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BitTorrent is a protocol supporting the practice of peer-to-peer file sharing that is used to distribute large amounts of data over the Internet. BitTorrent is one of the most common protocols for transferring large files, and peer-to-peer networks have been estimated to collectively account for approximately 43% to 70% of all Internet traffic (depending on geographical location) as of February 2009[update]. In November 2004, BitTorrent was responsible for 35% of all Internet traffic. As of February 2013, BitTorrent was responsible for 3.35% of all worldwide bandwidth, more than half of the 6% of total bandwidth dedicated to file sharing.
Programmer Bram Cohen, a former University at Buffalo graduate student in Computer Science, designed the protocol in April 2001 and released the first available version on July 2, 2001, and the final version in 2008. BitTorrent clients are available for a variety of computing platforms and operating systems including an official client released by Bittorrent, Inc.
As of 2009, BitTorrent reportedly had about the same number of active users online as viewers of YouTube and Facebook combined. As of January 2012[update], BitTorrent is utilized by 150 million active users (according to BitTorrent, Inc.). Based on this figure, the total number of monthly BitTorrent users can be estimated at more than a quarter of a billion.
The BitTorrent protocol can be used to reduce the server and network impact of distributing large files. Rather than downloading a file from a single source server, the BitTorrent protocol allows users to join a "swarm" of hosts to download and upload from each other simultaneously. The protocol is an alternative to the older single source, multiple mirror sources technique for distributing data, and can work over networks with lower bandwidth. Using the BitTorrent protocol, several basic computers, such as home computers, can replace large servers while efficiently distributing files to many recipients. This lower bandwidth usage also helps prevent large spikes in internet traffic in a given area, keeping internet speeds higher for all users in general, regardless of whether or not they use the BitTorrent protocol.
A user who wants to upload a file first creates a small torrent descriptor file that they distribute by conventional means (web, email, etc.). They then make the file itself available through a BitTorrent node acting as a seed. Those with the torrent descriptor file can give it to their own BitTorrent nodes which, acting as peers or leechers, download it by connecting to the seed and/or other peers (see diagram on the right).
The file being distributed is divided into segments called pieces. As each peer receives a new piece of the file it becomes a source (of that piece) for other peers, relieving the original seed from having to send that piece to every computer or user wishing a copy. With BitTorrent, the task of distributing the file is shared by those who want it; it is entirely possible for the seed to send only a single copy of the file itself and eventually distribute to an unlimited number of peers.
Each piece is protected by a cryptographic hash contained in the torrent descriptor. This ensures that any modification of the piece can be reliably detected, and thus prevents both accidental and malicious modifications of any of the pieces received at other nodes. If a node starts with an authentic copy of the torrent descriptor, it can verify the authenticity of the entire file it receives.
Pieces are typically downloaded non-sequentially and are rearranged into the correct order by the BitTorrent Client, which monitors which pieces it needs, and which pieces it has and can upload to other peers. Pieces are of the same size throughout a single download (for example a 10 MB file may be transmitted as ten 1 MB Pieces or as forty 256 KB Pieces). Due to the nature of this approach, the download of any file can be halted at any time and be resumed at a later date, without the loss of previously downloaded information, which in turn makes BitTorrent particularly useful in the transfer of larger files. This also enables the client to seek out readily available pieces and download them immediately, rather than halting the download and waiting for the next (and possibly unavailable) piece in line, which typically reduces the overall length of the download.
When a peer completely downloads a file, it becomes an additional seed. This eventual shift from peers to seeders determines the overall "health" of the file (as determined by the number of times a file is available in its complete form).
The distributed nature of BitTorrent can lead to a flood like spreading of a file throughout many peer computer nodes. As more peers join the swarm, the likelihood of a complete successful download by any particular node increases. Relative to traditional Internet distribution schemes, this permits a significant reduction in the original distributor's hardware and bandwidth resource costs.
