Because Everything Is A System: 6 Best System Design Books For You To Ace This Field!

Over the last 2 decades, there have been a lot of advancements in large-scale web applications. As a result of these breakthroughs, we now have to see software development in a whole different light. All of the apps and services that we use every day, including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, are scalable systems. Since these systems are accessed by billions of users all over the world, they need to be able to handle a significant volume of traffic and data.

This is where system design comes in, and with the small example above, you can see how important it is. Understanding system design concepts and how to apply them is critical if you are a software developer: At the start of your career, it will help you solve software design problems more confidently and apply design principles to your everyday work. As you advance and begin to seek out higher-level opportunities, system design becomes an indispensable part of your interview process. In other words, this skill matters to you, regardless of your level. 

That’s why the JobandEdu team wants to establish a resource to help you navigate the complex realm of system design. In this guide, we will review the best system design books that don’t only help you gain a deeper understanding but also provide real-world, hands-on experience. Let’s dive in, shall we? 

BookAuthorLength LevelAmazonRating
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Designing Data – Intensive Application 
Martin Kleppman400 pagesBeginner to intermediate4.7
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Cloud-Native: Designing Change
Cornelia Davis400 pagesIntermediate4.4
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The Design Of Design: The Essays From A Computer Scientist
Frederick “Fred” P.Broke448 pagesIntermediate4.2
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Head First Series
Brett D.McLaughlin, Dave West636 pagesBeginner4.5
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System Design Interview: An Insider’s Guide
Alex Xu320 pagesBeginner4.5
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Clean Architecture: A Craftman’s Guide To Software Structure And Design
Robert C.Martin432 pagesBeginner to intermediate4.7

Designing Data – Intensive Applications By Martin Kleppmann

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There is a reason “Designing Data – Intensive Applications” makes it to the top of our list. Just take a quick look at r/ExperiencedDevs (a subreddit for experienced developers), and you will know that this book is absolutely a modern classic, recommended for both beginners and experts in the field. 

As large-scale web applications advance, system designers have to face many challenges when it comes to data. This includes consistency, scalability, efficiency, maintainability, and, of course, reliability. Choosing the most suitable tool for your application might turn out to be complicated, too. There are many of them available, such as batch processors, message brokers, and so on. Hence, even seasoned developers find it troublesome, let alone novices. 

With “Designing Data – Intensive Applications” as your guide, though, you have to worry no more. Martin Kleppmann – a researcher and software engineer from the University of Cambridge – will walk you through the pros and cons of various technologies for processing and storing data. He starts by providing readers with the fundamentals of how simple databases work and goes on to explain how the interaction of numerous systems in distributed environments works. Along the way, Kleppmann also provides real-life applications and specifics of various technologies in order to give you a much more thorough understanding.

Goodreads user “Emre Sevinc” titled the book “a mini-encyclopedia of modern data engineering.” “The book is incredibly detailed, covering a broad field in considerable detail. It doesn’t mean you are going to read some boring wall of text, because Kleppmann manages to explain all this in a clear and engaging way”, he wrote. 

Designing Data - Intensive Applications By Martin Kleppmann
Designing Data – Intensive Applications By Martin Kleppmann – Source: Vladimir Ivanov Dev Blog

The only disadvantage I can say about Kleppmann’s brainchild is that it was first published in 2017, and age is starting to show. You can find many fascinating citations in this book about distributed databases and batches from the 2010s, but these stop in 2016. Since this is an area that’s evolving fast, I’m quite curious about what he would have added in the last few years. 

The book is recommended for both beginners and seasoned developers. Still, I think it is most suitable for those with some experience with databases or software development, as they can see the relevance of the material. The book is rather thick (more than 500 pages), which means you do need to commit some time in order to finish reading. Having said that, I believe it’s absolutely worth your time investment! 

Cloud-Native: Designing Change -Tolerant Software By Cornelia Davis

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Cloud platforms promise the Holy Grail: Near-zero downtime, infinite scalability, short feedback cycles, fault tolerance, and cost control. Unfortunately, there aren’t many good resources regarding cloud-native design out there. That said, when I picked up “Cloud-Native: Designing Change – Tolerant Software” from a discussion on Quora, I was thrilled to discover this hidden gem. 

