Course Overview


Welcome to your first course in the software-side of computer systems! introduce you to an exciting range of materials from the broad field of systems programming, including the basics of how CPUs work, assembly-language programming, higher-level programming in C, the memory hierarchy, disks and I/O, interrupts and exceptions, and little introductions to topics such as virtual memory, networking, concurrency, and parallelism. All very cool stuff that every serious programmer should know!

This course assumes familiarity with basic programming (CS 302, though CS 367 would be better) and a little about how a CPU works (CS 252). You'll be doing a lot of hands-on projects in both assembly (x86) and C (the greatest language ever, naturally), so get ready for a ton of work. If that doesn't sound good, well, tough luck! You're in the wrong profession.


For learning about computer systems, we recommend coming to class and paying attention. Then, some time after class, read the assigned reading. The associated book chapters are marked in superscript on the main class web page. For example, you'll see that on the first day we cover an Intro to the class; in superscript is the number 1, which means you should read Chapter 1 to really understand what is going on in more detail.

For a text book, we have chosen an awesome book out of Carnegie-Mellon known as Computer Systems: A Programmer's Perspective . Many books in CS are frankly not worth buying; this one is, as the authors have done a magnificent job pulling together a huge amount of fascinating material. It will help you learn all about the details of modern computer systems. Buy it!

You'll also need the The C Programming Language book, usually called K+R (after its famous authors, the inventors of the C language!). This book is on virtually every Computer Scientist's bookshelf, and should be on yours as well.

Also useful: Expert C Programming by Peter Van der Linden. I really like this book a lot (though it is a bit dated). There is also a free resource on learning to program in C by Zed Shaw. It is called Learning C the Hard Way. For those of you looking for some exercises on getting up to speed with C, this is a great way of doing so.

You might also read this short, free, and incomplete introduction to the C programming environment, available for your viewing convenience here. That chapter is part of a free online Operating Systems book we are developing here at Wisconsin, which perhaps one day you will get to enjoy.

There are some other interesting textbooks you might take a look at if you want to learn more (and you do, right? that's why you're in school, right?). One of my other favorites is the Patt/Patel book; it is definitely worth reading as well, but this is just for your own benefit.

Mailing Lists

Important announcements will be sent to the class mailing list ( as well as posted to the web page, so please read your mail frequently (particularly around project time)! You are responsible for the material sent to that list. Note that the class list is automatically generated based on who is enrolled in the class.


There will be some optional homework listed from time to time; you don't have to turn them in. However, as exams will certainly contain some material that is quite similar to the homeworks, it is probably in your best interest to do some of these homeworks to see if you are really understanding what is going on in the class.


As part of the course, you will complete a number of programming assignments. Project are worth 50% of your grade. You should perform these projects on PCs running the Linux operating system (new Unix users to CSL Unix facilities should attend an orientation; minimally, read the instructional facilities overview and the linux orientation ).

The projects are a fundamental part of this course. Most projects require a significant amount of time; do not procrastinate! It is likely they will take longer than you expect. Do not wait until the day before the assignment is due to start. These assignments should be started pretty much when they are handed out. All information necessary to complete the assignments will be available from the class web page.

As stated above, all of the assignments will be in C or x86 assembly. We will help introduce these a bit but of course the real learning of anything as awesome as a new language is done on your own. Get to work!

For the projects, you will primarily be graded on how well your implementation works. We will test your program on a suite of input sets. Your grade will be based on how many of the tests your application passes; we will also briefly examine your code to ensure that you followed the specifications of the assignment.

Also, don't cheat (duh).


There will be some exams to test your knowledge. Exams are worth 50% of your final grade. The exams will be closed book, and will cover material from class and the projects.

  • Midterm: Monday 10/29 @ 7:15pm-9:15pm in CS 1221
  • Final: Sunday 12/16 @ 7:25pm-9:25pm in CS 1325