Real-time computing (RTC), or reactive computing is the computer science term for hardware and software systems subject to a "real-time constraint", for example from event to system response.[citation needed] Real-time programs must guarantee response within specified time constraints, often referred to as "deadlines".[1]

Real-time responses are often understood to be in the order of milliseconds, and sometimes microseconds. A system not specified as operating in real time cannot usually guarantee a response within any timeframe, although typical or expected response times may be given. Real-time processing fails if not completed within a specified deadline relative to an event; deadlines must always be met, regardless of system load.

A real-time system has been described as one which "controls an environment by receiving data, processing them, and returning the results sufficiently quickly to affect the environment at that time".[2] The term "real-time" is also used in simulation to mean that the simulation's clock runs at the same speed as a real clock, and in process control and enterprise systems to mean "without significant delay".

Real-time software may use one or more of the following: synchronous programming languages, real-time operating systems, and real-time networks, each of which provide essential frameworks on which to build a real-time software application.

Systems used for many mission critical applications must be real-time, such as for control of fly-by-wire aircraft, or anti-lock brakes, both of which demand immediate and accurate mechanical response.[3]


The term real-time derives from its use in early simulation, in which a real-world process is simulated at a rate that matched that of the real process (now called real-time simulation to avoid ambiguity). Analog computers, most often, were capable of simulating at a much faster pace than real-time, a situation that could be just as dangerous as a slow simulation if it were not also recognized and accounted for.

Minicomputers, particularly in the 1970s onwards, when built into dedicated embedded systems such as DOG (Digital on-screen graphic) scanners, increased the need for low-latency priority-driven responses to important interactions with incoming data and so operating systems such as Data General's RDOS (Real-Time Disk Operatings System) and RTOS with background and foreground scheduling as well as Digital Equipment Corporation's RT-11 date from this era. Background-foreground scheduling allowed low priority tasks CPU time when no foreground task needed to execute, and gave absolute priority within the foreground to threads/tasks with the highest priority. Real-time operating systems would also be used for time-sharing multiuser duties. For example, Data General Business Basic could run in the foreground or background of RDOS and would introduce additional elements to the scheduling algorithm to make it more appropriate for people interacting via dumb terminals.