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This document describes an architectural overview of the Etorrent application. It is meant for hackers to be used for doing changes on the application and bootstrap them to be able to do changes faster.

The document is currently dated:


And information herein might need a review if we are much after this date because the code is in constant motion. This is a warning. Ask for an update if it is too old!

Tips and tricks used throughout the code base

There are a couple of tricks which are used again and again in the code base. These could be called the "Design Patterns" of Erlang/OTP.

Monitoring deaths

A very commonly used scheme is where we have a bookkeeping process B and a client C. Usually the bookkeeping process is used because it can globalize information, the current download rate of processes say. So C stores its rates in an ETS table governed by B. The problem is now: What if C dies? C itself can't clean up since it is in an unknown state.

The trick we use is to monitor C from B. Then, when a 'DOWN' message comes to B it uses it to clean up after C. The trick is quite simple, but since it is used throughout the code in many places, I wanted to cover it here.

Init with a timeout of 0

Some processes have a timeout of 0 in their init/1 callback. This means that they time out right away as soon as they are initialized and can do more work there. Remember, when a newly spawned process (the spawnee) is running init the spawner (calling spawn_link) will be blocked. A timeout of 0 gets around that problem.

This means you can spawn a gen_server and then politely ask it to enter a loop based upon incoming events right away. You don't have to explicitly tell it with a message to do some processing first which lowers the expectations of the caller. The spawn of a process is its initialization the idiom seems to be, but I will refrain from calling it SPII.

When a controlling process dies, so does its resource

If we have an open port or a created ETS table, the crash or stop of the controlling process will also remove the ETS table or end the open port. We use this throughout etorrent to avoid having to trap exits all over the place and make sure that processes are closed down. It is quite confusing for a newcomer though, hence it is mentioned here.

The ETS table plus governor

A process is spawned to create and govern an ETS table. The idea is that lookups doesn't touch the governor at all, but it is used to monitor the users of the table - and it is used to serialize access to the table when needed.

Suppose for instance that something must only happen once. By sending a call to the governor, we can serialize the request and thus make sure only one process will initialize the thing.

Message is a process

(Stolen from a stackoverflow answer by jlouis@)

Let M be an Erlang term() which is a message we send around in the system. One obvious way to handle M is to build a pipeline of processes and queues. M is processed by the first worker in the pipeline and then sent on to the next queue. It is then picked up by the next worker process, processed again and put into a queue. And so on until the message has been fully processed.

The perhaps not-so-obvious way is to define a process P and then hand M to P. We will notate it as P(M). Now the message itself is a process and not a piece of data. P will do the same job that the workers did in the queue-solution but it won't have to pay the overhead of sticking the M back into queues and pick it off again and so on. When the processing P(M) is done, the process will simply end its life. If handed another message M' we will simply spawn P(M') and let it handle that message concurrently. If we get a set of processes, we will do [P(M) || M <- Set] and so on.

If P needs to do synchronization or messaging, it can do so without having to "impersonate" the message, since it is the message. Contrast with the worker-queue approach where a worker has to take responsibility for a message that comes along it. If P has an error, only the message P(M) affected by the error will crash. Again, contrast with the worker-queue approach where a crash in the pipeline may affect other messages (mostly if the pipeline is badly designed).

So the trick in conclusion: Turn a message into a process that becomes the message.

The idiom is 'One Process per Message' and is quite common in Erlang. The price and overhead of making a new process is low enough that this works. You may want some kind of overload protection should you use the idea however. The reason is that you probably want to put a limit to the amount of concurrent requests so you control the load of the system rather than blindly let it destroy your servers. One such implementation is Jobs, created by Erlang Solutions, see the jobs repository at github. Ulf Wiger is presenting it at Erlang Factory Lite (jobs talk).

As Ulf hints in the talk, we will usually do some preprocessing outside P to parse the message and internalize it to the Erlang system. But as soon as possible we will make the message M into a job by wrapping it in a process (P(M)). Thus we get the benefits of the Erlang Scheduler right away.

