Repeat after me: Torrenting is not illegal. With the rise of torrent-related crimes appearing on the news, it is no wonder the general public sees torrenting as a route to piracy. While this method of file sharing has indeed encouraged piracy in recent years, the act of torrenting is perfectly legal. In fact, there are several communities that revolve around using torrenting to share large files legally. In this Guide, we will explain what torrenting is and some key processes that go on behind a torrent. After that, we will touch on how you can begin torrenting files and, if you are already a regular torrent user, how you can increase your torrenting speed.
What is Torrenting?
In one sentence, torrenting is a way you can share large files quickly with a huge amount of people. In fact, more people interacting with the file means faster download speeds for everyone involved. Before we dive into how that happens, we’ll take a look at the common ways we have been downloading files.
File Transfer Protocol (Single Download Point). When you access a website to download a file, chances are you are doing what is known as a File Transfer Protocol (FTP) download. FTP is essentially a protocol that regulates how different computers transfer files on a network. In a traditional browser FTP download, clicking on the ‘Download’ button accesses the website’s FTP server, finds the file you are looking for, and downloads them for you. If the website’s FTP server has a huge bandwidth and little downloading users, a direct FTP download can bring about high download speeds. In reality, however, a popular download may mean thousands of users trying to swarm a single FTP server at once. The FTP server is now forced to divide its bandwidth among thousand of users. If the server does not have a huge bandwidth, this is where it may end up with extremely slow download speeds, or in certain cases even crash completely.
Peer-to-peer sharing (Multiple Download Points). Instead of downloading off a single FTP server, torrenting builds upon the idea of peer-to-peer sharing (P2P). You may have used some versions of P2P a few years ago in popular programs such as LimeWire and Napster. In P2P sharing, there are no central FTP server. Instead, users attempt to download different pieces of the files from other people who already own the file. By splitting the file to be downloaded into different thousand pieces spread across all the different people who have the file, you are essentially downloading from several sources. This turns the traditional download process on its head: As more users download and own the file, the more bits and pieces the file can be divided into, which means that any new people coming on board to download the same file gets much faster download speed. Of course, the reverse works as well; if only one person holds onto the file, and another person wants to torrent that file, the file is unable to split itself. This means that the download speed will be significantly slower, often more so than a traditional FTP download.
Now that you are aware of the key differences between FTP and torrent downloads, let’s dive a little deeper into the torrenting ecosystem.
Into the Swarm: Seeding and Leeching
A Swarm represents a group of computers (also known as peers) within a torrent network which are interacting with a specific file. This includes the computers who are seeding (uploading the file) and leeching (downloading the file). The beauty of torrents is that a peer can be both a seeder and a leecher at the same time, so you can be uploading portions of a file you have downloaded while downloading other portions of the same file which you do not own yet. This act allows you to achieve high download speeds as you are leeching from other seeders, and helps contribute to the Swarm health through allowing your computer to be a seeder for that file as well.
Seeding (Uploading). As mentioned, seeding is the act of a peer uploading portions of a file. Seeding need not happen while you are leeching. In fact, a peer should ideally be seeding even after the file has been completely downloaded, to help give back and increase overall Swarm health. That being said, a seeder can always choose to control his/her upload bandwidth to seed less than they are leeching. However, the Swarm rewards seeders with faster downloading speed, so keep that in mind if you choose to limit your upload bandwidth.
Leeching (Downloading). Depending on Swarm health, download speeds can either be extremely slow at close to 0kbps or go higher than 50mbps. Even at a modest speed of 10mbps, that’s equivalent to downloading a 10gb file under 20 minutes. After all the pieces of the file have been downloaded, your torrent program (client) then puts them all together, giving you a file you can use.
It’s all well and good that your computer is able to download different pieces of files from thousands of peers all over the world at once. However, how does your computer know which computers in the world have the file you want, and how does your computer even know which peer has which piece of a file? The next section will explore how the torrenting system is able to track and index peers around the world. Now that you are inside the Swarm, it’s time to be the Swarm.
Be the Swarm: Tracking and DHTs
To even begin downloading a specific file, you start by getting your hands on what is known as a torrent file and a torrent program (also known as a torrent client). Each specific file you wish to download will begin its life as a torrent file, which contains a list of information about all the different pieces of your file, as well as where to find them. The torrent client is a program that interprets the torrent file, and then connects to the relevant peers to begin the download process. The client is able to effectively know which peers to connect to through the aid of tracking or Distributed Hash Tables.
