SFTP vs MFT: Choosing the Right File Transfer Protocol

SFTP focuses on secure file transfers over a network with data encryption and authentication features. MFT, or Managed File Transfer, includes SFTP's security measures and offers comprehensive data security, automation, reporting, and compliance capabilities. MFT provides a more advanced solution for businesses by supporting multiple protocols while enhancing file transfer workflows with added security and efficiency.
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When you first start scouting for the right file transfer protocol for your organization, you’re bound to encounter these two acronyms: SFTP and MFT. SFTP stands for SSH File Transfer Protocol, whereas MFT stands for Managed File Transfer. While SFTP is indeed a protocol, MFT isn’t. Nevertheless, these two acronyms become increasingly intertwined once you explore advanced, secure, automated file transfer solutions.

If you plan on using a secure file transfer protocol in a business environment, it’s essential to understand the relationship between SFTP and MFT and how to distinguish one from the other.

Key Takeaways 

  • SFTP and MFT are both secure methods of transferring files over a LAN, WAN, or the internet, but MFT offers more comprehensive data security features out-of-the-box. In addition, it also provides automation, reporting, and compliance capabilities.
  • SFTP offers data encryption, authentication and integrity checking. MFT offers those, plus a host of other security measures, including data-at-rest encryption, high availability, a range of multi-factor authentication options, electronic receipts, and many others.
  • Most Managed File Transfer solutions already come with SFTP and several other protocols. JSCAPE provides a managed file transfer solution that supports MFT, SFTP, and many other protocols, such as AC2.
  • When choosing between a purely SFTP solution and a full-blown MFT solution, consider factors such as your business needs, cost considerations, integration requirements, the complexity of your business processes, the types of files you need to transfer, and your compliance requirements.

Understanding SFTP and MFT

What is SFTP?

Although some call it Secure File Transfer Protocol, SFTP stands for SSH File Transfer Protocol. It’s essentially a method for transferring files over the internet. Based on SSH (Secure Shell), SFTP uses SSH functions to encrypt data, authenticate users and check data integrity. SFTP is a popular choice for businesses that transfer sensitive data, such as financial information, medical records, and personal data.

When you use SFTP in your organization, it will typically be through an SFTP server—a server-based file transfer software that allows you to set up and manage your SFTP transfers. To exchange files with you through SFTP, your users and trading partners would connect with that SFTP server. Businesses of all sizes, from small startups to large corporations, can use a SFTP server.

Sample SFTP Use Case: You work for a financial institution and need to transfer financial data between your company and another financial institution. You can deploy an SFTP server to perform secure data transfers and protect any transmitted financial data from network-based cyber threats.

What is MFT?

MFT (Managed File Transfer) is a more advanced way of transferring files. In addition to SFTP, an MFT solution may support other secure protocols such as FTPS, AS2, OFTP, HTTPS, etc. You get more choices than just SFTP. Moreover, it provides additional features such as automation, scheduling and reporting. These features help businesses streamline file transfers—and, consequently, business processes—more cost-efficiently.

Most MFT solutions are delivered through an MFT server, a server-based software application that allows you to set up file transfer automation and manage all MFT-related tasks. It provides a centralized location for managing all file transfer workflows and protects your data. MFT Server can be used by businesses of all sizes, from small startups to large corporations.

Sample MFT Use Case: You work for a healthcare organization and need to submit health claims to an insurance company through electronic data interchange (EDI).

You can use an MFT server to:

SFTP and MFT are both secure ways to transfer files over the internet, with MFT being a more advanced solution. SFTP is a popular choice for businesses that need to transfer sensitive data. MFT can do that and more.

MFT and SFTP Technical Comparison

technical comparisonLet’s dive deeper into this SFTP vs. MFT comparison and see how each file transfer solution compares regarding security features, performance, scalability, and compliance capabilities.
Security Features

SFTP security features

SFTP solutions offer most of these security features you would expect, as the protocol was built from the ground up with security in mind.

  • Data-in-motion encryption - Preserves data confidentiality during transmission. This is usually implemented through cryptographic solid algorithms like AES-256.
  • Client/user authentication - This enables the host to check whether the person or client attempting to connect is registered on the server. Client/user authentication uses a password and/or an SSH key.
  • Host/server authentication - Ensures the client always connects to the correct host.
  • Data integrity - Verifies whether the received data wasn’t tampered with along the way

MFT security features

Since an MFT platform supports SFTP and similar secure file transfer protocols, it also has the abovementioned capabilities. But aside from those, it can have additional security features such as:

  • Electronic receipts (e.g., through AS2 MDNs) - Enables senders to confirm that a file reached its intended destination.
  • High availability - Ensures that, as much as possible, the file transfer service is accessible whenever users or trading partners need it.
  • Automated virus scans and notifications - Minimizes the risk of malware infections during file transfers.
  • Data-at-rest encryption - Preserves data confidentiality while data is stored on the server.
  • End-to-end encryption - Integrates data-in-motion encryption and data-at-rest encryption through an automated mechanism
  • Granular user access control mechanisms - Strictly enforces the principle of least privilege.

