Server administrators need to balance client capabilities, user interface, and security concerns when choosing the right free FTP software for their business.
It’s no secret that, despite the persistent popularity of file transfer protocol (FTP), the evolution of cybersecurity threats, safety standards, and cloud-based storage systems has changed the file transfer landscape. These elements have fundamentally altered what web developers and server administrators are looking for from FTP software, and clients who haven’t adapted to these needs generally fail to support users’ top priorities: security law compliance and ease of use.
Most internet users won’t need an FTP server to share files with other people, now that cloud-based services are so prevalent and accessible. However, many people still require FTP (or its more secure protocol alternatives, SFTP and FTPS) when carrying out web uploads and large file transfers.
As FTP is still part of the daily lives of many IT folks and even casual web developers, I’ve rounded up and reviewed the best free FTP clients available. For those who don’t need as many administrative functionalities or security measures, a free FTP client is probably equipped to serve the occasional or moderately sized file transfer, and I’ve included a “best-of” list below. However, for many corporations who need more rigorous encryption, better directory and file visibility, and more intensive management capabilities, paying for an FTP server software is a smart investment (and probably saves money in the long run, considering how expensive compliance violation fines and data security breaches can be).
In terms of paid software, I’d suggest SolarWinds® Serv-U®Managed File Transfer for its scalability, range of supported protocols, and comprehensive security controls.
Best Free FTP Clients
SolarWinds FTP Voyager is an entirely free FTP client Windows users will love. It supports FTP, FTPS, and SFTP, meaning it meets the security needs of a wide range of organizations. Further, it enables users to connect to multiple servers simultaneously and conduct several transfers concurrently, an important feature for frequent uploaders that other free FTP programs are lacking.
Because SolarWinds designed FTP Voyager with Windows users in mind, the interface will be familiar to veterans of the operating system. Plus, the split screen gives clear visibility into the state of your directories by placing the local and remote servers side by side and automatically synchronizing folders, enabling direct comparison and drag-and-drop file transfer from the Windows desktop. Perhaps most crucially, it automates file transfer with its full-featured scheduler.
Lastly, if your business scales up and requires more extensive file transfer management, you may decide paid software is the best option for your organization. FTP Voyager integrates seamlessly with SolarWinds upgrades to Serv-U FTP Server and Serv-U Managed File Transfer Server.
Cyberduck is another free FTP software respected by industry professionals. Luckily, it’s a free FTP client that can also benefit Mac users. The main advantage of Cyberduck is its widespread applicability: it serves Windows and Mac, and it acts as both server software and storage browser, meaning it supports FTP, SFTP, and WebDAV in addition to Amazon S3, Microsoft Azure, Google Drive, and Dropbox.
Users also value its manual editing capabilities, which allow them to change any text or binary file on the server, and its security specs. Interoperable with its Cryptomator tool, Cyberduck is capable of end-to-end encryption, not only encrypting file and directory names but encrypting file content individually and obfuscating the directory tree.
The major downsides of Cyberduck are its lackluster interface (lacking split-screen server juxtaposition), slow transfer speeds, and donation prompt. Each time the program updates, a banner requesting a donation appears—which can be mildly irritating but isn’t a deal-breaker given the client’s utility. Still, if you’re looking for a program capable of transferring large folders, Cyberduck isn’t your best bet. That said, Cyberduck is a great option for occasional, highly secure file transfers.
As many people know, FileZilla is the legacy program on this list and has been the go-to free FTP client for years—which makes it well worthy of consideration. It’s open-source, works across operating systems, supports FTP, SFTP, and FTPS protocols, allows multi-threaded file transfer, includes the drag-and-drop feature, and has an easily navigable graphical UI. Other strengths include its directory comparison and directory bookmark features and its remote file search capability.
So, what’s the problem? FileZilla has been mired in controversy one too many times to be considered totally secure. Back in 2014, SourceForge, the software host from which FileZilla was downloaded, was criticized for bundling adware with its installer file, meaning users unintentionally installed additional software. More recently, FileZilla raised alarms for malware in 2018, leading some institutions to ban its use within their organizations as a safety risk.
FileZilla’s features are both useful and convenient, but users can find them in other programs with a strong history of data security, like SolarWinds FTP Voyager.
Best Premium FTP Clients
Another tool from SolarWinds, Serv-U FTP Server enables file transfers from the web and mobile devices, has no trouble with large file transfers, and ensures data is never at rest in DMZ networks with a secure gateway. For both Windows and Linux, the Serv-U FTP Server client supports FTP and FTPS over IPv4 and IPv6 networks, making it a versatile, powerful program.
Beyond transfer specs, Serv-U FTP Server offers a host of compliance and management benefits. First, the Gateway add-on allows users to comply with PCI DSS and other industry regulations. Second, its security goes beyond smudging file directories and encrypting the content—it empowers users to limit concurrent sessions, block IP addresses when sessions time out and define access rights for users and groups. Its other management controls include transfer quota settings and automated file movement and deletion after transfer, functions which keep the directory organized and protect performance.
While the Serv-U FTP Server client is a premium option, it’s fairly inexpensive per server compared to other software and offers a fully functional 14-day free trial.
For those whose needs exceed the capacity of free tools, Serv-U Managed File Transfer Server is the client I’d recommend above every other. Not only does it have all the features included in SolarWinds Serv-U FTP Server, but it builds upon them to provide even more centralized file transfer management, automation, and oversight capabilities.
This managed file transfer (MFT) server program executes transfers supported by FTP, FTPS, SFTP, and HTTP/S over IPv4 and IPv6 networks while assisting with compliance demonstration for PSI DSS, HIPAA, FISMA, SOX, and other regulatory frameworks. This means file transfer is both safe and simple. With ad-hoc peer-to-peer file sharing, users can send or request files large and small from their browsers or their phones.
Serv-U Managed File Transfer Servereasily integrates with existing infrastructure like Active Directory and LDAP servers, so users can sync accounts to simplify authentication and customize limits and permissions by user, group, domain, or server. Further, Serv-U Managed File Transfer provides unparalleled monitoring capabilities, allowing users to track file server startup, configuration, and domain activity logs in the management console. This helps administrators troubleshoot with real-time updates while also creating a thorough record to satisfy internal vetting and external auditing.
Finally, its security measures once again level up with automated processes—sending emails, deleting files, or writing log messages—that take place when triggered by defined events. Serv-U Managed File Transfer Server also offers a two-week free trial with complete functionality.
Modern FTP Clients for Secure File Transfer
Organizations have many options when it comes to FTP clients and the right tool for each will vary with its file transfer, security, and budgetary needs. When choosing the FTP program that suits your organization, keep in mind any trade-offs between command lines and file editing and user interface, as well as any security sacrifices you make for ease of use or cost.
Because of the safety concerns that have plagued some open-sourced tools, it’s important to ensure your organization has powerful data protection and can demonstrate compliance when audited. For organizations with needs beyond simple transfers, a paid software can marry the FTP, management, and monitoring capabilities that free alternatives simply can’t.
Serv-U FTP Server and Serv-U Managed File Transfer Server are two premium offerings with superlative graphics UIs, operability across protocols and operating systems, safe and easy file transfers, and access rights management. I found these two SolarWinds products to offer the best balance of intuitive interface and comprehensive FTP and security functionalities, so, if you’re not sure yet about paying for an FTP client, it’s worthwhile to download the free trial and test the software for fit.
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