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Working with Remote Servers

Last updated Oct 17, 2003.

You don't have to be onsite to manage your server. Two popular protocols, Telnet and FTP (File Transfer Protocol), make it possible—and easy—for you to access commands and files on remote servers from anywhere in the world.


Quick history: During the early stages of ARPANET, which later became the Internet, Telnet was one of the first developed protocols for logging into other Internet locations. Today, Telnet and FTP are two of many network tools that organizations depend on for their teams to work together, even from multiple locations.

Most Microsoft Windows operating systems come with Telnet built-in. You can access it by choosing Start > Programs > Accessories > telnet.exe or by trying a file search for telnet.exe. Running Telnet brings back memories of the DOS days with its black screen, white Courier New style text, and a prompt waiting for input. Before connecting to another server, make sure you have the correct ID and password. The following lists the general steps for reaching out and touching remote server:

> open
login as: IDName
password: password
last login: Tue, Apr 8 22:37:19 2003 from

The exact wording varies from server to server. For the most part, connect to the server using its domain name or IP address and then enter the login ID and password. You should see a message followed by a prompt. At the prompt, you can navigate and enter commands much like DOS commands, but typically in UNIX. Visit Webmonkey for an excellent introductory guide to UNIX.

FTP (File Transfer Protocol)

For something a little more modern, you'll want to use an FTP client, which resembles a file manager. However, rather than moving files from one folder to another on the same hard drive, you're moving files from your local server to a remote server.

You may have seen URLs with ftp:// instead of http://. In this case, it means that the user is connecting to a file server instead of a Web server, and a file transfer is taking place. When transferring files via FTP, you'll likely see a file transfer dialog similar to the dialog you receive when uploading or downloading files.

Several of the most popular FTP clients are CuteFTP, WS_FTP, and Fetch. To use an FTP client, you'll need the host name (domain name or server address), logon ID, and password of the server you're trying to access. If you don't have it—or you're not sure about it—contact your Web host for support. Enter the information into the FTP client and save it in a profile for later use. Follow the FTP software's option for connecting, and shortly you should see a basic file system on the remote server.

FTP clients have a graphical user interface (GUI), so you won't have to remember command names. Instead, you use drop-down boxes or buttons to tell the server what to do. You can instruct the server to send or receive files, change permissions, create directories, and move or remove files. Without the GUI, you'd have to enter commands such as put, mput, get, mget, and cd to get all of this to happen.

Security and SSH

Unfortunately, Telnet and FTP still aren't secure enough and can be intercepted by hackers who use the information to get user access names and passwords. As a result, many Web sites prevent Telnet clients from getting through by immediately closing the connection. More and more sites are moving to a more secure protocol called SSH (secure shell), which works like Telnet, except that it provides encrypted messages between your local computer and the remote server during the session. A hacker can't hijack a connection or eavesdrop when encryption is enabled. When an attacker breaks into a network, he can only force SSH to disconnect.

OpenSSH is an open source version of the SSH suite of network connectivity tools. The suite comes with ssh, a program that replaces rlogin and Telnet. Its purpose is to log into another machine or to execute commands on the other machine. Also included is scp, a replacement for rcp; and ftp, for copying files from one server to another.

Popular SSH programs include PuTTY, WinSCP, MacSSH, Nifty Telnet-SSH, and FreSSH. Mac OS X actually comes with OpenSSH, so no download is needed.

When looking for a host server, you may want to find out whether the vendor allows Telnet or uses SSH instead of Telnet. For security's sake, SSH is the wiser choice.