15-440, Fall 2012: Distributed Systems

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15-440 is an introductory course in distributed systems. The emphasis will be on the techniques for creating functional, usable, and high-performance distributed systems. To make the issues more concrete, the class includes several multi-week projects requiring significant design and implementation.

The goals of this course are twofold: First, for students to gain an understanding of the principles and techniques behind the design of distributed systems, such as locking, concurrency, scheduling, and communication across the network. Second, for students to gain practical experience designing, implementing, and debugging real distributed systems.

The major themes this course will teach include scarcity, scheduling, concurrency and concurrent programming, naming, abstraction and modularity, imperfect communication and other types of failure, protection from accidental and malicious harm, optimism, and the use of instrumentation and monitoring and debugging tools in problem solving. As the creation and management of software systems is a fundamental goal of any undergraduate systems course, students will design, implement, and debug large programming projects.

Evaluation is based on homework assignments, the projects, and three exams.


Because this course has a big project component, you must be proficient in C and Java programming on UNIX systems. It is required that you have taken 15-213 and gotten a "C-" or higher since many of the programming skills you will need are taught in that course. If you received a C in 15-213, you must meet with your academic advisor to discuss your background before taking 15-440, perhaps taking an additional course to sharpen your systems skills.

Learning Objectives

After this course, students will have learned to...

Course Staff

Teaching Assistants

Bin Fan GHC 9003 412-268-4751 Mondays 4:00pm-5:00pm
Anthony Santos GHC 4122 305-215-8409 Tuesdays 3:30pm-4:30pm
Alexander Rodriguez GHC 5207 510-593-5540 Thursdays 7:00pm-8:00pm
Timmy Zhu GHC 7010 412-268-4973 Mondays Noon-1:00pm


David Andersen GHC 9109 412-268-3064 W 11:00 - 11:59
Randy Bryant GHC 5113 412-268-8821 F 14:30 - 15:30

Course Secretary

Kathy McNiff, , GHC 9213, Tel: 412-268-5099

Office Hours

See individual course staff entries above.

Course Policies


Students are encouraged to talk to each other, to the TAs, to the instructors, or to anyone else about any of the assignments. Any assistance, though, must be limited to discussion of the problem and sketching general approaches to a solution. Each student must write out his or her own solutions to the homework. The project handouts have more detailed information about collaboration when working on the projects, but, basically, each programming project group must write their own code and documentation for the programming projects done as a group.

Consulting another student's or group's solution is prohibited, and submitted solutions may not be copied from any source. These and any other form of collaboration on assignments constitute cheating. If you have any question about whether some activity would constitute cheating, please feel free to ask the instructors.

You may not supply work that you complete during 15-440 to other students in future instances of this course or for use in future instances of this course (just as you may not use work completed by students who've taken the course previously).

Piazza Policy

This course uses the Piazza web site for answering questions. The home Piazza page for this course is at: https://piazza.com/cmu/fall2012/15440/home. When posting questions on Piazza, students must keep in mind the collaboration guidelines noted above, and use those guidelines to determine:

Part of the learning process is struggling with the material until you arrive at the right insight for you to understand it. Posting too much detail in response to a request for assistance can impair learning. On the other hand, sometimes it's great to be nudged in the right direction when you're not able to get out of a rut. And, of course, misunderstandings of the assignment or tools available should be helped rapidly. Please use your best judgement when posting to the Piazza site, as if you were collaborating with your friends in person. A few rough guidelines:

Please use your judgement between these two examples. If you post privately, please let us know whether or not it would be OK to mark the post public if we feel it would be beneficial to the class to make it public.

Late Policy

Take project and homework deadlines seriously. Our experience is that students often seriously underestimate the effort involved in programming assignments and projects. If we give you 4 weeks to complete an assignment, there is typically a reason. In the interest of fairness, we have adopted the following late policy:


If you think we made a mistake in grading, please return the assignment with a note explaining your concern to the course secretary no later than two weeks after the day the assignment was returned. We will have the question re-graded by the person responsible for grading that question.


The course staff in 15-440 strongly encourage participation and asking questions during lectures, and to attend our office hours and interact there. Therefore, to protect the privacy of your fellow students, no audio or video recordings may be made of the class without the prior permission of the instructor. If the course staff make audio or video recordings of the course, we will notify the course before such recordings are made (and will make it extremely obvious because there will be a big camera in the back of the room...).

Partner Problems

Please try to avoid having partner problems. Seriously! Share your hopes before they turn into concerns, your concerns before they have problems, and your problems before they inflate into crises.

Also, in order for the course staff to help you and your partner work through issues, or for us to provide an appropriate response to serious partner problems, you must contact us well before the relevant due date! While some problems can never be truly solved, it is likely that your career after CMU will you to sometimes "involve management" to address issues with co-workers, and will certainly require you to work out all sorts of problems with your co-workers. If you find yourself in a situation which you can't resolve, it will provide you with an opportunity to practice interacting with management.

A special case to avoid is coming to us a day or two before a major deadline to tell us that your partner has been ill (etc.) for multiple weeks. We, and thus you, have many more options if you inform us while a problem is developing, instead of after the fact.


Last updated: Mon Dec 10 13:36:57 -0500 2012 [validate xhtml]