Home Topics What is a file transfer and how does it work? What is file transfer?
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What is file transfer?

File transfer refers to the exchange of data files, of any size or type, across computer systems and networks.

According to Techopedia: “File transfer is the process of copying or moving a file from one computer to another over a network or internet connection. It enables sharing, transferring or transmitting a file or a logical data object between different users and/or computers both locally and remotely.” 1

Data files may be structured or unstructured — including documents, multimedia, graphics, text and PDFs. They can be shared using download or upload and transmitted inside or outside the enterprise.

File transfer is usually governed by a communications protocol, a set of rules that defines how information is transmitted between computers in a network. File transfer protocol (FTP), transmission control protocol (TCP) and hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) are examples of common standards used today.

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Evolution of file transfer

File transfer began in the 1970s, when people started to look beyond floppy disks for distributing digital content. One of the first online file-sharing platforms was Usenet, an electronic bulletin board that allowed community members to post news items. The functionality enabled users to share data files with others in the newsgroup.

In 1985, the first communications protocol, FTP, was established. The file transfer standard allowed users to transmit data between different computer systems using the same set of rules and syntax.

By the 1990s, the internet opened up communications across the globe, enabling people to share information over a massive network of computers. America Online (AOL) became one of the first Internet service providers. It offered a subscription-based, email platform with a range of web services including file transfer.

The Napster music site was created in 1999, enabling users to share mp3 audio files with their peers. The first year, it had 4 million songs in circulation. 2 The site is generally credited with being the first peer-to-peer file sharing service. It paved the way for other sharing networks such as Gnutella and Freenet in the early 2000s.

Today, many high-speed file transfer solutions are available to manage the flow of digital information. Cloud storage systems like Dropbox and iCloud allow users to store digital files of all types (including photos and video) offsite. Using the service, people can access and transfer files from any device to any device.

Copyright and security

The widespread transfer of files and sharing of digital content has presented ethical and legal challenges over the years. According to Wikipedia: “File sharing raises copyright issues and has led to many lawsuits. For example, in one case the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the creators of peer-to-peer networks can be held liable if their software is marketed as a tool for copyright infringement.” 3

Data breaches and failed transfers can impact an organization’s bottom line and reputation. According to a study by IBM Security and the Poneman Institute, the average cost of a data breach in 2018 was USD 3.86 million. The estimated cost for each lost or stolen record: USD 148.

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Why file transfer is important

File transfer is at the core of business operations. Companies routinely exchange data internally and with customers, suppliers, and partners every day. Whether they need to transfer batch transactions to an outsourced payroll provider or send a digital video for a marketing campaign, they must be able to move data securely and efficiently.

Organizations continue to rely on file transfer for sharing digital information. In fact, more than 50 percent of all systems integration is done through file transfer. 4

“The transfer of business-critical data is essential in industries from banking and financial services to defense and manufacturing,” says Todd Margo in his IBM managed file transfer blog. “For business to run smoothly, constantly emerging and evolving forms of digital data, packaged in the form of files, must be moved, duplicated, synchronized and shared.”

He goes on to describe some of the forces impacting today’s file transfer requirements:

  • Data volumes: Workload requirements for file transfer tend to be higher-frequency batching and larger, more varied files than in the past. There is also a demand for innovative application processes for streaming transfers.
  • Big data and IoT:  Businesses are deploying file transfer technology to enable bulk transaction file exchange in areas such as the Internet of Things (IoT) and big data analytics. This puts a premium on the speed of data transfers. In addition, data volumes are increasing to support more detailed analytics. This one-two punch of speed and file volume creates a special challenge for file transfer technologies.
  • Security: Cybersecurity concerns continue to heighten, leading to the adoption of better security technologies. File transfer systems, where possible, should compensate for security overhead by supporting hardware-accelerators, new security process software and file transfer throughput improvements.

According to an Ovum analyst report: “Non-compliance to data security and privacy regulations and a lack of end-to-end visibility and monitoring remain the main concerns with regard to the features and capabilities of existing file transfer solutions.” The report further adds that “…cloud enablement, simplified integration via APIs and user experience improvement are key themes for development.”

Beyond FTP

FTP and Secure FTP (SFTP) are among the most widely used methods of file transfer. Part of the appeal is that they are simple to use and often free or inexpensive. Transfer is usually done by way of an FTP web site that most anyone can access. The technology works well if an organization has an occasional need to send non-sensitive files, but when used more broadly it can put them at risk.

When files are exposed, FTP does not log security violations or authenticate users — basic capabilities needed to help detect and stop breaches or cyber threats. The technology also sends files on a first-come, first-served basis. As such, organizations can’t prioritize critical transfers or respond as quickly to business needs.

To get beyond the hidden costs and risks of FTP, more enterprises are choosing secure and scalable file transfer software.

Key features of effective file transfer

Advanced file transfer solutions offer high-performance capabilities to support the reliable flow of digital content. They include the latest security features to protect sensitive information being transmitted. At the same time, they provide operational visibility over file movement to detect issues like failed transfers or delays.

Key file transfer capabilities to look for:

  • High performance. Moves data over any distance and can achieve up to multiple gigabit-per-second speeds, with support for thousands of concurrent transfer sessions.
  • Full visibility. Provides a complete view in real time. Organizations can see who is transferring files, what is being shared and the volume passing through the system.
  • Security. Includes secure protocols, encryption of internal and external transfers, and digital signatures. Offers capabilities like session breaks and protocol inspection to protect sensitive data at multiple layers.
  • Public and private cloud. Can be deployed in a cloud or hybrid infrastructure, taking advantage of higher availability, unlimited storage and transfer scale-out.

Managed file transfer (MFT) is a viable option. This type of system manages all aspects of file transfer including communications channels, protocols, workflow, provisioning and APIs. MFT is a more reliable and efficient technology for secure data transfer, outpacing applications such as FTP.

Alternatively, a high-speed file transfer solution like IBM Aspera enables organizations to rapidly transfer large files, such as high-definition broadcast videos, over a wide area network (WAN). It uses patented fast and secure protocol (FASP) technology to achieve speeds that are hundreds of times faster than FTP or HTTP. It provides secure delivery regardless of file size, transfer distance or network conditions.

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1 https://www.techopedia.com/definition/7192/file-transfer (link resides outside ibm.com)

2 https://www.theguardian.com/music/2013/feb/24/napster-music-free-file-sharing (link resides outside ibm.com)

3 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File_sharing (link resides outside of ibm.com)

4 Vanson Bourne, IBM Supply Chain Data Report, Nov 2017