INFO: Secure FTP, FTP/SSL, SFTP, FTPS, FTP, SCP... What's the difference?


FTP classic

  • Plain FTP
  • Clear-text password sent over the network
  • Typically runs over TCP port 21
  • Defined by RFC 959 and 1123
  • Implemented in FTP/SSL library



  • Often called 'FTPS'
  • Often called 'Secure FTP'
  • Plain FTP over TLS/SSL channel
  • Password is encrypted
  • Transfer is encrypted
  • Typically runs over TCP port 21 or 990
  • Defined by RFC 959, 1123, 4217 and 2228
  • Implemented in FTP/SSL library


SSH File Transfer Protocol

  • SSH File Transfer Protocol
  • Has nothing common with original FTP
  • Often called 'Secure FTP'
  • Password is encrypted
  • Transfer is encrypted
  • Typically runs over TCP port 22
  • RFC not yet finished
  • Implemented in SFTP client library
  • Implemented in SFTP server library
  • Implemented in Buru SFTP Server

There are several different secure file transfer protocols that are, unfortunately, named in a very confusing way that often makes it difficult to distinguish one from another. The aim of this page is to provide some guidelines to make it easier to determine which is which.

Communication protocols

Basically, there are the following file transfer protocols around:

FTP - the plain old FTP protocol that has been around since 1970s. The acronym stands for "File Transfer Protocol". It usually runs over TCP port 21.

SFTP - another, completely different file transfer protocol that has nothing to do with FTP. SFTP runs over an SSH session, usually on TCP port 22. It has been around since late 1990s. The acronym actually stands for "SSH File Transfer Protocol".

SCP - a variant of BSD rcp utility that transfers files over SSH session. The SCP protocol has been mostly superseded by the more comprehensive SFTP protocol and some implementations of the "scp" utility actually use SFTP instead.

Secure communication layers

Additionally, there are the following two secure communication layers:

SSH - a protocol that allows establishing a secure channel between the local and the remote computer. Serves as an underlying channel for associated protocols such as secure shell, port forwarding, SFTP or SCP. While it is possible to run the (slightly modified) plain old FTP protocol over SSH, this is not very common, fortunately. File transfer over SSH is nearly always done using SFTP or SCP.

TLS - this is almost generally known primarily by its old name - SSL - and provides a way of securing otherwise unsecure protocols such as HTTP, SMTP, POP3 or FTP. Please note that SSL 3.1 is called TLS 1.0, and therefore TLS 1.0 is a newer version of the protocol than SSL 3.0, despite the lower version number. HTTP over SSL is often called HTTPS, and FTP over SSL is often called FTPS and has two variants, explicit (starts as an unencrypted FTP session and is secured on client request) and implicit (is secured right from the beginning and therefore needs a separate TCP port, usually 990). The implicit mode is deprecated, but still widely used.

Secure file transfer protocols, or fitting it all together

In an ideal world, the information above should be just enough. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The file transfer protocols are also referred to by other names, and even the names that only refer to a one single protocol are often mistakenly used for the wrong protocol by (understandably) confused authors.

FTP - should be only used for the plain old FTP protocol.

SFTP - should be only used for SFTP, the SSH file transfer protocol. However, people often shorten Secure FTP into SFTP - this is not correct, because the S in SFTP does not stand for Secure, but for SSH.

SFTP2 - this confusing name is used by some vendors to highlight the obvious fact that their SFTP protocol runs over SSH2. For all practical purposes, consider this to be a synonym of SFTP, because SSH1 has been deprecated for many years.

Secure FTP - this name is the most confusing, because it is used to refer to either of the two different protocols. Whenever this name is used, it is necessary to specify whether the SSH-based or SSL-based file transfer protocol is meant.

SSH FTP, FTP over SSH - fortunately, these names are not used very often. They usually refer to SFTP, the SSH file transfer protocol. Even though it is possible to run the (slightly modified) plain old FTP protocol over SSH, this is not very common.

FTP/SSL, FTP/TLS, FTP over SSL, FTP over TLS, FTPS - should be only used for FTP over TLS/SSL.

SFTP over SSL - although the SFTP protocol can utilize any underlying data stream, in practice SFTP over anything other that SSH is very rare. It is much more likely the term was used by mistake in place of either "SFTP over SSH" or "FTP over SSL".

SCP - should be only used for scp protocol/utility, a variant of BSD rcp. Some applications with SCP in its name now use SFTP by default instead - examples of this practice are WinSCP application and scp2 utility.

TFTP is yet another file transfer protocol different from any of above.

Rebex libraries and servers implementing these protocols: