On the last day of my advanced OS course this spring we discussed one of my all-time favorite computer science papers: Butler Lampson’s Hints for Computer System Design. Why is it so good?
- It’s hard-won advice. Designing systems is not easy — a person can spend a lifetime learning to do it well — and any head start we can get is useful.
- The advice is broadly applicable and is basically correct, there aren’t really any places where I need to tell students “Yeah… ignore Section 3.5.”
- There are many, many examples illustrating the hints. Some of them require a bit of historical knowledge (the paper is 30 years old) but by and large the examples stand the test of time.
- It seems to me that a lot of Lampson’s hints were routinely ignored by the developers of large codes that we use today. I think the reason is pretty obvious: the massive increases in throughput and storage capacity over the last 30 years have permitted a great deal of sloppy code to be created. It’s nice to read a collection of clear thinking about how things could be done better.
Something that bums me out is that it’s now impossible to publish a paper like this at a top conference such as SOSP.