How BitTorrent Really Works

BitTorrent is both ambitious and simple. BitTorrent is a P2P protocol in which peers coordinate to distribute requested files. In order to resist downtime due to real-world seizure of computers, BitTorrent has had to progress to a fully distributed architecture, without any single point of failure. This is an impressive technical feat.

Even more impressive is that BitTorrent gets faster with additional content-fetchers, rather than slower. The classic economics of content distribution is suddenly inverted, rewarding high-desirability content.

It’s no surprise then that BitTorrent is used nowadays for everything from sharing Linux ISO files to live broadcast streaming of sports and politics. BitTorrent’s name is still controversial in many places because of its role as a subversive software. BitTorrent’s power made it the first choice for piracy, which lead to many concluding that BitTorrent is only useful for piracy. While many ISPs and externally-administered networks attempt to block and trace BitTorrent, the fight has largely been lost.

By not placing restrictions on peers, BitTorrent opens itself up to a universe of attacks. Like other architectures, a combination of limited observability and sound mathematics is the solution. As we will see, the architecture prevents an evil actor from serving a corrupted file or causing undue load on the BitTorrent network.

Lastly, BitTorrent is forward-thinking. It contains an extension protocol that allows clients to design protocols that alter the behavior of peers, and enables peers to intelligently fall back upon the extensions supported by each. At the bottom of this is the basic peer protocol; ensuring that clients can agree on enough to simply serve the file if they share no extensions.