Distributed downloading protocols in general provide redundancy against system problems, reduces dependence on the original distributor and provides sources for the file which are generally transient and therefore harder to trace by those who would block distribution compared to the situation provided by limiting availability of the file to a fixed host machine (or even several).
One such example of BitTorrent being used to reduce the distribution cost of file transmission is in the BOINC Client-Server system. If a BOINC distributed computing application needs to be updated (or merely sent to a user) it can do so with little impact on the BOINC Server.
A BitTorrent client is any program that implements the BitTorrent protocol. Each client is capable of preparing, requesting, and transmitting any type of computer file over a network, using the protocol. A peer is any computer running an instance of a client.
To share a file or group of files, a peer first creates a small file called a "torrent" (e.g. MyFile.torrent). This file contains metadata about the files to be shared and about the tracker, the computer that coordinates the file distribution. Peers that want to download the file must first obtain a torrent file for it and connect to the specified tracker, which tells them from which other peers to download the pieces of the file.
Taken together, these differences allow BitTorrent to achieve much lower cost to the content provider, much higher redundancy, and much greater resistance to abuse or to "flash crowds" than regular server software. However, this protection, theoretically, comes at a cost: downloads can take time to rise to full speed because it may take time for enough peer connections to be established, and it may take time for a node to receive sufficient data to become an effective uploader. This contrasts with regular downloads (such as from an HTTP server, for example) that, while more vulnerable to overload and abuse, rise to full speed very quickly and maintain this speed throughout.
In general, BitTorrent's non-contiguous download methods have prevented it from supporting progressive download or "streaming playback". However, comments made by Bram Cohen in January 2007 suggest that streaming torrent downloads will soon be commonplace and ad supported streaming appears to be the result of those comments. In January 2011 Cohen demonstrated an early version of BitTorrent streaming, saying the feature was projected to be available by summer 2011. As of 2013, this new BitTorrent streaming protocol is available for beta testing.
The peer distributing a data file treats the file as a number of identically sized pieces, usually with byte sizes of a power of 2, and typically between 32 kB and 16 MB each. The peer creates a hash for each piece, using the SHA-1 hash function, and records it in the torrent file. Pieces with sizes greater than 512 kB will reduce the size of a torrent file for a very large payload, but is claimed to reduce the efficiency of the protocol. When another peer later receives a particular piece, the hash of the piece is compared to the recorded hash to test that the piece is error-free. Peers that provide a complete file are called seeders, and the peer providing the initial copy is called the initial seeder.
The exact information contained in the torrent file depends on the version of the BitTorrent protocol. By convention, the name of a torrent file has the suffix
.torrent. Torrent files have an "announce" section, which specifies the URL of the tracker, and an "info" section, containing (suggested) names for the files, their lengths, the piece length used, and a SHA-1 hash code for each piece, all of which are used by clients to verify the integrity of the data they receive.
Torrent files are typically published on websites or elsewhere, and registered with at least one tracker. The tracker maintains lists of the clients currently participating in the torrent. Alternatively, in a trackerless system (decentralized tracking) every peer acts as a tracker. Azureus was the first BitTorrent client to implement such a system through the distributed hash table (DHT) method. An alternative and incompatible DHT system, known as Mainline DHT, was later developed and adopted by the BitTorrent (Mainline), µTorrent, Transmission, rTorrent, KTorrent, BitComet, and Deluge clients.
After the DHT was adopted, a "private" flag — analogous to the broadcast flag — was unofficially introduced, telling clients to restrict the use of decentralized tracking regardless of the user's desires. The flag is intentionally placed in the info section of the torrent so that it cannot be disabled or removed without changing the identity of the torrent. The purpose of the flag is to prevent torrents from being shared with clients that do not have access to the tracker. The flag was requested for inclusion in the official specification in August, 2008, but has not been accepted yet. Clients that have ignored the private flag were banned by many trackers, discouraging the practice.
Users find a torrent of interest, by browsing the web or by other means, download it, and open it with a BitTorrent client. The client connects to the tracker(s) specified in the torrent file, from which it receives a list of peers currently transferring pieces of the file(s) specified in the torrent. The client connects to those peers to obtain the various pieces. If the swarm contains only the initial seeder, the client connects directly to it and begins to request pieces.
