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Share files across your network or the web with HFS

22 February 2013, Mike Williams

When you need to share files with others, setting up a web server probably won’t be the first idea that comes to mind. It just seems like too bulky a solution, too complex, and so you’d probably opt for something more conventional: setting up a network, using a file sharing service, whatever it might be.

With the right software, though, setting up a web server can be much more straightforward than you think. And the open source HFS (Http File Server) is a particularly good example of this, because even if you’re a networking novice, it could have you sharing your files locally within minutes.

This all starts with an ultra-compact download (559KB), all the more surprising because it’s not even zipped. The entire program is contained in a single executable which you just download and run.

The interface is relatively straightforward, too. If you’ve set up a server before then you’ll probably guess that the “Virtual File System” pane is where you’ll share your files. But even if you’re a beginner, hovering your mouse cursor over the pane will explain all with a tooltip asking you to “drag your files here”.

And all you then have to do is drag and drop the files you’d like to share onto the Virtual File System pane, click the “Server is currently OFF” button to turn it on, and give the IP address HFS displays to someone else on your local network. When they put that into a browser they’ll find a simple page with your files displayed, ready for immediate downloading.

Drag and drop, click a button, and you could be sharing your files locally

If you want to share your files across the internet then there is more work to do, but HFS can at least help you get started. Click Menu > Self Test and the program analyses your system and network setup, before explaining what else (if anything) you need to do to make this happen. If you’re new to this kind of networking complexity then there may still be some research to do (on our system we were told simply to ensure out router was “configured to forward port 7000 to your computer”, for instance), but it’s still much more straightforward then many similar tools.

And when you’re ready to consider what else you might need from a file sharing tool, there are plenty of options on offer. So you can password-protect particular files and folders, for instance. You might allow users to upload, as well as download files. There are various speed limits and controls to help ensure the program doesn’t tie up all your bandwidth. And there’s dynamic DNS support, a configurable HTML template, a custom scripting language, and lots of configuration settings to help get everything working properly.

HFS still has some limitations. While in theory you could use it as a web server to host your own website, for example, that probably wouldn’t be a great idea. It’s short on features (there’s no PHP support, for instance), doesn’t run as a service, and tends to do most things in its own, very non-standard way: even if you did get something to work here, it may not be easily transferrable to another host.

If you’re just interested in an alternative way to make files available on your network, though, it’s a very different story. HFS is lightweight, quick and easy to configure, and ideal as a simple way to share some files or folders with others.

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