When it comes to the exposure of data, no other period in history has posed the magnitude of risks and regulations companies face today. Companies in any industry — but particularly those in healthcare, finance, and government — must keep cybersecurity top-of-mind to avoid data breaches of personally identifiable information (PII). Compliance issues may also result in fines, company reputation consequences, and even imprisonment.

Because of this, it's important to stay on top of innovative technologies and strategies that reduce risk and increase data protection. SFTP is one system protocol that serves this purpose. SFTP isn't necessarily new, but it is still the tool of choice for securely transferring sensitive files of any size. This article discusses what SFTP is, how it works, and why companies use it.

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Table of Contents

  1. What is SFTP?
  2. What is the Difference Between SFTP and SCP?
  3. How Does SFTP Work?
  4. Why Do Administrators Use SFTP?
  5. How Integrate.io Can Help You Use SFTP for ETL

What is SFTP?

Simply put, SFTP is a secure file transfer protocol that allows individuals to access, transfer and manage large files over the web. It is particularly useful for extract, transform, load (ETL), a process necessary for preparing data to be analyzed. It runs over the Secure Shell (SSH) protocol, and people also refer to it as "remote file system protocol."

The primary goal of SFTP is to protect sensitive data. Individuals transferring information they do not wish others to access — trade secrets, account numbers, financial transfers, patented product information, or formulas, for example — may use SFTP to ensured the data transfer completes safely.

A standards organization that created the initial Internet protocol suite or TCP/IP, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) developed SFTP in 1997. It is currently on version 6; draft 13 released in July of 2006. Each version includes different functions. And, while the future of further development on the project is currently on hold, version 3 remains the one that enterprises most commonly use.

Though SFTP has been around for many years, it is a replacement for an even older protocol — FTP, which was developed in the 1970s. Experts no longer recommend FTP (though it still comes standard with many operating systems) for file transfer because it does not provide any kind of security. It is only good for networks that are already private and secure.

Read more about the differences between SFTP and FTP.

What is the Difference Between SFTP and SCP?

Another file protocol frequently used is Secure Copy Protocol or SCP. It is easy to confuse SFTP with SCP because they both function over the SSH protocol, which provides them with reliable protection. The two protocols are very different and applicable to opposing circumstances, however. Here are a few of the primary differences between the two:

SFTP: Allows file transfers, resuming interrupted transfers, directory listings, and remote file removal

SCP: Only allows file transfers

SFTP: Available on most platforms supported by GUI and command line (CLI) tools

SCP: Most commonly available on Unix

SFTP: File transfer can end without terminating the session

SCP: To end a file transfer, one must also end the session

SFTP: Slower at transferring files than SCP because it must wait for packet acknowledgment

SCP: Uses a more efficient algorithm that transfers files faster

In general, SFTP is best when an individual doesn't require the fastest transfer speed but needs a multifunctional solution that works on any platform. SCP is best when a user has a single goal: to transfer a file of any size as quickly as possible.

Read our guide to FTP, FTPS, SFTP, and SCP.

How Does SFTP Work?

SFTP keeps files secure by using the Secure Shell data stream. It authenticates both the user and the server and then uses encryption and cryptographic hash functions to make the data unreadable during transfer. At the start of the process, communication between a client and a server opens a secure channel using the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP). From there, the client and server exchange keys to establishing the encryption criteria, and TCP validates the port numbers. Files then encrypt and transfer through a "tunnel," which is a secure connection between the SHH server and the client. On the receiving end of the file, client authentication takes place via passwords or SSH keys so the receiver can access the files.

Users can increase the security of the connection by implementing two-factor authentication or creating SSH keys to prevent other entities from connecting to the server. Like SCP, SFTP uses SSH port 22 and accepts general files formats, including CSV, XML, and Fixed Width. A variety of SSH clients support SFTP, such as Tectia SSH client, WinSCP, FileZilla, PuTTY, and Cyberduck — it comes as part of the implementation package for these clients.

To connect with SFTP, follow the below steps. Note that you may first need to configure your firewall to access port 22.

1) Set up SSH keys and transfer them to the appropriate systems.

2) Once a connection starts, test SSH access.

3) Establish the SFTP connection.

4) When the remote system connects, the prompt should change to an SFTP prompt.

5) Open an SFTP session. This should connect the system via the specified port.

6) Initiate the file transfer.

Why Do Administrators Use SFTP?

The simplest reason that administrators use SFTP is that it is secure, multifunctional, and platform agnostic. Organizations complete hundreds of file transfers every day, leaving their data vulnerable to exposure. SFTP ensures that information can travel remotely from one person to another without the risk of access from any third parties.

Additionally, with a host of cloud SFTP solutions on the market, companies can take advantage of secure file transfer that scales with the business. Cloud SFTP and SFTP as a service offer unlimited bandwidth, unlimited simultaneous connections, and unlimited file sizes so professionals can safely exchange data without concern for limitations. They can also add and remove accounts at will, reducing the risk that someone might decide to go rogue with sensitive information.

How Integrate.io Can Help You Use SFTP for ETL


Using SFTP is essential when executing extract, transform, load (ETL) to transfer between spreadsheets, systems, and applications. Company data is extremely valuable, regardless of size, industry, or physical location. Some even estimate that a company's data is more valuable than the company itself. For this reason, you must protect the movement of data across all organizational entities, whether digital or human.

SFTP is particularly instrumental when receiving or transferring files between vendors, customers, or other third parties, particularly if they do not come with an API. Innovative ETL platforms like Integrate.io support the SFTP protocol in ETL workflows. Using Integrate.io and SFTP, companies can safely and securely send data to, and receive data from, dozens of cloud data warehouses and analytics platforms.

Integrate.io's cloud-based ETL solution can help you build powerful data integration pipelines to the cloud with the protection of the SFTP protocol. To learn more and discuss a pilot of our valuable platform, schedule a call with our team.

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