If you’re doing FTP to or from a server, and need to transfer a large file, you may be in for trouble. A 4 GB file may be larger than you think you’ll ever need to transfer, but I’ve heard too many customers talk about problems with FTP reliability to think it’s just for files that large. In fact one customer mentioned problems with their implementation for files at the 150Mb size.
  • Files of any size – MFT solutions have the ability to handle very large files, which means you never have to worry if a file is too large to send.  And if there are problems, good MFT solutions recover gracefully by restarting the transfer where it left off instead of back at the beginning.

 

Ultimately each organization must prioritize their needs. But I caution each business to carefully evaluate the type of information they are transferring and what makes the most sense. Nobody wants to be left hauling a family of five in a BMW Z3.

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