SFTP vs FTPS. Choosing the Right Protocol for Your Needs

Created by On November 24, 2023 |  Last Updated On March 30, 2024
SFTP vs FTPS image

File transfer protocols like SFTP and FTPS ensure data travels securely over networks. These protocols come from different backgrounds and have unique purposes. SFTP grew from the Secure Shell protocol (SSH). At the same time, FTPS improved the traditional File Transfer Protocol (FTP) by adding an extra layer of protection through Transport Layer Security (TLS). 

Let’s dive into these network protocols and explore the key differences between SFTP vs FTPS.

What is SFTP?

SFTP, or Secure Shell File Transfer Protocol is like a bodyguard for your files. It helps move them safely between computers using a unique language called SSH. SSH has been around since the 1990s and is like a superhero for internet safety. SFTP is an upgraded version of SSH created to make file transfers more secure.

Here are some cool things about SFTP:

  • It only needs one connection to send and receive files.
  • The way it talks is a bit like secret code—binary, not easily readable by humans.
  • It works well with Linux and Unix-based computers.
  • It can control how files move between servers, giving it some superhero powers.

How Does SFTP Work?

SFTP (Secure File Transfer Protocol) uses SSH ( Secure Shell ), guaranteeing the security check. Here’s how it operates:

  • Initiating the Connection: The process begins when the client and the server establish a connection using an SSH authentication method.
  • SSH Authentication Test: The client tests SSH access to the server to ensure a secure connection.
  • Establishing the SFTP Connection: Upon successful testing, the client and server establish an SFTP connection.
  • Switching to SFTP Interface: The SFTP client then transitions to the SFTP interface, where secure data transfer occurs.

What Is an SFTP Server?

An SFTP Server is the receiving endpoint in a secure file transfer that SSH (Secure Shell) enables. It grants access to shell accounts on a remote SFTP server during message exchanges. 

Data security is ensured through SSH Message Authentication Code (MAC) applied to data packets, rendering unauthorised access attempts unreadable due to encryption.

What is FTPS?

Now, let’s talk about FTPS or File Transfer Protocol Secure. It’s like putting an extra lock on an old way of sending files called FTP. FTP has been around since the 1970s, like a grandparent of the internet. But it wasn’t originally built to be super safe.

Some cool things about FTPS:

  • It adds a security layer called TLS to the old FTP to keep files safe during the journey.
  • Unlike SFTP, it needs two primary connections and one extra for data.
  • Humans can easily read the way it talks, making it more understandable.
  • It’s suitable for Windows computers that have FTP servers and can follow special commands.

Check out our article on What is bandwidth in networking?

How Does FTPS Work?

FTPS (or FTP Secure) is a security-enhanced version of the classic file transfer protocol, “FTP” (File Transport Protocol). However, unlike SFTP, which uses SSH to provide encryption and security services for that protocol, FTPS also employs SSL/TLS (Secure Sockets Layer)/Transport secure layer. Here’s how FTPS works:

  • Encryption Negotiation: FTPS servers and their clients negotiate encryption settings when connected. The type of encryption algorithm used, as well as the critical exchange method, are specified.
  • Authentication: The client requests that the server accept its authentication credentials, typically a username and password. certificates) Many configurations also permit certificate-based authentication.
  • Data Transfer: Once the client verifies and establishes encryption, it can securely transfer files and data to or from the recognised client.
  • Two Modes: FTPS works in Explicit and Implicit. The main difference between Explicit FTPS and Implicit FTPS is that the former requires clients to specifically ask for secure communications, while the latter assumes secured sessions from the start.

Differences between SFTP and FTPS:

SFTP, and FTPS; File Transfer Protocol secure are among the unique protocols used in ensuring encrypted data is sent safely from one place to another. The protocols have their own distinct points of origin, functions and areas of application.

Now let’s find out the differences between these two protocols, and identify some key features that distinguish them from one another.

ConnectionRequires only one connection to send and receive data.Requires two primary connections and one extra for data.
CommunicationBinary communication, not easily readable by humans.Allows humans to comprehend and read communication.
SuitabilitySuitable for Linux and Unix-based network servers.Suitable for Windows servers that have FTP servers.
Server-to-Server File TransfersSupports server-to-server file transfers with control over file permissions.Permits the execution of a server-to-server file transfer.
SpeedTypically slower due to packet delivery, encryption, and handshaking overhead.Generally has the potential to be faster, designed for optimal speed.
Security FeaturesRelies on SSH keys or passwords for user authentication, encrypts data transmission, ensures integrity checks, and supports server authentication.Adds a layer of security through TLS, supports SSL/TLS with X.509 certificates for robust authentication.

Which Is Faster, SFTP or FTPS?

Let’s look at the speed between FTPS and SFTP. FTPS generally has the potential to be faster than SFTP. The design of FTPS is geared towards optimising speed, employing separate control and data channels that run asynchronously.

