No one wants their information to fall into the wrong hands.
Whether it’s business documents or personal photos, there’s a certain peace of mind that everyone feels when they send or transfer files in a secure way.
You can cross your fingers when you hit send, or you can feel confident that your files are being sent using encryption and other security standards when you utilize a secure file transfer protocol (SFTP).
What is a secure file transfer protocol?
A secure file transfer protocol is a network protocol for transferring, accessing, and managing files between machines over an encrypted connection.
Businesses that use SFTP can securely transfer information like billing data, funds, and data recovery files. It builds on File Transfer Protocol (FTP) software and uses the SSH (secure shell) protocol to transfer files and requires the client to be authenticated by the server for enhanced security elements.
No matter what kind of file sharing is taking place, to ensure that all passwords and sensitive information are kept secure, SFTP commands and data are encrypted so that nothing is exposed to the network in plain text.
SFTP and other protocols
To get a better grasp of SFTP, you need to know more about FTP, the SSH protocol, and how they differ and relate.
First things first, a protocol is the set of rules and guidelines that must be followed when communicating data. These rules are broken down for each step in the process before communication between two or more computers or servers. In order for the networks to successfully transmit data, they must follow the rules within the protocol.
Now, let’s further explain what these protocols actually mean.
SSH Protocol: Secure Shell Protocol was first developed in 2006 by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) to replace older shell protocols that weren’t as secure. It’s used to create a protected connection between the remote server and a computer. It utilizes a public key encryption method to provide secure user authentication and encrypted communications across the internet.
SFTP: Designed to be an extension of SSH to provide secure file transfer capabilities.
FTP: Provides users with a way to move files from a local computer to a website’s server. FTP isn’t secure and is often a target of malicious cyber attacks.
SFTP and SSH work together to send encrypted data connections between the client and the server to allow passwords and other sensitive information to be transferred securely over the network.
When it comes to FTP vs. SFTP, there are some key differences to keep in mind. The most obvious difference is that FTP doesn’t offer a secure channel to transfer files between hosts, but SFTP does. Additionally, FTP isn’t encrypted, while SFTP is. In order for you to have the same kind of security using FTP, you’d need to then implore a virtual private network (VPN).
How does SFTP work?
When you need a secure server to server file transfer between you and your business partners, a secure file transfer protocol is what you need.
While it may sound complicated, it’s relatively straightforward. SFTP works with SSH to establish encryption algorithms to securely move data to the server to keep files unreadable during the entire process. It then utilizes authentication to prevent unauthorized file access, so nothing ever falls into the wrong hands, providing businesses with a higher level of file transfer protection.
It’s also important to note that SFTP runs on Port 22, but it can be assigned to whatever port number you choose. SFTP is also a packet-based protocol, not a text-based protocol, meaning it’s easier to process because it’s so compact. Because of this, SFTP is faster than other protocols.
Tip: Port numbers are used to identify both the senders and receivers of information to and from the server.
SFTP clients and servers
Before you can use an SFTP, you need both an SFTP client and server.
An SFTP client is the necessary software that provides you with the ability to connect to the server. It also makes it possible to upload files to be stored to the server, as well as download files that are already being stored.
An SFTP server is the place in which files are stored, and when you can connect and retrieve these files from. The server provides its services so users can store and transfer data safely. The server uses the SSH file transfer protocol to keep the connection secure. A software vendor may store software updates on their SFTP server so that customers can download secure files with an SFTP client.
Connecting to an SFTP
When you’re interested in connecting to an SFTP server, you’ll need to establish a password authentication or a public/private key for authentication.
Password authentication is when a user requires a username and a password to be able to log into the SFTP server.
Using keys means that a pair of public and private keys are created, with the public key being stored in the SFTP server. Then, the client with the private key will verify upon login with the server that the keys match. Once verification occurs, the SFTP client will gain access to the system. A password or phrase can also be added to the private to take security even further.
Since FTP gives anyone the ability to read passwords, commands, and file contents in plain text, it’s not a feasible solution for corporate files and data.
What is SFTP used for?
There’s no denying that SFTP is a successor to FTP, as it's used for many situations where file security is a top priority.
One of the main instances of use is to comply with the standards of the federal Health Insurance Probability and Accessibility Act (HIPAA) that governs protected health information.
Any business or organization that works with a hospital or healthcare provider must use SFTP to secure all types of data. Doing so provides peace of mind that the data is shielded in transfer, making sure that hackers won’t be able to obtain it, and that all parties involved comply with HIPAA compliance and standards and that no violations of the law applies.
In addition to healthcare laws, SFTP is also used to comply with standards for data protection. Depending on the type of files and data, the General Data Protection Rule (GDPR), may require this type of security to be met before the transfer.
Advantages of using SFTP
There are many reasons why businesses choose to implement secure file transfer protocols into their strategies.
Speed: The servers used with SFTP can easily support large file transfers, as well as transferring multiple files at once. Because of this, you’ll save time when moving data from one server to another.
Security: Thanks to encryption, public key authentication, and data security, SFTP can preserve the confidentiality and integrity of your data. There’s added peace of mind in knowing that data is also checked to make sure it’s coming from a trusted source and that customers and sources are verified before a connection is established.
Manageable: Using SFTP gives you the ability to easily manage your server using a web interface or an SFTP client.
Firewalls: SFTP and firewalls go hand in hand. Data, commands, and sensitive information are all sent over a single connection to Port 22. This port is, by default, enabled with firewalls with their own pre-set security parameters.
Metadata: Users of SFTP are able to access metadata of their files, like data, time, size, permissions, and other information, ensuring that all documents are easier to find.
Disadvantages of using SFTP
Because no technology is going to be perfect, secure file transfer protocol does come with a few disadvantage
Because SSH has so many protection features, the keys are harder to manage and validate.
Can be harder to configure properly without support from software providers.
SFTP configuration standards may lead to compatibility issues between software titles and different vendors.
It’s good to feel secure
When it comes to secure data transfer for your business, SFTP is the standard you should consider. No matter the industry, or the file type, SFTP will keep all information encrypted and secure in its transfer to the appropriate server, without sacrificing compliance.
Mara is a Senior Content Marketing Specialist at G2. In her spare time, she's typically at the gym polishing off a run, reading a book from her overcrowded bookshelf, or right in the middle of a Netflix binge. Obsessions include the Chicago Cubs, Harry Potter, and all of the Italian food imaginable. (she/her/hers)