FTP or File Manager?

Previously on the CogitActive Saga:
After deciding on WordPress Multisite to operate several personal websites, I had to address additional considerations before to create the network.

Setting up a Multisite network involves accessing and editing some files on the server. As explained in the WordPress codex1, there are several ways to access these files.

To create a multisite network you . . . need access to the server’s file system so that you can edit files and create a directory. For example, you could access the server’s file system using FTP, or using the File Manager in cPanel, or in some other way.

Great, but what is FTP? What is File Manager? Which method – FTP or File Manager – should I use for editing only few files on the server? Should I even bother looking for the other ways mentioned in the codex?

Using FTP

FTP stands for File Transfer Protocol. As the name suggests, FTP is used to transfer files between computers on a network. While this protocol is made entirely for this purpose – to upload and download files – you can also perform other tasks, including editing files.

In order to use FTP, you need an FTP account, which might already be set up on your hosting account. If not, you can easily create one using the FTP Accounts tool in your cPanel. You will have to input a username, a password, a directory (to which the FTP account will have access to) and an allowed quota (in MB). Once you have your FTP login credentials, you can establish an FTP connection.

While there are several methods2 available to do so, the recommended way is to use an FTP client. An FTP client, or FTP program, is a software designed to transfer files back-and-forth between a computer and a server over the Internet. In addition to basic capabilities (i.e. downloading and uploading), they come with a handful of advanced features, such as auto resuming of the transfer and file queuing, among others. There are plenty of programs to choose from – some of the most popular are even free.

After filling your login details, as well as the FTP Hostname (i.e. the hosting server name) and the FTP port (most probably 21), you can simply transfer (i.e. upload or download) your files (and folders) from your computer (generally the Local site panel on left) to the server (generally the Remote site panel on right) or vice versa.

In practice, you will have to edit the file on your computer (after downloading it first). However, some FTP clients allow you to edit the files directly within the FTP program. Alternatively, if the program doesn’t have its own internal text editor, it will ask you to choose one (already installed on your computer) or default to Notepad3 (for Windows computer). In the latter scenario, you will have to re-upload the file back to the server anyway.

SFTP

Secure File Transfer Protocol (SFTP) provides an additional layer of security (compared to FTP) by encrypting sensitive information, data and passwords. Indeed, the latter is a completely different protocol (than FTP) designed to enable encrypted communication between computers, thus allowing secure files exchange. For this purpose, it requires that Secure Shell (SSH) access to the server is enabled.

Alternatively, if you cannot have access to SSH, you can use File Transfer Protocol Secure (FTPS). It is the same as FTP, but with a secure Transport Layer Security (TLS) layer. Importantly, it offers a similar level of security to SFTP4.

Because FTP is inherently a non-secure way to transfer data, it is highly recommended to use either SFTP or FTPS over FTP.

Using File Manager

Your control panel (i.e. cPanel in my case) also gives you a handy way to manage your files with File Manager. This web-based tool provides a quick and easy way to edit files, among other things, through Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) rather than FTP.

In particular, among the various tools and functions available, you can edit a file without having to upload it first. Remarkably, File Manager has three editors that you can use to edit your files (directly on the web server). The text editor (Edit) is intended for use with plain text files. If you need to edit files that contain code, you can use the Code Editor instead. The latter provides common code editing features such as syntax highlighting and line numbering. There is also a visual HTML editor (HTML Editor), i.e. with WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) functionality.

These editors are great for small changes, yet, they would be inefficient for large alterations. Fortunately, File Manager is also useful for quick transfers of a few files. However, when it comes to upload large files or several files at the same time, you should consider using a dedicated FTP client instead. Because uploading files through HTTP is slow and not stable, the transfer may time out and the file can end up corrupted. Yet, there is no actual size limitation when uploading file with File Manager.

Effectively, File Manager allows you to perform a wide range of actions without the need to install third party applications. In addition to the functions already mentioned, one can create, delete, copy, move, compress/extract files, change file permissions and organize files in folders. Without going into details, File Manager is full-featured and provides all the basic functionality necessary to manage your site5.

To sum up

Undeniably, FTP SFTP is the recommended way to transfer large or multiple files. It is more robust and can transfer files at a faster speed; not mentioning the advanced files transfer features offered by some FTP clients. On the other hand, for simple tasks – editing some files on the server, for instance – File Manager removes the hassle of using FTP. While not as sophisticated as most FTP clients, it offers all the essential functionality required to manage a website. Furthermore, it is without a doubt more convenient: it doesn’t need to create an FTP account, it doesn’t require to enable SSH access and it doesn’t necessitate any additional software.

For the task to come, i.e. editing few files on the server – two files to be accurate – in order to create a WordPress Multisite network, File Manager was the ideal solution. I didn’t even bother looking for the other methods that the codex is referring to.

To be continued…


1 See Before You Create A Network. ^
2 To make an FTP connection, you can also use a standard web browser or, if you are using Windows, File Explorer among other options – instead of a dedicated FTP program. While the former method is less reliable, using File Explorer is very robust. However, either way, you will have access to fewer features as compared to the advanced ones of an FTP client. These approaches should be used only for basic (i.e. uploading and downloading) and infrequent FTP sessions. ^
3 Granted, for very basic editing, Notepad would do the trick, but it is better to use a dedicated software. Beware not to use a word processing program, such as Microsoft Word or the like, as they insert formatting information into the file that will mess up the code. ^
4 Peter Pollock (2013) Web Hosting For Dummies. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. ^
5 See File Manager Tutorial. ^

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