System Design Interview (Byte Byte Go)
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Harry Potter

Harry Potter

Oct 10, 2023

System Design Interview (Byte Byte Go)

Everything you need to take your system

design skill to the next level


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System Design Fundamentals

  • Scale web appBack-of-the-envelope EstimationDistributed Message QueueRate LimiterConsistent HashingUnique ID GeneratorA Framework For System Design Interviews

Design a Product

  • YoutubeAds AggregationStock ExchangeNewsfeed SystemGaming LeaderboardMail ServersHotel ReservationURL ShortenerWeb CrawlerNotification SystemPayment SystemDigital WalletSearch Autocomplete

Big Data, Storage & Location-based Service

  • Chat SystemKey-value StoreMetrics MonitoringS3Google DriveProximity ServiceNearby FriendsGoogle Maps


Scale From Zero To Millions Of Users

Designing a system that supports millions of users is challenging, and it is a journey that requires continuous refinement and endless improvement. In this chapter, we build a system that supports a single user and gradually scale it up to serve millions of users. After reading this chapter, you will master a handful of techniques that will help you to crack the system design interview questions.

Single server setup

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and building a complex system is no different. To start with something simple, everything is running on a single server. Figure 1 shows the illustration of a single server setup where everything is running on one server: web app, database, cache, etc.


Figure 1

To understand this setup, it is helpful to investigate the request flow and traffic source. Let us first look at the request flow (Figure 2).


Figure 2

1. Users access websites through domain names, such as Usually, the Domain Name System (DNS) is a paid service provided by 3rd parties and not hosted by our servers.

2. Internet Protocol (IP) address is returned to the browser or mobile app. In the example, IP address is returned.

3. Once the IP address is obtained, Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) [1] requests are sent directly to your web server.

4. The web server returns HTML pages or JSON response for rendering.

Next, let us examine the traffic source. The traffic to your web server comes from two sources: web application and mobile application.

  • Web application: it uses a combination of server-side languages (Java, Python, etc.) to handle business logic, storage, etc., and client-side languages (HTML and JavaScript) for presentation.
  • Mobile application: HTTP protocol is the communication protocol between the mobile app and the web server. JavaScript Object Notation (JSON) is commonly used API response format to transfer data due to its simplicity. An example of the API response in JSON format is shown below:

GET /users/12 – Retrieve user object for id = 12






      "streetAddress":"21 2nd Street",

      "city":"New York",





      "212 555-1234",

      "646 555-4567"




With the growth of the user base, one server is not enough, and we need multiple servers: one for web/mobile traffic, the other for the database (Figure 3). Separating web/mobile traffic (web tier) and database (data tier) servers allows them to be scaled independently.


Figure 3

Which databases to use?

You can choose between a traditional relational database and a non-relational database. Let us examine their differences.

Relational databases are also called a relational database management system (RDBMS) or SQL database. The most popular ones are MySQL, Oracle database, PostgreSQL, etc. Relational databases represent and store data in tables and rows. You can perform join operations using SQL across different database tables.

Non-Relational databases are also called NoSQL databases. Popular ones are CouchDB, Neo4j, Cassandra, HBase, Amazon DynamoDB, etc. [2]. These databases are grouped into four categories: key-value stores, graph stores, column stores, and document stores. Join operations are generally not supported in non-relational databases.

For most developers, relational databases are the best option because they have been around for over 40 years and historically, they have worked well. However, if relational databases are not suitable for your specific use cases, it is critical to explore beyond relational databases. Non-relational databases might be the right choice if:

  • Your application requires super-low latency.
  • Your data are unstructured, or you do not have any relational data.
  • You only need to serialize and deserialize data (JSON, XML, YAML, etc.).
  • You need to store a massive amount of data.

Vertical scaling vs horizontal scaling

Vertical scaling, referred to as “scale up”, means the process of adding more power (CPU, RAM, etc.) to your servers. Horizontal scaling, referred to as “scale-out”, allows you to scale by adding more servers into your pool of resources.

