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Hints for Computer System Design

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.

{ 7 } Comments

  1. Sam Tobin-Hochstadt | May 1, 2014 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

    There’s something ironic about your last-paragraph complaint appearing on a widely-read blog.

  2. regehr | May 2, 2014 at 12:31 am | Permalink

    Hi Sam, the irony did not escape me.

  3. Michael Nielsen | May 3, 2014 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    Further to #1, there’s very little chance that I’d read something in SOSP. But I’d be quite likely to read something appearing on the subject on this blog.

  4. Kartoch | May 4, 2014 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    The link is dead.

  5. regehr | May 4, 2014 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    The entire MSR site is down actually! I’ve updated the link to point to a different site.

  6. Sean McDirmid | May 6, 2014 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    This is great to point out, thanks! Crazy to still find old good papers so close to my current research topic (incremental computation). There is a lot in this paper that doesn’t seem to have been published elsewhere!

    Why would one think of SOSP being a destination for wisdom? Conferences are hardly aggregators of wisdom, and even top conferences like SOSP/OSDI are too noisy for most people (as well as not being very focused). Focused journals would be more appropriate.

  7. Alan Fekete | May 7, 2014 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    In 2013 Lampson delivered an updated version, mentioned by Vogels at http://www.allthingsdistributed.com/2013/12/updated-hints.html