Welcome! This is an overview of the fall 2020 edition of CSE232 (“Distributed Systems”), a graduate course in the Computer Science and Engineering Department at the UC Santa Cruz Baskin School of Engineering.


Lindsey Kuper

Hi, I’m Lindsey Kuper! (Call me “Lindsey”.)

  • Email: for anything CSE232-related, send a DM on the course Slack instead. Otherwise: lkuper@ucsc.edu
  • Zoom “office” hours: Fridays after class, 10:30-11:30am Pacific time (or DM me on Slack to make an appointment)
  • Research areas: Programming languages, distributed systems, parallelism, concurrency, software verification
  • http://pronoun.is/she/her/hers

A few essential details about the course

  • 5-unit graduate seminar course (in this context, “seminar” means a course where we discuss assigned readings and everyone participates actively in the discussion)
  • Satisfies the breadth requirement in the “Systems and Security” category for the UCSC CSE MS and Ph.D. programs
  • Class meets Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, 9:20-10:25am Pacific time
  • Course GitHub repo (public; for class discussion summaries): https://github.com/lkuper/CSE232-2020-10/
  • Canvas (for reading responses and grades): https://canvas.ucsc.edu/courses/36581
  • Slack (private; for announcements, live chat during lectures, Q&A, communicating with course staff, and socializing): https://ucsc-cse232.slack.com (all enrolled and waitlisted students should have received an invitation by email)
  • Course web page (you’re soaking in it): http://composition.al/CSE232-2020-10/

What’s this course about?

The field of distributed systems studies the design, implementation, and behavior of systems that involve independent components that communicate by passing messages to one another over a network. In addition to the usual challenges of concurrency, distributed systems may be characterized by unbounded latency between components and independent failure of components, making them challenging to reason about and debug.

Some of the foundational distributed systems concepts we’ll explore in this course are:

  • Time and asynchrony. No two computers can reason about each others’ perception of time. What does it mean to talk about time when we don’t share a clock?
  • Fault tolerance and replication. Given that computers crash and messages get lost, how can we write protocols and algorithms that have adequate redundancy to tolerate failure? Maybe if I think a computer will crash, it’s a good idea to run the same computation on more than one computer! Maybe if I think messages will be lost, I should send the same message more than once!
  • Consistency and consensus. Is our system storing the right data and providing the right responses? I might have two “replicas” that aren’t actually replicas! If replicas disagree, how do we know which one is right? Or is it better to try to ensure that they agree in the first place?

The schedule has more details!

In this course, you will:

  • Become familiar with foundational distributed systems concepts.
  • Get a sense of the history of the field of distributed systems.
  • Become more comfortable with reading research papers, especially distributed systems papers.
  • Hone your technical writing and speaking skills.
  • Become comfortable with using GitHub features such as wikis, issues, etc., if you aren’t already.

All of these skills will serve you well in your future career, whether in industry or in academia.

What will this course be like?

CSE232 will be a combination lecture and seminar course. We will be reading and discussing papers from the distributed systems research literature, interleaved with lectures to give you the necessary background to get the most out of the papers. We’ll alternate between lecture days and discussion days. On discussion days, you’ll come to class having read and responded to a reading assignment, and you’ll spend 30 minutes of class in a small group of 3-4 students in a Zoom breakout room, discussing specific questions about the reading. In these small-group discussions, each student will play a designated role of ambassador, manager, or scribe (discussed in further detail below). Each student will play each role several times throughout the term.

Some people will like this format, while others won’t like it at all – so give some thought to whether it is what you want before you commit to taking this course. (In particular, if you want to take a course where students take turns giving presentations about papers, that’s not what this course will be.)

On lecture days, the material we’ll cover in CSE232 will be similar to my undergrad distributed systems course, CSE138, although the pace will be faster. Some of you may find the CSE138 lecture videos on YouTube to be a helpful resource.

On discussion days, we’ll discuss mostly old papers from the 80s and 90s, because a lot of our focus will be on the foundations of the field and the historical development of distributed systems ideas. In fact, the most recent of the papers on the schedule was published in 2007. If you’re mostly interested in reading the latest and greatest distributed systems papers instead of dusty old ones, this course is probably not for you! You should consider participating in something like Murat Demirbas’ Zoom reading group, which focuses on recent papers, instead of taking this course.

This course will not have a required programming component. If you were hoping for a course with a large distributed programming project, I recommend taking or auditing CSE138 instead of this course.

