May 18, 2023

    SFTP vs. FTP: Understanding the Difference

    SFTP vs. FTP: Understanding the Difference

    Data is a valuable asset, one that’s important for businesses to protect. Because data is important, it’s vital that businesses put a lot of thought into how data is stored, used, and transferred. Opening data up to transfers via the internet can also mean opening data up to potential breaches and compromises.

    Let’s look at two common file transfer options – SFTP vs. FTP. Learning more about these options will give you insight into how you can properly share your company’s data.

    What are FTP and SFTP?

    FTP is the traditional file transfer protocol. It’s a basic way of using the Internet to share files. SFTP (or Secure File Transfer Protocol) is an alternative to FTP that also allows you to transfer files, but adds a layer of security to the process. SFTP uses SSH (or secure shell) encryption to protect data as it’s being transferred. This means data is not exposed to outside entities on the Internet when it is sent to another party.

    In terms of SFTP, you have a couple of options for managing transfers. A cloud-based managed SFTP file sharing solution is a common choice for businesses. There are two types of solutions you can choose from – public and private cloud SFTP solutions.

    • Public Cloud - These are cloud-based solutions that are hosted by large companies, like Amazon AWS, Google Cloud Platform (GCP), or Microsoft Azure, and server space can be purchased to facilitate your company’s file storage and sharing needs. 
    • Private Cloud - One way to create a private cloud solution is building and managing the network in-house. Private cloud solutions can also be hosted and managed by outside vendors. The vendor creates a Virtual Private Data Center (VPDC) for each client and these are not on a shared network environment like public cloud options.

    Businesses often choose SFTP solutions due to enhanced security. However, many others still rely on FTP to facilitate data transfers. To better understand which file sharing option can meet your company’s needs, let’s look at the differences between SFTP vs. FTP. Understanding how these file transfer options differ will help you choose which option is best to transfer your data. There are three key areas in which SFTP vs. FTP differ: encryption, firewalls, and potential vulnerabilities.

    Unmasking the Secure Choice for Your Data Transfer Needs

    Which one should you entrust with your precious data? In the spirit of making informed decisions, we've stripped these protocols down to their bare essentials. Dive into our comparison table below, where we pit SFTP against FTP, feature by feature. It's time to unveil the secure choice for your data transfer needs.



    SFTP (Secure File Transfer Protocol)

    FTP (File Transfer Protocol)


    Provides encryption, ensuring data security during transfer.

    Does not provide encryption, leaving data exposed during transfer.


    Only requires one port (port 22) to be open, simplifying firewall configurations and enhancing security.

    Requires multiple ports to be open, complicating firewall configurations and potentially increasing vulnerability.


    Meets requirements for various compliance standards (HIPAA, GDPR, DFARS, CMMC, ITAR, PCI-DSS, SOX, GLBA) due to its secure nature.

    May not meet certain compliance standards due to lack of encryption and potential vulnerabilities.


    Lower potential for vulnerabilities due to encrypted transfers and single-port operation.

    Higher potential for vulnerabilities due to unencrypted transfers and multi-port operation.

    Data Protection

    Provides robust data protection measures, making it suitable for transferring sensitive information.

    Lacks robust data protection measures, making it less suitable for transferring sensitive information.


    Transferring data is a vital, day-to-day task for many businesses. While some data transfers may not require protection, other files may house sensitive information – information that is too sensitive to fall into the wrong hands. This is why encrypting your data is essential. Encryption scrambles data, making it decipherable only by the sender and the recipient, ensuring that even if a file is intercepted, it won’t be intelligible to any unintended parties. 

    So, how does encryption impact your choice between SFTP vs. FTP? The traditional file transfer protocol (FTP) is a simple way of transferring data, but it offers nothing in terms of data protection. Files are transferred without encryption, making data readable for anyone who intercepts it. While this is fine if you’re just sending unimportant files, this could lead to major data compromises if you’re sending crucial data. 

    SFTP, in contrast, offers a secure shell protecting files. Because files are encrypted, you don’t have to worry about data falling into the wrong hands. This is the ideal mode of transfer for any file that you want to protect. SFTP uses an encrypted type of fingerprint technology to first verify host keys before any data transfer has taken place.

