Over-the-air firmware: The critical driver of IoT success

Jeffrey Lee of Particle

In the early days of IoT, updating remote devices often caused intermittent disruption and performance degradation. As IoT platforms have matured, they have embraced a novel way to remotely and reliably update connected devices with little to no disruption: over-the-air (OTA) firmware updates.

Over-the-air firmware updates refers to the practice of remotely updating the code on an embedded device. The embedded hardware must be built with OTA functionality for this mechanism to work, says Jeffrey Lee technical content writer at Particle.

Why OTA firmware?

Prior to OTA updates, you had to go out and retrieve the device, take it apart, connect it to your computer, reprogram it, put the device back together, and then take the device back.

However, this process is overly burdensome and unscalable for companies who have devices out on the field. Although, it hasn’t stopped some from trying . . .

  • In 2015, Chrysler was criticised for patching a software vulnerability via mailed USB drives. Chrysler’s method put many consumers at risk because the USB drives could be intercepted, modified, and resent.

On the other hand,

  • In 2016, Tesla drivers woke up to find substantial new features to their car after the company sent out an OTA firmware update. Consumers could now self-park their cars without having to manually update their vehicles.

OTA firmware benefits

  • Bugs and product behavior can be continuously improved even after the device is in the hands of your consumers.
  • Companies can test new features by sending updates to one or multiple devices.
  • Companies can save costs by managing the firmware across their fleet of devices from a seamless, unified interface.
  • Developers can deploy frequently and reliably, knowing that products will stay functional as updates are released.
  • OTA firmware augments scalability by adding new features and infrastructure to products after they are released.

OTA firmware & device management

To send out OTA firmware updates, you need a device management system that can interface with microprocessors and local software on IoT devices. This is complicated to build because few companies have an IoT software and hardware ecosystem that can process OTA firmware updates and manage remote devices.

Implementing OTA firmware updates

There are two options companies can take: you can build your own OTA firmware system or buy a managed OTA firmware system. For the build route, it is imperative that you research, plan, and consult domain experts to help you add OTA functionality to your hardware and software. Implementing the proper industry encryptions, finding the compatible hardware/software, and finding domain experts who can actually help you will be some of your biggest concerns.

All and all

OTA firmware is the critical driver for IoT success because it is powering the reliability and scalability of connected devices. Companies must decide whether building their own OTA firmware system is worth the time and potential costs, or if purchasing a platform that has OTA firmware functionality is a more efficient and effective way to update remote wireless devices.

The author of this blog is Jeffrey Lee technical content writer at Particle

Comment on this article below or via Twitter: @IoTNow_OR @jcIoTnow

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