Cloud-Native: Designing Change -Tolerant Software By Cornelia Davis
Cloud-Native: Designing Change -Tolerant Software By Cornelia Davis Is One Of The Best System Engineering Books – Source: Manning Publications

With over 30 years of experience as a software technologist, Cornelia Davis shows you the practices and patterns that make cloud-native applications outstanding. Using practical examples and expert advice, she guides you through the process of designing and building software that functions wonderfully on modern cloud platforms. After finishing this book, you will be ready to thrive in the dynamic, distributed, virtual world of the cloud.

So, who is this book for? Well, if you have zero experience in the field, I won’t recommend diving into this book right away. The codes you will find in the examples are in Java, so basic software skills and an ability to read Java language are required to follow. As suggested by Redditor “LukeMathWalker”, it is best to read “Cloud-native” after completing “Designing Data – Intensive Applications”, because you get to see the consequences of the constraints you just studied. 

Best System Design Books – Design of Design: The Essays From A Computer Scientist By Fred Brooks

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While “Designing Data: Intensive Applications” gives us a broad look at the technologies, Fred Brooks’ “Design Of Design: The Essays From A Computer Scientist” takes things to the next level. 

Let’s admit it: Few individuals have had as much influence on the practice (as opposed to academic theory) of software development as this author. His experience as the leader of the IBM System/360 computer project and its Operating System/360 continues to shape how we think about project management. With “Design Of Design”, Fred Brooks aims to add new insight into the nature and importance of system design. Almost instantly, it becomes an essential resource in any professional developer’s library.

Best System Design Books - Design of Design: The Essays From A Computer Scientist By Fred Brooks
Author Fred Brooks Is One Of The Decade’s Computer Pioneers – Source: WIRED

As suggested in its subtitle, “The Essays From A Computer Scientist,” the book consists of 20 standalone essays. In this book, Brooks identifies the constants inherent in all design projects and reveals the processes or patterns likely to lead to excellence. He examines the evolution of the design process, and then discusses collaborative and distributed system design. Along with him, users will look at the nuts and bolts of system design procedure, including budget restrictions, aesthetics, design empiricism, and tools. 

What I like the most about “Design Of Design” is that Brooks gives readers plenty of real-world examples—he has acquired many case studies while working for the IBM System/360. Another thing that gives this book a rating of 4.2 out of 5 on Amazon is how it inspires readers. The author suggests that the ultimate way to actively learn system design is to seek out the best in the field and study their work. That way, anyone can equip themselves with the keys to success. Just like user D.Hawthorne wrote, “What interested me was the idea of deliberating training oneself to be a great designer. This is an encouraging concept.” 

Being a collection of essays, though, the book has an Achilles’ heel: It lacks focus and theme. The examples are not related to each other, jumping from Renaissance examples to IBM System/360 to Brooks’ vacation house and back. This makes the “Design Of Design” less engaging for some readers. Nonetheless, if you are one of those who prefer to read the book chapter by chapter—not necessarily in order—  and spend some time thinking about what has been said before proceeding, you will enjoy the book to its fullest.

Best System Design Books – Head First Series By Eric Freeman And Elisabeth Robson

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The Head First book series is like nothing else. It is packed with quizzes, puzzles, and graphics. Concepts are anthropomorphized and given voices and quirks. You can see these concepts arguing in a Fireside Chat. You may find yourself writing them into a crossword or dragging them to the right place in a word-magnet puzzle.

Yes, the books use a metacognitive approach to learning, conveying the content using text, funny images, and games. I have to be honest; it is a very different reading and learning experience than I am used to. With “Head First”, O’Reilly Media was able to transform a very dry subject of system design into a very entertaining experience. And it really is brain-friendly: You learn faster, better, and with less effort. That said, the series is amazing for beginner programmers, and they deserve a spot on this list of best system design books

You would want to read the books in priority and in order:

  • Head First – Object-Oriented Analysis & Design: As its name suggests, the first book of the series focuses on designing object-oriented solutions to problems. It shows you how to develop solutions for the customers, as well as how to best implement and design software features while considering the customers’ needs. 

Book Review: Head First Object-Oriented Analysis & Design

  • Head First – Design Patterns: This book shows you the patterns that matter, when to use them and why, how to apply them to your own system designs, and the object-oriented design principles on which they’re based. It’s also useful for those working in the UX design field. 

