Using ExpanDrive to mount remote file systems

Vincent Danen recommends the ExpanDrive tool to integrate remote file systems with Mac OS X. You can use secure file transfer protocols and navigate remote file systems that will show up in Mac's Finder.

Vincent Danen recommends the ExpanDrive tool to integrate remote file systems with Mac OS X. You can use secure file transfer protocols and navigate remote file systems that will show up in Mac's Finder.


The Finder is the primary navigator of files, directories, and file systems on OS X. Unfortunately, it's support for remote file systems is quite limited, making it really useful only in a local network environment. It can communicate with remote servers using SMB, AFP, WebDAV, and to some extent, FTP as well.

SMB, for Windows file sharing, works well, and so does the AFP support, for Mac file sharing. WebDAV support is quite good and supports HTTPS so that is the only realistic choice for remote file management - if the remote server provides it. FTP support is really only useful for local trusted networks as well; anyone using plain-jane FTP with authentication on the Internet these days is ignorant, insane, or plain old asking to get hacked.

If you need to use FTP, use a regular FTP client, such as Panic's Transmit, that can also talk FTP over SSL, FTP+TLS, and SFTP — all secure implementations of the FTP protocol. The disadvantage to an FTP client like Transmit, however, is the lack of integration with the Finder.

Being able to connect to remote file systems, securely, and have them displayed in the Finder as if they were part of the local file system is immensely useful, particularly if you want to actually work on the remote file system: for example, mounting your Web site's file system via SFTP and being able to directly edit files using your Web development IDE, text file, or even a program to manipulate graphics.

ExpanDrive can do this, and it is ridiculously easy to work with remote files with convenience and security. ExpanDrive can mount remote SFTP, FTP (with or without SSL), and Amazon S3 file systems and display them in the Finder as if they were local. Another very nice feature of ExpanDrive is that you can connect to a remote server, then change to a different network or put the computer to sleep, and when you access the remote file system via the Finder next, the connection is still available without the need to re-connect.

Not only does ExpanDrive support SFTP, it also can use existing SSH keys. So if you use a passphrase-less key, or have the passphrase for the key stored in the OS X keychain, making connections via SFTP is utterly painless. If you have SSH access to a remote site, you most likely also have SFTP access.

Creating an ExpanDrive drive is simple. Launch ExpanDrive and open the Drive Manager (see Figure A). Click the + button to add a new drive and select the drive type (i.e., SFTP (SSH)). Plug in the server address and optional port, and username. Give the drive a nickname and select the remote path to change to when you connect if you like. You can supply a password or use an SSH key (if the latter, leave the password field blank). You can also tell ExpanDrive to connect to this drive at login, if you start ExpanDrive at login.

Figure A

Once the drive is mounted, it will show up in the Finder and from there you can navigate the file system as you would any other local drive. You can interact with the remote file system via the Terminal as well; it will be mounted beneath the /Volumes/ directory. This means you can use command-line tools to manipulate, copy, or delete files in addition to using GUI tools.

ExpanDrive is a very useful tool to seamlessly integrate remote file systems on OS X. You can be up and running within minutes of downloading the program, and can rest assured that your connections are safe by using secure file transfer protocols like SFTP. For some, a traditional FTP client will be enough, but if you like the idea of manipulating remote files via local tools without having to copy files back and forth, ExpanDrive is well worth looking into.

About Vincent Danen

Vincent Danen works on the Red Hat Security Response Team and lives in Canada. He has been writing about and developing on Linux for over 10 years and is a veteran Mac user.

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