Wednesday, December 3, 2008

BitTorrent: Radical Decentralization

There are many forms of communication media that we all use in today’s world. From early forms of media, ranging from newspapers and magazines, to recent innovations of the twentieth century, such as televisions and cell phones, we have all used some types of these. But the most recent technological advancement in communication has been occurring via the computer, with the medium of Web 2.0. Web 2.0 is the term Tim O’ Reilly coined to explain the ever-changing technologies and trends that we as internet users go through in order to make our online experience more user-friendly. There are constantly developments being made to make communicating and sharing information quicker, and easier for the user. This platform is described as, “Web 2.0 doesn’t have a hard boundary, but rather, a gravitational core. You can visualize Web 2.0 as a set of principles and practices that tie together a veritable solar system of sites that demonstrate some or all of those principles, at a varying distance from that core.” (O’Reilly, para. 5) One specific technology that truly defines the user friendly concept of Web 2.0 is BitTorrent. The communication medium of BitTorrent is extremely complex, but at the same time, provides a great service for users looking to transfer data.

BitTorrent is a peer-to-peer file sharing protocol that is used to distribute large amounts of data amongst users over the Internet. The first protocol of the program was initially designed by Bram Cohen in April of 2001, but was actually released later that year for use by the public in July. Since then, “BitTorrent has become the global standard for delivering high-quality files over the Internet. With an installed base of over 160 million clients worldwide, BitTorrent technology has turned conventional distribution economics on its head.” It is also estimated the BitTorrent accounts to close to thirty-five percent of all traffic on the web at any given point in time. (Mack & Ratcliffe, p. 374)

One important concept that this program uses which has helped BitTorrent become the ‘global standard’ for file sharing is ‘internet decentralization’. Early downloading sources that were availible on Web 1.0, (such as worked with a main host at the center, and did not include everyone. This means that people trying to obtain and download files all went to the same host in the middle to find their files. This causes a problem because the site may become over-crowded, which will cause the download to be extremely slow. Also in most cases, central hosts were not powerful enough to handle all of the traffic that was occurring on their site which then resulted in frustrated users. So as a result of this, the concept and technology of ‘internet decentralization’ (O’Reilly, para. 30) was formed. Internet decentralization is used in peer-to-peer file transferring. This means that all the users of the program also act as a server for the files that they have on their computer. So the more popular the file is, the faster it can be found and downloaded because that many users are also acting as servers. (O’Reilly, para. 30)

There is a wide range of users of the BitTorrent program and many different reasons people choose to use the medium. Types of files that can be downloaded from the program include, pictures, music (individual tracks or complete albums), movies, individual television shows or entire series, and all different types of computer software. People use this program for many different reasons. One main reason that people use it is to obtain new software for their computers, or update an existing version of the software. Some people do not want to pay for these program updates for their computer so they decide to download it instead. People who choose to download music from the site most likely do not want to pay for tracks like they would have to if they used itunes or bought albums from the store. Instead they decide to simply download it. This provides a quicker and cheaper way to obtain the music in which they are looking for. This goes the same for movies. Instead of going to the theater to see a movie or purchasing a DVD from a store, they download it for free. Despite there being many websites that now stream movies to the user’s computer for free, a majority of these users do not like the advertisements that pop up, or the movie being segmented into smaller files. This results in them downloading the movie as a whole and they can now view it uninterrupted on their computer. (Orebaugh, Biles, Babbin, p. 108) Overall the users of this program enjoy a very convenient and cheap way to obtain all sorts of files that they may be looking for.

So now we arrive at the question, “How does BitTorrent work?” Many people imply that the user just opens up the program on their computer, searches for a file, and then magically it appears onto their computer. Well, although that may be true to a certain extent, it is actually quite a bit more difficult than that. As I already noted BitTorrent is the worldwide leader and global standard for file sharing over the internet. Obtaining such a prestigious rank does not occur over-night. This means that they have to be doing something different from those file-sharing programs of the past. According to Mack and Ratcliffe the process is complex. BitTorrent is a program that takes large files, and then breaks that file up into many small pieces. “BitTorrent downloads are not done sequentially, like regular FTP or HTTP downloads. Instead, BitTorrent clients download files in pieces, from as many different clients as possible. Clients then find out about the different locations they can download files from by checking with a BitTorrent tracker, which keeps track of everyone who is participating in the distribution of a particular file.” (Mack & Ratcliffe, p. 374)

