CS4414: Systems Programming

Instructor:  Ken Birman.  3 credits, letter grades only.    Fall 2021, Tuesday and Thursday 2:25-4:00pm (Malott Hall 228-Bache Aud).  Recitation Friday 3:45PM - 4:35PM (101 Phillips Hall).  The ugrad TAs will run additional coding workshops each week with hands-on demos building and debugging C++/Linux applications.

Please plan ahead: We have in-person exams on the evenings on October 14 (a Thursday), and November 23 (a Tuesday).  If you will be away for the Nov 23 exam, you can take a makeup in the official "finals" slot for our course.  The difficulty will be the same, but it won't be the identical content -- the second version would be cummulative to the last lecture.

Systems programming aims at students who are proficient in an object-oriented programming language like Java or Python, and have completed a course on data structures, but would like a deeper understanding of how "real world" computing systems are built.   In CS4414 you will learn an additional programming language, C++, and will learn to use the Linux system as a way to create high quality software.  This pair of technologies has gained nearly universal adoption at every level, from small devices hidden within "smart things" to the world's largest cloud computing systems.  As such, the skills you gain in CS4414 are very broadly relevant, no matter what you plan to do in your career.

We expect a mix of students: some may have only taken CS2110 and be taking this as a second or third course in computing; others could be declared CS majors, ECE majors.  We also welcome MEng students seeking to broaden their programming skills, but be aware that you cannot count a 4xxx course towards your MEng degree requirements. CS4414 may also be of interest to students exploring embedded device programming in robotics, digital agriculture, Internet of Things, or other settings where sensors and actuators are deployed.  Because we will meet in person and the room size imposes a size limit, we are capping enrollment, using the standard CS policies to prioritize the wait list.  However, we have tried to find rooms large enough for everyone to attend, and will continue to do so as enrollment grows in the future.

Among our practical goals will to learn to leverage existing Linux tools, to learn how to write correct code in C++, and how to achieve performance and efficiency.  Like any programming language, you really teach yourself by doing, but we will present C++ and Linux in the required section.  Assigned readings and homeworks will help you build up hands-on proficiency.  C++ and Linux are easy to learn if you are comfortable in some other object oriented programming language like Java, so we will move quickly (this is not a course for people who struggle with programming or who have never seen object-oriented code and learned about data structures).  You'll also be reading a famous C++ self-teaching textbook, written by the inventor of the language.  This will begin early in the semester, so be ready to work hard in the first few weeks! 

CS4414 thinks of coding as a skill and a tool, but this is really not a programming course, or a Linux course.  The core intellectual material focuses on the way that modern applications are often created by combining two or more programs, which talk to one-another over some mixture of pipes, files, mapped files (shared memory), networking (messages sent over tcp), etc.  We will discuss and security abstractions for isolation and authorization, and the best ways of building applications that use these technologies in correct ways.  All of these are concepts you'll find valuable in your work, no matter where computing might lead you.

Modern computers are based on NUMA processors (chips with multiple CPUs in the single machine), and leveraging NUMA sometimes entails writing programs with multiple threads running in parallel while sharing memory.  NUMA computers have a variety of interesting features that include hardware support for parallelism (such as for image processing, computer vision tasks, machine learning), multiple levels of hardware caching (important for performance), and can support many styles of locking and synchronization.  We'll focus on monitors, an approach that is highly flexible, nicely supported in C++, and promotes correctness.  Late in the semester, we will also look at some distributed systems abstractions that extend the idea of correct synchronization to cover applications spanning more than one computer, specifically state machine replication, leader election and crash-failure tolerance.

Although there is some overlap between CS4414 and other CS courses, such as CS3410 (computer architecture), ECE3400 (computer architecture and embedded systems) and CS4410 (operating systems), most material in CS4414 isn't covered in any other existing class, and this course is not really intended as a replacement for any of those, nor do we assume you have taken any of them.  

Prerequisites: CS4414 has no explicit course prerequisites, but you do need to be proficient in an object-oriented programming language such as Java or Python. 

CS Major: Satisifies the systems-area course requirement. 


Getting Help

Piazza Link
Office Hours Held online in Zoom
FAQ Link

Course Materials

Schedule Lecture schedule, slides, recitation notes, readings, and code
Assignments We post the assignments and quizzes on CMS.
Exams In person on Thursday Oct 14 and Tues Nov 23, with a makeup for the second exam on the "official finals" day/time.  Cornell sets these dates and times, and the professor does not have any say in it.  Cornell posts the rooms and exact times on a website they call the "exam schedule" or "exam roster".
Lab Machines Instructions for using the lab machines are on the CS ugrad/MEng web pages
Resources Additional course resources are listed in the right-hand column on the syllabus

Course Information

For details See the course syllabus for details.
Lectures Tuesday and Thursday 3pm-4:30pm, with a required recitation Monday 4:10-5:25
Textbooks [1] Randal E. Bryant and David R. O'Hallaron,
Computer Systems: A Programmer's Perspective, Third Edition, Pearson, 2016
  [2] Bjarne Stroustrup,
A Tour of C++ (2nd Edition), Addison-Wesley Professional, (July 9, 2018)
  [3] Linux.  In fact we are not going to recommend a Linux book, although there are a great
many of them.  Linux has online documentation for all the commands we expect you to use, and
also for the "system calls" your code will use from C++.  Moreover, there is a built-in help feature in
the bash shell, so you can easily obtain a list of shell commands, or details on how each specific
command works and what arguments to use if you want custom behavior.  We prefer that you use
these standard ways of getting help.  Linux textbooks are fine but not really better in any sense.
Credit 3 credits
Grading In fall 2021, grading will be 50% exam performance, 50% assignments.
Homework There will be 6 or 7 "project-style" homeworks.
Exams We will have two in-person exams. 
Home http://www.cs.cornell.edu/courses/cs4414/2021fa
Questions Ed Discussions Web Site, office hours, email
CMS We are using the department's CMS system for this course, not Canvas.

Main Instructor

Name Ken Birman
Contact ken@cs.cornell.edu,
x5-9199
Office 435 Gates Hall
Office Hours Tuesday and Thursday 1:30-2:30 via Zoom (link).

Recitation Instructors

Name Sagar Jha, Alicia Yang

Undergraduate TAs

Name Muhammad Moughal; Aaron Weiss; Archie SravankumarArthur Tanjaya; Zheng Wang; Andrew Dettmer