The 10 Best System Design Books to Sharpen Your Skills

System Design
Anthony PellegrinoAnthony PellegrinoLast updated

Great engineers never stop learning. We dug through our bookshelves and asked our friends what their favorite system design books are. These books are for both experienced engineers looking to refresh their skills or learn something new as well as folks who are preparing for a system design interview.

System design is an extensive topic. Even some engineers with decades of experience still don't know enough to be considered experts.

Not only that, technology is constantly evolving at a rapid pace, and with it, system design principles.

Whether you're trying to brush up on your system design skills to build a new project or ace the system design interview for your next job, we've got you covered.

Top 9 Books on System Design

Hey there! Learn how to answer system design interview questions with in-depth video examples and fundamental concepts in our System Design Interview Course.

Sneak Peek: The three most common system design interview questions are:
- Design Instagram. Watch an answer to this question here.
- How would you build TinyURL? Watch answer here.
- Design YouTube. Watch a sample answer to this question here.

Note: There are no affiliate links below. These are unbiased opinions from our own team of system design coaches and our community. If you'd like to purchase a book, we recommend using Bookshop to support a local book store or purchasing directly from the author or publisher.

Designing Data-Intensive Applications

Author: Martin Kleppmann

Data takes a prominent position in many aspects of modern system design.

After all, data has become the world's most valuable commodity.

Engineers must navigate complex problems like scalability, consistency, reliability, efficiency, and maintainability when designing technical systems.

On top of that, engineers and developers have more tools than ever for managing data. Relational databases, NoSQL datastores, stream or batch processors, and message brokers, for example.

To build an excellent understanding of system design for your upcoming interviews and career, you'll need to learn and understand how to best process and store data.

Martin Kleppmann's book, Designing Data-Intensive Applications, is one of the best books to help you do just that.

This system design book will give you a comprehensive and hands-on overview of the various tools you can use to process and store data for modern distributed systems.

Given how vital data is today, this system design book is a must-have for any software developer, engineer, or architect.

System Design Interview

Author: Alex Xu

This book, System Design Interview - An Insider's Guide, is another must-have system design book. It's, unsurprisingly, about the system design interview.

It is highly rated and has helped thousands of tech candidates pass the system design interview rounds commonplace at FAANG and other tech companies.

System design is an extensive and complex discipline. For many, system design interview rounds can be some of the most challenging parts of a tech interview.

Not only do you need to have an understanding of basic technical concepts, you also need to understand how systems are built from a macro perspective.

There is no "right" answer to a system design interview question. Instead, they're typically ambiguous and allow candidates to go in several directions to solve them.

As such, they can be equally challenging to prepare for. But that's where this system design book comes in.

You'll find dozens of illustrations and system design diagrams modeled after real interview questions that'll help you become familiar with system design interview questions.

It also comes packed with tons of information on how recruiters and hiring managers evaluate system design solutions and what they're looking for in your answers.

Clean Architecture: A Craftsman's Guide to Software Structure and Design

Author: Robert C. Martin

Of course, a critical dimension of system design is the structure and architecture of the software involved. Clean Architecture: A Craftsman's Guide will help you write cleaner code as you build scalable systems.

The key to designing clean systems is knowing how to create clean system architecture.

As you can imagine, based on the title of this system design book, that's what this Craftsman's Guide sets out to do.

This is another fantastic book for anyone looking to better understand system design. It focuses on the first principles and the actual challenges and problems that developers run into in the real world.

Whether you're preparing for an upcoming system design interview or not, reading Clean Architecture will help you improve the quality and design of your software for years to come.

Understanding Distributed Systems

Author: Roberto Vitillo

Outside of dense, academic textbooks, it's relatively challenging to find a book on system design that comprehensively covers the whole discipline.

But this book, Understanding Distributed Systems, covers all the bases of system design in an accessible and informative way.

The author, Roberto Vitillo, is a software engineer and engineering manager that has worked at Microsoft and Mozilla throughout his long career.

He describes this book as the resource he wishes he had when beginning his engineering career.

Understanding Distributed Systems also came out fairly recently, so you can trust that it is up to date.

You'll find detailed chapters on system design fundamentals such as network stack, data consistency models, scalability, reliability, and resiliency.

This system design book is especially great for developers working on the back-end of web or mobile apps.

Systems Analysis and Design

Authors: Dennis, Wixom, and Roth

System Analysis and Design by Dennis, Wixom, and Roth is considered one of the best academic textbooks on the subject of modern systems analysis and design.

Many computer science students are assigned this text during their university days. However, you don't need to be a college student to get value from this system design book.

This book provides a hands-on understanding of system design through a project-based format. You'll find that this project-based approach resembles the actual work you'll be doing on the job.