    In terms of compliance, encryption makes a huge difference. If your organization is subject to compliance standards (including, but not limited to, the ones listed below), you could face serious consequences if you fail to encrypt data:

    • HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act): SFTP should be used instead of FTP because it provides encryption during data transfer, ensuring the confidentiality and integrity of protected health information (PHI), a requirement under HIPAA.

    • GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation): SFTP is preferred over FTP as it offers robust data protection measures, including encryption and secure authentication, which are essential for complying with GDPR's stringent requirements for protecting personal data.

    • DFARS (Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement): SFTP should be used instead of FTP because it provides secure and encrypted file transfers, a necessity for protecting controlled unclassified information (CUI) as required by DFARS.

    • CMMC (Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification): SFTP is recommended over FTP because it provides secure data transmission, which aligns with the CMMC's requirement for implementing appropriate cybersecurity practices and processes.

    • ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations): SFTP should be used instead of FTP because it ensures secure and encrypted data transfers, which is crucial for protecting sensitive defense-related information as mandated by ITAR.

    • PCI-DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard): SFTP is preferred over FTP because it provides secure and encrypted transmission of cardholder data, a key requirement for achieving PCI-DSS compliance.

    • SOX (Sarbanes-Oxley Act): SFTP should be used instead of FTP because it offers secure and encrypted data transfers, which are necessary for maintaining the integrity of financial data and reports as required by SOX.

    • GLBA (Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act): SFTP is recommended over FTP because it provides secure and encrypted data transfers, which is essential for protecting consumers' personal financial information as required by GLBA.

    Encryption isn’t just a feature offered by SFTP that’s nice to have. It’s an essential step you should take to protect your data. If you fail to comply with these standards, your business could be subject to some serious fines.

    Comparing Channel Usage and Security in FTP and SFTP

    FTP and SFTP protocols exhibit significant differences in their approach to channel usage during file transfers, which directly impacts the security and simplicity of the process.

    FTP, or File Transfer Protocol, operates by opening multiple channels to facilitate file transfers. This process is automated, with the client and software negotiating the necessary channels. However, this approach necessitates the opening of multiple ports on the client-side firewall. While this might seem efficient, it inadvertently exposes the client's firewall to potential vulnerabilities. The opening of multiple channels can create security loopholes that could be exploited, posing a risk to the integrity and confidentiality of the data being transferred.

    On the other hand, SFTP, or Secure File Transfer Protocol, offers a more secure and streamlined process. Unlike FTP, SFTP requires only a single port - port 22 - to be open for both sending and receiving data. This not only simplifies the configuration of the firewall but also significantly enhances the security of file sharing. By limiting the data transfer to a single port, SFTP reduces the potential points of entry for malicious activities, thereby offering a more secure alternative to FTP.

    In conclusion, when considering the balance between security and simplicity, SFTP emerges as the superior choice due to its single-port operation, which minimizes potential vulnerabilities and simplifies firewall configurations. This makes SFTP a more secure and efficient choice for file sharing, particularly for businesses and organizations handling sensitive data.


    In addition to encryption and firewalls, SFTP beats FTP in terms of potential vulnerabilities, too. Any vulnerability can potentially be exploited and turned into a data breach. When it comes to inherent vulnerabilities in the file transfer process, FTP has a number of prominent ones.

    The first vulnerability is that FTP is prone to human error. Sending a file to the wrong recipient or sending the wrong file altogether can lead to some serious problems for your company. With a greater level of security provided by SFTP, you can minimize the potential for human error. You can also take steps to promote a culture of security awareness within your business to reduce the potential for human error.

    Intercepting data is simple with FTP, too. All it takes is the right tools and a little bit of knowledge to take advantage of these vulnerabilities. Even the most amateur hackers can intercept an FTP transfer. Sensitive data is often worth too much to risk a breach. 

    Again, host keys can present vulnerabilities. Unlike SFTP which uses host keys to verify a recipient's identity before a transfer takes place, FTP does not. This is yet another way FTP transfers are less secure. All it takes is one accidental transfer to a wrong recipient for a file to be compromised. 

    When it comes to secure data transfers, SFTP is your best option. You can feel confident that encryption measures are up to compliance standards, and you’re avoiding the inherent vulnerabilities of FTP transfers. Plus, when you find a secure SFTP cloud file sharing solution, you’ll feel confident that you’re taking the appropriate steps to protect your data.


    Martin Horan

    Martin, Sharetru's Founder, brings deep expertise in secure file transfer and IT, driving market niche success through quality IT services.

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