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What is SFTP, and how do I use an SFTP client to transfer files?

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Overview

The SSH File Transfer Protocol (also known as Secure FTP and SFTP) is a computing network protocol for accessing and managing files on remote file systems. SFTP also allows file transfers between hosts, similar to the SCP protocol. Unlike standard File Transfer Protocol (FTP), SFTP encrypt commands and data both, preventing passwords and sensitive information from being transmitted in the clear over a network.

SFTP clients are programs that use SSH to access, manage, and transfer files. SFTP clients are functionally similar to FTP clients, but they use different protocols. Consequently, you cannot use standard FTP clients to connect to SFTP servers, nor can you use clients that support only SFTP to connect to FTP servers. Graphical clients are available for SFTP, or you can use it from the command line on a Unix or Mac OS X computer.

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Graphical SFTP clients

Graphical SFTP clients simplify file transfers by allowing you to drag and drop icons from one window to another. Each icon represents a file or directory, and each window represents a computer's file system. When you open the program, you specify the name of the remote host to which you want to connect, and then authenticate with your username and password for that host.

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Command-line SFTP

You can use SFTP from the command line on Unix and Mac OS X computers. To start an SFTP session, at the command prompt, enter:

sftp username@host

For example, if your username is dvader, to connect to your account on the host empire.gov, enter:

sftp dvader@empire.gov

Enter your password when prompted.

Some standard command-line SFTP commands include:

Command Function
cd Change the directory on the remote computer.
chmod Change the permissions of files on the remote computer.
chown Change the owner of files on the remote computer.
exit (or quit) Close the connection to the remote computer and exit SFTP.
get Copy a file from the remote computer to the local computer.
help (or ?) Get help on the use of SFTP commands.
lcd Change the directory on the local computer.
lls List the contents of the current directory on the local computer.
lmkdir Create a directory on the local computer.
ln (or symlink) Create a symbolic link for a file on the remote computer.
lpwd Show the current directory (present working directory) on the local computer.
ls (or dir) List the contents of the current directory on the remote computer.
lumask Change the local umask value.
mkdir Create a directory on the remote computer.
put Copy a file from the local computer to the remote computer.
pwd Show the current directory (present working directory) on the remote computer.
rename Rename a file on the remote computer.
rm Delete a file on the remote computer.
rmdir Remove a directory on the remote computer (the directory usually has to be empty).
version Display the SFTP version.
 !  Exit to the Unix shell prompt, where you can enter commands. To get back to SFTP, enter exit. If you combine  !  with a command (e.g., !pwd), SFTP will execute the command without dropping you to the Unix prompt.

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At IU

At Indiana University, specify the following hostnames for SFTP file transfers involving these UITS resources (authenticate using your Network ID username and passphrase):

System Hostname
Big Red II bigred2.uits.iu.edu
Quarry quarry.uits.indiana.edu
Mason mason.indiana.edu
Research Data Complex rdc.uits.iu.edu
Research File System rfs.iu.edu
Scholarly Data Archive sftp.sdarchive.iu.edu
Mercury (Pages) mercury.uits.indiana.edu
Webserve webserve.iu.edu

For IU, students, faculty, and staff, two graphical SFTP clients, CyberDuck (for OS X) and WinSCP (for Windows), are available for free download from IUware. Both applications also are available for use on the computers in the IU Bloomington and IUPUI Student Technology Centers (STCs). Additionally, WinSCP is available for use on personal Windows workstations via IUanyWare. For more, see At IU, what SSH/SFTP clients are supported and where can I get them?

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This document was developed with support from National Science Foundation (NSF) grant OCI-1053575. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF.

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Last modified on January 13, 2014.

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