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Power distribution systems are evolving rapidly, especially with the advent of smart-grids and micro-grids. Developing and deploying such systems pose many challenges in terms of functionality, fault and reliability testing, as failures can have extreme consequences. Real-time hardware-in-the-loop (HIL) simulation provides a cost-effective, safe and reliable means of testing at both the component and system levels. However, real-time simulation of these complex systems requires the implementation of high performance hardware, software and numerical algorithms for accurate results. This paper surveys recent advances in HIL technology for complex distribution systems.