Reading and responding to research papers

We will spend half our time reading, responding to, and discussing research papers. Reading research papers is a skill that requires practice, and in this class, we will work on developing that skill. You will need to finish each reading assignment in advance of the day we discuss it in class. In fact, you will need to turn in a reading response by noon PT on the day before the day we discuss it.

Some advice on how to read papers

Attempting to plow right through a paper from beginning to end is usually not the most productive approach. Here’s some great advice from Manuel Blum on how to read and study:

Books are not scrolls.
Scrolls must be read like the Torah from one end to the other.
Books are random access – a great innovation over scrolls.
Make use of this innovation! Do NOT feel obliged to read a book from beginning to end.
Permit yourself to open a book and start reading from anywhere.
In the case of mathematics or physics or anything especially hard, try to find something
anything that you can understand.
Read what you can.
Write in the margins. (You know how useful that can be.)
Next time you come back to that book, you’ll be able to read more.
You can gradually learn extraordinarily hard things this way.

You may also be interested in time-tested paper-reading advice from Michael Mitzenmacher and from S. Keshav.

What to include in your reading response

For each paper we read, you will submit a short reading response. The reading response process is designed to help you develop the skill of asking good questions about the readings. You should include the following in your reading response:

  • Paper Summary: Using only your own words, write an overview of the paper that can serve as an explanation of the paper for your classmates. Your summary should answer the following questions: What problem does the paper address (1-2 sentences)? What are the paper’s key insights (1-2 sentences)? What are the paper’s key scientific and technical contributions (2-3 sentences)? What are its shortcomings or flaws (up to 3 sentences)? (These guidelines for summarizing a paper are taken from the ASPLOS 2021 review process, with thanks to Emery Berger.)
  • Discussion questions: Please suggest 1-2 questions about the reading for our in-class discussion. These must be questions whose answers do not appear verbatim in the paper. Instead, try to go deeper. Keep in mind that you may need several sentences just to provide sufficient context for a question. For example, if a question has to do with how the paper’s topic relates to other work you were previously familiar with, you’ll need to summarize the relevant part of that other work as part of the question. Furthermore, your questions must be unique (after you submit, you’ll get to see other people’s submitted questions).

(By the way, the summary I’m asking you to write does not, by itself, comprise a review of the paper, like those you would write if you were serving on a conference program committee. A review is much longer and more detailed, and would, among other things, make a case for acceptance or rejection of the paper.)

Reading responses are due at noon PT on the day before we discuss the reading in class. The reason for this relatively early deadline is to give me time to look at the responses before class so that I can structure the in-class discussion based on them. Don’t be surprised if you see some of your questions used in the in-class discussions!

You will submit your reading response on Canvas, in the discussion forums set up for each paper. Once you submit, you’ll get to see other people’s submissions. After submitting, take a look at the other submissions to make sure that your questions aren’t a repeat (or very close to a repeat) of any already-submitted questions. In that case, you should edit your questions to make them clearly distinct from the previously-submitted ones. It is to your advantage to turn in your reading response relatively early, because the earlier you turn it in, the less likely it is that your questions will be a repeat of any previously-submitted questions!

In-class discussion process

On discussion days, we’ll use a structured in-class discussion process. The process we will use is inspired by one used by Matthew Ahrens, Kathleen Fisher, and Norman Ramsey in courses taught at Tufts University, and the below description borrows heavily from their documentation, with their permission.

Small-group discussion (30 minutes)

At the start of each discussion day, after at most 5 minutes for announcements, the class will split into small groups of 3-4 students for 30 minutes, using Zoom breakout rooms. (Unfortunately, this means that you cannot use the Zoom web client, since at the time of this writing, the web client doesn’t support the breakout room feature.)

Each member of each small group must take on one of the following roles. You must carry out this role in addition to actively participating in the conversation. Each student in the class should serve in each of the roles four or more times during the term.

  • Scribe: The role of the scribe is to take notes during the conversation, while participating in the conversation themselves. After class, all the scribes will meet and contribute to a formal write-up of the class discussion on the course’s public GitHub wiki. One student in each small group will serve as the scribe.
  • Manager: The role of the manager is to keep track of time and make sure that all of the discussion questions get touched upon. Afterward, they will be responsible for recording everyone’s role on a shared spreadsheet. One or two students in each small group will serve as the manager.
  • Ambassador: The role of the ambassador is to represent their small group in the large-group discussion afterward. They will also be the first ones to answer follow-up questions from the rest of the class, or to pose questions to the rest of the class that would be helpful to discuss. Then, they will meet with the instructor before the end of the class to go over the “meta” of the class, and discuss how workload, group pacing, and other housekeeping items went.

