FTP is built on a client-server model architecture and uses separate control and data connections between the client and the server. FTP users may authenticate themselves with a clear-text sign-in protocol, normally in the form of a username and password, but can connect anonymously if the server is configured to allow it. For secure transmission that protects the username and password, and encrypts the content, FTP is often secured with SSL/TLS (FTPS). SSH File Transfer Protocol (SFTP) is sometimes also used instead; it is technologically different.
The first FTP client applications were command-line programs developed before operating systems had graphical user interfaces, and are still shipped with most Windows, Unix, and Linux operating systems. Many FTP clients and automation utilities have since been developed for desktops, servers, mobile devices, and hardware, and FTP has been incorporated into productivity applications, such as web page editors.
The original specification for the File Transfer Protocol was written by Abhay Bhushan and published as RFC 114 on 16 April 1971. Until 1980, FTP ran on NCP, the predecessor of TCP/IP. The protocol was later replaced by a TCP/IP version, RFC 765 (June 1980) and RFC 959 (October 1985), the current specification. Several proposed standards amend RFC 959, for example RFC 1579 (February 1994) enables Firewall-Friendly FTP (passive mode), RFC 2228 (June 1997) proposes security extensions, RFC 2428 (September 1998) adds support for IPv6 and defines a new type of passive mode.
FTP may run in active or passive mode, which determines how the data connection is established. In both cases, the client creates a TCP control connection from a random, usually an unprivileged, port N to the FTP server command port 21.
Both modes were updated in September 1998 to support IPv6. Further changes were introduced to the passive mode at that time, updating it to extended passive mode.