Tuesday, March 30, 2004

FTP - what's it all about Alfie?

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

FTP sites are remote computers or servers, which instead of hosting web pages are used to store and distribute files. If a shopping analogy helps to differentiate the two protocols, you can think of FTP sites as unadorned, wholesale retail outlets as opposed to swish department stores furnished with elaborate displays of merchandise. FTP sites allow you to cut to the chase so you can see exactly what is on offer without being distracted or getting lost in awkwardly constructed 'aisles'. With the no-nonsense FTP experience, what you see is what you get.

Analogous to web site URLs, FTP sites are accessed via an address that takes a similar format, known as an internet protocol (or IP) address. Instead of the usual http:// prefix, however, FTP addresses will usually begin with ftp:// followed by a long list of digits separated by dots, for example ftp://102.432.765.234. That said, the ftp:// prefix is often superfluous and so can be omitted without interfering with your ability to login to an FTP site. Just to simplify matters; you will probably have discovered by now that typing http://www.website.com into your browser will produce exactly the same results as typing in www.website.com, or even just website.com depending on the configuration of your browser. This is often true where FTP sites are concerned too. Some clients will accept the contracted versions of FTP addresses, for example 123.456.789 instead of ftp://123.456.789, while others will require you to enter the protracted variant before it can be recognized as a bona fide FTP IP address. The latter method is usually necessary if your client is capable of viewing the contents of web sites in addition to FTP sites, and so requires you to differentiate between the two; the built-in FTP browsers of Gozilla, Getright and Flashget are prime examples.

There are two exceptions to the use of the numbered FTP address format. More professional, permanent FTP sites tend to use sub domains mapped to a static IP address, mostly to make it easier for people to remember. For example, to login to your Geocities account you could use the address ftp.geocities.com rather than a series of numbers. Note that in this case the 'ftp.' replaces the ftp:// prefix, yet typing in ftp://ftp.geocities.com will also work just as well.

The second exception to the rule is when the remote host you are trying to access is not connected to the internet via a static IP address, but uses an 'IP masker' or 'IP redirector' such as the services offered by DynIP, No IP or DHS. The advantage with using one of these is that a non-static server (which continually changes its IP address) can be assigned with a static redirector address such as 'myftpsite.dynip.com', which is much easier to remember and can be automatically updated to accommodate the fluctuating digits of the IP address.

It is useful to remember that FTP addresses can be stored as favourites or shortcuts in the same way as web pages. Although these sites can be accessed with the right version of Internet Explorer or Firefox, it is advisable to use an FTP client. FTP sites fall into one of three categories - ratio, no ratio (commonly known as 'pubs') or banner. I will explain each variety in turn below, but before I do so, I want to point out that while these sites are often used to stow away pirated material, it is certainly not my intention to teach you how to access this. Internet technology can be used for illegal as well as legitimate purposes. Which you choose to pursue is your decision alone. What follows is for informational purposes only.

Ratio sites will require users to upload a pre-determined number of bytes before permitting access to any downloads. I can't imagine that any legal FTP sites would fall into this category. The exchange rate is represented by two numbers separated by a colon e.g. 1:3. In this example users would be required to upload 1 byte for every 3 bytes they download. The quantity of data users are allowed to pilfer in return for sharing their own wares is designated by a number of 'credits'.

No ratio sites clearly do not require you to upload anything before you are granted permission to download. These are the kind you would find linked from legitimate sources such as freeware or shareware distribution sites, or by anyone wishing to share their original, home-made content. Illegal no ratio sites on the other hand are common in FXP group circles, are usually highly oversubscribed and have a short shelf life due to their copyright infringing nature - aside from the fact that they tend to be established on university or corporate servers without the owner's consent!

To access banner sites users are obliged to click on several advertisements (usually between 1 and 5). When they do this they are whisked away to another site, a message will be sent in the address URL to convey where the referral originated from and the owner of the FTP site will receive a few pence. Subsequently their task is to locate several keywords located within the ensuing web page, which will form the username and password of the FTP site they wish to access. The instructions for doing this are different in each circumstance, but easy to follow guidelines are usually given - users are paying the owner each time they click on a banner so it is in his or her interest to make the instructions clear and concise. Passwords are changed frequently to ensure users have to repeat this rigmarole to sustain their access to the site.

There are a number of different means of gaining access to FTP sites. Keep reading and I'll walk you through each of them in turn. If you are using Gozilla, or a similar download manager, and have the 'capture all FTP' option selected, all you have to do to connect to a particular FTP site is click on a parsed link in a web page. Your download manager will automatically open a new browser window allowing you to see what's on offer. If the address of the FTP site you wish to login to isn't parsed, however, you will need to highlight the address using your cursor, right-click and select 'copy' from the context menu. Having completed this task, open your download manager's leech window and paste the address from your clipboard into the relevant dialog box using the format: ftp://username:password@321.563.23.342:21. Obviously you can dispense with the username and password nodes if you are connecting to a public access FTP site such as those linked from software publisher's home pages.

Alternatively, if you are using a stand alone FTP client such as Bullet Proof FTP, you can either enter all the constituent nodes of the address into the relevant boxes yourself, or paste in the full address including login details in a continuous stream and let your client split it up for you. Once you have logged into an FTP site you will be greeted by a very plain directory listing not dissimilar to the ones found in Windows Explorer. The usual rules apply; for instance you can double-click on a directory to see what is inside, click once on files or folders to highlight them, right-click on them to view their properties and so on. When you have found what you are looking for, highlight the relevant files or folders and select the 'add' or 'add all' button from within your download manager, or simply drag and drop the files or folders in Bullet Proof FTP to begin transferring them to your hard drive.

If you want to download all the contents of a particular folder, don't complicate matters by selecting the individual files one by one. Instead use the above methods to select the whole folder before issuing the download command. With these precursors out of the way, all that remains to be done is to click the 'OK' or the 'GO' button - the rest will be taken care of automatically. Now's the time to go and make yourself a cappuccino, or something stronger, put your feet up and rest your eyes for a while. Class dismissed.


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