Starting Points in Distributed Systems, Pt. II: Orientation and a Survey

This is the second part of a three-part miniseries about building a conceptual foundation in distributed systems through independent study. In this series, I sketch out the map that I wish I’d had when I started studying last year, drawing from my own experience and currently available resources. My hope is that this informal guide will assist fellow students on their own journeys.


To begin the next part of your study, I’d start with some definitions, commonly cited reference points, and a bit of history. This might seem like a lot to start with, but each of the following pieces is fairly brief and accessible.

For definitions, you might simply start with the Wikipedia entry on “Distributed Computing” and follow links from there as interest or comprehension demands. Note that the scope of distributed computing as a topic exceeds the scope of these “Starting Points” posts, as well as most resources that you’ll probably use in your self-education.

Continue building your working definition of a distributed system with the first chapter of Mikito Takada’s book, Distributed Systems for Fun and Profit. We’ll return to this book later.

To prime your thinking as you go deeper into this space, familiarize yourself with the “Fallacies of Distributed Computing” as Takada suggests in his book, and check out a few different treatments like those by Arnon Rotem-Gal-Oz (“Fallacies of Distributed Computing Explained”) or Brian Doll (“The Fallacies of Distributed Computing Reborn: The Cloud Era”).

Read Jeff Hodges’ emerging classic, “Notes on Distributed Systems for Young Bloods.”

Watch and/or read Michael Bernstein’s “Distributed Systems Archaeology” to help gain an appreciation for the history of the field, as well as inspiration for taking on your own extended reading project.

Surveying the Landscape

At this point, you should be sufficiently acclimatized to the definition, practice, and history of distributed computing to really benefit from a survey of the landscape. This next step will give you a framework with which to relate your subsequent, deeper trips into more specific topics and studies.

Here, I highly recommend reading through the entirety of Mikito Takada’s Distributed Systems for Fun and Profit. This is the integrative, overarching survey that I most wish I’d had when starting out. I strongly recommend reading (and re-reading) this book. Takada has many excellent citations and links to follow, but before diving into too many of those, I’d try to get a broad view by reading the book once through.

If, like me, you’re particularly interested in distributed databases, you might also like to read Pramod J. Sadalage and Martin Fowler’s helpful book, NoSQL Distilled: A Brief Guide to the Emerging World of Polyglot Persistence (ISBN 978-0321826626). Like Takada’s work, this is a high-level survey that can help you organize and relate the next phases of your learning. Try not to get caught up in often-unhelpful “NoSQL” label and be sure to remember that a system composed of clients communicating with even a single database server over a network is still a distributed system, whether that database is relational or not.

In the next post, I introduce more resources for continuing your journey.