There is another important ramification of this choice: If processing takes a long time for a message, then the preemptive scheduler of Erlang will ensure that messages with less processing needs still get handled quickly. If you have a limited amount of worker queues, you may end up with many of them being clogged, hampering the throughput of the system.


Etorrent currently use two dependencies:


GProc is a process table written by Ulf Wiger at Erlang Solutions. It basically maintains a lookup table in ETS for processes. We use this throughout etorrent whenever we want to get hold of a process which is not "close" in the supervisor tree. We do this because it is way easier than to propagate around process ids all the time. GProc has a distributed component which we are not using at all.


The built-in SASL error logger of Erlang has problems when the messages it tries to log goes beyond a certain size. It manifests itself by the beam process taking up several gigabytes of memory. The riak_err application built by Basho technologies remedies this problem. It is configured with a maximal size and will gracefully limit the output so these kinds of errors does not occur.

The downside is less configurability. Most notably, etorrent is quite spammy in its main console. One way around it is to connect to etorrent via another node,

erl -name 'foo@' \
    -remsh 'etorrent@' \
-setcookie etorrent

and then carry out commands from there.

General layout of the source code

This is the hierarchy:

The above should not pose any trouble with a seasoned or beginning erlang hacker.

This directory contains the data used by the Web UI system. It is basically dumping ground for Javascript code and anything static we want to present to a user of the applications web interface.

  • /deps/ - dependencies are downloaded to here
  • /dev/ - when you generate development embedded VMs they go here
  • /documentation/ - haphazard general documentation about etorrent
  • /tools/ - small tools for manipulating and developing the source
  • /rel/ - stuff for making releases

The release stuff follow the general conventions laid bare by rebar so I wont be covering it here. The file reltool.config is important though. It defines what to pack up in an embedded etorrent Erlang VM and what applications to start up at boot.

Building a development environment

This is documented in, so follow the path from there. If it doesn't work, get back to us so we can get the documentation updated.

Code walk-through.

This is the meaty part. I hope it will help a hacker to easily see what is happening in the application. And make it easier for him or her to understand the application. If we can give the hacker a bootstrap-start in understanding, we have succeeded.

There is a supervisor-structure documented by the date in the /documentation. You may wish to peruse it and study it while reading the rest of this document.

Top level structure.

The two important program entry points are:

The etorrent_app defines what is needed to make etorrent an application. When we make a release through the release system, we arrange that this application will be started automatically. So that is what makes etorrent start up. The important function is etorrent_app:start/2 which does some simple configuration and then launches the main supervisor, etorrent_sup.

The main etorrent supervisor starts up lots of stuff. The things started fall into three categories:

  • Global book-keepers. These processes keep track of global state and are not expected to die. They are usually fairly simple doing very few things by themselves. Most of them store state in ETS tables, and reading can usually bypass the governing process for speed.

  • Global processes. Any process in etorrent is either global, torrent local or peer local depending on whether it is used by all torrents, by a single torrent or by a single peer respectively. This split is what gives us fault tolerance. If a torrent dies, isolation gives us that only that particular torrent will; if a peer dies, it doesn't affect other peers.

  • Supervisors. There are several. The most important is the one maintaining a pool of torrents. Other maintain sub-parts of the protocol which are not relevant to the initial understanding.

An important supervisor maintains the Directory Watcher. This process, the etorrent_dirwatcher is a gen_server which is the starting entry point for the life cycle of a torrent. It periodically watches the directory and when a torrent is added, it will execute etorrent_ctl:start/1 to actually start the torrent.

The etorrent_ctl gen_server is an interface to start and stop torrents for real. Starting a torrent is very simple. We start up a torrent supervisor and add it to the pool of currently alive torrents. Nothing more happens at the top level -- the remaining work is by the torrent supervisor, found in etorrent_torrent_sup.

The etorrent module

The module etorrent is an interface to etorrent via the erl shell. Ask it to give help by running etorrent:help().

Torrent supervisors

The torrent supervisor is etorrent_torrent_sup. This one will initially spawn supervisors to handle a pool of filesystem processes and a pool of peers. And finally, it will spawn a controller process, which will control the torrent in question.

