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Over-the-air updates: Five typical challenges and solutions

IIoT - digger at work Source: ©iStock/ewg3D

Kai Hackbarth

Kai Hackbarth is Business Owner Industrial IoT at Bosch.IO. He has more than 20 years’ experience as an Evangelist & Product Manager with focus on IoT middleware and device management in various IoT domains. Kai is among the “Top 100 IIoT Influencers” according to a recently published report by Onalytica.

Find him on LinkedIn

Software updates have become a key component of our connected day-to-day lives. It usually takes no more than a touch of a button to keep apps on our smartphones or software on our computers up to date.

Software updates are also playing an increasingly pivotal role in the Industrial IoT (IIoT). They enable device manufacturers to fix bugs, ensure the availability of devices, and offer new features and services to their customers. Over-the-air updates are the delivery means of choice when it comes making the entire process as efficient and convenient as possible for everyone. Device manufacturers do not have to send technicians out to install updates; customers are not compelled to take their gear in to the shop.

Rolling out software and firmware updates over-the-air (SOTA/FOTA) is certainly convenient, however, it is still a complicated process with a number of factors to consider. In this blog, we’ll discuss five challenges related to SOTA/FOTA and look at some potential solutions.

Software updates for distributed device fleets

In many IIoT use cases, devices are distributed all over the world – sometimes even in places that are fairly inaccessible. Just think of all that agricultural and construction machinery that usually operates in rough terrain. Manual updates would be most inefficient in these scenarios, if not altogether impossible. Over-the-air updates are a far more feasible option – provided that these updates can be delivered to the target devices quickly and reliably.

This is where a content delivery network (CDN) consisting of regionally distributed servers plays an important role. Rather than sending updates from a central location to anywhere in the world, they are delivered via several geographically distributed nodes. This brings the devices and respective updates closer together and ensures that new software versions are delivered that much faster. Even major software rollouts can be swiftly executed with this method.

Different components require compatible software updates

Modern machines and devices consist of a multitude of components that require compatible software updates. The automotive industry provides a prime example of that: With so many customization options, practically no two vehicles are alike. Even two of the same model can have very different features. The same holds true for some household appliances. The label may indicate the same model of washing machine, but even then the installed components can vary from appliance to appliance.

How do manufacturers keep track of installed components and ensure that each gets the right updates? One way is with a digital twin – that is, a virtual copy of the product. Digital twins reveal which components are installed at what location, which makes it a lot easier to manage devices and roll out software updates.

Rolling out software for a host of devices

Devices’ geographical distribution is an important factor when it comes to software updates, but the number of deployed devices also matters. The larger the fleet, the more complicated the rollout will be. But what happens if an error occurs during the update? Manufacturers need a solution that enables them to respond flexibly to those kinds of situations and take remedial action with a reasonable amount of effort.

At Bosch.IO we employ campaign management to address this challenge. The idea here is to break the fleet of devices down into smaller batches that get updated successively. If a problem crops up during the update, it will not affect the entire fleet. Device manufacturers can then reset the update process for specific batches and troubleshoot the error in a targeted manner. Manufacturers also rely on campaign management to set rules for when an update may be carried out. This goes to prevent software rollouts from disrupting ongoing operations.

Keeping a lid on costs

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Software updates are more important than ever, and now they are coming at ever shorter intervals. Although over-the-air updates are more convenient and less time-consuming, the cost of rolling out software is still an issue. Device manufacturers have to keep a lid on their infrastructural and data transmission expenses.

Delta updates can help with that. This type of update addresses only those parts of the code that have actually changed. This leaves device manufacturers with much smaller updates and a lot less data to transfer. And it makes the whole update process more scalable.

Ensuring secure updating

Security is a big concern for over-the-air updates. Device manufacturers have to be sure that only trusted code is installed on the devices.

A key management system helps them do this. It generates a certificate enabling each software artifact to authenticate itself on the device. This way, device manufacturers can be sure that no unauthorized third-party code finds its way onto the device.

More about SOTA and the Industrial IoT

Our Industrial IoT whitepaper provides insights into the benefits of remotely managing devices.

Join our webinar to find out how industrial companies can benefit from asset usage data.

Connected industrial assets for IoT business success: how the IoT can serve to tap new business potential in device connectivity and beyond.

Check out our webinar where our experts provide insights into rolling out software updates for millions of devices.

Learn about the benefits of SOTA and how to roll out software updates with the Bosch IoT Suite.