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What are Torrents?

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  • Written By: R. Kayne
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 22 November 2014
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Torrents are specialized files utilized in peer-to-peer (P2P) network environments. P2P is a network of personal computers that communicate with one another by running proprietary P2P software. The first P2P software designed to utilize torrents was BitTorrent by Bram Cohen. Other torrent clients have followed.

Torrents are distinguished by a unique transfer process. To compare how torrents download to standard files, let’s first consider how normal files download off the Internet.

At any given website a user might click on a file to transfer it to his or her computer. Upon clicking on the file, the website’s server starts sending the file to the visitor in discreet data packets. These packets travel various routes to reach the user’s computer and are reconstructed upon receipt to complete the file transfer.

While this works fine for smaller files, it is cumbersome to transfer larger files this way. If the server is busy, download time can be very slow. Communication between your server and the computer can even crash, causing corruption in the transfer, or at best, delays.

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Unlike downloads off the Web, torrents do not point to a single source on a P2P network when requesting files. Instead, torrents contain specific information that multiple computers in the network can read to send various parts of the requested file simultaneously and en masse. Torrents keep active track of which parts of the file are needed to complete the request. By downloading bits of the file from dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of sources, large files can download very quickly.

Working with torrents is also unique for another reason. At the same time the user is downloading file parts, the computer is also uploading parts already received to others. This decreases download time because users do not have to wait for file sources to have completed torrents before receiving needed parts of a requested file.

Once requested torrents have downloaded in full, you become a seed for those files. A seed refers to someone that has the entire file available. It is considered rude to download torrents and disconnect, referred to as leeching. Instead, users are encouraged to participate by seeding the file for others so that a minimal 1:1 share ratio is maintained. A swarm refers to the entire group of people transferring a file at any given time.

To encourage sharing, software used for downloading torrents keeps track of the share ratio. The torrent client will automatically allocate more bandwidth for downloading at faster speeds when a user shares more than he or she downloads. This usually means leaving the computer running while doing other things, as upstream bandwidth is much slower for most of us than downstream bandwidth. While it might take 40 minutes to download a 250MB freeware suite, it can take several times longer to upload that same amount of data.

Torrents are archived in libraries that are searchable with a Web browser. One cannot download torrents without installing a torrent client first. There are many free torrent clients available, some of which are open source. Once a desired torrent is found, clicking on it will open the torrent client to begin the download process. The user may have to configure his or her firewall to allow the use of certain communication ports.

Many types of files are shared as torrents, including software, music and videos. While P2P sharing is not illegal, sharing copyrighted material without permission from the copyright holder is illegal. The Recording Industry Artists of American (RIAA), and Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) have targeted some websites that cater to archiving illegal torrents.

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Discuss this Article

ranjha2308
Post 43

@post 38/anon178395: What is your internet speed? For me to download a 100 mb file will take more than 60 minutes.

anon191871
Post 39

ok. I am still confused. It's not that I need to know what a torrent is other than how do I use one? or what does it do? I know I'm confusing.

anon178395
Post 38

i too download a lot of torrents. I get a very good speed. i can download a 700mb file just in about 70min.

anon135494
Post 36

Really nice. Thanks a lot!

anon94987
Post 34

Doesn't leaving my computer being a "seed" open everything exposed for some hacker to gain access to everything on my computer? Seems risky and dangerous.

anon82928
Post 32

Still confused. I am new to torrents. Never mind the extra electricity I have to pay for keeping my computer on to help seed the community, what if the computer goes to sleep? It isn't me turning off the computer. And, how long must I keep the computer on not to be "rude"? One week? One month? Six months? Thank you.

anon77921
Post 31

i usually don't post stuff but this answered my question perfectly and i just had to say than you! for real, for real.

anon57352
Post 29

Thank you. Very beautifully explained.-- A. Sharma

anon55388
Post 28

Nice information, exactly what I was looking for.