Initially, the control process will wait in line until it is its turn to perform a check of the torrent for correctness. To make the check fast, there is a global process, the fast_resume process which persists the check data to disk every 5 minutes. If the fast-resume data is consistent this is used for fast checking. Otherwise, the control-process will check the torrent for pieces missing and pieces which we have. It will then spawn a process in the supervisor, by adding a child, the tracker_communication process.

Tracker communication will contact the tracker and get a list of peers. It will report to the tracker that we exist, that we started downloading the torrent, how many bytes we have downloaded/uploaded -- and how many bytes there are left to download. The tracker process lives throughout the life-cycle of a torrent. It periodically contacts the tracker and it will also make a last contact to the tracker when the torrent is stopped. This final contact is ensured since the tracker-communicator process traps exits.

The peers are then sent to a global process, the peer_mgr, which manages peers. Usually the peers will be started by adding them back into the peer pool of the right torrent right away. However, if we have too many connections to peers they will enter a queue, waiting in order. Also, peers will be filtered away, if we are already connected to them. There is little reason to connect to the same peer multiple times.

Incoming peer connections To handle incoming connections, we have a global supervisor maintaining a small pool of accepting processes. When a peer connects to us, we perform part of the handshake in the acceptor-process. We confer with several other parts of the system. As soon as the remote peer transfers the InfoHash, we look it up locally to see if this is a torrent we are currently working on. If not, we kill the connection. If the torrent is alive, we check to see if too many peers are connected, otherwise we allow it, blindly (there is an opportunity for an optimization here).


A peer is governed by a supervisor as well, the etorrent_peer_sup. It will control three gen_servers: One for sending messages to the remote peer and keeping a queue of outgoing messages (etorrent_peer_send). One for receiving and decoding incoming messages (etorrent_peer_recv). And finally one for controlling the communication and running the peer wire protocol we use to communicate with peers (etorrent_peer_control).

The supervisor is configured to die at the instant one of the other processes die. And the peer pool supervisor parent assumes everything are temporary. This means that an error in a peer will kill all peer processes and it will remove the peer. There is a monitor set by the peer_mgr on the peer, so it may try to connect in more peers when it registers death of a peer. In turn, this behaviour ensures progress.

Peers are rather autonomous to the rest of the system. But they are collaborating with several torrent-local and global processes. In the following, we will try to explain what these collaborators do and how they work.

File system

The file system code, hanging on etorrent_torrent_sup) as a supervision tree maintains the storage of the file on-disk. Peers communicate with these processes to read out pieces and store pieces. The FS processes is split so there is a process per file. And that file-process governs reading and writing. There is also a directory-process which knows about how to write and read a piece by its offsets and lengths into files. For multifile-torrents a single piece read may span several files and this directory makes it possible to know whom to ask.

Chunk/Piece Management

There are two, currently global, processes called the etorrent_piece_mgr and (etorrent_chunk_mgr. The first of these, the Piece Manager, keeps track of pieces for torrents we are downloading. In particular it maps what pieces we have downloaded and what pieces we are missing. It is used by peer processes so they can tell remote peers what pieces we have.

The BitTorrent protocol does not exchange pieces. It exchanges slices of pieces. These are in etorrent terminology called chunks although other clients use slices or sub-pieces for the same thing. To keep track of chunks we have the Chunk Manager. When a piece is chosen for downloading, it is "chunked" -- split -- into smaller 16 Kilobyte chunks. These are then requested from peers. Note we prefer to get all chunks of a piece downloaded as fast as possible -- so we may mark the piece as done and then exchange it with other peers. Hence the chunk selecting algorithm prefers already chunked up pieces.

Another important part of the chunk manager is to ensure exclusive access to a chunk. There is little reason to download the same chunk from multiple peers. We earmark chunks to peers. If the peer dies, a monitor ensures we get the pieces back into consideration for other peers. Finally, there is a special endgame mode which is triggered when we are close to having the complete file downloaded. In this mode, we ignore the exclusivity rule and spam requests to all connected peers. The current rule is that when there are no more pieces to chunk up and we can't get exclusive pieces, we "steal" from other peers. A random shuffle of remaining pieces tries to eliminate too many multiples.

