Using a Free FTP Application to Transfer Website Files

core_ftp_logoAlthough there are many easy ways to maintain a website nowadays, occasionally you might need to use File Transfer Protocol to perform a task for which your usual user interface is not equipped.  What, you may ask, is File Transfer Protocol?

File transfer protocol was an early method for transferring files from one computer to another over the internet.  Simple FTP is a text based protocol requiring a user name and password, but no other means for protecting the security of files.  Simple FTP encrypts neither the user name nor the password nor the content transferred.  A hacker “listening in” to a simple FTP session can easily gain access to the user name, password, and content, thus compromising the security of the website.  For this reason, make sure to use a safe version of FTP, called SFTP.  SFTP apps encrypt the user name, password, and content.  When you are configuring an FTP connection, make sure that you indicate you want it to be SFTP.  Sometimes the choice is called SSH/SFTP.  That’s good too.

Why would anyone need to use a file transfer protocol application?  Here are some typical uses:

  • To back up the files on your remote server by downloading copies of them to your personal computer.
  • To upload files to the remote server, such as sound files or .pdf files, which you want to make playable or downloadable for visitors who click on live links on your website or blog.  When you upload such a file, its Web address (URL) will be in the following format:  http://www.yourdomain/folder in which you have uploaded the file/name of the file.suffix of the file (e.g., .mp3, .pdf, etc.).  Here’s an example at my CyberKenBlog server, the chirping of a Cardinal:  http://www.cyberkenblog.com/files/Cardinal_sounds.mp3.  When you click on this link your personal computer downloads the .mp3 file, and launches a preset application to play .mp3 files.  Then you hear the Cardinal chirping.  Try it!
  • Every so often you may need to make text changes in a file or files on the server.  Don’t do this unless you know what you’re doing! Some FTP applications let you edit text files without downloading them.  I prefer to download a file, edit it on my own computer, save the changes, look over them very carefully, and then, if everything is correct, upload the changed file to the folder from which I downloaded it.  When I do this, the FTP application asks whether I want to overwrite the file on the server.  If I click “yes,” the change on the server copy is accomplished.

When you use an FTP application to connect to a website for the first time you will need to enter the FTP user name and password for that website.  If you can’t remember these, contact customer service at the company that hosts your website.  They will either send you the old user name and password by email, or provide a way for you to set new ones.  Next, in the configuration windows of the FTP application, enter the domain of the site you want to connect to, and the FTP user name and password.  Then click “connect.”  If you’ve done everything correctly, in a moment you will see the files on the remote server appear at the right hand side of the application window.

Most FTP applications show the files on the local computer (your personal computer) on the left hand side of this window, and the files on the remote server on the right hand side.  On both sides you can navigate to the folder which contains the file(s) you want to transfer.  By right clicking on a file you can access commands, such as “copy,” “delete,” “upload,” etc.  When you upload a file from your personal computer to the remote server it will end up in the folder whose contents you are viewing at the right hand side of the screen.  Make sure you have the correct destination folder in the right hand side of the screen.  Otherwise you will upload the file to the wrong destination folder.

When you first open an FTP connection to a remote server you will see files at the root level of that computer, or perhaps a folder below it, like the home folder.  Where are the files to your website?  The answer varies according to the filing practices of your hosting company.  In the case of one website I maintain the files are located in a folder named “htdocs.”  In the case of another of my websites, hosted on a different company’s server, the files reside in a folder named “public_html”.  If you are unsure where your website files reside, ask customer service at your hosting company.  Files for a WordPress website are generally placed in a folder named “wp”, and that folder is located within the folder that contains all the public html files.

There are many good FTP programs that employ the safe FTP (SFTP) mode of transfer.  And many of these are free!  I have been using free Core Lite (whose logo heads this post) for many years on my Windows computer, and I like it very much.  Filezilla is another good free choice.  Mac users might like to try the open source app, CyberDuck, or other free FTP apps reviewed at http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/8-free-ftp-clients-for-mac/.

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