Mack and Radcliffe have broken it down into an easy to follow seven-step procedure to help us understand the concept better. First, the user creates a “torrent” for the file which he chooses to distribute. (this ‘torrent’ is a small file that contains the information people need to know about the file to download it). Once this file has been created, it then gets registered on the web as what we know as a ‘tracker.’ (trackers help identify all those who are helping distribute a particular file) The third step is ‘seeding’ the file. (in easier terms, getting the original copy of the file into distribution on BitTorrent, done by a click of the mouse!) After that is complete, the other users from the public become involved. The fourth step involves an audience member clicking on the torrent link that was created for the file. The BitTorrent client searches the tracker to see all the users that are participating in the distribution of a certain file. When all of this is complete, it beings to download the file from the original seed. (For this example, the seed is from your own computer!) The fifth step begins to describe the evolution of BitTorrent and how this program grows so rapidly. (especially for popular files) When the next person searches a file and checks the tracker for w ho is distributing this file, the tracker now finds two machines participating in the distribution. (you, and that audience member spoken about earlier) So now the program is getting pieces of the file from both clients. (your getting it now, aren’t you?) “As more clients joint the torrent, the distribution becomes more and more distributed, allowing clients to download the file from many different clients. Files that are very popular have many people participating in the torrent, so the distribution scales accordingly” (Mack & Ratcliffe, p.375) The final step has to do with proper torrent ‘etiquette’. Once you have received a file it’s polite to keep your program up for a while to help distribute your file to other machines. (procedure from: Mack & Ratcliffe, p. 374-375)

Although everything seems perfect about this technology to the naked eye, there are quite a few problems that arise from BitTorrent. The first one takes place in the socio-economic world. Many music artists and television networks have taken up legal issues with torrent programs. They are doing so because with the technology of BitTorrent, the movie and music industries have seen a decrease in sales because people are obtaining the material they want for free, via BitTorrent. As a result of this, networks such as HBO, have began to ‘poison’ torrents of their show ‘Rome’ so that users will not be able to obtain the episodes, and hopefully purchase them instead.

One problem that causes users of BitTorrent concern is the lack of anonymity. One can find out anyone else’s IP address if they have ever sent or received a file from them. This may cause and invasion of privacy and leave their systems open to attacks. Another problem which may cause the user frustration is if they do not have a high speed connection. Like anything else on the Internet, BitTorrent works much better with a high speed connection. Using a dial-up connection may cause many disconnections and extremely slower download rates during the procedure.

Another problem that arises with the BitTorrent program is the issue of cooperation and the ‘free-rider’. (Kollock and Smith, p. 110) Once users of BitTorrent download files that they want, they have very little want or reason to become a ‘seed’ and give back to the online community. Kollock and Smith described this problem as people taking what they want from the internet, and not giving back to the community. (this is known as the ‘leech’ problem on BitTorrent) This is true in the world of torrents as well. In order to try to decrease the amount of people that may be free-riding BitTorrent have tried to set up a ratio for user’s sent and received files. Asides from trying to proportion a user’s downloads, BitTorrent has added a ‘leech resistance’ feature which encourages users to participate in both ways of the medium. (Both send and receive) (Fitzek & Reichert, p. 315)

After researching this Web 2.0 technology and communication medium I agree with O’Reilly’s statement of, “every BitTorrent consumer brings his own resources to the party. There’s an implicit “architecture of participation”, a built in ethic of cooperation in which service acts primarily as an intelligent broker, connecting the edges to each other and harnessing the power of the users themselves.” (O’Reilly, para. 31) This quote sums up the experience of BitTorrent, and if users follow this guideline, everyone will have a good experience using this technology.

Fitzek, Frank & Reichert, Frank. (2007). Mobile Phone Programming and Its Application to Wireless Networking. p.315: Springer

Kollock, Peter & Smith, Marc. (1996). Managing the virtual commons: Cooperation and conflict in computer communities. In Susan C. Herring (Ed.), Computer-mediated communication: Linguinstic, social and cross-cultural perspectives (pp. 109-128). Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Mack, Steve & Ratcliffe, Mitch. (2007). Podcasting Bible. p. 374-375.: John Wiley and Sons

O’Reilly, Tim. (2005). What is Web 2.0: Design patterns and business models for the next generation of software. Retrieved August 21, 2008 from

Orebaugh, Angela.. Biles, Simon. & Babbin Jacob. (2005). Snort Cookbook. 3.9 Detecting P2P.: O’Reilly.

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