Note: This part of the code is under rework at the moment. In particular we seek to make the processes torrent-local rather than global and maintain the piece maps and chunk maps differently. Talk to Magnus Klaar for the details.


A central point to the BitTorrent protocol is that you keep, perhaps, 200 connections to peers; yet you only communicate to a few of them, some 10-20. This in turn avoids congestion problems in TCP/IP. The process of choosing whom to communicate with is called choking/unchoking. There is a glfobal server process, the etorrent_choker, responsible for selecting the peers to communicate with. It wakes up every 10 seconds and then re-chokes peers.

The rules are quite intricate and it is advised to study them in detail if you want to hack on this part. To make the decision several parameters are taken into account:

  • The rate of the peer, either in send or receive direction.
  • Is the peer choking us?
  • Is the peer interested in pieces we have?
  • Are we interested in pieces the peer has?
  • Is the peer connected to a torrent we seed or leech?

Furthermore, we have a circular ring of peers used for optimistic un-choking. The ring is moved forward a notch every 30 seconds and ensures that all peers eventually get a chance at being unchoked. If a peer is better than those we already download from, we will by this mechanism eventually latch onto it.

UDP tracking

BEP 15 adds the ability to contact a tracker by UDP packets rather than use HTTP over TCP as one would normally do. The interface to the UDP tracking system is the process etorrent_udp_tracker_mgr which lets us do announce requests over UDP with timeouts. The UDP tracking system itself is controlled by a supervisor, etorrent_udp_tracker_sup.

Under this supervisor, several processes are hanging. First and foremost, we have a pool supervisor of type simple_one_for_one. Each call to announce will use the process-per-request idiom and turn itself into a process underneath this pool. It will then register itself as the recipient of messages it sends off to the server. This registration happens in a local ETS table.

Once, a UDP packet arrives back the etorrent_udp_tracker_proto process is a gen_server responsible for decoding of incoming messages. After a successful decode, it dispatches the incoming message by looking it up in the ETS table and handing it to the right process in the pool of handlers. The handler process then either replies back to the torrent process (with gen_server:reply/2) or alters its internal state, sending off another UDP packet in turn.

The system has several timeouts at different levels which may occur. Much of the complexity is due to these, but usually timeouts are kept locally in handlers. Another important part is that the handshake is like TCP. Hence, we first obtain a token from the tracker we then use subsequently for requests until the token times out. Some of the complexity is due to the reuse of the token.


To be written.


The WebUI is a quite simple system. We have a directory of static data served by the inets application. Some of this data is jQuery along with a couple of helper modules. Upon request of the status page, async requests are made back to the inets application and it feeds jQuery with the current status of the system. Then the jQuery system carries out the plotting of the data. The only relevant file on the Erlang-side is etorrent_webui.erl.

Event handling

To be written.

So you want to hack etorrent? Cool!

I am generally liberal, but there is one thing you should not do:

Patch Bombs.

A patch bomb is when a developer sits in his own corner for 4-5 months and suddenly comes by with a patch of gargantuan size, say several thousand lines of code changes. I won't accept such a patch - ever.

If you have a cool plan, I encourage you to mail me: so we can set up a proper mailing list and document our design discussions in the list archives. That way, we may be able to break the problem into smaller pieces and we may get a better solution by discussing it beforehand.

If you have a bug-fix or smaller patch it is ok to just come with it, preferably on google code as a regular patch(1) or a git-patch. If you know it is going to take you a considerable amount of time fixing the problem, submit an issue first and then hack away. That way, others may be able to chime in and comment on the problem.

Remember to add yourself to the AUTHORS list.

"I just want to hack, what is there to do?"

Check the Issue tracker for enhancement requests and bugs. Ask me. I might have something you would like to do. The TODO list are "Things we certainly need to do!" and the issue tracker is used for "Things we may do." Note that people can vote up stuff on the issue tracker.