Systems Design Fundamentals - GLOSSARY

  • ACID Transaction

    A type of database transaction that has four important properties:

    • Atomicity: The operations that constitute the transaction will either all succeed or all fail. There is no in-between state.
    • Consistency: The transaction cannot bring the database to an invalid state. After the transaction is committed or rolled back, the rules for each record will still apply, and all future transactions will see the effect of the transaction. Also named Strong Consistency.
    • Isolation: The execution of multiple transactions concurrently will have the same effect as if they had been executed sequentially.
    • Durability: Any committed transaction is written to non-volatile storage. It will not be undone by a crash, power loss, or network partition.
  • Alerting

    The process through which system administrators get notified when critical system issues occur. Alerting can be be set up by defining specific thresholds on monitoring charts, past which alerts are sent to a communication channel like Slack.

  • Availability

    The odds of a particular server or service being up and running at any point in time, usually measured in percentages. A server that has 99% availability will be operational 99% of the time (this would be described as having two nines> of availability).

  • Blob Storage

    Widely used kind of storage, in small and large scale systems. They don’t really count as databases per se, partially because they only allow the user to store and retrieve data based on the name of the blob. This is sort of like a key-value store but usually blob stores have different guarantees. They might be slower than KV stores but values can be megabytes large (or sometimes gigabytes large). Usually people use this to store things like large binaries, database snapshots, or images and other static assets that a website might have.

    Blob storage is rather complicated to have on premise, and only giant companies like Google and Amazon have infrastructure that supports it. So usually in the context of System Design interviews you can assume that you will be able to use GCS or S3. These are blob storage services hosted by Google and Amazon respectively, that cost money depending on how much storage you use and how often you store and retrieve blobs from that storage.

  • Cache

    A piece of hardware or software that stores data, typically meant to retrieve that data faster than otherwise.

    Caches are often used to store responses to network requests as well as results of computationally-long operations.

    Note that data in a cache can become stale if the main source of truth for that data (i.e., the main database behind the cache) gets updated and the cache doesn't.

  • Cache Eviction Policy

    The policy by which values get evicted or removed from a cache. Popular cache eviction policies include LRU (least-recently used), FIFO (first in first out), and LFU (least-frequently used).

  • Cache Hit

    When requested data is found in a cache.

  • Cache Miss

    When requested data could have been found in a cache but isn't. This is typically used to refer to a negative consequence of a system failure or of a poor design choice. For example:

    If a server goes down, our load balancer will have to forward requests to a new server, which will result in cache misses.

  • CAP Theorem

    Stands for Consistency, Availability, Partition tolerance. In a nutshell, this theorem states that any distributed system can only achieve 2 of these 3 properties. Furthermore, since almost all useful systems do have network-partition tolerance, it's generally boiled down to: Consistency vs. Availability; pick one.

    One thing to keep in mind is that some levels of consistency are still achievable with high availability, but strong consistency is much harder.

  • Client

    A machine or process that requests data or service from a server.

    Note that a single machine or piece of software can be both a client and a server at the same time. For instance, a single machine could act as a server for end users and as a client for a database.

  • Client—Server Model

    The paradigm by which modern systems are designed, which consists of clients requesting data or service from servers and servers providing data or service to clients.

  • Configuration

    A set of parameters or constants that are critical to a system. Configuration is typically written in JSON or YAML and can be either static, meaning that it's hard-coded in and shipped with your system's application code (like frontend code, for instance), or dynamic, meaning that it lives outside of your system's application code.

  • Consensus Algorithm

    A type of complex algorithms used to have multiple entities agree on a single data value, like who the "leader" is amongst a group of machines. Two popular consensus algorithms are Paxos and Raft.

  • Consistent Hashing

    A type of hashing that minimizes the number of keys that need to be remapped when a hash table gets resized. It's often used by load balancers to distribute traffic to servers; it minimizes the number of requests that get forwarded to different servers when new servers are added or when existing servers are brought down.

