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This paper describes the conception and the development of a real-time data-acquisition system for prototype detectors of the Tracker being designed for the compact muon solenoid (CMS) experiment at the Large Hadron Collider of CERN, European Laboratory for Particle Physics, Geneva, Switzerland. The rationale for the development of a dedicated data-acquisition system was the need to perform two fundamental beam tests (the "Milestone Barrel 1" and "Milestone Forward 1"), with large-scale prototypes of the detectors planned as the baseline design. The number of readout channels, the complexity of the readout electronics, and the stringent requirements of the milestone tests mandated that a thorough understanding of the issues related to the physics of the detectors themselves be coupled with the application of leading-edge electronic and software engineering technologies. The implementation described in this paper is based on a distributed architecture. An event builder CPU handles the two main tasks of synchronizing a variable number of front-end processors and formatting the data in preparation for the transfer to a dedicated high-performance storage system, while the front-end processors handle the hardware and the real-time readout. Additional workstations are used to decouple the actual task of transferring the data files and monitoring the detector performance on-line from the readout farm. The system has been successfully operated during the two aforementioned Milestone tests, allowing the CMS Tracker collaboration to pass them, with the simultaneous readout of up to 40000 detector channels. The results of the two Milestones have led to the compilation of the "Tracker Technical Design Report". Subsequently, the same readout system has been used for a number of other beam tests, and it has formed the basis for the development of further, more advanced data-acquisition systems for the new readout electronic of the CMS Tracker.