Secure File Transfer Protocol (SFTP)?
The Complete SFTP Guide
Get this webpage as an eBook for offline viewing!
Defining Secure File Transfer Protocol
SFTP stands for SSH File Transfer Protocol or Secure File Transfer Protocol. It is used to secure file transfers between a remote host server and a client user over a public network like the internet. SFTP ensures that the host and client are validated and authenticated.
Important Facts about SFTP
SFTP works in a client-server architecture. Clients always initiate a request to connect and servers passively listen for client requests.
The server’s and client’s identities are verified and the connection is encrypted before files are transferred.
File transfer is automatically resumed in the event of a break in connection.
SFTP clients can remotely manipulate files on the host server, such as copying or deleting.
SFTP Uses SSH
What Is SSH?
Secure shell (SSH) encrypts identities, passwords and other transmitted data to protect it from theft or tampering by unauthorized entities. Its default port is port 22. SSH refers to
- The network protocol
- SSH handshake process
What Is OpenSSH?
OpenSSH is an open-source implementation of the SSH protocol. SSH1 protocol support is disabled by default. OpenSSH is integrated into base operating systems such as Microsoft and Linux Red Hat.
SSH1 versus SSH2
* SSH1 and SSH2 are not compatible with each other.
- Has one monolithic protocol.
- Has weak checking using Cyclic Redundancy Check (CRC)-32.
- Supports only one session channel per connection.
- Allows only one form of authentication per session.
- Has separate transport, authentication and connection protocols.
- Has strong cryptographic integrity check using a message authentication code (MAC).
- Supports any number of session channels per connection.
- Allows more than one form of authentication per session.
An SSH Key Analogy
SSH uses keys to authenticate both participants. To understand how SSH keys work, refer to the following analogy.
Jack wants to send a confidential message to his colleague Jill. He needs to verify it is really Jill before he sends the actual message.
1. Jack locks message in a box and sends it to Jill’s saved address.
2. Jill receives the box. To verify it is really from Jack, she puts her own lock on the box and sends it to his saved address.
3. Jack recognizes his own lock and Jill’s signature lock. He removes his lock and sends it back to her.
4. Jill receives the box and sees that Jack has removed his lock, so she knows he received it. She removes her own lock to read the secret message.
SFTP in the TCP/IP Model
Now with an understanding of how SSH keys work, let’s look at how SFTP interacts with other layers of a network.
The file transfer process spans multiple layers of a network. When discussing how SFTP works, it is important to understand how it fits into the Transport Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) model. The TCP/IP model helps determine how a computer should be connected to the internet and how data should be transmitted. It is organized into four layers:
- Application Layer
Protocols that identify communication partners, determine resource availability and synchronize communication.
- Transport Layer
Divides the message received from the session layer into segments and sequences them. This ensures data packets are delivered error-free and in order.
- Internet Layer
Offers the procedural method for transferring data sequences from source to target with the help of various networks.
- Network Access Layer
Looks out for hardware addressing and allows for the physical transmission of data.
SFTP in TCP/IP Model
As a protocol, SFTP lives in the application layer.
It uses TCP in the transport layer to execute the TCP handshake and establish a connection across the internet and network layers.
Then, it secures the channel so the messages and data traveling across networks are encrypted.
Knowing what layers run underneath SFTP will help with understanding how SFTP works in the next section.
How SFTP Works
Authentication, Integrity & Confidentiality
1. User Command
2. TCP Handshake
3. Authentication & Encryption
4. File Is Transferred
1. User Command
The user runs a command to open the SSH connection.
SFTP can manipulate data remotely to copy files, delete files, etc. This can be done with SFTP commands.
To get a list of available SFTP commands, simply type help or ?.
2. TCP Handshake
Before an SFTP file transfer happens, the client and server verify the connection via a three-way TCP handshake. TCP is a connection-oriented protocol, which means that both computers verify a connection before files are sent.
The handshake occurs in a series of messages between the parties to confirm that they both have access to the correct port in the transport layer (port 22). If data does not arrive after the handshake is complete, TCP will make sure that it is re-sent.
3. Authentication & Encryption
Credentials are created and shared between parties. The credentials validate the server, negotiate a session key and authenticate the client.
The most secure option is for the host server to generate a user and password for the client and for both to create SSH private/public key pairs.
- The first set of key pairs only encrypts the messages between client and server that validate and authenticate the parties.
- The second set of key pairs is used to negotiate the session key and encrypt files.
1. The client verifies the server’s identity.
- If the client is accessing the server for the first time, the user has to manually verify the server’s public key.
- If the client is not accessing the server for the first time, the client can verify the server’s identity without user involvement.
Public Key Cryptography
How Does It Work?
Public keys can:
- Send encrypted data
- Verify digital signatures
- Authenticate communicating parties
Private keys can:
- Encrypt and decrypt data
- Generate digital signatures
* The private key should never be shared because it compromises file transfer security.
2. Both parties negotiate a session key using the Diffie-Hellman algorithm.
The session key encrypts the entire session. The Diffie-Hellman algorithm makes it possible for each party to combine their own private key and the public key from the other system to make an identical secret session key.
The key pairs used to create the session key are separate from the SSH keys used to validate and authenticate the client and server.
