Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Active FTP vs. Passive FTP

Active FTP
  • FTP server's port 21 from anywhere (Client initiates connection)
  • FTP server's port 21 to ports > 1023 (Server responds to client's control port)
  • FTP server's port 20 to ports > 1023 (Server initiates data connection to client's data port)
  • FTP server's port 20 from ports > 1023 (Client sends ACKs to server's data port)

When drawn out, the connection appears as follows:

In step 1, the client's command port contacts the server's command port and sends the command PORT 1027. The server then sends an ACK back to the client's command port in step 2. In step 3 the server initiates a connection on its local data port to the data port the client specified earlier. Finally, the client sends an ACK back as shown in step 4.

The main problem with active mode FTP actually falls on the client side. The FTP client doesn't make the actual connection to the data port of the server--it simply tells the server what port it is listening on and the server connects back to the specified port on the client. From the client side firewall this appears to be an outside system initiating a connection to an internal client--something that is usually blocked.

Passive FTP
  • FTP server's port 21 from anywhere (Client initiates connection)
  • FTP server's port 21 to ports > 1023 (Server responds to client's control port)
  • FTP server's ports > 1023 from anywhere (Client initiates data connection to random port specified by server)
  • FTP server's ports > 1023 to remote ports > 1023 (Server sends ACKs (and data) to client's data port)

When drawn, a passive mode FTP connection looks like this:

In step 1, the client contacts the server on the command port and issues the PASV command. The server then replies in step 2 with PORT 2024, telling the client which port it is listening to for the data connection. In step 3 the client then initiates the data connection from its data port to the specified server data port. Finally, the server sends back an ACK in step 4 to the client's data port.

While passive mode FTP solves many of the problems from the client side, it opens up a whole range of problems on the server side. The biggest issue is the need to allow any remote connection to high numbered ports on the server. Fortunately, many FTP daemons, including the popular WU-FTPD allow the administrator to specify a range of ports which the FTP server will use. See Appendix 1 for more information.

The second issue involves supporting and troubleshooting clients which do (or do not) support passive mode. As an example, the command line FTP utility provided with Solaris does not support passive mode, necessitating a third-party FTP client, such as ncftp.

With the massive popularity of the World Wide Web, many people prefer to use their web browser as an FTP client. Most browsers only support passive mode when accessing ftp:// URLs. This can either be good or bad depending on what the servers and firewalls are configured to support.

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