  • Content Delivery Network

    A CDN is a third-party service that acts like a cache for your servers. Sometimes, web applications can be slow for users in a particular region if your servers are located only in another region. A CDN has servers all around the world, meaning that the latency to a CDN's servers will almost always be far better than the latency to your servers. Two of the most popular CDNs are Cloudflare and Google Cloud CDN.

  • Database Index

    A special auxiliary data structure that allows your database to perform certain queries much faster. Indexes can typically only exist to reference structured data, like data stored in relational databases. In practice, you create an index on one or multiple columns in your database to greatly speed up read queries that you run very often, with the downside of slightly longer writes to your database, since writes have to also take place in the relevant index.

  • Database Lock

    In a relational database that provides ACID transactions, updating rows inside a table will cause a lock to be held on that table or on the rows you are updating. If a second transaction tries to update the same rows, it will block before the update until the first transaction releases that lock. This is one of the core mechanisms behind the Atomicity of ACID transactions.

  • Databases

    Databases are programs that either use disk or memory to do 2 core things: record data and query data. In general, they are themselves servers that are long lived and interact with the rest of your application through network calls, with protocols on top of TCP or even HTTP.

    Some databases only keep records in memory, and the users of such databases are aware of the fact that those records may be lost forever if the machine or process dies.

    For the most part though, databases need persistence of those records, and thus cannot use memory. This means that you have to write your data to disk. Anything written to disk will remain through power loss or network partitions, so that’s what is used to keep permanent records.

    Since machines die often in a large scale system, special disk partitions or volumes are used by the database processes, and those volumes can get recovered even if the machine were to go down permanently.

  • DDoS Attack

    Short for "distributed denial-of-service attack", a DDoS attack is a DoS attack in which the traffic flooding the target system comes from many different sources (like thousands of machines), making it much harder to defend against.

  • Disk

    Usually refers to either HDD (hard-disk drive) or SSD (solid-state drive). Data written to disk will persist through power failures and general machine crashes. Disk is also referred to as non-volatile storage.

    SSD is far faster than HDD (see latencies of accessing data from SSD and HDD) but also far more expensive from a financial point of view. Because of that, HDD will typically be used for data that's rarely accessed or updated, but that's stored for a long time, and SSD will be used for data that's frequently accessed and updated.

  • DNS

    Short for Domain Name System, it describes the entities and protocols involved in the translation from domain names to IP Addresses. Typically, machines make a DNS query to a well known entity which is responsible for returning the IP address (or multiple ones) of the requested domain name in the response.

  • DoS Attack

    Short for "denial-of-service attack", a DoS attack is an attack in which a malicious user tries to bring down or damage a system in order to render it unavailable to users. Much of the time, it consists of flooding it with traffic. Some DoS attacks are easily preventable with rate limiting, while others can be far trickier to defend against.

  • Etcd

    Etcd is a strongly consistent and highly available key-value store that's often used to implement leader election in a system.

  • Eventual Consistency

    A consistency model which is unlike Strong Consistency. In this model, reads might return a view of the system that is stale. An eventually consistency datastore will give guarantees that the state of the database will eventually reflect writes within a time period (could be 10 seconds, or minutes).

  • Forward Proxy

    A server that sits between a client and servers and acts on behalf of the client, typically used to mask the client's identity (IP address). Note that forward proxies are often referred to as just proxies.

  • Google Cloud Storage

    GCS is a blob storage service provided by Google.

  • Gossip Protocol

    When a set of machines talk to each other in a uncoordinated manner in a cluster to spread information through a system without requiring a central source of data.

  • Hashing Function

    A function that takes in a specific data type (such as a string or an identifier) and outputs a number. Different inputs may have the same output, but a good hashing function attempts to minimize those hashing collisions (which is equivalent to maximizing uniformity).

  • High Availability

    Used to describe systems that have particularly high levels of availability, typically 5 nines or more; sometimes abbreviated "HA".

  • Horizontal Scaling

    Scaling a system horizontally means adding more machines to perform the same task, resulting in increased throughput for the system. Typically, horizontal scaling increases a system's throughput roughly linearly with the number of machines performing a given task.

