Webdrive: Integrated FTP for Windows

As a webmaster naturally much of my work is implemented on web servers. Clearly web servers are not desktop computers. And since most of my web sites are virtually hosted I have no direct access to the web servers themselves. Heck, in most cases I don’t even know where the web servers are located. Presumably they are somewhere in the United States but for all I know they could be sitting in server rooms in India. But somehow I have to place the content I create on my web servers.

So for years I’ve been doing it the same way everyone else has been doing it who have to do these things remotely. I’ve been using File Transfer Protocol. When I do it at work and the servers are actually located somewhere on my campus I have better alternatives for connecting to these machines. If they are Windows servers then it’s no problem: I just map them like another drive letter using My Computer or Windows Explorer. If they are Unix or Linux machines there is usually no problem either, providing SAMBA is installed on the server, as is typically the case. With SAMBA these machines transparently appear as Windows machines even though they are not: Windows is faked out.

But when working from home the choice has been pretty simple: File Transfer Protocol or some secure version of it. File Transfer Protocol is all about, well, transfer. Basically you copy the file you want to edit down from the server to your PC. Then you edit it. Then you copy it back up. It’s not difficult, just tedious and manual. Normally you have to authenticate yourself to the web server to get access, which adds time. Often you must manually traverse directories to get to the file you want. In short, while it is not difficult, it is time consuming if you are editing more than a couple files, or you need to upload files frequently. Using FTP connections can time out fairly quickly. In this case you often have to go through the hassle of connecting manually again.

It would make life a lot easier if these remote servers could be mapped transparently as if they were another Windows drive letter. Then I could simply open up these files in my favorite text editor and it would seem like the files existed on my PC. Fortunately, I have found at least one product that makes accessing remote servers via FTP or Secure FTP appear as just another drive letter.

The product is called Webdrive and it is a product of South River Technologies. Alas it is not free but it is also not prohibitively expensive. It costs $49.95. I have a license for it for those times when I need to work from home. I find myself more and more also using it for my remote webmastering duties, not all of which are directly related to my work. What a convenience it is! Now that I know about the product and use it regularly I know that I would pay for it out of my own pocket if my employer hadn’t picked up the tab.

I suspect there are other similar products out there, but I doubt very many of them also work with Secure FTP. That can be important since more and more web hosts are requiring the use of Secure FTP. As you might suspect FTP itself is not secure. IDs and passwords are transferred as plain text across the Internet.

So Webdrive is still using FTP, it just makes it transparent to you. Consequently there is no fast saving of files on remote machines. Files still have to traverse the Internet in order for them to be saved. It can often take 5-15 seconds for the file to transfer. Sometimes with a really bad connection or a really big file it can take even longer. But ooh the convenience to access it by simply doing a File/Open in my Windows application of the moment.

Webdrive can be configured to automatically remap the drive when you log on to your PC. It also does a pretty good job of keeping your FTP connection from timing out. If it does time out it will do its best to transparently reconnect you. My experience is that it does not always do it perfectly. It is only as good as the network on which it is running. So if your ISP is having access problems, or the server itself is slow you will notice performance degradation.

Webdrive is an example of one of these obvious solutions to ordinary problems that for some reason got largely missed. It’s such a common problem that you wonder why Microsoft didn’t build it into the operating system. (Of course the real issue is why Windows uses the drive letter metaphor in the first place. This is really a solution to address a fundamental Windows architecture problem.) But at least there is a solution that works. It only took an hour or two of my time before Webdrive paid for itself. It’s already paid for itself many dozens of times.

So if you do a lot of editing of files on remote servers over the Internet accessed by FTP then this is a product to definitely consider. Of course you can download a 20-day trial version that will give you plenty of time to decide whether it is worth shelling out $50 for a purchase. For myself, this is a no-brainer.

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