When traffic is low, vertical scaling is a great option, and the simplicity of vertical scaling is its main advantage. Unfortunately, it comes with serious limitations.

  • Vertical scaling has a hard limit. It is impossible to add unlimited CPU and memory to a single server.
  • Vertical scaling does not have failover and redundancy. If one server goes down, the website/app goes down with it completely.

Horizontal scaling is more desirable for large scale applications due to the limitations of vertical scaling.

In the previous design, users are connected to the web server directly. Users will unable to access the website if the web server is offline. In another scenario, if many users access the web server simultaneously and it reaches the web server’s load limit, users generally experience slower response or fail to connect to the server. A load balancer is the best technique to address these problems.

Load balancer

A load balancer evenly distributes incoming traffic among web servers that are defined in a load-balanced set. Figure 4 shows how a load balancer works.


Figure 4

As shown in Figure 4, users connect to the public IP of the load balancer directly. With this setup, web servers are unreachable directly by clients anymore. For better security, private IPs are used for communication between servers. A private IP is an IP address reachable only between servers in the same network; however, it is unreachable over the internet. The load balancer communicates with web servers through private IPs.

In Figure 4, after a load balancer and a second web server are added, we successfully solved no failover issue and improved the availability of the web tier. Details are explained below:

  • If server 1 goes offline, all the traffic will be routed to server 2. This prevents the website from going offline. We will also add a new healthy web server to the server pool to balance the load.
  • If the website traffic grows rapidly, and two servers are not enough to handle the traffic, the load balancer can handle this problem gracefully. You only need to add more servers to the web server pool, and the load balancer automatically starts to send requests to them.

Now the web tier looks good, what about the data tier? The current design has one database, so it does not support failover and redundancy. Database replication is a common technique to address those problems. Let us take a look.

Database replication

Quoted from Wikipedia: “Database replication can be used in many database management systems, usually with a master/slave relationship between the original (master) and the copies (slaves)” [3].

A master database generally only supports write operations. A slave database gets copies of the data from the master database and only supports read operations. All the data-modifying commands like insert, delete, or update must be sent to the master database. Most applications require a much higher ratio of reads to writes; thus, the number of slave databases in a system is usually larger than the number of master databases. Figure 5 shows a master database with multiple slave databases.


Figure 5

Advantages of database replication:

  • Better performance: In the master-slave model, all writes and updates happen in master nodes; whereas, read operations are distributed across slave nodes. This model improves performance because it allows more queries to be processed in parallel.
  • Reliability: If one of your database servers is destroyed by a natural disaster, such as a typhoon or an earthquake, data is still preserved. You do not need to worry about data loss because data is replicated across multiple locations.
  • High availability: By replicating data across different locations, your website remains in operation even if a database is offline as you can access data stored in another database server.

In the previous section, we discussed how a load balancer helped to improve system availability. We ask the same question here: what if one of the databases goes offline? The architectural design discussed in Figure 5 can handle this case:

  • If only one slave database is available and it goes offline, read operations will be directed to the master database temporarily. As soon as the issue is found, a new slave database will replace the old one. In case multiple slave databases are available, read operations are redirected to other healthy slave databases. A new database server will replace the old one.
  • If the master database goes offline, a slave database will be promoted to be the new master. All the database operations will be temporarily executed on the new master database. A new slave database will replace the old one for data replication immediately. In production systems, promoting a new master is more complicated as the data in a slave database might not be up to date. The missing data needs to be updated by running data recovery scripts. Although some other replication methods like multi-masters and circular replication could help, those setups are more complicated; and their discussions are beyond the scope of this course. Interested readers should refer to the listed reference materials [4] [5].

Figure 6 shows the system design after adding the load balancer and database replication.

Useful Links:

  1. DNS - Domain Name System
  2. HTTP - Hypertext Transfer Protocol
  3. NoSQL Databases
  4. Load Balancer
  5. Database Replication

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Harry Potter

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