These are just some of the many security features in an MFT platform, making it a more suitable option than an SFTP server for businesses with stringent security requirements.

Performance and Scalability

SFTP is a well-designed protocol optimized for security and performance. Although it may not be as fast as, say, FTP, it isn’t afflicted with some network device interoperability issues found in protocols like FTP. An FTP server, for instance, doesn’t work well with some firewalls. In contrast, SFTP works seamlessly with firewalls and other similar network devices.

Regarding scalability, SFTP doesn’t have scalability functionality built into it. It’s only designed to provide secure file transfers. Thus, its scalability depends highly on its underlying infrastructure. If, for instance, you deploy your FTP server in the cloud, then you can make that server somewhat scalable.

In comparison, some MFT solutions—like JSCAPE MFT Server, for instance—are already equipped with clustering features that allow you to easily add nodes and scale up your MFT environment without leveraging a cloud infrastructure. This will enable you to accommodate more traffic while maintaining optimal performance. Then, if you need greater scalability, some MFT vendors also offer managed, cloud-based versions of their MFT solutions.

While SFTP can help you meet basic performance and scalability requirements, it can’t beat MFT.

Compliance and Standards

Due to its selection of security features outlined earlier,  SFTP can help you meet some of the requirements specified in data protection laws and regulations like HIPAA, PCI-DSS, SOX, and GDPR. However, as we also implied earlier, SFTP still lacks many security features in MFT. The laws and regulations we just mentioned require many of those features.

For instance, SFTP doesn’t have built-in malware protection, one of the key requirements of PCI DSS compliance. SFTP also doesn’t have data-at-rest encryption. It only has data-in-motion encryption. Hence, it can’t fully meet HIPAA’s encryption requirements, which suggests that electronic protected health information (ePHI) be encrypted while in transit and stored.

MFT’s more comprehensive security feature set gives it a clear advantage in meeting more data protection/security standards, laws, and regulations.

Deployment Models

There are three primary deployment models for secure file transfer solutions: on-premises, cloud and hybrid. Each model has advantages and disadvantages; the right choice will depend on your organization's needs and requirements.

On-Premises Deployment

In an on-premises deployment, you deploy your secure file transfer solution on your infrastructure within your organization's network. This model gives you complete control over your data and allows you to customize the solution to your needs. On-premises deployments are often used by organizations bound by privacy and compliance requirements specifying that data be kept in-house. SFTP servers and MFT servers are traditionally designed for on-premises deployment.

Cloud-Based Deployment

Cloud-based deployment involves putting your secure file transfer solution on a cloud infrastructure managed by a third-party provider. This model offers scalability, flexibility, and cost-effectiveness, as you only pay for what you use. Small to medium-sized businesses often use cloud-based solutions that need more resources to manage their infrastructure.

MFTaaS (Managed File Transfer as a Service) is an example of a cloud-based file transfer solution. MFTaaS is a cloud-based solution that provides secure file transfer capabilities without needing on-premises infrastructure. It is a fully managed service that includes all the necessary features for secure file transfer, such as encryption, authentication, and auditing.

Hybrid Deployment

Lastly, hybrid deployments involve deploying a secure file transfer solution that combines both on-premises and cloud-based models. This model offers the best of both worlds, allowing organizations to leverage the benefits of both models.

Organizations with complex file transfer activity requirements often use hybrid solutions. For instance, you might need a hybrid deployment if you engage in regular data exchanges with global trading partners while supporting internal file transfers involving highly sensitive data. A cloud-based MFT component can support the first workflow, while an on-premises MFT component can support the second.

Unless your file transfer solution is built for it, hybrid deployments require a lot of custom integrations. If you go this route, SFTP solutions aren’t built for this type of deployment, so you’ll need to put a substantial amount of effort into architecting, integrating, and maintaining disparate environments.

In comparison, some MFT vendors offer on-premises MFT Servers and cloud-based MFTaaS solutions that readily integrate. This is the more accessible, more cost-effective, and less risky option.

Choosing Between SFTP and MFT

Several factors need to be considered when choosing between SFTP and MFT. This section will review some of the most important considerations when deciding which file transfer solution is right for your business.

Business Needs Assessment

One important factor is your business needs. If your business only requires simple file transfers between one or two departments or trading partners, SFTP is the better option. On the other hand, if your business requires more complex file transfers that involve multiple business units, organizations, systems, and workflows, MFT is the better choice.

Complex file transfer workflows require automation, more security features, and other file transfer protocols besides SFTP. They may also require hybrid deployments and better scalability and availability capabilities. Only an MFT solution can meet these needs out of the box.