How the Diffie-Hellman Protocol Works
In the Diffie-Hellman key exchange scheme, the key pairs created by the parties can be used to compute a shared secret offline. The shared secret can be used as the key for a symmetric cipher. Diffie-Hellman is the basis for many authenticated protocols. It provides forward secrecy in Transport Layer Security’s ephemeral modes.
What Perfect Forward Secrecy (PFS) Means
- PFS is an encryption system that uses a different session key per transmission.
- Even if a man-in-the-middle attack occurs, the hacker only gets the information from that transmission.
- The stolen keys cannot be used to decrypt past or future transmissions.
3. The server authenticates the client using an SSH key pair. This pair consists of a public key and a private key.
Here is how that works:
- When the server receives a request, it compares the SSH public key to the public key it has on file.
- It sends an encrypted number to the client, which the client decrypts with its private key.
- The client combines the decrypted number with the shared session key from before to calculate the MD5 hash value. It sends that back to the server.
- The server also calculates the MD5 hash with the number it sent and the session key. If their answers match, the client is authenticated.
4. File Is Transferred
Finally, the file is transferred over the encrypted channel in packets.
Each packet has some of the data being transferred.
At the receiving end, the packets are put back together into the original file.
Relying just on SFTP alone may be adequate for some file transfer use cases, however, sensitive, business-critical file transactions require additional enterprise-grade protection, control and visibility. SFTP servers do not have all the security features necessary for compliance with GDPR and other regulations or governance policies.
A managed file transfer (MFT) solution enhances secure file sharing by providing this required functionality. MFT is a file transfer system that utilizes multiple protocols, including SFTP, and is able to act as a client or server to enable push or pull connectivity between the MFT solution and its endpoints. Readily available capabilities of MFT include comprehensive end-to-end security; granular tracking, logging and retention settings; and high availability and disaster recovery (HADR). Learn more about the added security and visibility of MFT »
Frequently Asked Questions about SFTP
What is an SFTP client?
An SFTP client is any software that can connect to an SFTP server. A client is used to upload or download files to the server. Clients typically have lower processing power and less resources than servers. They always request information from servers. Popular SFTP clients include Solar-PuTTY, WinSCP, FileZilla and CyberDuck.
What is an SFTP server?
An SFTP server is a repository where files are stored. Servers have higher processing power and more resources than clients. They respond to clients with requested information.
What are the benefits of SFTP?
Security is the biggest benefit of SFTP. Because usernames, passwords and data are all encrypted in transit, no one can intercept and read the data. Other benefits of SFTP include
- Helps businesses meet compliance requirements—SFTP on its own will not meet all industry and legal compliance requirements, but it is a start because it encrypts data at rest. Thru’s MFT service acting as a cloud SFTP solution provides additional security measures to help businesses meet compliance requirements.
- Easy to configure firewalls—Unlike FTPS, SFTP only uses one port. This makes it easier for administrators to configure firewalls.
- No hardware required—Users can use SFTP server software instead of setting up SFTP servers.
What is SFTP used for?
SFTP is used across many different industries and in a variety of situations, such as
- Hospitals sending confidential health data to insurance companies
- Banks receiving loan applications from their clients
- Law firms receiving signed contracts and other documents from their clients
Although SFTP is being used in these scenarios, adopting a managed file transfer solution adds reliability and visibility to sensitive, business-critical file transactions. MFT software provides centralized control to simplify configuration and to monitor / audit file transfers to meet compliance requirements and governance policies.
How fast is SFTP?
SFTP file transfers are typically 1-1.4 Mb/second, according to N Software. This is a bit slower than FTP transfers for two reasons:
- SFTP encrypts data
- SSH copies and processes data
To speed up file transfers more, businesses can invest in a high speed managed file transfer service.
What is the difference between SFTP and SSH?
SFTP and SSH are both protocols, but SFTP runs over the SSH protocol. On its own, SSH cannot transfer files – it can only create a secure connection. Users can perform certain actions with files if using SFTP but cannot do those actions with SSH, such as
- Copying a file from a local computer to a remote host
- Renaming a file on the remote host
- Deleting a file on the remote host
How secure is SFTP? Is it more secure than FTPS?
SFTP is very secure because the connection always begins as encrypted. SFTP is more secure than FTPS because FTPS connections begin in an unencrypted state.
What are the differences between SFTP and FTPS?
|Port Number||22||Usually 990, sometimes port 91|
|Ports to Open||22||989 and 990|
|Firewall Configuration Complexity||Less complex||More complex|
|Certificate for Server||Not required||Required – X.509 certificate|
|Custom Commands Supported||No||Yes|
|Transfer Speed||Slower because there are more steps involved||Faster|
What are the differences between SFTP and SCP?
SFTP and Secure Copy Protocol (SCP) both use the SSH protocol for authentication, meaning they are equal in security. However, SCP can only transfer data, not manage it. SCP is typically faster than SFTP because it does not acknowledge packets like SFTP.
Unlike SFTP, SCP cannot
- Rename or remove files
- Resume interrupted file transfers
- Read command scripts — everything must be written by a user on a command line
Additionally, unlike SFTP, SCP does not have a graphical user interface (GUI).
SFTP Protocol Page
See how Thru, our managed file transfer (MFT) solution, supports SFTP client and server endpoints.
How Thru supports SFTP file transfers »
Secure File Transfer Page
Learn what secure file transfer is and why MFT is the best solution to secure your file transfers.
What secure file transfer is »