Keynote: Teaching Distributed Systems in the Digital Age

Having taught Distributed Systems for many years and confronted with having been asked to take over the course from a colleague who was retiring, I felt it was time for a change. Distributed systems have a very solid and stable basis, theoretically as well as practically (considering the many systems that have been in use for often decades). There is simply no real need to teach students what they can pick up from any reasonable textbook. The challenge in teaching Distributed Systems is to let students understand the inherent complexities: where does performance come from, where can I find the security measures, why does it hurt here when some part fails over there, and so on.

In this, anticipated highly interactive keynote, I'd like to discuss a completely different setup that is based on just a few principles: flip the classroom, good explanations come from thorough understanding, and understanding one problem very well is enough to open doors to understanding other issues in Distributed Systems. Rather than letting students dig into well-known problems, I believe it is extremely insightful to let them concentrate on controversial issues. Controversial because statements are made (in blogs and postings and scientific articles) about certain solutions that should be seriously questioned. Oftentimes, those statements are false or inaccurate, but it requires effort to discover why.


About the speaker

Maarte  van Steen

Maarten van Steen has been full professor in Large-Scale Distributed Systems since 2002 and has published on a wide variety of subjects related to distributed systems. Together with Andrew Tanenbaum he has authored a reference textbook on the matter that has seen its way to many universities worldwide. He is currently Scientific Director of the Digital Society Institute of the University of Twente, in essence a virtual institute that bundles all the university's research on digitalization. Before joining Twente in 2015, he was member of the Computer Systems group at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam for some 20 years.

Working in the field of distributed systems ever since 1983, he continues to struggle understanding many of its aspects, especially when scalability is at stake. It is has driven him to believe that only the truly simple solutions will work and that complex solutions (including some of his own) come from a lack of understanding the essentials.