  • Hot Spot

    When distributing a workload across a set of servers, that workload might be spread unevenly. This can happen if your sharding key or your hashing function are suboptimal, or if your workload is naturally skewed: some servers will receive a lot more traffic than others, thus creating a "hot spot".

  • HTTP

    HyperText Transfer Protocol, very common network protocol implemented on top of TCP. Clients make HTTP requests, and servers respond with a response.

    Requests typically have the following schema:

    host: string (example:
    port: integer (example: 80 or 443)
    method: string (example: GET, PUT, POST, DELETE, OPTIONS or PATCH)
    headers:  pair list (example: "Content-Type" => "application/json")
    body: opaque sequence of bytes

    Responses typically have the following schema:

    status code: integer (example: 200, 401)
    headers:  pair list (example: "Content-Length" => 1238)
    body: opaque sequence of bytes
  • IP

    Stands for Internet Protocol. This network protocol outlines how almost all machine-to-machine communications should happen in the world. Other protocols like TCP, UDP and HTTP are built on top of IP.

  • IP Address

    An address given to each machine connected to the public internet. IPv4 addresses consist of four numbers separated by dots: a.b.c.d where all four numbers are between 0 and 255. Special values include:

    • Your own local machine. Also referred to as localhost.
    • 192.168.x.y: Your private network. For instance, your machine and all machines on your private wifi network will usually have the 192.168 prefix.
  • IP Packet

    Sometimes more broadly referred to as just a (network) packet, an IP packet is effectively the smallest unit used to describe data being sent over IP, aside from bytes. An IP packet consists of:

    • an IP header, which contains the source and destination IP addresses as well as other information related to the network
    • a payload, which is just the data being sent over the network
  • JSON

    A file format heavily used in APIs and configuration. Stands for JavaScript Object Notation. Example:

       "version": 1.0,
       "name": "AlgoExpert Configuration"
  • Kafka

    A distributed message passing storage system created by LinkedIn. Very useful when using the streaming paradigm as opposed to polling.

  • Key-Value Store

    A Key-Value Store is a flexible NoSQL database that's often used for caching and dynamic configuration. Popular options include DynamoDB, Etcd, Redis, and ZooKeeper.

  • Latency

    The time it takes for a certain operation to complete in a system. Most often this measure is a time duration, like milliseconds or seconds. You should know these orders of magnitude:

    • Reading 1 MB from RAM: 250 microseconds
    • Reading 1 MB from SSD: 1000 microseconds
    • Transfer 1 MB over Network: 10 milliseconds
    • Reading 1MB from HDD: 20 milliseconds
    • Inter-Continental Round Trip: 150 milliseconds
  • Leader Election

    The process by which nodes in a cluster (for instance, servers in a set of servers) elect a so-called "leader" amongst them, responsible for the primary operations of the service that these nodes support. When correctly implemented, leader election guarantees that all nodes in the cluster know which one is the leader at any given time and can elect a new leader if the leader dies for whatever reason.

  • Load Balancer

    A type of reverse proxy that distributes traffic across servers. Load balancers can be found in many parts of a system, from the DNS layer all the way to the database layer.

  • Logging

    The act of collecting and storing logs--useful information about events in your system. Typically your programs will output log messages to its STDOUT or STDERR pipes, which will automatically get aggregated into a centralized logging solution.

  • MapReduce

    A popular framework for data processing at a very large scale by splitting the work into as many sub-tasks as needed and processing those in parallel on a big cluster of machines. It is comprised of 2 main steps: Map and Reduce. The map step takes the input and its output will further get passed onto reducers. The output of the reducers get concatenated into the final result.

  • Memory

    Short for Random Access Memory (RAM). Data stored in memory will be lost when the process that has written that data dies.

  • Microservice Architecture

    When a system is made up of many small web services that can be compiled and deployed independently. This is usually thought of as a counterpart of monoliths.

  • MongoDB

    A NoSQL database with powerful querying through a JavaScript-like language. Consistency guarantees depend on the settings that the database is setup with.

