Since the early days of Mac OS X, the Finder has offered support for FTP, letting you work with FTP servers in the Finder as if they were any other file server. You just open the Connect To Server dialog (Go: Connect To Server) and enter the server info in the format ftp://username:password@server.
Except that it doesn’t work. Never has. You may be able to connect to a server and copy files from it to your computer, but that’s it—you can’t copy files to the server, you can’t move files around on the server, and you can’t rename files on the server. The Finder’s FTP functionality is read-only (and, as many Mac users will tell you, you’re lucky if you can get that far). Not to mention that the Finder doesn’t support SFTP—an alternative to FTP that you really want to be using if you care about the security of your file transfers—at all.
Because of this, Mac users who frequently access FTP and SFTP servers have generally turned to dedicated FTP clients such as the excellent Transmit or the free Cyberduck. But an appealing alternative is Magnetk’s ExpanDrive, which gives the Finder itself the FTP/SFTP capabilities Mac users have long wanted.
To perform this magic, ExpanDrive takes advantage of MacFUSE, a Mac version of FUSE (Filesystem in User Space), which lets you, as the developer puts it, “implement a very functional file system in a normal program rather than requiring a complex addition to the operating system.” This means that once you’ve installed MacFUSE, you can implement support for a new filesystem—such as FTP or SFTP—within a Mac OS X user account by simply running a standard, non-administrative program. A program such as, say, ExpanDrive.
The only time you’ll notice these MacFUSE underpinnings is the first time you launch ExpanDrive: You’ll see a dialog asking for permission to install the latest version of MacFUSE; if you have a previous version installed, you’ll instead be asked to upgrade to the latest version. (While ExpanDrive can be run from a standard user account, installing or updating MacFUSE requires an administrator account.) Once that task is successful, ExpanDrive can be used by any account on your Mac.
ExpanDrive is mostly invisible while running, performing its tasks behind the scenes. Its only real interface is a pair of settings windows, accessed via a small menu-bar menu. The preferences window contains a few minor settings, but the Drive Manager is where all the action is: This is where you configure each FTP and SFTP server you want to access. Click on New Drive, choose the drive type (FTP or SFTP), and then enter the necessary connection information; if you want to connect to the server automatically whenever you log in, enable that option. Click on Connect to connect immediately, or Save And Close to save the info for later; in either case, your drive will appear in the Drive Manager list and the menu.
From then on, you access a server or server share either by double-clicking on it in the Drive Manager, or, even easier, by choosing it from ExpanDrive’s menu. (Mounted shares display a green indicator next to them in both locations; inactive shares display a red indicator.) Assuming you have a valid connection to the server or share, it mounts in the Finder, and appears in Finder-window sidebars, just like any other removable volume. You can copy files to and from it and edit its contents, just like any other removable volume—within the limitations of your account login for the server, of course.
The great thing about ExpanDrive is that you really are working with FTP/SFTP servers and shares in the Finder, so standard actions—drag-and-drop to move and copy, return to rename, command-delete to delete—work as expected. You can use Quick Look on remote files, you can compress remote files and folders using the Finder’s Compress command, and ExpanDrive-mounted shares even appear in standard Open and Save dialogs, just like local drives. The developer has provided a few examples of interesting uses of ExpanDrive, including storing your iTunes Library online; making your personal files available, securely, anywhere on the Internet; and making it easier to edit your Web site. Unfortunately, you can’t currently use an ExpanDrive-mounted volume for Time Machine backups, although Magnetk says such a feature is in the works.
ExpanDrive also handles dropped connections gracefully: Instead of causing the Finder to freeze indefinitely, leaving you to watch the hated spinning beachball, you see a simple “not presently reachable” message when you try to access an affected server or share. Even better, ExpanDrive actually monitors your connection and automatically remounts the affected servers as soon as it can reach them. This is especially useful for laptop users, who tend to put their computers to sleep, and change networks, often; ExpanDrive will automatically remount your FTP/SFTP servers whenever it detects a network connection.
When you’re done using a remote share, you just click on the eject icon next to it in the Finder—again, just as you would with any other removable volume. One caveat: In Leopard, whenever you have multiple partitions from the same drive, or multiple shares from the same remote server, mounted and try to eject one, a dialog appears asking if you want to eject just that volume or all volumes from the same disk or server. If you mount multiple FTP/SFTP shares using ExpanDrive, you’ll see this dialog whenever you try to eject one, even if the mounted volumes don’t all reside on the same remote server. As Apple’s dialog explains, you can avoid seeing this dialog by ejecting the volume while holding down control (to eject just that volume) or option (to eject all FTP/SFTP servers).
ExpanDrive is AppleScript-able, and Magnetk also includes a Terminal utility, expan, that lets you mount FTP/SFTP shares from the command line or from within shell scripts.
So what can’t you do with ExpanDrive-mounted volumes? Because you’re still working with FTP/SFTP servers, which don’t support Mac resource forks, you’ll want to compress files that store data in their resource forks before copying them to an FTP or SFTP server. Similarly, actions that rely on Mac metadata, such as assigning color labels, don’t work, and Spotlight doesn’t index FTP/SFTP volumes. Finally, since you’re working with remote volumes, performance won’t be as snappy as if you were working on a hard drive connected directly to your Mac. But to be fair, these are limitations of FTP/SFTP, not ExpanDrive.
It’s also worth noting that the developer calls FTP support a “beta” feature because “the ftp ‘standard’ isn’t quite as standard as one might like.” Indeed, with one particular FTP share I tested with ExpanDrive, I could see only files, not folders. But with every other FTP share and server I tested, ExpanDrive worked well.
Finally, because it’s designed to make FTP and SFTP shares appear as standard Finder volumes, ExpanDrive doesn’t provide as many bells and whistles as a dedicated FTP client. (Then again, because it integrates with the Finder, and provides Finder-like functionality, many of those feature aren’t necessary.) But for seamless integration with the Finder—and ease of use—it’s tough to beat. It’s what the Finder’s built-in FTP/SFTP support should have been from the start.
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