A Guide To System Design Interviews


So, you've got a system design interview coming up? No sweat! These interviews can seem a bit daunting, but with the right approach, you can totally ace them. We're here to give you the lowdown on what to expect and how to shine. Whether you're a seasoned pro or new to the game, we've got some tips and tricks to help you navigate the world of system design interviews like a champ. Let's dive in!

Fundamentals of System Design


Scalability is the capability of a system, process, or a network to grow and manage increased demand. Any distributed system that can continuously evolve in order to support the growing amount of work is considered to be scalable.

A system may have to scale because of many reasons like increased data volume or increased amount of work, e.g., number of transactions. A scalable system would like to achieve this scaling without performance loss.

Generally, the performance of a system, although designed (or claimed) to be scalable, declines with the system size due to the management or environment cost. For instance, network speed may become slower because machines tend to be far apart from one another. More generally, some tasks may not be distributed, either because of their inherent atomic nature or because of some flaw in the system design. At some point, such tasks would limit the speed-up obtained by distribution. A scalable architecture avoids this situation and attempts to balance the load on all the participating nodes evenly.


By definition, reliability is the probability a system will fail in a given period. In simple terms, a distributed system is considered reliable if it keeps delivering its services even when one or several of its software or hardware components fail. Reliability represents one of the main characteristics of any distributed system, since in such systems any failing machine can always be replaced by another healthy one, ensuring the completion of the requested task.

Take the example of a large electronic commerce store (like Amazon), where one of the primary requirement is that any user transaction should never be canceled due to a failure of the machine that is running that transaction. For instance, if a user has added an item to their shopping cart, the system is expected not to lose it. A reliable distributed system achieves this through redundancy of both the software components and data. If the server carrying the user’s shopping cart fails, another server that has the exact replica of the shopping cart should replace it.

Obviously, redundancy has a cost and a reliable system has to pay that to achieve such resilience for services by eliminating every single point of failure.


By definition, availability is the time a system remains operational to perform its required function in a specific period. It is a simple measure of the percentage of time that a system, service, or a machine remains operational under normal conditions. An aircraft that can be flown for many hours a month without much downtime can be said to have a high availability. Availability takes into account maintainability, repair time, spares availability, and other logistics considerations. If an aircraft is down for maintenance, it is considered not available during that time.

Reliability is availability over time considering the full range of possible real-world conditions that can occur. An aircraft that can make it through any possible weather safely is more reliable than one that has vulnerabilities to possible conditions.


To understand how to measure the efficiency of a distributed system, let’s assume we have an operation that runs in a distributed manner and delivers a set of items as result. Two standard measures of its efficiency are the response time (or latency) that denotes the delay to obtain the first item and the throughput (or bandwidth) which denotes the number of items delivered in a given time unit (e.g., a second). The two measures correspond to the following unit costs:

  • Number of messages globally sent by the nodes of the system regardless of the message size.
  • Size of messages representing the volume of data exchanges.

The complexity of operations supported by distributed data structures (e.g., searching for a specific key in a distributed index) can be characterized as a function of one of these cost units. Generally speaking, the analysis of a distributed structure in terms of ‘number of messages’ is over-simplistic. It ignores the impact of many aspects, including the network topology, the network load, and its variation, the possible heterogeneity of the software and hardware components involved in data processing and routing, etc. However, it is quite difficult to develop a precise cost model that would accurately take into account all these performance factors; therefore, we have to live with rough but robust estimates of the system behavior.


Another important consideration while designing a distributed system is how easy it is to operate and maintain. Serviceability or manageability is the simplicity and speed with which a system can be repaired or maintained; if the time to fix a failed system increases, then availability will decrease. Things to consider for manageability are the ease of diagnosing and understanding problems when they occur, ease of making updates or modifications, and how simple the system is to operate (i.e., does it routinely operate without failure or exceptions?).

Early detection of faults can decrease or avoid system downtime. For example, some enterprise systems can automatically call a service center (without human intervention) when the system experiences a system fault.

General Steps

Step 1: Requirements clarifications

It is always a good idea to ask questions about the exact scope of the problem we are trying to solve. Design questions are mostly open-ended, and they don’t have ONE correct answer. That’s why clarifying ambiguities early in the interview becomes critical. Candidates who spend enough time to define the end goals of the system always have a better chance to be successful in the interview. Also, since we only have 35-40 minutes to design a (supposedly) large system, we should clarify what parts of the system we will be focusing on.

Step 2: Back-of-the-envelope estimation

It is always a good idea to estimate the scale of the system we’re going to design. This will also help later when we focus on scaling, partitioning, load balancing, and caching.

  • What scale is expected from the system (e.g., number of new tweets, number of tweet views, number of timeline generations per sec., etc.)?
  • How much storage will we need? We will have different storage requirements if users can have photos and videos in their tweets.
  • What network bandwidth usage are we expecting? This will be crucial in deciding how we will manage traffic and balance load between servers.

Step 3: System interface definition

Define what APIs are expected from the system. This will establish the exact contract expected from the system and ensure if we haven’t gotten any requirements wrong.

Step 4: Defining data model

Defining the data model in the early part of the interview will clarify how data will flow between different system components. Later, it will guide for data partitioning and management. The candidate should identify various system entities, how they will interact with each other, and different aspects of data management like storage, transportation, encryption, etc

Step 5: High-level design

Draw a block diagram with 5-6 boxes representing the core components of our system. We should identify enough components that are needed to solve the actual problem from end to end.

For Twitter, at a high level, we will need multiple application servers to serve all the read/write requests with load balancers in front of them for traffic distributions. If we’re assuming that we will have a lot more read traffic (compared to write), we can decide to have separate servers to handle these scenarios. On the back-end, we need an efficient database that can store all the tweets and support a large number of reads. We will also need a distributed file storage system for storing photos and videos.

Step 6: Detailed design

Dig deeper into two or three major components; the interviewer’s feedback should always guide us to what parts of the system need further discussion. We should present different approaches, their pros and cons, and explain why we will prefer one approach over the other. Remember, there is no single answer; the only important thing is to consider tradeoffs between different options while keeping system constraints in mind.

  • Since we will be storing a massive amount of data, how should we partition our data to distribute it to multiple databases? Should we try to store all the data of a user on the same database? What issue could it cause?
  • How will we handle hot users who tweet a lot or follow lots of people?
  • Since users’ timeline will contain the most recent (and relevant) tweets, should we try to store our data so that it is optimized for scanning the latest tweets?
  • How much and at which layer should we introduce cache to speed things up?
  • What components need better load balancing?

Step 7: Identifying and resolving bottlenecks

Try to discuss as many bottlenecks as possible and different approaches to mitigate them.

  • Is there any single point of failure in our system? What are we doing to mitigate it?
  • Do we have enough replicas of the data so that we can still serve our users if we lose a few servers?
  • Similarly, do we have enough copies of different services running such that a few failures will not cause a total system shutdown?
  • How are we monitoring the performance of our service? Do we get alerts whenever critical components fail or their performance degrades?