The small-group discussion will use the following process:

  1. Each member of the group should unmute and introduce themselves. (You may want to turn on your video for the small-group discussion, although it’s not required that you do so.)
  2. The group should assign roles to each member.
  3. The group should discuss answers to the provided questions about the reading assignment. On each discussion day, I’ll provide a short list of discussion questions, many of which will be drawn from the reading responses that you and your classmates submitted previously. During the discussion phase, feel free to work together in a shared document and use any resources you like. This is a “brainstorming” phase. Don’t stop with a single answer; look at things from all angles.
  4. The group should try to reach consensus on the most satisfying answers. Perhaps the group will agree on answers that satisfy everyone. Perhaps there will be significant dissent – maybe even no majority view.
  5. The group should prepare to report verbally to the class as a whole. The ambassador’s report should cover the following points:
    • The preferred answers according to the consensus reached by your group.
    • The reasons that you prefer these answers.
    • Any significant minority views.
    • A few words about answers that your group considered but ultimately rejected.

Large-group discussion (20 minutes)

After 30 minutes, breakout rooms will close, and the entire group will reconvene for 20 minutes. At this point, ambassadors from individual groups will present their groups’ conclusions. During the large-group discussion, ambassadors speak first, for a couple of minutes each. Once all ambassadors have had a turn to speak, if there’s time remaining, we’ll open the floor to the whole class.

In the large-group discussion, we’ll discuss and evaluate the groups’ conclusions and try to forge a coherent consensus view that the whole class can agree on, but also be alert for gaps, inconsistencies, and incoherence. When possible, I’ll compare the conclusions reached by the class with my interpretation of the consensus position of the body of researchers interested in distributed systems.

Wrap-up (10 minutes)

During the last ten minutes of class:

  • Ambassadors will gather in a breakout room with Lindsey and discuss how they think the day went, how they think the pacing went, what they are looking forward to, any worries they might have about the class, and so on.
  • Managers will update the shared role spreadsheet (link to be distributed privately) to list the role that each member of their small group played. They will then create an issue on the course GitHub repository for Lindsey to follow up on the scribes’ class discussion summary once it is complete, @-mention all the scribes in the issue description, and assign the issue to Lindsey.
  • Scribes will gather to start writing a class discussion summary on the course GitHub wiki, to be finished by at most a week from the day the in-class discussion took place. You may update the wiki either through the web interface, or by cloning the wiki locally. I recommend doing the latter, especially if you’re not particularly familiar with using git or GitHub, since it’s a good idea to become comfortable with these tools.


Your grade in this course will be based 50% on your participation in the course and 50% on your reading responses. Credit for participation can be earned primarily by fulfilling your role on discussion days and completing the follow-up tasks for your role. Credit for reading responses can be earned by submitting thoughtful, well-written paper summaries and discussion questions.

Academic integrity

Everything you write for this course must be your own original work. It is a very important part of your job as a scholar to understand what counts as plagiarism, and make sure you avoid it.

Properly attribute any work that you use. If you use someone else’s words, you must quote and cite them. The only time you can leave out the citation is if it’s obvious from context. For example, if you’re turning in a reading response for a given paper, you don’t have to cite the paper you’re responding to, but you definitely do have to quote any text from the paper that you use.

Course pledge

In addition to standard expectations like “attend class” and “never plagiarize”, I have the following expectations of all students who take this course. (This list of expectations is based on those used by David Evans in his courses at the University of Virginia.)

  • I will do what I can to help my fellow classmates learn. This means that when other students ask me for help understanding a concept or carrying out a task, I will attempt to provide help. I may help by talking with them, asking questions about what they have tried so far, and discussing what I think is good or bad about it, but not by doing any part of their work for them. I will try to teach them what they need to know to successfully carry out the work themselves.

  • I will ask for help. I will make a reasonable effort to do things on my own first, but will ask my classmates or the instructor for help before getting too frustrated. There are many ways to ask for help, including office hours and Slack.

  • I will provide useful feedback. I realize that I have a crucial role to play in helping the instructor to improve the course. I will not wait until the end of the course to make the instrctor aware of any problems. I will give feedback when requested, and I will fill out course surveys and evaluations honestly and thoroughly.

A note on accessibility

If you have a disability and you require accommodations to achieve equal access in this course, please submit your Accommodation Authorization Letter from the Disability Resource Center (DRC) to me by email, preferably within the first two weeks of the quarter. I am eager to discuss ways we can ensure your full participation in the course.

I encourage all students who may benefit from learning more about DRC services to contact the DRC.