Thank you.

anon54285
Post 27

I appreciate the information. It was easy to understand and very helpful!

anon52673
Post 23

Is there a site or log that records what torrents a person has downloaded? (For example) Someone says to you that they know what torrents you've downloaded by a site they know of. Is there truly such a place? I personally have never heard of this, and I know my torrents.

anon51674
Post 22

If I download an application will a serial number usually come with it? If not, are any of these sites offering serials for real? Thanks.

anon46222
Post 21

To Commenter #17: You cannot torrent without uploading files. If you do not upload anything your download speed will be throttled back to nothing. Torrenting is called 'file sharing' because it only works if everyone shares. If people only take and don't give back (seed), the model collapses.

anon45936
Post 20

Nice article. It's easy to understand. Thank you.

anon45356
Post 19

Appreciate it! Simple and understandable. Thanks a lot.

anon44743
Post 18

why is torrent needed for downloading movies?

anon44154
Post 17

Please tell me how we can download the torrents with out uploading the file? is there any way? please tell me.

because when we download at same time we are also uploading it takes too much time. so i want to download only. please tell me how.

anon42500
Post 16

how can i convert a torrent file to a dvd?

anon42167
Post 15

how can i convert a torrent file to mp3

anon37165
Post 14

what do i do if while i am downloading i keep on getting a message - "the process cannot access the file because it is being used by another process?" should i still continue?

anon24187
Post 13

Tp anon 22683: After a file is done downloading, it continues to seed, or upload the file to others using the P2P network. This is how users maintain a 1:1 share ratio. Since uploading is much slower than downloading, the file continues to upload even after you have received the entire file. You can monitor the share ratio and manually stop the file from seeding when you reach the 1:1 share ratio, or as desired. But if you share less than you take, your download speeds will suffer, as the torrent client will start hoking your bandwidth for not maintaining a minimum share ration of 1:1 (which means uploading the same amount that you have downloaded).

anon23120
Post 12

Thanks, this helps a lot.

anon22683
Post 11

Hey, great article. I downloaded a few torrents with bittorrent b4 i looked at this and WOW! it explained all the questions but one that i had. That question is why is it that I just downloaded the file Swords_and_sandals_2... maybe last week. After it finished with all the peers and the downloading and w/e it said seeding. It did nothing and i was able to access the file, please explain what that means and why it never does anything?

sylvincol
Post 10

To anon21663: Thanks so much for your reply, it's very helpful.

anon21804
Post 9

Thanks for the information. The information have satisfied my queries about P2P file sharing and gave me important cautions about downloading torrents. Thank you again and I hope that I will get more updated information when I visit the site next time.

anon21663
Post 8

There can be viruses hidden in any software, including torrent clients, if they have been compromised by a third party. Download from a reputable site and scan all files with a good on-demand scanner before opening and installing. (But that should be standard practice for everything you download, not just torrent clients.) Also, stick with a well-known, recommended client that is used widely.

To Sylvincol: If the torrent it really your audio book, it will have the same exact name as your audio book. Most torrents also have an info file that will tell you what the torrent is. You should be able to see if it is your book or not without downloading it. If it *is* your book there is little you can do. The site you mention in Singapore is just an indexing site, as P2P is not centralized, but the files are located on private computers all over the world that connect with each other to trade files. Even huge industries with deep pockets and crack international legals teams have a hard time fighting P2P effectively b/c of its structure. Luckily in your case, the number of downloads is likely negligible and represents a nominal amount in royalties. Think of it this way... some of those P2P people might actually generate sales for you by telling others about the book. Not everyone knows how to use P2P or is interested in it.

anon21255
Post 7

are there any viruses hidden in torrent clients??

anon20606
Post 6

Thank you. Very well written and useful.

sylvincol
Post 5

This morning I came across a website that may be offering free downloads of my audio book, though I can't be certain that's what it is. I found this site of yours explaining what a torrent is. I can find out apparently only by doing a download myself, and I'm a bit concerned about leaving myself open to a site like this. Should I be concerned?

Also, can you suggest what I might do if the website in question is indeed violating my copyright? I checked WHOIS for the website registrant's info, and they're apparently based in Singapore. Thanks for any info.

anon17887
Post 4

Great ! Clear and understandable explanation of what torrents are. Just what i needed.

anon12632
Post 3

#4152 Most files are compressed in zip or rar format, and sometimes in several pieces, numbered. You have to have all pieces to decompress the file with WinRAR, WinZip or the like. If it is a vid file with an .avi extension you then use the appropriate software... if some other type of file, use the corresponding program.

anon12501
Post 2

thank you, this page was very helpful

anon4152
Post 1

How do you view downloaded files?

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