Clients incorporate mechanisms to optimize their download and upload rates; for example they download pieces in a random order to increase the opportunity to exchange data, which is only possible if two peers have different pieces of the file.
The effectiveness of this data exchange depends largely on the policies that clients use to determine to whom to send data. Clients may prefer to send data to peers that send data back to them (a tit for tat scheme), which encourages fair trading. But strict policies often result in suboptimal situations, such as when newly joined peers are unable to receive any data because they don't have any pieces yet to trade themselves or when two peers with a good connection between them do not exchange data simply because neither of them takes the initiative. To counter these effects, the official BitTorrent client program uses a mechanism called "optimistic unchoking", whereby the client reserves a portion of its available bandwidth for sending pieces to random peers (not necessarily known good partners, so called preferred peers) in hopes of discovering even better partners and to ensure that newcomers get a chance to join the swarm.
Although swarming scales well to tolerate flash crowds for popular content, it is less useful for unpopular content. Peers arriving after the initial rush might find the content unavailable and need to wait for the arrival of a seed in order to complete their downloads. The seed arrival, in turn, may take long to happen (this is termed the seeder promotion problem). Since maintaining seeds for unpopular content entails high bandwidth and administrative costs, this runs counter to the goals of publishers that value BitTorrent as a cheap alternative to a client-server approach. This occurs on a huge scale; measurements have shown that 38% of all new torrents become unavailable within the first month. A strategy adopted by many publishers which significantly increases availability of unpopular content consists of bundling multiple files in a single swarm. More sophisticated solutions have also been proposed; generally, these use cross-torrent mechanisms through which multiple torrents can cooperate to better share content.
BitTorrent does not offer its users anonymity. It is possible to obtain the IP addresses of all current and possibly previous participants in a swarm from the tracker. This may expose users with insecure systems to attacks. It may also expose users to the risk of being sued, if they are distributing files without permission from the copyright holder(s). However, there are ways to promote anonymity; for example, the OneSwarm project layers privacy-preserving sharing mechanisms on top of the original BitTorrent protocol.
A growing number of individuals and organizations are using BitTorrent to distribute their own or licensed material. Independent adopters report that without using BitTorrent technology, and its dramatically reduced demands on their private networking hardware and bandwidth, they could not afford to distribute their files.
CableLabs, the research organization of the North American cable industry, estimates that BitTorrent represents 18% of all broadband traffic.[dated info] In 2004, CacheLogic put that number at roughly 35% of all traffic on the Internet.[dated info] The discrepancies in these numbers are caused by differences in the method used to measure P2P traffic on the Internet.[not in citation given]
Routers that use network address translation (NAT) must maintain tables of source and destination IP addresses and ports. Typical home routers are limited to about 2000 table entries while some more expensive routers have larger table capacities. BitTorrent frequently contacts 20–30 servers per second, rapidly filling the NAT tables. This is a known cause of some home routers ceasing to work correctly.
The BitTorrent protocol provides no way to index torrent files. As a result, a comparatively small number of websites have hosted a large majority of torrents, many linking to copyrighted material without the authorization of copyright holders, rendering those sites especially vulnerable to lawsuits. Several types of websites support the discovery and distribution of data on the BitTorrent network.
Public torrent-hosting sites such as The Pirate Bay allow users to search and download from their collection of torrent files. Users can typically also upload torrent files for content they wish to distribute. Often, these sites also run BitTorrent trackers for their hosted torrent files, but these two functions are not mutually dependent: a torrent file could be hosted on one site and tracked by another unrelated site.
Private host/tracker sites operate like public ones except that they may restrict access to registered users and may also keep track of the amount of data each user uploads and downloads, in an attempt to reduce leeching.
