BitTorrent's peer-to-peer download process

What BitTorrent Does

Unlike some other peer-to-peer downloading methods, BitTorrent is a protocol that offloads some of the file tracking work to a central server (called a tracker). Another difference is that it uses a principal called tit-for-tat. This means that in order to receive files, you have to give them. This solves the problem of leeching -- one of developer Bram Cohen's primary goals. With BitTorrent, the more files you share with others, the faster your downloads are. Finally, to make better use of available Internet bandwidth (the pipeline for data transmission), BitTorrent downloads different pieces of the file you want simultaneously from multiple computers.

Here's how it works:

  • You open a Web page and click on a link for the file you want.
  • BitTorrent client software communicates with a tracker to find other computers running BitTorrent that have the complete file (seed computers) and those with a portion of the file (peers that are usually in the process of downloading the file).
  • The tracker identifies the swarm, which is the connected computers that have all of or a portion of the file and are in the process of sending or receiving it.
  • The tracker helps the client software trade pieces of the file you want with other computers in the swarm. Your computer receives multiple pieces of the file simultaneously.
  • If you continue to run the BitTorrent client software after your download is complete, others can receive .torrent files from your computer; your future download rates improve because you are ranked higher in the "tit-for-tat" system.

Downloading pieces of the file at the same time helps solve a common problem with other peer-to-peer download methods: Peers upload at a much slower rate than they download. By downloading multiple pieces at the same time, the overall speed is greatly improved. The more computers involved in the swarm, the faster the file transfer occurs because there are more sources of each piece of the file. For this reason, BitTorrent is especially useful for large, popular files.