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My Handpicked List With The Best Books On System Design

My Handpicked List With The Best Books On System Design

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In the dynamic and complex world of technology, mastering the art and science of system design is pivotal for professionals aiming to make a significant impact. This discipline, crucial for software engineers and system designers, demands not only a robust understanding of technical intricacies but also a deep appreciation for the nuanced interplay of theory and practical application. My journey through the realms of system design, influenced by numerous books filled with case studies, best practices, and comprehensive guides, has offered transformative perspectives on everything from software architecture and cloud computing to the design of scalable systems and data-intensive applications. In this post I present my handpicked list of the best books on system design.

These books, more than mere textbooks, serve as beacons of knowledge. They illuminate the path of designing efficient, scalable, and robust systems, offering practical advice, and user experience insights. As a comprehensive resource, they have been my companions in unraveling the complexities of software architecture, guiding me through the labyrinth of designing digital products and cloud-based solutions, and providing a window into the design principles and architectural patterns used by industry experts.

Join me as we explore these essential readings, each a crucible of knowledge in the fields of software engineering and system analysis. Whether you’re beginning your journey in software development or seeking to deepen your expertise, this curated list of the best books on system design provides a systematic approach to understanding and designing software systems that stand the test of time and technology’s rapid evolution.

Best Books On System Design: System Design Interview – An insider's guide by Alex Xu

System Design Interview – An insider’s guide by Alex Xu

Target SWE Level: Entry-Level Software Engineer (L3)

When I first picked up “System Design Interview Volume 1” by Alex Xu, I was immediately struck by its clear, structured approach to a topic that often feels like navigating a maze. Alex Xu has a way of demystifying system design, making it accessible even to those just starting out in the field. It is an excellent starting point for entry-level software engineers (L3 level). Its simplicity makes it highly accessible.

What I Like About This Book

  • Ideal for Beginners: The best book to start with for entry-level software engineers due to its simplicity.
  • Time-Saving Compilation: Alex Xu has efficiently compiled materials that can be found on the internet, saving readers a lot of research time.
  • Useful Blog Post References: The book cleverly includes references to blog posts that complement each chapter, offering additional learning materials.
  • Practical Frameworks and Real World Applications: Xu lays out frameworks and methodologies that are not just theoretical but immensely practical. I appreciated the fundamental concepts and case studies, which helped me connect the dots between abstract concepts and their practical implications.
  • User-Centric Approach: This book emphasizes the importance of user experience in system design, a perspective that resonates deeply with my own philosophy. Understanding how system design impacts the end user was both enlightening and practical.
  • Broad Spectrum of Topics: Xu covers a wide range of topics, from data handling to network systems. This comprehensive approach ensures that readers walk away with a well-rounded understanding of system design.

What I Don’t Like About This Book

  • Some Designs Are Too Basic: Certain designs, like the web crawler for search autocomplete, are too shallow and might not meet the bar for an intermediate SWE (Level 4).
  • Material Can Be Found Online: While it’s time-saving, all the material in the book can be found through personal research, reducing its uniqueness.
  • Lacks Depth in Some Areas: For more advanced concepts, the book doesn’t go as deep as needed for more experienced engineers.
Best Books On System Design: System Design Interview – An Insider's Guide: Volume 2 by Alex Xu

System Design Interview – An Insider’s Guide: Volume 2 by Alex Xu

Target SWE Levels: Intermediate Software Engineer (L4), Senior Software Engineer (L5)

Following the insightful journey begun in the first volume, “System Design Interview Volume 2” by Alex Xu elevates the discourse on system design to new heights. This sequel delves deeper into the nuances of designing complex systems, making it a compelling read for those who have already dipped their toes into the world of system design. It is a significant step up from its predecessor, making it the best book to answer advanced system design questions.

What I Like About This Book

  • Advanced Concepts and Techniques: Xu goes beyond the basics covered in the first volume, introducing more sophisticated concepts and techniques. This progression is perfect for readers looking to build upon a foundational understanding of system design. It covers a wide range of examples with great depth, suitable up to Senior Software Engineer (L5 level).
  • In-Depth Case Studies: The detailed case studies in this volume are its standout feature. They provide a richer, more nuanced understanding of how theory translates into practice in real-world scenarios. Specifically, the Digital Wallet and Stock Exchange problems are appropriate for Staff Software Engineer (L6 level) discussions.
  • Clear, Concise Explanations: Despite the advanced topics, Xu maintains his signature clarity in explanation, making complex ideas accessible without oversimplifying them.
  • Additional Resources: Each chapter ends with links to further reading, enriching the learning experience.

What I Don’t Like About This Book

  • Can Be Intimidating for Beginners: The leap in complexity might be daunting for beginners or those not yet fully comfortable with the basics of system design.
  • Volume Size: The book is considerably thicker, which could be daunting for some readers.

