FTP active and passive modes

FTP is a TCP based service exclusively. There is no UDP component to FTP. FTP is an unusual service in that it utilizes two ports, a ‘data’ port and a ‘command’ port (also known as the control port). Traditionally these are port 21 for the command port and port 20 for the data port. The confusion begins however, when we find that depending on the mode, the data port is not always on port 20.

Active FTP

In active mode FTP the client connects from a random unprivileged port (N > 1023) to the FTP server’s command port, port 21. Then, the client starts listening to port N+1 and sends the FTP command PORT N+1 to the FTP server. The server will then connect back to the client’s specified data port from its local data port, which is port 20.

From the server-side firewall’s standpoint, to support active mode FTP the following communication channels need to be opened:
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)

Passive FTP

In order to resolve the issue of the server initiating the connection to the client a different method for FTP connections was developed. This was known as passive mode, or PASV, after the command used by the client to tell the server it is in passive mode.

In passive mode FTP the client initiates both connections to the server, solving the problem of firewalls filtering the incoming data port connection to the client from the server. When opening an FTP connection, the client opens two random unprivileged ports locally (N > 1023 and N+1). The first port contacts the server on port 21, but instead of then issuing a PORT command and allowing the server to connect back to its data port, the client will issue the PASV command. The result of this is that the server then opens a random unprivileged port (P > 1023) and sends the PORT P command back to the client. The client then initiates the connection from port N+1 to port P on the server to transfer data.

From the server-side firewall’s standpoint, to support passive mode FTP the following communication channels need to be opened:
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)

Summary

The following chart should help admins remember how each FTP mode works:
Active FTP :
command : client >1023 -> server 21
data : client >1023 <- server 20 Passive FTP : command : client >1023 -> server 21
data : client >1023 -> server >1023

A quick summary of the pros and cons of active vs. passive FTP is also in order:

Active FTP is beneficial to the FTP server admin, but detrimental to the client side admin. The FTP server attempts to make connections to random high ports on the client, which would almost certainly be blocked by a firewall on the client side. Passive FTP is beneficial to the client, but detrimental to the FTP server admin. The client will make both connections to the server, but one of them will be to a random high port, which would almost certainly be blocked by a firewall on the server side.

Luckily, there is somewhat of a compromise. Since admins running FTP servers will need to make their servers accessible to the greatest number of clients, they will almost certainly need to support passive FTP. The exposure of high level ports on the server can be minimized by specifying a limited port range for the FTP server to use. Thus, everything except for this range of ports can be firewalled on the server side. While this doesn’t eliminate all risk to the server, it decreases it tremendously.

Leave a Reply