What is Bittorrent?

Some of my friends have asked me what Bittorrent is and how they can get involved. To summarize, Bittorrent is peer-to-peer (P2P) filesharing service. This is a technical term for an application that allows users to download files efficiently. Traditional downloads (think Microsoft) rely on one (or many) servers that houses the file and all users visit the site and download the file from the server. P2P is different because instead of having the file reside one server everyone downloading the file serve as the source for other people downloading.

An example would clarify. In a traditional environment a file is housed in one location and everyone goes to that location to get the file. In a P2P everyone who downloads the file has a copy of it and will serve as source for someone downloading the file. Thus if you wanted to download the file you would begin simultaneously downloading it from the multiple users who have the file. Similarly, as your are downloading, you will serve as a source of the file for other people wanting to download it. The benefit is that the download process is de-centralized and can leverage the bandwidth of each person having some or part of the file.

Bittorrent is a P2P based download model. It works based on something called a tracker. A tracker is server that keeps track of all users with completed copies of the file or currently downloading the file. Thus when a new user tries to access a file, the tracker tells them where to go to begin downloading. The tracker is based off of a file called a “torrent”.

In order to use Bittorrent, you need a client. I recommend uTorrent. The client will load the torrent file and automatically begin downloading the file(s) based off of the information in the torrent. Thus starting a download is typically as simple as clicking on a torrent and uTorrent will do the rest. Of course, downloading large files can take a while so be prepared to leave the computer running.

There are a couple of pieces of jargon common to Bittorrent that should be clarified. These are highlighted below:

  • Seed – This is a user who has downloaded the full file and is sharing it.
  • Leach – This is a user who is in the process of downloading a torrent and has not completed. Once a leach completes and begins sharing, it becomes a seed

Okay, now that I have explained torrents and the Bittorrent client, the question is “where can I find torrents to download”. In order to do that you need to find a Bittorrent search engine. These are sites that maintain listings of torrent files. There are many of these Internet, and a couple that I sometimes visit include:

  1. The Pirate Bay
  2. BTJunkie

Perusing those search engines, you will see that there are many files available on Bitorrent. Some of the material there is copyrighted and remember that it is illegal to download copyrighted material.

Also remember that when downloading torrents, you want to find ones that have many seeds and/or leaches. This ensures that there are many different sources to download the file. Some torrents are not widely downloaded with few seeds and leaches and thus you will likely see much worse performance when downloading. All things being equal, you should choose to download torrents that have the most seeds and leachs this ensures both best performance and the best chance of file reliability.

One final word of caution, files downloaded by Bittorrent are created by a myriad of people and/or entities most of whom have good intentions. However, there is no guarantee that a file you are downloading has not been tampered with. At best, the downloaded file could be corrupted; at worst, the file could be a trojan, virus or other malevolent program. You should be sure that your virus scanning is up-to-date before downloading anything. Also some torrent search engines offer torrent reviews and you should review them closely.

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