“System Design Interview Volume 2” by Alex Xu is a testament to the depth and breadth of system design. It’s an essential read for those looking to seriously up their game in this field, especially after getting their foundations solid with the first volume.

Best Books On System Design: Hacking The System Design Interview by Stanley Xiang

Hacking The System Design Interview by Stanley Xiang

Target SWE Levels: Intermediate Software Engineer (L4), Senior Software Engineer (L5)

Stanley Xiang’s “Hacking The System Design Interview” takes a unique approach to preparing for system design interviews. It’s a book that I found to be both enlightening and practical, especially for those looking to crack interviews at top tech companies.  It is an excellent follow-up for those who have completed Alex Xu’s books and are seeking more system design examples. It offers more detailed system design examples, surpassing the scope of Alex Xu’s Volume 1. However,  it doesn’t quite match the depth of Alex Xu’s Volume 2.

What I Like About This Book

  • Strategic Interview Preparation: Xiang offers strategic insights into the interview process, providing a behind-the-scenes look at what interviewers are really looking for. This strategic angle was particularly eye-opening.
  • Practical Tips and Tricks: The book is filled with practical tips on how to approach common interview challenges. It’s like having a mentor guiding you through the intricacies of the interview process.
  • Concise and To-The-Point: Xiang’s writing is direct and focused, making complex topics easy to digest. This was a breath of fresh air compared to more dense technical texts.

What I Don’t Like About This Book

  • Lack of Depth in Certain Areas: While the book excels in providing a strategic overview, it sometimes lacks the depth needed for a comprehensive understanding of certain technical aspects of system design.
  • Assumes Some Prior Knowledge: There’s an assumption that the reader has a certain level of familiarity with system design concepts, which might not be ideal for complete beginners.

“Hacking The System Design Interview” by Stanley Xiang is an insightful read, particularly for those gearing up for system design interviews. It offers a unique perspective that can give you an edge in understanding and navigating the interview process.

Best Books On System Design: Designing Data-Intensive Applications: The Big Ideas Behind Reliable, Scalable, and Maintainable Systems by Martin Kleppmann

Designing Data-Intensive Applications: The Big Ideas Behind Reliable, Scalable, and Maintainable Systems by Martin Kleppmann

Target SWE Levels: Senior Software Engineer (L5), Staff Software Engineer (L6), Senior Staff Software Engineer (L7)

Martin Kleppmann’s “Designing Data-Intensive Applications” is a practical guide into the complex world of modern data systems and a treasure for anyone looking to master backend design. It’s a fantastic book that has significantly broadened my understanding of how large-scale data processing works and is a key resource for anyone serious about mastering data-intensive applications.  More specifically, it is filled with knowledge that addresses theoretical gaps in understanding complex systems. Knowing the material in depth is the best way to be confident that you can answer any system design interview question.

“Designing Data-Intensive Applications” is not just a book but a guide for anyone serious about backend system design, from entry-level engineers to those at a Staff level.

What I Like About This Book

  • Comprehensive Coverage: Kleppmann does an exceptional job of covering a wide array of topics related to data systems, from storage and retrieval to scalability and consistency. The depth and breadth of content are truly impressive. It is an exception resource for Software Engineers up to Staff level or more (L6+).
  • Structured Learning: The content is neatly divided into parts, with Part 1 focusing on choosing data stores, Part 2 delving into sharding and replication mechanisms, and Part 3 synthesizing a large system from smaller pats.
  • Real-World Relevance: The book is grounded in real-world scenarios, making it easier to relate to the challenges and solutions discussed. This connection between theory and practice is invaluable. Kleppmann effectively balances theoretical knowledge with practical applications, aiding in a deeper understanding of system integration.
  • Clear and Understandable Explanations: Despite the complexity of the topics, Kleppmann’s explanations are clear and accessible, making the book suitable for a wide range of readers, from beginners to experienced professionals.

What I Don’t Like About This Book

  • Challenging for Beginners: Its comprehensive nature might be overwhelming for beginners or those not accustomed to in-depth technical material.
  • Can Be Dense in Sections: There are portions of the book that are quite dense and might require a slower, more deliberate reading approach, especially for those new to the topic.
  • Requires Time and Commitment: Given the depth of the material, this book demands a significant time investment to fully grasp the concepts.
  • Demands Extra Research: Readers may need to frequently pause and research topics independently to fully grasp complex concepts.

“Designing Data-Intensive Applications” by Martin Kleppmann is a must-read for anyone looking to gain a comprehensive understanding of how modern data systems are designed and operated. Its insightful blend of theory and practical application makes it a standout resource in the field.