This approach aims to achieve the highest data transfer speed possible. In contrast, SFTP operates within a single track, interweaving control packets with the data flow.

However, it’s important to note that, in practice, an SFTP connection often proves noticeably slower than a typical FTP connection. This slowdown occurs because of the additional overhead introduced by packet delivery, encryption, and handshaking inherent in the SFTP protocol. 

While FTPS prioritises speed, both protocols’ actual performance can be subject to influence from network conditions and other variables. Therefore, when deciding between SFTP and FTPS, users should consider speed, security requirements, and specific needs.

SFTP or FTPS? Which is Famous?

FTPS is currently the more dominant protocol and is considered the preferable choice for a broader user base due to its ease of configuration across various platforms. It remains widely used and favoured for its simplicity and compatibility.

Despite its security limitations, the straightforward nature of FTP makes it a popular choice for many data transfer needs. Is FTP secure? Yes, despite its security limitations, it remains widely used.

On the other hand, SFTP is gaining traction, especially in more recent devices and software. The SSH keys SFTP use enhance security but come with added complexity in management and validation.

As a result, users who don’t specifically require the advanced security features provided by SSH keys often lean towards FTP due to its simplicity and widespread compatibility.

The choice between FTPS (Secure FTP) and SFTP often depends on the user’s specific needs, security requirements, and the platforms they work with. 

While FTPS is the go-to option for its simplicity and wide-ranging support, SFTP is becoming more dominant, especially in environments where additional security features are crucial.

SFTP vs FTPS Security?

It’s essential to consider your needs and circumstances compared with SFTP versus FTPS for secure file transfers. Here’s a breakdown of what each protocol offers:

FTPS Security Features:

FTPS, standing for FTP over SSL/TLS, focuses on securing data during transfer and remote connections. Its key security elements are:

  • SSL/TLS Encryption: Ensures data confidentiality during network transmission.
  • Authentication Methods: Includes password-based login for security and client certificate authentication, allowing only authorised users with digital certificates. Servers also use SSL/TLS certificates, confirming their legitimacy.
  • Data Integrity: Protects files from tampering, ensuring they stay intact from origin to destination.
  • Firewall Compatibility: Utilises designated ports for controlled access and simplified firewall setup.
  • Broad Compatibility: This technology can be used on multiple platforms and adjusted to suit different IT configurations.
  • File Permission Management: Offers control over file access, similar to SFTP.
  • Mutual Authentication: Allows client and server to confirm each other’s identity, enhancing overall transfer security.

FTPS Security Features:

SFTP, based on Secure Shell (SSH) protocol version 2.0, is known for its robust security in secure data transfers. Its security aspects include:

  • Strong Encryption: Protects data during transit, maintaining confidentiality.
  • Single Data Channel: Uses one connection for uploading and downloading, streamlining the process.
  • Binary Communication: Non-human-readable data format adds a security layer.
  • Compatibility with Linux/Unix Servers: This makes it suitable for secure file transfers in these systems.
  • Server-to-Server Transfer: Allows fast transfers between servers with control over file permissions.
  • Flexible Authentication: Supports various authentication methods, including user ID/password and SSH keys.
  • Dual Authentication: Combines user ID/password with SSH keys for an extra security layer.

Both SFTP and FTPS provide secure file transfer methods. Each has unique advantages of its own. Its SSH-based encryption and dual authentication system make it generally thought of as more confident, making SFTP the preferred choice for exchanging data.

Unlike the other systems, FTPS is especially strong in SSL/TLS encryption and broad compatibility. It, therefore, is suitable for organisations that have already established traditional FTP. 

It would help to tailor your choice to your organisation’s security needs, system compatibility, and the data you are transferring.

SFTP vs. FTPS: Which One Is Right For You?

So which should you choose, SFTP or FTPS? It depends on your particular needs and preferences. Both protocols offer secure file transfer, but they have differences in terms of implementation and compatibility:

  • Security Needs: SFTP’s SSH encryption offers robust security for transferring susceptible data. It’s ideal for files that demand high protection.
  • System Compatibility: If your setup already uses SSH for other tasks, SFTP might integrate more smoothly. But for older systems that rely on FTP, FTPS adds a security layer without needing significant changes.
  • Data Sensitivity: SFTP’s robust encryption and secure authentication recommend it for highly confidential data. FTPS is an excellent middle ground for less sensitive data but still needs safeguarding.

Ultimately, your choice should match your organisation’s needs and goals. Understanding each protocol’s strengths ensures a secure and efficient file transfer.

Many organisations combine both, leveraging Managed File Transfer (MFT) solutions to integrate various protocols for a comprehensive and flexible file transfer solution. Please note that when using these protocols, you must know which FTPS port you use, which can impact your connection.

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