MFT Gateway vs. SFTP Server: Key Features and Differences

MFT gateways offer reverse proxy and load balancing, enhancing SFTP's security and availability. SFTP servers provide secure transfers via SSH, ensuring data encryption and compliance with standards like HIPAA and GDPR. Combining both technologies optimizes security, compliance, and file transfer efficiency.
  1. Blog

Some people are unsure of the difference between MFT Gateway and SFTP server. These are two distinct applications with different core functionalities. Combine them, and you’ll get a more secure, compliant, and highly available file transfer environment.

In this article, we’ll break down the key features of MFT gateways and SFTP servers and help you easily understand the main differences. More importantly, we’ll highlight how combining MFT gateways and SFTP servers results in substantially better data transfer workflows.

Key Takeaways

  • MFT gateways are network applications that mainly provide reverse proxy and load balancing capabilities to MFT solutions and standalone, single-purpose file transfer servers such as SFTP.
  • The reverse proxy and load balancing features of an MFT gateway enhance data security and availability in SFTP file transfer and file sharing activities.
  • From the point of view of an SFTP client, an MFT gateway provides SFTP file transfer services. In reality, the MFT gateway only acts as a conduit between the client and an SFTP server(s) behind the gateway. This characteristic protects the SFTP server and its organization’s internal network.

Key Features of an SFTP Server

SFTP servers are more common than MFT gateways. A SFTP server is a server application that uses SFTP as its file transfer protocol. Although sometimes called Secure File Transfer Protocol, SFTP stands for SSH File Transfer Protocol. It’s a secure way of transferring files over a network.

Data-in-transit encryption

Built on top of Secure Shell (SSH), SFTP provides data-in-transit encryption through a combination of symmetric and asymmetric encryption. Because it encrypts data, SFTP prevents threat actors from eavesdropping on your file transfer connections. Hence, it’s more secure than an FTP server or any file-sharing server that only sends and receives data in plaintext.

Data-in-transit encryption is one of the key compliance requirements of data protection/privacy laws and regulations such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX). So, using an SFTP server helps achieve regulatory compliance.

Client and host authentication

SFTP offers client and host authentication, meaning your SFTP server can validate the identity of SFTP clients that request user access, and each SFTP client can validate the server before establishing a connection. This is made possible through public key authentication, a feature again derived from the underlying SSH protocol.

Client authentication via public key authentication is similar to password-based authentication, except that the authentication process employs SSH keys instead of passwords. Server or host authentication functions similarly, except the keys used are called host keys, and the authenticating party is the client. Host authentication is also necessary because users must connect to the correct host, not a malicious server posing as that host.

To summarize, SFTP servers provide secure file transfer through the security features mentioned in this section. Let’s now talk about MFT gateways.

Key Features of a MFT Gateway

An MFT Gateway is a network solution that mainly provides reverse proxy and load balancing functionality to file transfer workflows. We’ll explain these two key features shortly. First, we’d like to emphasize that while an MFT gateway provides file transfer functionality, it only operates on behalf of the file transfer server behind it. We’ll elaborate more on this when we talk about the reverse proxy feature.

Leading MFT gateways offer multiple deployment options. This is important because it gives you maximum flexibility in setting up your file transfer infrastructure. JSCAPE MFT Gateway, for instance, supports Windows, Linux, Solaris, AIX, and Mac OS X platforms. In addition, you can deploy it on-premises or on public clouds like Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud Platform (GCP).

Reverse proxy

Every major MFT gateway provides reverse proxy functionality, so it’s essential to understand what a reverse proxy is. In the context of file transfers, a reverse proxy is any network device or software application that:

  1. Sits between file transfer clients and a file transfer server or servers
  2. Provides file transfer functionality to the clients on behalf of the server or servers

File transfer clients won’t be able to distinguish between a file transfer reverse proxy and a file transfer server. From their point of view, a reverse proxy is just a regular file transfer server. From a client’s PoV, they connect to it, authenticate with it, upload files to it, and download files from it—just like a regular file transfer server.