  • Monitoring

    The process of having visibility into a system's key metrics, monitoring is typically implemented by collecting important events in a system and aggregating them in human-readable charts.

  • Monolith Architecture

    When a system is primarily made up of a single large web application that is compiled and rolled out as a unit. Typically a counterpart of microservices. Companies sometimes try to split up this monolith into microservices once it reaches a very large size in an attempt to increase developer productivity.

  • MySQL

    A relational database that provides ACID transactions and supports a SQL dialect.

  • Nginx

    Pronounced "engine X"—not "N jinx", Nginx is a very popular webserver that's often used as a reverse proxy and load balancer.

  • Nines

    Typically refers to percentages of uptime. For example, 5 nines of availability means an uptime of 99.999% of the time. Below are the downtimes expected per year depending on those 9s:

    - 99% (two 9s): 97 hours
    - 99.9% (three 9s): 8.7 hours
    - 99.99%: 52 minutes
    - 99.999%: 5 minutes
  • Node/Instance/Host

    These three terms refer to the same thing most of the time: a virtual or physical machine on which the developer runs processes. Sometimes the word server also refers to this same concept.

  • Non-Relational Database

    In contrast with relational database (SQL databases), a type of database that is free of imposed, tabular-like structure. Non-relational databases are often referred to as NoSQL databases.

  • NoSQL Database

    Any database that is not SQL compatible is called NoSQL.

  • Paxos & Raft

    Two consensus algorithms that, when implemented correctly, allow for the synchronization of certain operations even in a distributed setting.

  • Peer-To-Peer Network

    A collection of machines referred to as peers that divide a workload between themselves to presumably complete the workload faster than would otherwise be possible. Peer-to-peer networks are often used in file-distribution systems.

  • Percentiles

    Most often used when describing a latency distribution. If your Xth percentile is 100 milliseconds, it means that X% of the requests have latencies of 100ms or less. Sometimes, SLAs describe their guarantees using these percentiles.

  • Persistent Storage

    Usually refers to disk, but in general it is any form of storage that persists if the process in charge of managing it dies.

  • Polling

    The act of fetching a resource or piece of data regularly at an interval to make sure your data is not too stale.

  • Postgres

    A relational database that uses a dialect of SQL called PostgreSQL. Provides ACID transactions.

  • Process

    A program that is currently running on a machine. You should always assume that any process may get terminated at any time in a sufficiently large system.

  • Pub/Sub Model

    Short for Publish/Subscribe. In this model, the subscribers usually create a long lived connection with a server waiting for messages pertaining to a topic (sometimes called channel). Independently of those subscribers, other clients, the publishers, will create messages pertaining to one of the topics. The service implementing this Pub/Sub Model is required to notify and pass along the messages all the way to the subscribers within some time period (could be 1 second or 10 minutes depending on the system).

  • Rate Limiting

    The act of limiting the number of requests sent to or from a system. Rate limiting is most often used to limit the number of incoming requests in order to prevent DoS attacks and can be enforced at the IP-address level, at the user-account level, or at the region level, for example. Rate limiting can also be implemented in tiers; for instance, a type of network request could be limited to 1 per second, 5 per 10 seconds, and 10 per minute.

  • Redis

    An in-memory key-value store. Does offer some persistent storage options but is typically used as a really fast, best-effort caching solution. Redis is also often used to implement rate limiting.

  • Redundancy

    The process of replicating parts of a system in an effort to make it more reliable.

  • Relational Database

    A type of structured database in which data is stored following a tabular format; often supports powerful querying using SQL.

  • Rendezvous Hashing

    A type of hashing also coined highest random weight hashing. Allows for minimal re-distribution of mappings when a server goes down.

  • Replication

    The act of duplicating the data from one database server to others. This is sometimes used to increase the redundancy of your system and tolerate regional failures for instance. Other times you can use replication to move data closer to your clients, thus decreasing the latency of accessing specific data.

  • Reverse Proxy

    A server that sits between clients and servers and acts on behalf of the servers, typically used for logging, load balancing, or caching.