That's why this system design textbook should be on your bookshelf no matter where you are in your engineering career.

While System Analysis and Design is a highly practical resource, it still provides the essential and foundational knowledge of system design concepts necessary for success in your roles.

Building Microservices: Designing Fine-Grained Systems

Author: Sam Newman

In recent years, microservice architecture has gained significant popularity compared to monolithic design. Building Microservices: Designing Fine-Grained Systems keeps up with the times and gives a great overview of when microservices make sense and how to anticipate problems using them.

In fact, a typical system design interview question is "break a monolith into microservices."

As such, you should use microservice architecture frequently in your engineering roles as you design various technical systems.

But, while microservices may be in vogue, they come with their own challenges compared to monolithic architecture.

That's why we recommend reading Building Microservices by Sam Newman.

This system design book is loaded with helpful examples and all the practical wisdom you need to properly build and manage microservices.

Fundamentals of Software Architecture: An Engineering Approach

Authors: Neal Ford and Mark Richards

Software architecture is a big part of system design.

So, while this book, in particular, is geared more towards software architects, it is still an essential read for anyone who works with system design.

With Fundamentals of Software Architecture and Clean Architecture in hand, you'll be equipped with everything you possibly need to know about software architecture.

This book is full of architectural patterns, characteristics, components, diagrams, and more.

The book covers software architecture examples in several programming languages, including Javascript, C#, and Java, along with first principles that apply to all tech stacks.

Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software

Authors: Erich Gamma, Richard Helm, Ralph Johnson, and John Vlissides

This system design book is not a comprehensive overview of the discipline like some of the other books on our list.

Still, as the title suggests, it contains handy information about powerful system design patterns you can use on the job and in your interviews.

In Design Patterns, the four authors, all of whom are expert system designers, provide dozens of solutions to common system design problems.

After reading this system design book, you'll have 23 different design patterns you can use to build more flexible, elegant, and efficient systems.

While the design patterns are admittedly limited to object-oriented programming (OOP), they will still come in handy during your engineering career, given how prominent OOP continues to be as a software paradigm.

Introduction to System Design: Crack System Design Interviews and Understand How Your Favorite Tech Products Work

Author: Shivam Singh

This is a newer book on system design.

Like many system design books, this one was written with software engineers in mind. However, it is notable for being highly accessible for anyone working in tech, including product managers, program managers, and management.

So, if you find some other books in our main list a bit esoteric, you could try starting with this one. No prior technical knowledge is expected or required.

Introduction to System Design takes a deep dive into actual products and technical systems, including Instagram, Facebook Messenger, Dropbox, TinyURL, and Pastebin.

Designing Machine Learning Systems: An Iterative Process for Production-Ready Applications

Author: Chip Huyen

It's true that not every system designer will be designing machine learning or artificial intelligence systems. Although, some inevitably will and will do so in increasing numbers as time goes on.

Designing Machine Learning Systems is focused entirely on machine learning systems and could be a good tool in your arsenal.

When it comes to technical systems, few are more complex and challenging to build than machine learning systems.

Designing Machine Learning Systems will cover everything you need to know about creating reliable, scalable, maintainable, and adaptive machine learning systems.

The author, Chip Huyen, is the co-founder of Claypot AI and teaches Machine Learning Design at Stanford. So you can trust that the information in this book is as reliable as it is cutting-edge.

Bonus: Modern Systems Analysis

Developing information systems is a complex task that requires knowledge of both system design and programming fundamentals.

This book provides a comprehensive overview of the concepts, skills, and tools that are necessary for systems analysts to develop information systems.

It also covers the importance of prioritizing the practical over the technical.

By doing so, the authors provide readers with a well-rounded understanding of the development process. As a result, students who read this book will be better prepared to design and implement effective systems.

Getting Ready for System Design Interviews?

If you read every single book on this list, you'll be in a fantastic spot regarding your knowledge of system design and have some solid computer science basics.

Nevertheless, system design interview questions are hugely important for many tech roles and can make or break your interview.

So, we recommend you take advantage of other interview prep resources to put your best foot forward.

Here at Exponent, we've got you covered!

Design Instagram

Check out this mock interview where Jacob Simon explains how to design Instagram.

Design Netflix

Watch this mock interview for designing the world's most popular video streaming platform.

We've connected thousands of job seekers in countless tech roles with expert-level courses and resources to prepare them for their upcoming interviews.

If you're interested in more system design-related resources, be sure to check out:

💬 Study up on example system interview questions

📖 Read through our company-specific engineering interview guides

👯‍♂️ Practice your behavioral and interviewing skills with our mock interview practice tool.

👨‍🎓 Take our complete System Design Interview Course.

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