Tracking (centralised directory). When your torrent client first tries to download the file, it first finds your peers’ internet location using what is known as tracking. A tracker is type of server that specialises in facilitating communication between you and the rest of the Swarm through having a directory of all the peers that are interacting with that file, including information such as which user has which pieces of a specific file. Your torrent client, when running your torrent file, finds your file’s trackers and thus knows who to connect to so as to retrieve the relevant pieces of the file you wish to download.
Distributed Hash Tables (decentralised directory). Gaining popularity since 2001, Distributed Hash Tables (DHTs) are an alternate way for your computer to find and connect to other peers. It does this by bypassing the tracking mechanism and instead focuses on a decentralised system, where every computer involved in interacting with the specific file is also responsible for the upkeep and update of the directory. This increases the reliability of the torrenting system as a whole, as it is not prone to tracker failure.
All of this information is within a torrent file, which is well and good. However, where will you go to find a torrent file? Is there a database of all torrent files? Even better, is there a website?
Mapping the Swarm: Indexers
Indexers are websites that consolidate torrent files, so that people like you and me can easily get the relevant torrent files for whatever we wish to download. Most of these websites also have a forum feature where we can request for files that we wish to have.
This is where the line governing legality becomes important. When people think of torrenting, most people think of shady websites delivering copyrighted content such as the latest blockbusters or video games. While these websites certainly do exist and in copious amounts, there are several websites out there such as Internet Archive and Public Domain Torrents that have very strict quality control on the torrent files. These sites ensure that the files allowed on their site are obtained legally and have the appropriate permissions to be distributed.
Gearing up for your Torrent Adventure
Now that you understand the technology behind Torrenting, how do you begin torrenting files? As mentioned earlier in the Guide, there are just two key components to begin downloading torrent files: a torrent client and a torrent file. A quick Google search for torrent clients will bring up several different free and very good torrent clients you can use such as Bittorent. For torrent files, you can easily find public domain pictures, movies, videos, music in the Public Domain Torrent or the Internet Archive. Simply download the torrent file, open it using your torrent client, and you are good to go!
Increasing your Torrent Speed
There are several factors that govern your interaction with the torrent file. For this Guide, we will focus on three key steps you can take to increase your torrent seeding and leeching speed:
#1: Port Forwarding
When you access your internet behind a router, chances are you are invisible to the Swarm at large. To reap maximum rewards of high seeding and leeching speed from the Swarm, it is recommended that you do a little something known as Port Forwarding. Port Forwarding allows services from your internal network (your home connection) to become accessible to the external network (the internet at large). To forward your port, you have to first access your preferences/settings from your torrent client to find out which port your client is using. After that, you will have to access your router’s dashboard or settings page and enable that port under the ‘Port Forwarding’ option. The specific steps differ between torrent clients and between router brands, so you may have to Google a bit to find out which one works for you.
SECURITY RISK: Take note that port forwarding, like any other actions that involve allowing external access into your internal network, opens your home network to external security risks. Please read up on Port Forwarding and ensure that you understand its implications before you embark on this method.
#2: Choose a healthy torrent
As implied throughout the Guide, having a Swarm with multiple active seeders equates to an excellent Swarm health, which then implies higher download speed for you. Most indexers do post up the number of seeders and leechers that are currently interacting with that file, so you can easily tell which torrents are healthy before you begin using the torrent file. On top of those figures, taking a quick look at the amount and date of comments will also give you a good indication on whether there has been traffic on that specific torrent file, as well as warn you of any malicious programs such as viruses hidden in the file.
#3: Ensure you have a healthy upload/download speed
Of course, all of this is ultimately bound by your internet speed, which is dependent on several factors such as your broadband type, the type of connection you are using and your router capabilities. Ensure that you have a stable internet speed that is able to sustain your torrents, especially if you are in the habit of torrenting several files at once. To find out more about your internet speed and how to increase your internet speed, you can check out one of our previous Guide here.
All in all, torrenting is an excellent alternative to your traditional downloading methods due to its Swarm-based approach. When choosing to download a file that has an FTP or torrent option, do consider torrent if the file is widely circulated or has active torrent activity, as it may mean a much faster download for you.
About The Beginner’s Guide:
The Beginner’s Guide series provides you with a quick understanding of everyday items that you come in contact with. This includes articles on how something works, where something originated from, or how to make something better. All of this to provide you with tidbits of information that you can use to show off at your next dinner party.
Author’s Note: Torrenting is often associated with illegality, and I hope that this Guide can shed some light on torrenting and how we can use it to achieve high download speeds. This series is really about sharing information that we may otherwise not know, so if you like what you are reading, feel free to share it with your friends and family. If there’s any missing or inaccurate information, or if you have any thoughts about the article at all, feel free to comment below and I will get back to you! I am worried that this Guide may be a bit too technical for the everyday person, so drop me a comment to let me know what you think! :)