Search engines allow the discovery of torrent files that are hosted and tracked on other sites; examples include Mininova, BTDigg, BTJunkie, Torrentz, The Pirate Bay, and isoHunt. These sites allow the user to ask for content meeting specific criteria (such as containing a given word or phrase) and retrieve a list of links to torrent files matching those criteria. This list can often be sorted with respect to several criteria, relevance (seeders-leechers ratio) being one of the most popular and useful (due to the way the protocol behaves, the download bandwidth achievable is very sensitive to this value). Bram Cohen launched a BitTorrent search engine on http://www.bittorrent.com/search that co-mingles licensed content with search results. Metasearch engines allow one to search several BitTorrent indices and search engines at once. DHT search engines monitors the DHT network and indexes torrents via metadata exchange from peers.
The BitTorrent protocol is still under development and may therefore still acquire new features and other enhancements such as improved efficiency.
On May 2, 2005, Azureus 22.214.171.124 (now known as Vuze) was released, introducing support for "trackerless" torrents through a system called the "distributed database." This system is a DHT implementation which allows the client to use torrents that do not have a working BitTorrent tracker. The following month, BitTorrent, Inc. released version 4.2.0 of the Mainline BitTorrent client, which supported an alternative DHT implementation (popularly known as "Mainline DHT", outlined in a draft on their website) that is incompatible with that of Azureus. Recent measurement shows users of Mainline DHT is from 10 million to 25 million, with a daily churn of at least 10 million. Mainline DHT is arguably the largest realistic DHT in the world.
Current versions of the official BitTorrent client, µTorrent, BitComet, Transmission and BitSpirit all share compatibility with Mainline DHT. Both DHT implementations are based on Kademlia. As of version 126.96.36.199, Azureus also supports Mainline DHT in addition to its own distributed database through use of an optional application plugin. This potentially allows the Azureus/Vuze client to reach a bigger swarm.
Another idea that has surfaced in Vuze is that of virtual torrents. This idea is based on the distributed tracker approach and is used to describe some web resource. Currently, it is used for instant messaging. It is implemented using a special messaging protocol and requires an appropriate plugin. Anatomic P2P is another approach, which uses a decentralized network of nodes that route traffic to dynamic trackers.
Most BitTorrent clients also use Peer exchange (PEX) to gather peers in addition to trackers and DHT. Peer exchange checks with known peers to see if they know of any other peers. With the 188.8.131.52 release of Vuze, all major BitTorrent clients now have compatible peer exchange.
Web seeding was implemented in 2006 as the ability of BitTorrent clients to download torrent pieces from an HTTP source in addition to the swarm. The advantage of this feature is that a website may distribute a torrent for a particular file or batch of files and make those files available for download from that same web server; this can simplify long-term seeding and load balancing through the use of existing, cheap, web hosting setups. In theory, this would make using BitTorrent almost as easy for a web publisher as creating a direct HTTP download. In addition, it would allow the "web seed" to be disabled if the swarm becomes too popular while still allowing the file to be readily available.
This feature has two distinct and incompatible specifications.
The first was created by John "TheSHAD0W" Hoffman, who created BitTornado. From version 5.0 onward, the Mainline BitTorrent client also supports web seeds, and the BitTorrent web site had a simple publishing tool that creates web seeded torrents. µTorrent added support for web seeds in version 1.7. BitComet added support for web seeds in version 1.14. This first specification requires running a web service that serves content by info-hash and piece number, rather than filename.
In September 2010, a new service named Burnbit was launched which generates a torrent from any URL using webseeding.
There are server-side solutions that provide initial seeding of the file from the webserver via standard BitTorrent protocol and when the number of external seeders reach a limit, they stop serving the file from the original source.
