Over-the-Air Firmware Updates in The IoT Context

Over-the-air firmware updates in the IoT context
Illustration: © IoT For All

The modern world – with its fast technological development – poses additional challenges to organizations that have implemented Internet of Things (IoT) systems. Once embedded, IoT devices require constant maintenance and OTA firmware updates to stay sophisticated and reliable over time. Otherwise, their performance degradation is unavoidable.   

Maintenance of all connected devices is often carried out manually with some periodicity or in case of failure, which can hardly be defined as a state-of-the-art solution. Updating the firmware in hundreds or even thousands of devices is not only inconvenient for organizations, but also extremely costly due to the tremendous resources and time needed. The firmware updates are often ignored, which results in the early depreciation of the equipment.   

Fortunately, seamless and easy firmware updates are no longer fiction. Once a new version of firmware is available, it can be wirelessly applied to all devices of an IoT system, even those used in the field or hard-to-reach places. In this article, we will talk about the innovative approach of direct and simultaneous enhancements – over-the-air (OTA) firmware updates

What are OTA Firmware Updates and How Do They Work?

As you might guess from the name, over-the-air updates are any updates that are delivered and installed wirelessly. In the IoT context, OTA firmware updates refer to the wireless distribution of upgraded firmware to all devices embedded into an IoT system. Delivering smart updates is a centralized process that can be enabled via a remote control unit or an admin panel.

Once a new version of firmware is released, it is deployed on a cloud-based server (firmware repository) and becomes available for all customer devices by default. Optionally, the customer may also select a specific firmware version and make it accessible to a limited number of devices (filtered by type, location, or other parameters). The updates are sent to the target devices via cellular or Wi-Fi connection. 

To make the OTA mechanism work, the devices must support the OTA feature and be equipped with the interfaces required for data communication with the server. Such devices are usually configured to send a request for a firmware update to the server with a certain frequency. If a new version is already available at such request, the firmware package is installed on the devices automatically. 

Backward compatibility is another requirement applied to the target devices. It allows them to discard the changes and revert to the previous firmware version if something happens during the data transfer, for example, a power or network outage. 

Challenges of Over-the-Air Implementation

To enable firmware updates for the devices that are already used in the customer’s system, these devices must have interfaces compatible with the ecosystem of the existing cloud-based firmware storage and remote asset monitoring system. This may become an insurmountable barrier since only a few companies provide an IoT hardware, software, connectivity, and cloud ecosystem that can process OTA firmware updates. 

Even those IoT platforms that declare the availability of OTA updates and offer an ultimate ecosystem may not ensure a proper level of security, reliability, and configuration. For example, a system may not analyze the external factors and the current stage of the process and may initiate updates even if the devices are busy with a critical task. This may cause malfunctions or failures of the whole system. Handling such extraordinary situations interrupts the production process, resulting in costly downtime and a productivity decrease. 

To support OTA updates for extended IoT systems, the firmware storage must have enough memory and provide different connectivity options for various types of devices. Otherwise, the scalability of the system becomes impossible due to the limitations of the platform through which the updates are delivered to the target assets. However, an issue may also arise on the device side. The embedded devices should be equipped with non-volatile memory to store a previous version of the firmware and revert to it in case of a failed or interrupted delivery of a new version.

Benefits of OTA Firmware Updates

Implementing OTA updates opens up new opportunities for any IoT system and its owners. The list of benefits includes, but is not limited to:

  • Enhanced operational efficiency due to sophisticated features and capabilities added to the devices with upgraded firmware versions.   
  • Increased productivity and minimized waste gained as the result of shifting maintenance and repairs left and concentrating on the quality and speed of final delivery.  
  • Reduced downtime and costs by preventing functional failures and timely responding to firmware bugs. 
  • Constant product innovation due to the simplified and accelerated process of firmware deployment.
  • New revenue streams as the result of the positive factors listed above. 
  • The ability to test new functionalities by applying updates to a limited number of devices.
  • Scalability of IoT systems (up to thousands of devices) without bringing extra budget and human resources.
  • Easy and centralized system management via a remote control unit with a user-friendly and beautiful interface. 
  • A high level of security is ensured by encryption and authorization methods applied to firmware delivery channels.
  • Backward compatibility is especially valuable in situations when a firmware update is interrupted by a connection or power failure. In this case, the devices will roll back the broken firmware to the previous version to avoid malfunctioning.  
  • Smooth and uninterruptible development process due to the stable work of constantly-updated devices and a minimal distraction to bug fixing.

To sum up, OTA updates ensure IoT devices are continuously maintained and improved without extra costs and manual labor. This is rather the simplest and most convenient way to enhance the performance of an implemented IoT system.

Prylada is an end-to-end IoT solution for smart asset monitoring. It's all in one: hardware, cloud, and software. The concept is "from sensor to user." Collect data from distributed infrastructure assets and transport it to a central monitoring s...
Prylada is an end-to-end IoT solution for smart asset monitoring. It's all in one: hardware, cloud, and software. The concept is "from sensor to user." Collect data from distributed infrastructure assets and transport it to a central monitoring s...