Distributed Systems

Distributed Systems

CPSC 416, Winter 2018

Mon/Wed/Fri 3-4:00PM, HDP 310, UBC course page

Course piazza

Office hours:
Matthew... Mon 16:00-17:00 (X151)
Renato.... Tue 15:00-16:00 (X151)
Gleb........ Wed 13:00-14:00 (X151)
Anna....... Thu 13:00-14:00 (X239)
Ivan......... Fri 10:00-11:00 (ICICS 327)

Course description

Leslie Lamport, a computer scientist who won the 2013 ACM Turing Award, gave the following definition of a distributed system:

A distributed system is one in which the failure of a computer you didn't even know existed can render your own computer unusable.

Yet, distribution provides numerous benefits. A system becomes more fault tolerant if there are fewer points of failure and it has no centralized components. By extending the system with more physical nodes the system gains performance and becomes more scalable, capable of handling more load. Distribution can also improve latency, by improving geographic diversity, by placing resources closer to clients who use the system.

Achieving these benefits is not easy. As the quote above illustrates, distributed systems can fail in complex ways and these systems are more difficult to build, test, and understand than centralized systems.

This course will introduce you to a broad range of topics in distributed systems. The tentative topics are listed in the schedule below. For the most part this will be a lecture-style course. However, distributed system concepts are notoriously challenging to internalize without first-hand experience. The emphasis of this course, therefore, will be on building distributed system prototypes, small and large.

Course pre-requisites: CPSC 317 (networks) and CPSC 313 (computer hardware and operating systems).

Course staff: Ivan Beschastnikh (Instructor), Renato Costa (TA), Matthew Do (TA), Gleb Naumenko (TA), Anna Zheltukhina (TA).

Go programming language

In this course we will exclusively use the Go programming language for all assignments. Learning a new programming language is an important skill. You will practice it in this course. For the most part I will expect that you learn this language on your own.

Amanda and Stewart led an in-class Go tutorial in Winter 2017 version of the course. Here is the recorded version: part 1, and part 2.


There are three optional books for this course:

  1. Go Programming Language
  2. Programming in Go
  3. Distributed Systems: Principles and Paradigms (2nd Edition)
Although there are many tutorials introducing Go and the online Go documentation is well developed, some of you may find the first two books on the list helpful for a step-by-step introduction to Go.


Use the course Piazza for all course-related communication. The Piazza also supports private posts that you can use to communicate with the instructor and the TAs.

Course-level learning goals

The course will provide an opportunity for participants to

  • understand key principles in designing and implementing distributed systems
  • reason about problems that involve distributed components
  • become familiar with important techniques for solving problems that arise in distributed contexts
  • build distributed system prototypes using the Go programming language

Schedule (a work in progress)

Jan 3
Introduction and course overview [slides]

Read through Go resources prior to class, and practice as much Go as you can.

Jan 5
Assignment 1 overview and networking 1/2 [slides]
Jan 8
Networking 1/2 continued: network stack, routing [slides]
Jan 10
Networking 2/2 continued: fate sharing, e2e arguments, start of RPC [slides]
Jan 12
RPC [slides]
Jan 15 Assignment 1 due
Jan 29 Assignment 2 due
Feb 16 Project 1 due
Feb 19-23 Project 1 demos/marking
Mar 2 Project 2 proposal drafts
Mar 9 Project 2 proposals
Mar 23 Project 2 group meetings with designated TA
Apr 6 Project 2 code and final reports due
Apr 9-20 Project 2 demos/marking

Go resources

Go is a systems language designed at Google. It is especially well suited to building distributed systems. Like with any language, the fastest way to become proficient at Go is to put in the time writing programs in Go. Here are some resources to get you started:

We will be using Go version 1.9.2 (the most recent version).


There are two assignments. All assignments must be completed in Go and you must work on them individually.

Solution must be submitted using the stash server by 11:59PM of the day of the deadline. Special instructions for compiling/running the code should be included as a README.txt file.

Assignments will be primarily marked based on functionality. Some partial marks will be given to assignments that partially fulfill the specifications, but this is done at our discretion. It is therefore in your best interest to submit a complete solution. We also encourage you to properly document and gofmt your code.

To access the hand-in git repository for assignment X as student with undergrad userid UID, run the following command:

git clone https://stash.ugrad.cs.ubc.ca:8443/git/CS416_2017W2_/asX_UID.git

Add your solution (and don't forget to push!) to the repository by the deadline.

Assignment deadlines are listed in the schedule above and below. Assignment descriptions will be linked to from this page once they are available.

Project 1

Project 1 is a larger assignment that must be done in a group of 4 students and must be deployed on Azure.


All project 1 deliverables are due at 11:59PM on their respective dates.

  • Implementation. We expect your repository to include a detailed README file that explains the design of your implementation.
  • Project demo: a TBD-minute private demo of your project to the instructor/group TA, including a technical Q/A regarding the project design and implementation.
    • The stash project repositories will be frozen after you submit your code. You must use this frozen code to demo your project

Project 2

Project 2 is an open-ended project that must be done in a team of 4 students and must be deployed on Azure. Your project must address a non-trivial problem relevant to distributed systems. It must include a substantial software effort in Go. Note that 'substantial' includes complexity and not just code size. The most direct way to satisfy the project requirement is to prototype a distributed system. Such a system can be built from scratch, but the project can also be formulated as a non-trivial extension to an existing system. The idea behind the system does not need to be original, but the majority of the distributed logic in the implemented system must be implemented by the project team.