A technique called broadcatching combines RSS with the BitTorrent protocol to create a content delivery system, further simplifying and automating content distribution. Steve Gillmor explained the concept in a column for Ziff-Davis in December, 2003. The discussion spread quickly among bloggers (Ernest Miller, Chris Pirillo, etc.). In an article entitled Broadcatching with BitTorrent, Scott Raymond explained:
I want RSS feeds of BitTorrent files. A script would periodically check the feed for new items, and use them to start the download. Then, I could find a trusted publisher of an Alias RSS feed, and "subscribe" to all new episodes of the show, which would then start downloading automatically — like the "season pass" feature of the TiVo.—Scott Raymond, scottraymond.net
The BitTorrent web-service MoveDigital added the ability to make torrents available to any web application capable of parsing XML through its standard REST-based interface in 2006, though this has since been discontinued. Additionally, Torrenthut is developing a similar torrent API that will provide the same features, and help bring the torrent community to Web 2.0 standards. Alongside this release is a first PHP application built using the API called PEP, which will parse any Really Simple Syndication (RSS 2.0) feed and automatically create and seed a torrent for each enclosure found in that feed.
Since BitTorrent makes up a large proportion of total traffic, some ISPs have chosen to throttle (slow down) BitTorrent transfers. For this reason, methods have been developed to disguise BitTorrent traffic in an attempt to thwart these efforts.
Protocol header encrypt (PHE) and Message stream encryption/Protocol encryption (MSE/PE) are features of some BitTorrent clients that attempt to make BitTorrent hard to detect and throttle. At the moment Vuze, Bitcomet, KTorrent, Transmission, Deluge, µTorrent, MooPolice, Halite, rTorrent and the latest official BitTorrent client (v6) support MSE/PE encryption.
Reports in August 2007 indicated that Comcast was preventing BitTorrent seeding by monitoring and interfering with the communication between peers. Protection against these efforts is provided by proxying the client-tracker traffic via an encrypted tunnel to a point outside of the Comcast network. Comcast has more recently called a "truce" with BitTorrent, Inc. with the intention of shaping traffic in a protocol-agnostic manner. Questions about the ethics and legality of Comcast's behavior have led to renewed debate about net neutrality in the United States.
In general, although encryption can make it difficult to determine what is being shared, BitTorrent is vulnerable to traffic analysis. Thus, even with MSE/PE, it may be possible for an ISP to recognize BitTorrent and also to determine that a system is no longer downloading but only uploading data, and terminate its connection by injecting TCP RST (reset flag) packets.
Another unofficial feature is an extension to the BitTorrent metadata format proposed by John Hoffman and implemented by several indexing websites. It allows the use of multiple trackers per file, so if one tracker fails, others can continue to support file transfer. It is implemented in several clients, such as BitComet, BitTornado, BitTorrent, KTorrent, Transmission, Deluge, µTorrent, rtorrent, Vuze, Frostwire. Trackers are placed in groups, or tiers, with a tracker randomly chosen from the top tier and tried, moving to the next tier if all the trackers in the top tier fail.
Torrents with multiple trackers (called MultiTorrents by indexing website MyBittorrent.com) can decrease the time it takes to download a file, but also have a few consequences:
Even with distributed trackers, a third party is still required to find a specific torrent. This is usually done in the form of a hyperlink from the website of the content owner or through indexing websites like isoHunt, Torrentz, BTDigg or The Pirate Bay.
The Tribler BitTorrent client is the first to incorporate decentralized search capabilities. With Tribler, users can find .torrent files that are hosted among other peers, instead of on a centralized index sites. It adds such an ability to the BitTorrent protocol using a gossip protocol, somewhat similar to the eXeem network which was shut down in 2005. The software includes the ability to recommend content as well. After a dozen downloads the Tribler software can roughly estimate the download taste of the user and recommend additional content.
In May 2007 Cornell University published a paper proposing a new approach to searching a peer-to-peer network for inexact strings, which could replace the functionality of a central indexing site. A year later, the same team implemented the system as a plugin for Vuze called Cubit and published a follow-up paper reporting its success.
A somewhat similar facility but with a slightly different approach is provided by the BitComet client through its "Torrent Exchange" feature. Whenever two peers using BitComet (with Torrent Exchange enabled) connect to each other they exchange lists of all the torrents (name and info-hash) they have in the Torrent Share storage (torrent files which were previously downloaded and for which the user chose to enable sharing by Torrent Exchange).