Cost Considerations

Cost is another critical factor when comparing an SFTP Server and an MFT Solution.

SFTP is generally less expensive than MFT but may not offer the same functionality and security. If your business needs are highly complex and you use an SFTP solution, you could spend more on customizations, integrations, additional components, maintenance, troubleshooting, and so on than purchasing an MFT Server.

With MFT, you get everything you need in one solution. If you opt for an MFTaaS option, you can avoid expensive upfront costs. You don’t have to purchase, deploy, manage, and maintain physical servers. Your MFTaaS provider handles all underlying physical infrastructure.

Recommended SFTP and MFT Solutions

SFTP: If you are looking for a secure SFTP solution, we recommend you look at Cerberus SFTP Server. Download a free SFTP Server trial.

MFT: If you are looking for an MFT solution, we recommend JSCAPE MFT Server or JSCAPE MFTaaS if you are looking for a cloud solution.

Learn how an MFT solution can streamline your file transfer processes and integrate seamlessly with your existing systems. Schedule your free demo of JSCAPE MFT Server today and discover the full potential of managed file transfers tailored to your business needs.

Ease of Integration

Unless you only require an elementary file transfer setup, there’s always a good chance you’ll need to integrate your file transfer solution with other systems. Your file transfer solution must integrate easily if your business already has existing systems and workflows. For this reason, it’s important to consider ease of integration when choosing between SFTP and MFT.

SFTP is best suited for standalone file transfer environments. It’s not built for complex integrations. A good MFT solution, on the other hand, will come with APIs and other built-in connectivity features that simplify integration with other systems.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the key differences between Managed File Transfer (MFT) and FTP?

The number one difference between MFT and FTP is that FTP is a protocol, or if it refers to an FTP server or solution, it consists of one protocol—the FTP protocol.

On the other hand, MFT is a solution or server that consists of multiple file transfer protocols. One of those protocols is usually FTP, but the MFT solution may also offer secure file transfer protocols like SFTP, AS2, HTTPS, and FTPS.

Both FTP and MFT servers can perform file sharing and data exchange. However, an MFT server is more secure, has automation-enabling features, and is a much more advanced solution overall.

How does Managed File Transfer (MFT) enhance security compared to SFTP?

Aside from all the security features found in a SFTP solution, a MFT solution also comes with the following additional security features:

MFT Security Features:

  • All standard SFTP security features,
  • Data-at-rest encryption
  • High availability features
  • Electronic receipts
  • Malware protection
  • Detailed logs
  • Additional multi-factor authentication and access control options
  • Password policy configurations
  • And many others

Can MFT protocols incorporate the use of SFTP for secure file transfers?

Yes, MFT-supported protocols typically include the following:

  • Secure FTP or FTPS
  • SCP
  • AS2
  • OFTP
  • SFTP

These protocols, including SFTP, can be used to implement secure file transfers.

What common features of MFT tools distinguish them from standard SFTP solutions?

Aside from the security features outlined above, MFT tools are also equipped with:

  • Automation-enabling features - Enables quick and straightforward configurations for scheduled file transfer workflows and other workflows that respond to specific events and conditions in near real-time.
  • Load balancing - Distributes incoming traffic across a cluster of MFT nodes to prevent overloading a single node.
  • Comprehensive integration capabilities - Integrates with a wide range of systems and services, including cloud-based storage and file transfer.
  • Multiple deployment options - Readily supports on-premises, cloud, and hybrid deployments.
  • Proprietary protocol(s) for poor network conditions - Good MFT solutions come with proprietary file transfer protocols for transferring large files over high latency networks.
  • Reporting - Offers administrators and other stakeholders actionable insights into file transfer processes.
  • Centralized, easily accessible administrative interface - Simplifies administrative tasks by enabling admins to manage the MFT environment from a single pane of glass.

In what scenarios is MFT preferred over traditional SFTP for file transfers?

MFT is preferred over traditional SFTP for file transfers in scenarios where security, regulatory compliance, scalability and automation are critical. MFT solutions are also preferred when transferring large files over long distances (where latency is a big issue) or between different platforms and protocols. That’s why MFT solutions are commonly used in industries and sectors such as healthcare, finance, manufacturing, retail, and government.

What does an MFT gateway provide that a typical SFTP server might not?

MFT Gateway is a product that provides reverse proxy and load balancing functionality to file transfer servers such as SFTP servers, FTP servers, HTTPS servers, and others. The way it works is entirely different from a file transfer server. So, for example, if you use an SFTP server to provide file transfer services, you can put that behind an instance of MFT Gateway. MFT Gateway can then protect your SFTP server by hiding your SFTP server’s IP address and ports while providing SFTP services to connecting clients on your SFTP server’s behalf.