FTP is one of the many three letter acronyms you are likely to come across in everyday computing life. It stands for file transfer protocol, and is a fairly geeky term that describes the technology used for copying a file from one computer to another via the internet. Using FTP software, you can upload a file to another computer, then download that file to another machine.

If you've not come across the term FTP before, your first reaction might be: 'But that's what email is for!' And you'd be correct. Email is widely used to transfer files between people. FTP doesn't duplicate this function; it offers an entirely different set of functions.

Anyone who manages a website will probably use an FTP server to upload files from their local PC to the machine that holds and provides user access to the website. They might use dedicated software for this task or, as we demonstrate in our walkthrough, perform the transfer through a browser.

I frequently used FTP when I was writing Brilliant Laptops. Rather than email across completed text and images, I uploaded them directly to the publisher's computer system using FTP. This made it easy for several people to access the files at once.

FTP can be useful if an ISP or email client restricts the size of files that can be transferred. A client of mine has a 10MB limit on individual emails, for example, so I use Dropbox when I need to send larger files. Dropbox isn't an FTP server or an email client, but it's a great alternative for sharing files. Another great alternative is YouSendIt.

Step by step

In the following workshop, we'll show you how to set up and use an FTP server using FireFTP, a free plug-in for the Firefox web browser.

Step 1. There are several ways that you can upload a file via FTP. Many free and paid-for dedicated client programs are available, or you can simply use your web browser. Here, we'll use the free FireFTP Firefox plug-in to transfer files. Click Add-ons in Firefox's Tools menu, then search for FireFTP.

Step 2. Select FireFTP in the list of available add-ons and click the 'Add to Firefox' button. When the installation options box appears, click Install. Installation takes only a few seconds, after which you'll be prompted to restart the web browser to complete the changes. Click 'Restart Firefox'.

Step 3. Open Firefox and click Tools, FireFTP to launch the add-on. A file browser window will appear within the browser, displaying files stored on your PC in the left panel. The right panel will be empty for now, and will become populated with files when you connect to an FTP site.

Step 4. Next, you'll need to create a FireFTP account. Click 'Create an account...' at the top-left of the window. FireFTP requires you to enter some information so it knows how to log into your account. First give the account a memorable name, then add the host, login and password details.

Step 5. You can leave this field blank if you'd prefer to enter your password each time you enter an FTP site, rather than have FireFTP log you in automatically. For FTP sites that don't require a password, use the Anonymous login option. The account name will now appear at the top-left of the page. Click it and choose Connect.

Step 6. You'll notice that both panels in the FireFTP file browser window will now be populated with files. The left panel represents local files, the right displays those stored on the FTP server. You can browse through and open files on either side simply by double-clicking them.