Thus each client builds up a list of all the torrents shared by the peers it connected to in the current session (or it can even maintain the list between sessions if instructed). At any time the user can search into that Torrent Collection list for a certain torrent and sort the list by categories. When the user chooses to download a torrent from that list, the .torrent file is automatically searched for (by info-hash value) in the DHT Network and when found it is downloaded by the querying client which can after that create and initiate a downloading task.
The BitTorrent specification is free to use and many clients are open source, so BitTorrent clients have been created for all common operating systems using a variety of programming languages. The official BitTorrent client, µTorrent, Xunlei, Transmission, Vuze and BitComet are some of the most popular clients.
Some BitTorrent implementations such as MLDonkey and Torrentflux are designed to run as servers. For example, this can be used to centralize file sharing on a single dedicated server which users share access to on the network. Server-oriented BitTorrent implementations can also be hosted by hosting providers at co-located facilities with high bandwidth Internet connectivity (e.g., a datacenter) which can provide dramatic speed benefits over using BitTorrent from a regular home broadband connection.
The Opera web browser supports BitTorrent, as does Wyzo. BitLet allows users to download Torrents directly from their browser using a Java applet. An increasing number of hardware devices are being made to support BitTorrent. These include routers and NAS devices containing BitTorrent-capable firmware like OpenWrt.
An unimplemented (as of February 2008[update]) unofficial feature is Similarity Enhanced Transfer (SET), a technique for improving the speed at which peer-to-peer file sharing and content distribution systems can share data. SET, proposed by researchers Pucha, Andersen, and Kaminsky, works by spotting chunks of identical data in files that are an exact or near match to the one needed and transferring these data to the client if the "exact" data are not present. Their experiments suggested that SET will help greatly with less popular files, but not as much for popular data, where many peers are already downloading it. Andersen believes that this technique could be immediately used by developers with the BitTorrent file sharing system.
As of December 2008[update], BitTorrent, Inc. is working with Oversi on new Policy Discover Protocols that query the ISP for capabilities and network architecture information. Oversi's ISP hosted NetEnhancer box is designed to "improve peer selection" by helping peers find local nodes, improving download speeds while reducing the loads into and out of the ISP's network.
There has been much controversy over the use of BitTorrent trackers. BitTorrent metafiles themselves do not store file contents. Whether the publishers of BitTorrent metafiles violate copyrights by linking to copyrighted material without the authorization of copyright holders is controversial.
Various jurisdictions have pursued legal action against websites that host BitTorrent trackers. High-profile examples include the closing of Suprnova.org, TorrentSpy, LokiTorrent, BTJunkie, Mininova, Demonoid and Oink's Pink Palace. The Pirate Bay torrent website, formed by a Swedish group, is noted for the "legal" section of its website in which letters and replies on the subject of alleged copyright infringements are publicly displayed. On May 31, 2006, The Pirate Bay's servers in Sweden were raided by Swedish police on allegations by the MPAA of copyright infringement; however, the tracker was up and running again three days later.
In the study used to value NBC Universal in its merger with Comcast, Envisional examined the 10,000 torrent swarms managed by PublicBT which had the most active downloaders. After excluding pornographic and unidentifiable content, it was found that only one swarm offered legitimate content.
Between 2010 and 2012, 200,000 people have been sued for uploading and downloading copyrighted content through BitTorrent.
In 2011, 18.8% of North American internet traffic was used by peer-to-peer networks which equates to 132 billion music file transfers and 11 billion movie file transfers on the BitTorrent network.
On April 30, 2012 the UK High Court ordered five ISPs to block BitTorrent search engine The Pirate Bay.
Several studies on BitTorrent have indicated that a large portion of files available for download via BitTorrent contain malware. In particular, one small sample indicated that 18% of all executable programs available for download contained malware. Another study claims that as much as 14.5% of BitTorrent downloads contain zero-day malware, and that BitTorrent was used as the distribution mechanism for 47% of all zero-day malware they have found.
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