Best Books On System Design: Database Internals: A Deep Dive into How Distributed Data Systems Work by Alex Petroff

Database Internals: A Deep Dive into How Distributed Data Systems Work by Alex Petroff

Target SWE Levels: Senior Software Engineer (L5), Staff Software Engineer (L6), Senior Staff Software Engineer (L7)

“Database Internals” by Alex Petroff is an essential reading for those who have completed “Designing Data-Intensive Applications” and seek further depth in database concepts at a Staff (L6+) level.

What I Like About This Book

  • Advanced Level Depth: Offers in-depth knowledge on databases, exceeding the scope of “Designing Data-Intensive Applications.”
  • Detailed Technical Concepts: The book excels in explaining complex topics like distributions in Spanner and Calvin, variations of Paxos, and the implementation of LSM-trees and B-trees.
  • Ideal for Higher-Level Engineers: Perfectly tailored for those at a Staff level or above who require a deeper understanding of database internals.

What I Don’t Like About This Book

  • May Be Too Advanced for Some: The level of detail is high, which could be challenging for readers not yet comfortable with advanced database concepts.
  • Requires Prior Knowledge: Best appreciated by those who already have a solid foundation in database systems and are looking to expand their knowledge further.
  • Dense Technical Material: Similar to “Designing Data-Intensive Applications,” it requires careful and slow reading to fully absorb the information.

“Database Internals” by Alex Petroff is a must-read for advanced professionals in database systems, offering insights and depth unmatched by other texts in the field.

Best Books On System Design: Understanding Distributed Systems, 2nd Edition: What every developer should know about large distributed applications

Understanding Distributed Systems, 2nd Edition: What every developer should know about large distributed applications

Target SWE Levels: Senior Software Engineer (L5), Staff Software Engineer (L6)

“Understanding Distributed Systems” by Roberto Vitillo is a more shallow and simplified version of Designing Data Intensive Applications. Between the two books, I recommend that you read Designing Data-Intensive Applications. However, this book is a suitable alternative for those who find “Designing Data-Intensive Applications” (DDIA) too in-depth or technical.

What I Like About This Book

  • Clarity and Depth: Vitillo has a knack for presenting complex distributed system concepts with clarity and depth. His explanations strike a balance between technical detail and comprehensibility.
  • Practical Insights: The book is rich with practical insights, offering real-world scenarios that illuminate the theoretical concepts. This blend of theory and practice provides a holistic view of distributed systems.
  • More Accessible than DDIA: Presents distributed systems concepts in a less dense manner, making it more approachable.
  • Interesting Specific Topics: The book delves into areas like orchestration and chain replication, offering unique insights.
  • Good for a Broad Audience: It’s a fit for readers who want to learn about distributed systems without the intensity of DDIA.

What I Don’t Like About This Book

  • Less Depth Compared to DDIA: Doesn’t go as deep into topics as DDIA, which might be a downside for those seeking comprehensive knowledge.
  • Limited in Scope: While it covers certain areas well, it lacks the breadth and depth of coverage found in more advanced texts.
  • Advanced Level: The book leans toward a more advanced audience, which might pose a challenge for beginners in the field.

Overall, “Understanding Distributed Systems” by Roberto Vitillo is a solid introduction to distributed systems for those who prefer a lighter, more digestible approach to the subject.

Best Books On System Design: Site Reliability Engineering: How Google Runs Production Systems by Jennifer Petoff, Niall Murphy, Betsy Beyer, and Chris Jones

Site Reliability Engineering: How Google Runs Production Systems by Jennifer Petoff, Niall Murphy, Betsy Beyer, and Chris Jones

Target SWE Levels: Intermediate Software Engineer (L4), Senior Software Engineer (L5), Staff Software Engineer (L6)

“Site Reliability Engineering: How Google Runs Production Systems,” offers an unparalleled glimpse into the innovative practices of Google’s SRE team. This book has been instrumental in shaping my understanding of large-scale system reliability. The chapter that I highly recommend in the book is the one on Non-Abstract Large System Design (NALSD), especially the part about estimations.

What I Like About This Book

  • Insider’s Guide into Google’s Practices: The book is written by Google Engineers and provides an insider’s perspective on Google’s approach to building and maintaining reliable systems, which is both fascinating and immensely educational.
  • Focus on Non-Abstract Large System Design (NALSD): The NALSD chapter, especially on estimations, is incredibly informative and stands out as the most important part of the book.
  • Broad Spectrum of Topics: Covering a wide range of subjects from system monitoring to incident management, it’s a comprehensive guide for anyone interested in the field of reliability engineering.
  • Applicable to Various Levels: Offers valuable insights for professionals at different stages in their careers.

