Managed File Transfer: A New Product Category That's Here to Stay
Updated: September 2, 2009
by Alex Woodie
One of the great things about the Internet is it makes it exceptionally easy to distribute computer files. Within minutes, users can be up and running with free FTP and e-mail utilities, and begin sending files around the globe. However, as is the case with many things about the Internet, decentralized file transfer opens the door to security problems and inefficiencies that businesses should not tolerate. The solution advocated by many is a relatively new class of software product called managed file transfer, or MFT.
If you're wondering what this new term managed file transfer, or MFT, refers to and whether you should care, you're not alone. After all, the second great thing about the Internet--following its incredible capacity for technological democratization--is the speed at which new terms and whiz-bang technologies are foisted upon the masses. With that in mind, some caution over this new thing called MFT is warranted.
However, while you may not yet be familiar with MFT, there is a strong possibility that you could benefit from it.
What Is MFT?
MFT refers to a class of product that manages, secures, centralizes, and automates the transfer of files inside and outside of an organization. There are numerous MFT vendors, including some that support i OS and run on the System i server.
At the core of an MFT solution is often an FTP server---or, more likely, an SFTP (uses SSH) or FTPS server (uses SSL) that provides encrypted file transfers. Many MFT solutions also include provisions for sending files via SMTP, HTTP, or HTTPS. Still others rely on proprietary file transfer protocols, and include separate compression and encryption capabilities.
But MFT is not merely a collection of FTP, SMTP, or HTTP servers. On top of the transport layer, MFT solutions produce and provide full audit trails showing who transferred what files to where, and how and when they did it. This adds security to basic file transfer activities, and gives MFT a hand in regulatory compliance.
MFT also includes elements of automation, such as the capability to execute jobs when specific files arrive in specific folders, and to alert IT managers of unexpected situations. This allows MFT products to eliminate complicated scripting and reduce the need for expensive programming expertise.
MFT also identifies and records successful and failed file transfers to a customer or a partner. This provides elements of non-repudiation, and can help prevent those embarrassing instances where an organization isn't sure if a critical transfer actually worked.
A good way to think of MFT is as a "framework" for modern and secure FTP. This was the term used by Linoma Software in its new white paper published last week, titled "Beyond FTP: Securing and Managing File Transfers." Linoma also announced a new MFT product last week, which you can read more about at "Linoma Introduces MFT Software for External Exchanges."
Automation Benefits of MFT
Historically, programmers write scripts to automate batch-style FTP functions. This works fine on a limited scale, and if configurations rarely change. But relying on scripts can quickly become cumbersome when an organization is exchanging data with a lot of customers and partners, and when things like passwords, libraries, and IP addresses are constantly changing.
"That has been the de-facto method. 'Let's write a Perl script around FTP or SFTP," says Sam Morris, product marketing manager at Attachmate, which is currently rolling out a new MFT solution OEMed from Proginet called FileXPress Server (and yes it does run under i OS).
"But what happens is you start to bump into the limitations of those protocols and the utilities that leverage those protocols," Morris says. "For example how do you know for sure a file has transferred completely without any corruption? That's something that's challenging to do in context of FTP or SFTP script.
"Another example is when you encounter a network glitch. Knowing when that happens, when the failure occurs, and having file transfer agents automatically retrying that transfer, is something that's challenging to do [with scripting] and something that a good MFT solution is going to offer."
FileExpress Server, which Attachmate expects to formally announce this fall, utilizes a proprietary protocol called CFI (short for CyberFusion Integration) developed by Proginet that drives more intelligence into file transfers with features like check point restarts and cyclic redundancy checks (CRC). The product also includes a gateway for connecting over standard protocols.
Many MFT products also resemble scaled-down job schedulers. For example, an MFT product could be configured to perform several steps in response to the completion of a file transfer, such as convert a file into an Excel document, encrypt the document, and then distribute it via e-mail. Others can hook into schedulers via APIs or SOAP calls.
Keeping up with all the different protocols, including FTP, SFTP, FTPS, HTTP, HTTPS, and SMTP, is also a challenge for the do-it-yourself scripter, says Linoma's president Bob Luebbe. "That's a lot of effort to build all those different connectors and to be able to handle all the different formats to truly be able to connect to just about any system," he says. Linoma's product, GoAnywhere, supports all the open protocols, including the capability to directly connect to databases, and was recently certified on IBM's z/OS. It also runs on i OS, Linux, Windows, and Unix, giving it a wide-range of operating system support.
Security Benefits of MFT
MFT provides better security over basic FTP in three main ways: authentication, encryption, and logging.
Plain vanilla FTP relies on user names and passwords for authentication. Security is improved somewhat with FTPS, which delivers files securely over the Internet through an encrypted SSL tunnel, and implements certificate-based authentication. The competing standard SFTP, also creates an encrypted link, and uses passwords or keys for authentication.
But neither SFTP nor FTPS completely alleviates all security concerns if an organization has automated its FTP routines with scripts. "Most companies don't know how to properly protect the user names and passwords," Luebbe says. "If you open up the FTP scripts, you can see user names and passwords right in the clear. It's something that companies are getting dinged on by auditors. It not only exposes you, but it exposes your trading partner."
MFT solutions address this security concern by encrypting user names and passwords and storing them in a database. Regulatory compliance is a big driver for MFT, not only in terms of encrypting data transmissions and providing a framework for authentication, but also in terms of logging, Attachmate's Morris says.
"MFT lets organizations know from an auditing point of view who's transferring sensitive information between systems and people, and whether I'm successful with those transmissions," he says. "It also allows me to roll that up into a compliance report for PCI or HIPAA."
Above all, MFT allows users to centralize control over FTP, thereby avoiding the wrath of auditors for another day. "Auditors are really cracking down on companies that are just doing this casual use with FTP, where they're sending files all over the place from their desktops, or even from the iSeries," Luebbe says. "It's just really easy to crank up an FTP session and fire off files without having any security or auditing around what's getting sent."
Future of MFT
The recent buzz over MFT can be partly attributed to Gartner, which started tracking MFT about two years ago. Gartner says the MFT market currently accounts for $450 million to $600 million in yearly revenues, and is growing at 26 percent per year. IDC has also started tracking MFT.
A recent Gartner report predicted that MFT would grow in concert with another security-related IT discipline--encryption key management--and that both would become "mainstream" technologies in two to five years. That view was soundly endorsed by Gary Palgon, vice president of product management at nuBridges, which sells Exchange and Exchange for i MFT solutions.
"It's no longer enough to protect data in motion between business partners, or expect a firewall to protect it at rest," says Palgon, an expert in data security. "Today it takes a comprehensive data security program that secures confidential and sensitive information from the moment it's created until it's destroyed to adequately protect organizations."
The regulations are lagging in this regard. PCI DSS, for instance, mandates that credit card data be encrypted when its sent across the network, but it doesn't require encryption when that credit card data is moved internally, Palgon says. This is a key area where MFT can boost a company's security, keep it in front of the info-security curve, and (hopefully) out of the headlines.
With compelling ease-of-use and security benefits, you'll be hearing a lot more about MFT over the next few years. "A lot of customers we talk to have no idea what we're talking about when we talk about MFT. Because it is a really new term, a lot of people aren't aware of what it means," Luebbe says.
"We've have had a couple of customers say they want MFT," he continues. "But most of them say they have a specific need. They say we need to connect up to this partner with SFTP, can you help us out? We show them how to do that. They're like, 'Whoa, this product can do all kinds of different things.' We'll call them up three months later and now they're using the product for all sorts of different connections, and they've got a MFT solution. They just didn't know they needed one."
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