While the client connects to the reverse proxy, all requests are forwarded to the file transfer server. The server, in turn, processes those requests and responds to them through the reverse proxy. In other words, uploaded files are ultimately sent to the file transfer server and never stored on the reverse proxy. Similarly, downloaded files originate from the file transfer server, not the reverse proxy. User authentication is also done by the file transfer server, not the reverse proxy.

This has huge implications from a security standpoint. We’ll elaborate more on this in the section ‘How MFT Gateway Can Enhance Your SFTP Server > Improve Security.’

Load balancing

Another key MFT gateway feature is load balancing. A load balancing feature distributes inbound traffic to a cluster of similarly functioning servers to minimize each node’s risk of overload. In this case, those servers are file transfer servers. In effect, load balancing streamlines the file transfer process by preventing overloads and keeping each node at optimal performance.

Load balancing can be especially beneficial in file transfer environments where many users or trading partners connect and conduct data transfers regularly as part of their business processes. You’ll also find it useful during peak seasons when your file transfer services often receive a surge in traffic.

How MFT Gateway Can Enhance Your SFTP Server

The features discussed earlier enable MFT gateways to enhance managed file transfer solutions and even single-purpose servers like an SFTP server. By pairing your SFTP server with a MFT gateway, you can make it more capable of meeting your business needs.

So, how exactly does an MFT gateway enhance your SFTP file transfers?

Improves security

As a secure file transfer protocol, SFTP has robust features protecting data transfer workflows. That said, MFT gateways still offer other security functions not found in any secure file transfer server. Let’selaborate.

MFT gateways are typically deployed on your network DMZ. Since it can act on behalf of the file transfer servers behind it, you can move your SFTP servers into your internal network and limit inbound connections through a firewall. This setup can be very beneficial from a security standpoint. This will enable you to:

  • Hide the ports and IP addresses of your SFTP server(s)—as well as other internal servers and internal network devices—from external users
  • Prevent external entities (including external threats) from gaining visibility into your internal network
  • Remove user data, credentials, and other sensitive data from your DMZ
  • Implement a single point of access to your SFTP server(s)

All these features make your file transfer infrastructure less susceptible to cyber threats.

Helps meet compliance requirements

As with almost all security features, those we mentioned help achieve regulatory compliance. The reverse proxy feature, for instance, enables you to comply with PCI DSS, which prohibits cardholder data from being stored in the DMZ and yet still provides SFTP services to external users.

Healthcare providers can also use the same feature to augment traditional access control mechanisms in preventing unauthorized access to electronic protected health information (ePHI), one of the technical safeguards required in HIPAA.

Enables high availability

The load balancing feature, which keeps SFTP server nodes at optimal performance and less susceptible to overloads, can substantially increase the availability of your SFTP services. You can leverage this load balancing function to configure a high availability (HA) SFTP cluster. A high availability SFTP cluster improves productivity at all connecting endpoints, whether employees, customers, or trading partners.

In leading MFT gateway products like JSCAPE MFT Gateway, HA clusters can detect if one of the nodes becomes unavailable and automatically redirect traffic to healthy nodes. At the same time, JSCAPE MFT Gateway HA SFTP clusters can be configured to send out email notifications to alert server admins about the unavailable node. This will enable you to promptly resolve the issue before it escalates.

Enables scalability

The same load-balancing function also enables scalability. Once you’ve configured an SFTP HA cluster, you can add nodes to that cluster to increase capacity. In JSCAPE MFT Gateway, adding nodes, a.k.a. “scaling out,” is easy as pie. All you have to do is point each new node to the cluster’s global datastore.

Scalability is crucial, especially in rapidly growing businesses or in seasonal markets, where file transfer capacity requirements can increase in a short period. Your ability to meet rapidly growing demand can make all the difference between keeping and losing customers.

Ready to Enhance Your File Transfer Security and Efficiency?

Discover how our MFT Gateway can transform your SFTP server setup into a more secure, compliant, and scalable solution. Sign up for a free demo and see the difference for yourself!

Frequently Asked Questions


How does SFTP compare with FTP?