  • S3

    S3 is a blob storage service provided by Amazon through Amazon Web Services (AWS).

  • Server

    A machine or process that provides data or service for a client, usually by listening for incoming network calls.

    Note that a single machine or piece of software can be both a client and a server at the same time. For instance, a single machine could act as a server for end users and as a client for a database.

  • Server-Selection Strategy

    How a load balancer chooses servers when distribute traffic between multiple servers. Commonly used strategies include round-robin, random, health-checks, and IP-based routing.

  • SHA

    Short for "Secure Hash Algorithms", the SHA is a collection of cryptographic hash functions used in the industry. These days, SHA-3 is a popular choice to use in a system.

  • Sharding

    Sometimes called data partitioning, sharding is the act of splitting a database into two or more pieces called shards and is typically done to increase the throughput of your database. Popular sharding strategies include:

    • Sharding based on a client's region
    • Sharding based on the type of data (e.g: user data gets stored in one shard, payments data gets stored in another shard)
    • Sharding based on the hash of a column (only for structured data)
  • SLA

    Short for "service-level agreement", an SLA is a collection of guarantees given to a customer by a service provider. SLAs typically make guarantees on a system's availability, amongst other things. SLAs are made up of one or multiple SLOs.

  • SLO

    Short for "service-level objective", an SLO is a guarantee given to a customer by a service provider. SLOs typically make guarantees on a system's availability, amongst other things. SLOs constitute an SLA.

  • Socket

    A kind of file that acts like a stream. Processes can read and write to sockets and communicate in this manner. Most of the time the sockets are fronts for TCP connection.

  • SQL

    Structured Query Language. Relational databases can be used using a derivative of SQL such as PostgreSQL in the case of Postgres.

  • SQL Database

    Any database that supports SQL. This term is often used synonymously with "Relational Database", though in practice, not every relational database supports SQL.

  • Streaming

    In networking, it usually refers to the act of continuously getting a feed of information from a server by keeping an open connection between the two machines or processes.

  • Strong Consistency

    Strong Consistency usually refers to the consistency of ACID transactions, as opposed to Eventual Consistency.

  • TCP

    Network protocol built on top of the Internet Protocol (IP). Allows for ordered, reliable data delivery between machines over the public internet by creating a connection.

    TCP is usually implemented in the kernel, which exposes sockets to applications that they can use to stream data through an open connection.

  • Throughput

    The number of operations that a system can handle properly per time unit. For instance the throughput of a server can often be measured in requests per second (RPS or QPS).

  • Vertical Scaling

    Scaling a system vertically means increasing the resources (CPU / Memory) available to a certain task on a single machine, so that your throughput may increase.

  • Virtual Machine

    A VM is a form of computer inside of a computer. It is a program that you run on a machine that completely emulates a new kernel and operating system. Very useful when isolating programs from one another while having them share the same physical machine.

  • Worker Pool Pattern

    Similar to the Task Queue Pattern. In this design, a pool of workers, usually themselves servers, take tasks off of a single shared queue and process those tasks independently. In order to ensure that every task gets done at least once despite potential partitions between queue and workers, the workers must confirm the status of the task after it is done (usually success or failure).

  • YAML

    A file format mostly used in configuration. Example:

    version: 1.0
    name: AlgoExpert Configuration
  • ZooKeeper

    ZooKeeper is a strongly consistent, highly available key-value store. It's often used to store important configuration or to perform leader election.

  • Worker Pool Pattern

    Similar to the Task Queue Pattern. In this design, a pool of workers, usually themselves servers, take tasks off of a single shared queue and process those tasks independently. In order to ensure that every task gets done at least once despite potential partitions between queue and workers, the workers must confirm the status of the task after it is done (usually success or failure).

  • YAML

    A file format mostly used in configuration. Example:

    version: 1.0
    name: AlgoExpert Configuration
  • ZooKeeper

    ZooKeeper is a strongly consistent, highly available key-value store. It's often used to store important configuration or to perform leader election.

  • 1 Like