Jethro's Braindump


What is BitTorrent?

When a file is made available using HTTP, all upload cost is placed on the hosting machine. BitTorrent redistributes the cost of upload to downloaders.

The BitTorrent protocol faces some issues:

  1. Simply figuring out which peers have what parts of the file and where they should be sent is difficult to do without incurring a huge overhead.
  2. Real deployments face large churn rates, with peers staying connected for only a few minutes.
  3. The strategy for allocating upload to users needs to be fair (proportional to download rate).

How does BitTorrent work?


A static .torrent file is placed on a web server, containing information about the file, its length, name, hashing information, and the tracker.

A simple protocol layered on top of HTTP allows downloaders to send information about what file is downloading, and the tracker will respond with contact information for peers which are downloading the same file. To make the file available, the downloader which happens to have the complete file (the seed) must be started.

The tracker’s primary responsibility is helping peers find each other. The standard tracker algorithm is to return a random list of peers, since random graphs have good robustness properties. Many peer selection algorithms result in a power law graph, which can get segmented after a small amount of churn.

In order to keep track of which peers have what, BitTorrent cuts files into pieces of fixed size, typically a quarter megabyte. Each downloader reports to all its peers what pieces it has. To verify data integrity, the SHA1 hash of each piece is included in the .torrent file.


When transferring data over TCP, like BitTorrent does, it is important to always have several requests pending at once, to avoid a delay in pieces being sent. BitTorrent facilitates this by breaking piecse further into sub-pieces over the wire, typically several kilobytes in size, and always keeping some number, typically five, requests pipelined at once. Every time a sub-piece arrives a new request is sent. This can reliably saturate most connections.

Piece selection

Selecting pieces to download in good order is important for good performance.

The strict priority policy is that once a single sub-piece has been requested, the remaining sub-pieces from that sub-piece should be requested before any other piece.

The rarest first policy suggests downloading pieces which fewest of their own peers have first. When the downloading starts, the peer has nothing to upload, so it’s important to get a complete piece as quickly as possible. The choice of the first piece is random, an this is an exception to the rarest first policy, applying only to the first piece a peer has downloaded.

Sometimes a piece will be requested from a peer with slow transfer rates. To reduce delay in finishing a download, BitTorrent sends requests for sub-pieces from all peers. Cancels are sent to peers for sub-pieces have already arrived to reduce bandwidth wastage, but in practice, this wastage is small.

Choking Algorithms

BitTorrent does no central resource allocation. Peers are responsible for maximizing their own download rate. The choking algorithm in BitTorrent is not part of the wire protocol, but is necessary for good performance. It should aim to:

  • utilize all available resources
  • provide reasonable download rates for everyone
  • be somewhat resistant to peers only downloading and not uploading

Pareto efficiency is the concept where no two counterparties can make an exchange and both be happier. BitTorrent achieves pareto efficiency by using a more fleshed out version of tit-for-tat. Peers reciprocate uploading to peers which upload to them, with the goal of at any time having several connections which are actively transferring in both directions.

Each BitTorrent peer always chokes on a fixed number of peers (default is four). This approach allows TCP’s built-in congestion control to reliably saturate upload capacity.

Decisions as to which peer to unchoke are based strictly on download rate. The current implementation uses a rolling 20-second average. To avoid rapidly choking and unchoking peers, BitTorrent peers recalculate who they want to choke once every 10 seconds, and leave the situation as s until the 10 second period is up. This period is sufficient for TCP to ramp up transfers to full capacity.

The current protocol of simply uploading to peers which provide the best download rate would suffer from having no method of discovering if currently unused connections are better than the ones being used. Optimistic unchoking unchokes a peer regardless of the current download rate. Which peer to optimistically unchoke is rotated every third rechoke period (30 seconds). This period is sufficient for the upload to reach full capacity, for thte download to reciprocate, and the download to get to full capacity.

Occasionally a BitTorrent peer will be choked by all peers which it was formerly downloading from. In such cases it will usually continue to get poor download rates, until an optimistic unchoke finds better peers. To mitigate this problem, when over a minute goes sby without getting a single piece from a particular peer, BitTorrent assumes it is snubbed by that peer, and doesn’t upload to it except as an optimistic unchoke, which causes download rates to recover much more quickly.

Once a peer is done downloading it no longer has useful download rates to decide which peers to upload to The current implementation then switches to preferring peres which it has better upload rates to.

The current scaling bottleneck in the real world seems to be the bandwidth overhead of the tracker.