SFTP and FTP are both file transfer protocols capable of moving large files or a large number of files simultaneously. However, SFTP is secure, while FTP isn’t. Unlike FTP, SFTP comes with data-in-transit encryption, client and host authentication and data integrity capabilities. In addition, SFTP isn’t susceptible to the firewall issues typically associated with FTP.

What enhanced security features does an MFT gateway-integrated SFTP setup offer compared to a standalone SFTP server?

An SFTP server integrated with an MFT gateway is less exposed to external cyber threats. All sensitive data—including credentials, configuration files, and user files—are moved into your internal network and isolated from external entities. In addition, if you configure multiple SFTP servers into an SFTP cluster and deploy them behind an MFT gateway, you can achieve high availability.

What is Managed File Transfer (MFT)?

Managed File Transfer (MFT) is a term used to describe highly advanced file transfer software that offers more than basic file transfer protocols such as FTP or even SFTP. MFT systems are typically equipped with the following features:

  • multiple-protocol support (e.g., FTP/S, HTTP/S, SFTP, AS2, OFTP, etc)
  • high availability capabilities
  • reverse proxy capabilities
  • automation-enabling features that act in near real-time
  • Detailed logging and reporting functions that enable administrative insights and help meet auditing requirements
  • a wide range of security features (end-to-end encryption, password policies, multi-factor authentication, anti-malware, anti-DoS and many others)

Some of these features, such as high availability and reverse proxy, are obtained by integrating the main file transfer server (i.e., the managed file transfer server or MFT server) with an MFT Gateway.

How does MFT provide better automation and integration capabilities than traditional SFTP?

A standalone SFTP system doesn’t have any built-in automation and integration functionality. To integrate and automate an SFTP server, for instance, you’d have to employ third-party scripting languages like Bash, PowerShell or Python or automation tools like Ansible, Puppet or Chef. Depending on the operating system, you could also use cron jobs (for UNIX/Linux) or Task Scheduler (for Windows).

On the other hand, a Managed File Transfer server (MFT server) or solution has automation and integration capabilities right out of the box. JSCAPE MFT Server, for example, provides automation through triggers, a built-in versatile automation-enabling tool presented in a graphical interface. JSCAPE MFT Server also readily provides integration through connector tools known as Trading Partners and a REST API.

Since automation and integration functionality are baked into the MFT system, automation and integration tasks are easier to accomplish. Moreover, the resulting setup is more cohesive and streamlined than one built using third-party tools.

Can an MFT gateway facilitate compliance with regulatory standards more effectively than SFTP?

An MFT Gateway alone can’t facilitate compliance with regulatory standards more effectively than SFTP. However, an MFT Gateway-integrated SFTP server can do so more effectively than a standalone SFTP server. That’s because MFT gateway features such as reverse proxying and load balancing can address specific compliance requirements that an SFTP server can’t.

What are the scalability and performance advantages of using an MFT solution over SFTP?

An MFT solution usually comes with an MFT Gateway. The latter provides load-balancing functionality, improving an MFT solution's performance and scalability, especially if configured as a high availability (HA) cluster. File transfer activities that run through an HA-powered MFT solution are less susceptible to performance and availability issues. Not only that, this setup easily scales out, allowing you to add file transfer nodes as the need arises. A standalone SFTP server doesn’t have these capabilities.

In what ways does MFT support a wider range of file transfer protocols beyond SFTP?

MFT servers and MFTaaS solutions are already built with a wide range of file transfer protocols. A typical MFT environment already has FTP, FTPS, HTTP, HTTPS and SFTP functionality. More advanced MFT solutions may add specialized protocols like AS2 and OFTP. You don’t have to perform additional integrations to access these protocols; they’re already part of the solution. All you have to do is enable whichever protocol you want to use.

How does the monitoring and reporting of file transfers in MFT solutions compare to those in SFTP servers?

SFTP servers don’t have any built-in monitoring or reporting functionality. You’d have to apply customized integrations with third-party tools to obtain these features. In comparison, an MFT server or MFTaaS solution will already have these features out of the box or as purpose-built add-ons.