What Is the Common Internet File System (CIFS) Protocol, and Is It Still Relevant Today?

Image of records in a typical bin file sorting system
We don’t need physical files anymore, digital files are the way to go!
Source: Mr Cup / Fabien Barral on Unsplash

Protocols have guided server-client communications for a long time—and they’re a good way to send and receive data. But every protocol has various nuances. Therefore, you should know which protocol you want to use before setting up a network. Even with the advancement of technology, server-client protocols have remained constant. As such, many are 20 years or older. One of those protocols is about that old but is now ready for retirement—the Common Internet File System (CIFS) protocol.

In this article, I’ll cover the CIFS protocol, how it works, and its functionality. I’ll also share some of its use cases and compare it with two other file transfer protocols.

First, I’ll explain what the CIFS protocol is

What Is the Common Internet File System (CIFS) Protocol?

Developed by IBM in the 1980s, the Common Internet File System (CIFS) protocol is a subversion, or dialect, of the Server Message Block (SMB) protocol. You can think of it as the predecessor of SMB, which Microsoft developed in 1996. In essence, CIFS was eventually rebranded to SMB.

In most cases, the Common Internet File System protocol was notorious for being buggy, chatty, and underperforming. By chatty, I’m referring to it sending and receiving too many responses between servers. 

Speaking of performance, let’s talk about how it works next.

How Does CIFS Work?

In short, the Common Internet File System protocol enables file transfers between computers on a network. Specifically, it uses NetBIOS over the TCP/IP protocol. This happened on older Windows versions and a range of network-attached storage systems. CIFS also works with other protocols, such as the File Transfer Protocol (FTP) and the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP).

It works via a client-server model, which consists of three distinct parts: a client, a server, and an application. First, the client computer would send a request to the server. The server then completes the request; in other words, it gathers the data. Finally, the server responds to the client by returning the requested data.

Now that you understand more about how CIFS works, I think it’s time we looked at its major functions.

CIFS Functionality

This section aims to educate you on the functionality of CIFS and how people use it overall. Below, you’ll find several major functions of this protocol:

  • Transport Independence: CIFS has no requirements for transporting messages between the client and server. It transports messages via a connection-oriented protocol and can operate on connectionless protocols.
  • Flexible Connectivity: A single request can make multiple connections across multiple servers. 
  • Feature Negotiation: You’d typically negotiate CIFS and its features on a per-connection basis. Therefore, each connection will have a unique setup in a sense. 
  • Resource Access: Clients have access and permissions to files, named pipes, and print cues on the target server.
  • Security Context Writing: Clients can write more than one security context over their connection, which can lead to confusing security rules. Additionally, this can become hard to maintain, contributing to the downfall of this protocol’s security over time.

Next, let’s take a look at some use cases.

CIFS Use Cases

As previously stated, the Common Internet File System protocol was the genesis for the current-generation Server Message Block, or SMB, protocol. Companies still use the SMB protocol today for file and folder-sharing purposes in Windows systems.

Although many people associate the Common Internet File System protocol with Microsoft, open-source versions of this protocol exist that you can use. For instance, CIFSD is an open-source CIFS/SMB protocol written for Linux. Additionally, Samba also has a CIFS/SMB client, which can provide containers, such as Docker, with connectivity to shared resources.

That said, I’ll now compare CIFS with two other protocols in more detail, the second of which is the previously mentioned SMB.

CIFS vs NFS

Developed by Sun Microsystems in the 1980s, the Network File System (NFS) protocol was mainly used for Unix and Linux systems. NFS allows for transparent file sharing between servers. This means the user can remotely access the server and perform all operations, such as updating, reading, writing, and deleting. NFS is overall less chatty when compared to the Common Internet File System.

CIFS vs SMB

SMB is one of the most popular, and perhaps the most widely used, file transfer protocols out there today. Its latest version allows for standard and advanced end-to-end encryption. In turn, this makes it more secure and reliable than the Common Internet File System protocol.

I created the table below to help you better visualize the differences between the three protocols.

Table showing the differences between CIFS, NFS, and SMB across several aspects
Common Internet File System (CIFS) vs Network File System (NFS) vs Server Message Block (SMB).

Feel free to refer back to this table should you need to. And now, it’s time for the recap!

The Bottom Line

To conclude, the Common Internet File System protocol had its day and is now obsolete. In a modern-day IT setting, using CIFS is not recommended as it’s very buggy, unsupported on many platforms, and isn’t secure. Despite its obsolescence, some companies still use it sparingly for legacy applications. Overall, you’re better off using other protocols, such as SMB 3.0.

Do you have more questions about the Common Internet File System (CIFS) protocol? Check out the FAQ and Resources sections below!

FAQ

What is the Common Internet File System protocol?

The Common Internet File System, or CIFS, protocol allows two computers to transfer files via a client-server model. This protocol isn’t recommended for you to use, as it’s very buggy and unsupported by many platforms today.

What is the Network File System protocol?

The Network File System, or NFS, protocol allows for transparent file sharing between servers. As a user, you can use this protocol for all file functions, including updating, reading, writing, and deleting. It’s a faster and better option when compared to the Common Internet File System protocol.

What is the Server Message Block protocol?

The Server Message Block, or SMB, protocol is one of the most advanced and secure file transfer protocols today. Its latest version, version 3.0, allows for standard and advanced end-to-end encryption. Overall, it’s one of the best file transfer protocols out there.

Which protocol should I use for the best results?

SMB is the most popular due to its security. The Common Internet File System protocol has too many negative connotations these days. Both SMB 2.0 and 3.0 are massive upgrades over the CIFS dialect. You might choose to use CIFS if you have some legacy systems that need to communicate with newer systems.

When should I use NFS over other file transfer protocols?

If you have a Linux system, you can use NFS over SMB since the latter doesn’t support Linux platforms. NFS has a slight advantage over SMB because three systems support it: Windows, Linux, and Unix. In the case of SMB, only Windows and Unix systems support it.

Resources 

TechGenix: Article on Recovering Messages from Outlook Data Files

Learn some techniques you can use to recover data from a damaged Outlook data file.

TechGenix: Article on PowerShell and CSV Files

Discover how to use PowerShell to work with CSV files.

TechGenix: Article on Network Infrastructure Security 

Educate yourself on keeping your network’s infrastructure secure. 

TechGenix: Article on OneDrive Request Files

Explore what you can do with Microsoft OneDrive and how it’s an alternative to FTP. 

TechGenix: Article on Common Network Security Threats

Find out the most common network security threats and how to defend against them.

1 thought on “What Is the Common Internet File System (CIFS) Protocol, and Is It Still Relevant Today?”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Scroll to Top