Introduction to File Sharing on Computer Networks

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Computer networks allow you to share information with friends, family, co-workers and customers. Network file sharing is the process of copying data files from one computer to another using a live network connection.

Before the Internet and home networks became popular, data files were often shared using floppy disks. Nowadays, some people still use CD-ROM / DVD-ROM disks and USB sticks for transferring their photos and videos, but networks give you more flexible options. This article describes the different methods and networking technologies available to help you share files.

File Sharing With Microsoft Windows

Microsoft Windows (and other network operating systems) contain built-in features for file sharing. For example, Windows file folders can be shared across either a local area network (LAN) or the Internet using any of several methods. You can also set up security access restrictions that control who can obtain the shared files.

Complications can arise when attempting to share files between computers running Windows and ones that don't, but the below alternatives can help.

FTP File Transfers

File Transfer Protocol (FTP) is an older but still useful method to share files on the Internet. A central computer called the FTP server holds all the files to be shared, while remote computers running FTP client software can log in to the server to obtain copies.

All modern computer operating systems contain built-in FTP client software, and popular Web browsers like Internet Explorer can also be configured to run as FTP clients. Alternative FTP client programs are also available for free download on the Internet. As with Windows file sharing, security access options can be set on the FTP server requiring clients to supply a valid login name and password.

P2P - Peer to Peer File Sharing

Peer to peer (P2P) file sharing is a popular method for swapping large files on the Internet, particularly music and videos. Unlike FTP, most P2P file sharing systems do not use any central servers but instead allow all computers on the network to function both as a client and a server. Numerous free P2P software programs exist each with their own technical advantages and loyal community following. Instant Messaging (IM) systems are a type of P2P application most commonly used for chatting, but all popular IM software also supports sharing files.


For decades, files have been transferred from person to person over a network using email software. Emails can travel across the Internet or within a company's intranet. Like FTP systems, email systems follow a client/server model. The sender and receiver may use different email software programs, but the sender must know the recipient's email address, and that address must be configured to allow the incoming mail.

Email systems are designed for transferring small amounts of data and generally limit the size of individual files that can be shared.

Online Sharing Services

Finally, numerous Web services built for personal and/or community file sharing exist on the Internet including well-known options like Box and Dropbox. Members post or upload their files using a Web browser or app, and others can then download copies of these files using the same tools. Some community file sharing sites charge member fees, while others are free (advertising supported). Providers often tout the cloud storage technology advantages of these services, although available storage space tends to be limited, and having too much personal data in the cloud is a concern for some consumers.