Book Review: Head First Object-Oriented Analysis & Design

The series covers very basic concepts, so it is not recommended for advanced programmers who probably know most of the materials. Nonetheless, with a rating of 4.29 out of 5 on Goodreads, the “Head First” series proves to be one of the best introductions to system design. As user “Alex” stated, “if you are new to object-oriented design or system design patterns, these are the first books you should buy.”

Best System Design Books – System Design Interview: An Insider’s Guide By Alex Xu

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System design interviews can be intimidating. Since the questions are open-ended, there is no definitive answer. If you are like me, who has spent ages finding the best books for system design interviews, Alex Xu and his latest work have come to the rescue!

Right after the first few pages, you will know that the person behind “System Design Interview” must be familiar with systems at scale. Alex Xu has spent over a decade working at Oracle, Zynga, and Twitter, so he fully understands what those with little experience struggle with. 

His book goes slow and uses plenty of illustrations to walk you through actual system design interview questions. Still, it is more than that: “System Design Interview” comes with over 10 case studies and a framework that it uses constantly with the case studies. According to tech blogger Gergely Orosz, the framework (which consists of 4 steps) is the most practical process for people who have yet to work on systems at a scale. With it as your guide, you can navigate any system design interview and be more in control, even without much experience. 

Best System Design Books - System Design Interview: An Insider’s Guide By Alex Xu
System Design Interview: An Insider’s Guide By Alex Xu – Source: The Pragmatic Engineer

Still, keep in mind that “System Design Interview” is written specifically for beginners. Hence, some of the topics are left untouched. Amazon user “R.Kuppadakath” thinks the book does not go technically deep enough because “despite doing a good job in explaining the basic concepts, Alex Xu ignores things like caching and replication strategies.” The book could have been top-notch if he had explored these more since they are relevant in many scenarios.

To wrap up, “System Design Interview” is definitely not the only book you should buy, but still a solid recommendation from me. Aside from helping you prepare for the system design interview, it also equips you with some precious knowledge that can strengthen your system design muscles in the long run. 

Clean Architecture: A Craftsman’s Guide To Software Structure And Design By Robert C.Martin

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So, are you interested in building maintainable software? Do you need arguments to persuade your stakeholders to take some more time to create quality software? Or perhaps you just want some inspiration on  building applications in a different way than the default “3-layer architecture”?

Well then, “Clean Architecture: A Craftsman’s Guide To Software Structure And Design” is your go-to. Often referred to as “Uncle Bob” by his followers, Robert Cecil Martin is a well-known software engineer, instructor, and best-selling author. He is most recognized for developing many software design principles and for being the founder of the influential Agile Manifesto. 

Together with him, in “Clean Architecture”, you are going to discover: 

  • The fundamental disciplines that software architects need in order to complete their skill set
  • The guidelines for handling issues regarding function, component isolation, and data management.
  • How programming paradigms enforce discipline by constraining what developers can do.
  • How to implement optimal, high-level structures for thick-client, web, embedded applications, and consoles.
  • How to set up suitable layers and boundaries, as well as arrange components and services
  • Why designs and architectures fail, and how to prevent (or correct) these mistakes.
Clean Architecture: A Craftsman's Guide To Software Structure And Design By Robert C.Martin
Clean Architecture: A Craftsman’s Guide To Software Structure And Design By Robert C.Martin – Source: Twitter

If you’re looking for those timeless facts about good software architecture and the abstract principles that would protect your investment for many years, this is a great book. The SOLID principles that Martin himself has invented and introduced don’t age at all. 

Additionally, this could be one of a few tech books that you find engaging, due to Martin’s conversational writing style. There is only one caveat: His “chatty” habit is not everyone’s cup of tea. As a woman in tech, Redditor “thebaziel” describes reading “Clean Architecture” as hearing the conversation between two heterosexual males. “There’s one metaphor where he tries to be relatable by saying 3rd party software is like masturbating to Angelina Jolie. Doesn’t sound comfortable to me”, she wrote. 

Are You Ready To Nail System Design? 

The world of system design might seem complex at first, but with the help of these 6 best system design books, you can have a firm understanding of the topic in no time. Don’t forget that this significant discipline can make or break your chances of landing a computer job in a technological organization, so choose a book you like and equip yourself with the necessary knowledge right away! 

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