The Torrent

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. Generally, we go to a download site (you all know my favorites by now) and browse the lists looking for the one thing that will make the entire day. We find it and click the file we want. We get connected to the server that is storing the file and the file is transferred to our system. From there, well we know what goes on. It's really easy.

The entire transaction usually 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 where you pay by the minute, that isn't economically feasible. For the rest of us, it can be too long a time before having the file on hand. In addition, you get the problem of too many people requesting the file at the same time. You have to wait awhile before you can even start the download.

In the later case, some really bright folks came up with a better way of handling the problem. BitTorrent!

What is BitTorrent?

BitTorrent 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 flash crowd of hundreds or thousands try to get it at once, your server simply crashes and no one gets it.

There is a solution to this vicious cycle. 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 get your file tap into their upload capacity to give the file to others at the same time. Those that provide the most to others 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 BitTorrent 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 downloaded, say, a Linux ISO image (up to 2.5Gb), the server would upload a small descriptor file that would tell the BitTorrent program where and how to get the file. The BitTorrent program will poll the net looking for special identifiers for the file and start collecting it from where ever it might be. 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 BitTorrent up and 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 again. At least until you get tired of letting your system running. 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 to keep it up to date.

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 and there aren't a lot of files available, but they are out there. Half the fun is finding the files. The other half is using them,


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