What I Don’t Like About This Book

  • Highly Specific Context: While the insights are invaluable, some of the practices are specifically tailored to Google’s infrastructure, which may not be directly applicable in all environments.
  • Can Be Overwhelming: The depth and detail can be daunting, especially for those new to site reliability engineering.

“Site Reliability Engineering” is a crucial resource for anyone interested in understanding and applying Google’s practices in system reliability, with particular emphasis on the impactful NALSD chapter.

Best Books On System Design: Web Scalability for Startup Engineers by Artur Ejsmont

Web Scalability for Startup Engineers by Artur Ejsmont

Target SWE Levels: Intermediate Software Engineer (L4), Senior Software Engineer (L5)

“Web Scalability for Startup Engineers” is an invaluable resource for web designers and front-end engineers delving into system design.

What I Like About This Book

  • Front-End Engineer-Friendly: Tailored specifically for front-end engineers looking to understand system design.
  • Practical Approach: Provides practical insights and strategies for scaling web applications effectively.
  • Startup Focus: Ideal for engineers in startup environments where scalability is crucial from an early stage.

What I Don’t Like About This Book

  • Limited Backend Depth: More focused on front-end considerations, the book might not delve as deeply into backend system design.
  • Startup-Specific Context: Some concepts are specifically tailored for startup scenarios and might not fully apply to larger or more established companies.
  • Focused Audience: Primarily benefits front-end engineers, which might limit its appeal to professionals in other areas of software engineering.

“Web Scalability for Startup Engineers” stands out as a go-to guide for front-end engineers seeking to broaden their skills in scalable web system design, particularly in a startup context.

Best Books On System Design: Machine Learning System Design Interview by Ali Aminian and Alex Xu

Machine Learning System Design Interview by Ali Aminian and Alex Xu

Target MLE Level: Entry-Level Machine Learning Engineer (L3)

“Machine Learning System Design Interview” by Ali Aminian and Alex Xu, while not originally on my list for its depth, stands out as the best book for entry-level ML Engineers on ML system design. I consider it slightly better than the only other book on this topic, which is Designing Machine Learning Systems: An Iterative Process for Production-Ready Applications by Chip Huyen.

What I Like About This Book

  • Best for Entry-Level ML Engineers: Accessible for those starting in ML system design.
  • Comprehensive Coverage of ML Algorithms: Excellently covers algorithms for Recommendation systems, Search, Personalization, CTR prediction, and more.
  • Breadth of Topics: From Transformer/BERT/SBERT approaches to Deep & Wide networks, it provides a good breadth of modern ML techniques.

What I Don’t Like About This Book

  • Lacks Depth in Advanced Topics: Not as in-depth as needed for more advanced ML topics or for experienced engineers.
  • No Coverage of ML Ops or Cutting-Edge Work: Doesn’t delve into ML Ops or the sophisticated ML work undertaken by big tech companies.
  • More of a Starting Point: While it familiarizes junior MLEs with key interview concepts, further study is required for deeper understanding.

This book is a solid starting point for junior ML Engineers, providing a comprehensive overview necessary for interview preparation but requiring additional resources for advanced study.

Best Books On System Design: Conclusion

Conclusion

As I reflect on the journey through this list of the best books on system design, I’m struck by the wealth of knowledge and insight they’ve provided. Each book has been a practical guide and an insider’s guide, enriching my understanding of software development with fundamental concepts and a variety of approaches. From exploring file systems and clean architecture to tackling system design interview questions, these books have been invaluable in deepening my knowledge as a software developer and architect.

Delving into these books has expanded my understanding of the intricacies involved in designing effective systems for everything from mobile apps to large-scale projects. They’ve been essential reading, introducing me to the first design patterns and the fundamentals of software architecture. Their practical examples and real-world cases have been instrumental in refining my approach to product design, relational databases, and even UX design.

In conclusion, this collection of the best books on system design has been more than just a resource; it’s been a crucial part of my professional growth and development. They’ve equipped me with the system design skills necessary for tackling the next big project or acing the next system design interview. For anyone seeking to enhance their understanding and capabilities in system design, I can wholeheartedly say that these books are the best resources out there. Each one is a fantastic book, an ideal guide filled with good advice and good ideas, essential for anyone committed to mastering the art and science of system design.

About Me

I am an engineer with 15+ years in the tech industry, including roles at Google, Amazon, and Microsoft. I've been a Software Engineer, Product Manager, and Technical Program Manager. I also have an MBA from Kellogg School of Management with Majors in Finance and Marketing.

What drives me? A passion for empowering engineers to achieve Financial Independence and Retire Early (FIRE). I reached FIRE, when I turned 40 years old. Whether it's through personal finance strategies or career insights, I'm here to guide you on this path. Have questions or need advice? Feel free to reach out!

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