11 May, 2021 | Explainer

What is real-time stream processing?

You’ve probably heard the buzz about stream processing. You might’ve heard it referred to as event processing and you might’ve also heard about something called real-time analytics. Whilst each of these techniques has subtle differences, they’re all connected.

Steve Rosam
Words by
Steve Rosam, Full-stack developer
What is real time stream processing

“Real-time stream processing” is the analysis of continuous data as soon as it’s available

You’ve probably heard the buzz about stream processing. You might’ve heard it referred to as event processing, and you might’ve also heard about something called real-time analytics. While each of these techniques has subtle differences, they’re all connected. They deal with a single important truth: greater understanding can come from analyzing as much data as possible, as quickly as possible.

“Real-time stream processing” is a daunting term because it takes an already-complicated concept — stream processing — and layers another on top. But take the time to understand each part separately, and the whole becomes less confusing:

  • “Real-time”: concerned with events taking place now, rather than yesterday or an hour ago
  • “Stream processing”: handling a continuous ‘stream’ of data, rather than working with a defined set of data, then stopping.

Companies that have never thought of themselves as “data handlers” (in the world of GDPR) are acknowledging their role as data producers and consumers. By identifying the nature of different data we work with, we can spot opportunities for real-time processing. Many companies are already working this way:

Real-time streaming in the real world

Take web analytics as an example of data processing. Since the early days of the web, companies have adopted a ‘batch processing’ approach to analyzing their site traffic. A traditional system looks like this:

  1. The user requests a page
  2. The web server records details in an access log
  3. Once per day, logs are consolidated and analyzed, with results possibly stored in a database
  4. At various points in time, the data is inspected, conclusions are drawn, and changes to the overall system are made

The problem with this approach is that it’s a one-size-fits-all solution. It might help us respond retroactively to particular long-running concerns, such as a specific page driving traffic away from our site. But it doesn’t help us prevent that potential customer from leaving in the first place. We need something more proactive.

Now imagine a real-time approach. Our visitor’s journey is analyzed as soon as it begins, at each step. We discover she’s more likely to take a particular action when prompted by a specific type of messaging, so our system tweaks things ever-so-slightly to recommend more of that content. This all happens behind the scenes; we don’t even need to be aware of it happening, although we can get in and inspect the underlying data whenever we want.

  1. The user requests a page
  2. Data about the request and response is sent to a stream
  3. This data is immediately processed and used to influence the user journey

Supporting real-time streaming

The challenge is moving from the old model is one of scale: processing vast amounts of data in the most efficient manner is not an easy task. If data processing takes too long, we risk losing the real-time nature. Real-time stream processing systems tend to utilize certain technologies to help:

  • In-memory processing offers a considerable performance upgrade on disk-based storage, which is far slower. All data is stored in RAM, so it’s always quicker to read/write than on disk.
  • Outsourcing compute tasks to a third party allows a company to focus on data analysis. Cloud computing provides the luxury of not worrying about server upgrades, software compatibility, or other system administration tasks.

Processing data in real-time gives us an enormous, stable foundation on which to grow. We can still gather together in a meeting room, pouring over our site traffic to calibrate our website’s user experience. But we can also build machine learning models to automate some of this analysis on the spot.

Quix is the first company to take this approach at scale by building a platform as a service to offer both in-memory processing of real-time data and on-demand compute infrastructure to enable companies to focus on going to market quicker. The alternative requires large budgets to build teams to architect, administrate, build, refine and ultimately bring to market the same offering.

How else could we deal with it?

When it comes to dealing with data, we only really have three broad options:

  • Ignore it
  • Process it after the event (batch processing)
  • Process it in real-time

If we ignore it, our data go to waste, but at least we’re not spending too much time understanding what makes our users tick or how we might serve them better. Ignorance is bliss, right? Hopefully, you’ve already ruled out this option!

As we’ve seen, batch processing can be suitable for some use cases, but it often results in a slow, lumbering beast of an organization, not the nimble, cunning creature we’d like to be. Batch processing will never allow us to respond to our user’s demands as they come into being. If we only have a fleeting relationship with a potential customer, what’s the use in understanding them the next morning? They upped and left a long time ago.

Micro-batch processing is essentially batch-processing, but more frequently, with smaller batches of data. It may be appropriate for some use cases that don’t have real-time needs, as with batch-processings.

Real-time processing gives far more scope for automation and a continuous feedback loop without human intervention. It is not a “one-size-fits-all” solution if your data needs to be analyzed in greater context or if you have huge datasets (PB scale).

Further reading


If real-time stream processing is an unambiguously positive, why isn’t everyone doing it? It turns out that such a process is not straightforward. It requires domain expertise to set up, run, and maintain such an architecture. Additionally, you will need in-house dedicated IT or SysOps resources. Even using a pre-built platform such as Apache’s Kafka requires effort and understanding.

Quix is a tool — like Kafka — which enables real-time stream processing. But Quix sits on top of Kafka, simplifying the process as much as possible. Quix leverages the power of data-streaming technologies, but it handles the trickiest aspects of operation and configuration. Developers and Data Scientists can spend their time focusing on model training or creating first-class dashboards.

Using Quix, you can have a fully-hosted data project up and running in minutes instead of a minimum of months or even years in some cases, and at a fraction of the cost. And the quicker you can get streaming data processing set up, the faster you can start exploring how your company’s wealth of data can be exploited.

To see how quickly you can get up and running, you can sign up for a free account and ask questions in The Stream community.


Join The Stream community, where you’ll find developers, engineers and scientists supporting each other while working on streaming projects.

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Steve Rosam
words by
Steve Rosam, Full-stack developer

Steve Rosam is a Full-stack developer at Quix, where he creates and maintains solutions both in-house and for customers. Steve has worked as a software developer for two decades, previously in a variety of industries including automotive, finance, media and security.

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