Bit Torrent: What is it?

Dennis Faas's picture

In the world of computing -- especially home computing -- one of the things we enjoy most is gathering new and interesting programs to make a difference in our lives.

I suppose it could be considered a cyber extension of the 'Hunter/Gatherer' part of us; we go to a download site and browse the lists looking for the one thing that will make our days a little brighter. We find it and click the file we want, and our computers are connected to the server that stores the file -- and eventually, the file is transferred to our system. From there, what goes on is a little more in depth (but it's really easy to understand).

The transaction involves two computer systems: the server and the client (your desktop). For most file transfers, the transaction doesn't take too long. But there are times when the file is really large and connection time can become hours or even days. For those who pay for Internet access "by the minute", this isn't economically feasible. On the other hand, it can be too long a time to wait for the download to complete. In addition, there may be a problem with too many people requesting the file at the same time, and you may end up having to wait a while before you're allowed to start the download.

In the interest of getting the files, some really bright folks came up with a better way of handling the problem. BitTorrent!

What is BitTorrent?

Bit Torrent is a free speech tool.

BitTorrent gives you the same freedom to publish previously enjoyed by only a select few with special equipment and lots of money. ("Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one" -- journalist A.J. Liebling.)

You have something terrific to publish -- a large music or video file, software, a game or anything else that many people would like to have. But the more popular your file becomes, the more you are punished by soaring bandwidth costs. If your file becomes phenomenally successful and a crowd of hundreds or thousands try to get it at once, your server simply crashes and no one gets it.

BitTorrent, the result of over two years of intensive development, is a simple and free software product that addresses all of these problems.

The key to scaleable and robust distribution is cooperation. With BitTorrent, those who download your file are then able to pass on what they've downloaded to others at the same time. Those that provide the most to others ("uploading") get the best treatment in return. Give and ye shall receive!

Cooperative distribution can grow almost without limit, because each new participant brings not only demand, but also supply. Instead of a vicious cycle, popularity creates a virtuous circle. And because each new participant brings new resources to the distribution, you get limitless scalability for a nearly fixed cost.

BitTorrent is not just a concept, but has an easy-to-use implementation capable of swarming downloads across unreliable networks. BitTorrent has been embraced by numerous publishers to distribute to millions of users.

With Bit Torrent, free speech no longer has a high price.

How does it work?

Instead of having just one server transferring the file, several systems act as servers. If you wanted to download a Linux ISO image (typically up to 2.5 GB), the server would upload a small descriptor file (about 50 KB) that would tell the Bit Torrent program where and how to get and store the file.

The Bit Torrent client would then poll the net looking for special identifiers for the file and start collecting it from where it might be stored. In actuality, you might be downloading from dozens of systems instead of just one.

After you have downloaded the file, you are asked to leave the Bit Torrent client running so it could help someone else get the same file. Your system becomes a server 'helper'. The longer you leave it running the better for whoever is downloading. The process continues over and over (at least until you get tired of letting your system run!). But if you don't mind running over night, this is a good way to keep your system busy.

One word of caution, this is not the best thing to do with a dial-up connection due to the speeds involved as well as the time. BitTorrent works best, though, with a high speed DSL or LAN connection.

With that being said, there are several BitTorrent clients available for downloading. My personal favorite is a program called Azureus. It is written totally in Java and has a wide range of features and capabilities, including an auto-update feature. Turbo Torrent, uTorrent, and bittorrent are three additional clients that do a good job.

So, if you are so inclined, go get a copy, install it and go hunting for the files you want. BitTorrent is still fairly new but there are a lot of files available. Half the fun is finding the files. The other half is using them. However, be careful what you download. Some of the materials available are copyrighted so watch out. To find torrent files, Google Search on the term 'Torrent' and start hunting and gathering!


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