A list of project ideas TBD.

Sign up for a project stash repository TBD.

Project constraints (evolving):

  • Go must be used for the core distributed logic in the system. However, other languages may also be used in the project.
  • The system must be well tested.


All project 2 deliverables are due at 11:59PM on their respective dates.

  • Project proposal: a paper detailing the problem, your proposed approach/solution, a realistic timeline for your team, and a SWOT analysis for your team.
    • Use your group's stash project repository to submit your proposal. Place your proposal into proposal/proposal.pdf at the top level of your repository (if you use LaTex, make sure that it is compiled into a pdf).
    • To submit a project proposal draft, do the above step and also send Ivan an email with the group's repository name.
  • Prototype implementation: must involve substantial development effort. The prototype git repository must be shared with the course staff.
    • We expect your repository to include a detailed README file that explains how to compile/run your implementation.
  • Project report: a paper detailing the problem, your approach/solution, design of your prototype, and an evaluation of the prototype.
    • Use your group's stash project repository to submit your report. Place your report into report/report.pdf at the top level of your repository (if you use LaTex, make sure that it is compiled into a pdf).
    • The usual late policy applies (20% late penalty to mark; deliverables will not be accepted if late by more than 24 hours).
  • Project demo: a TBD-minute private demo of your project to the instructor/group TA, including a technical Q/A regarding the project design and implementation.
    • The stash project repositories will not be frozen after you submit your code and report. So, you can continue to use your repository to develop and improve your demo.


The project is structured as a series of regularly occurring deadlines, listed in the schedule above and below. Do not miss these! The deadline deliverable must be submitted through stash by TBD o'clock the day of the deadline.

  • Mar 2 : Project proposal drafts (not marked, for feedback only)
  • Mar 9 : Project proposals
  • Mar 23 : Each team must send email to an assigned TA to schedule a meeting to discuss project status.
  • Apr 6 : Project code and final reports
  • Apr 9-20 : Project demos (TBD minutes/group)


To practice for the exam we will go over 1-3 questions at the start of each class. You can also download the complete set of practice questions we have covered thus far (updated continuously).

Final exam logistical details TBD.


Final course mark will be based off of:

  • Assignment 1: 5% (+2% extra credit)
  • Assignment 2: 20%
  • Project 1: 20%
    • Code: 10%
    • Demo: 10%
    • Peer review multiplier
  • Project 2: 35%
    • Proposal: 10%
    • Report and code: 15%
    • Demo: 10%
    • Peer review multiplier
  • Final exam: 20%

Note that the assignments are individual efforts, while the two projects must be team efforts.

Late policy

The deadline for any assignment can be extended by one day with a 20% penalty to the mark. Assignments will not be accepted 24 hours past the original deadline.

Deadlines for project deliverables are strict (more fault tolerance in a group).

If you have an emergency (e.g., health) that prevents you from meeting a deadline. You must notify the instructor before the deadline.

How to do well in this course

Learn Go early and practice it regularly. Learning a new language while being time constrained is stressful and not fun. Since the assignments rapidly increase in their difficulty, it will be to your advantage to learn Go as quickly as possible and to learn it well. The posted Go resources are a great starting point, but reading is no substitute for practice, bug, debug, practice, practice, bug, coffee, debug, practice, ...

Do not skimp on software engineering. Distributed systems are hard. They are hard to understand, to build, to debug, to run, to trace, to document, etc. Do not make your life any more difficult. Use best practices from software engineering to help you in this course. Write unit and integration tests, use version control, document your code with comments, write small prototypes, refactor your code, make your code readable and easy to run and debug. If you fail to follow best practices, they will come back to bite you later on. Unfortunately, this course will not explicitly teach you these best practices, but you probably took a course that introduced you to these concepts. If you have any questions, just ask us on Piazza.

Choose your teammates, wisely. Some assignments will depend critically on your ability to work effectively with one other student. You are responsible for resolving personal and technical differences among teammates on your own. Let us know as early as possible if you have team concerns, before they turn into crises.

Reach out for success. This is intended to be a challenging fourth year course, but that does not mean that you have to work through it on your own! The course piazza should be your first stop for all technical questions. The course has specific office hours (see top of page), but I and the TAs are flexible. Send any of us an email to schedule a time to discuss the course, the assignments, etc. University students often encounter setbacks from time to time that can impact academic performance. Discuss your situation with us or an academic advisor as early as possible. For help in addressing mental or physical health concerns, including seeing a UBC counselor or doctor, visit this link.

Academic honesty and collaboration guidelines

The department has a detailed policy regarding collaboration and plagiarism. You must familiarize yourself with this policy.


Many of the materials used in this course are derived from CMU's 15-440: Distributed Systems course from Spring 2014, and are used with permission from the content authors.