Internet of things
posted: December 17, 2019 

FOTA – Firmware Over-the-Air – Definition with use cases

With reliable and smart FOTA mechanisms, things have been getting as light as a breeze to keep the connected assets updated with new functionalities and protected against malicious attempts. But it wasn't always like that.

Back in the day, IoT wasn’t that smart

It may indeed sound incredible, but before the Internet of Things platforms started offering firmware over-the-air upgrade services, any device reprogramming had to be done manually. In order to upgrade a connected device’s firmware, you needed to collect it from the field, disconnect it, carry it all the way back to the vendor, wait for the service to complete, and then put the upgraded device back to its location.

This doesn’t sound very smart, does it? Then how about an upgrade involving thousands of devices placed in hard-to-reach areas? It was no wonder that hardly any enterprise owner was ready and willing to carry out such a Herculean task and, with the passing months (or even years), connected fleets were growing obsolete and more vulnerable to malicious actors.

FOTA — Firmware Over-the-Air — What is it? How does it work?

While running counter to the very essence of the Internet of Things, these heavily impractical methods also caused disruptions in device operation and led to the degradation in the deployment’s overall performance, not to mention the time and cost consumed by the manual upgrade effort. Yet, given the dynamic and disruptive nature of the Internet of Things, it only seemed natural that the solution would come soon. And it did, with the automated and autonomous firmware over-the-air upgrades that have been helping to turn the IoT dream into reality.

FOTA is a technology that enables the operators of Internet-connected devices to perform upgrades of their firmware versions remotely and seamlessly, without the need of physical intervention into the device. The ability to refresh the operating system of your connected assets is essential in keeping the devices secure, adding new functionalities and fixing bugs. Therefore, by embracing FOTA as a novel way of keeping their IoT devices’ firmware fresh and secure, IoT enterprise owners have not only armed themselves with a powerful firmware distribution tool to manage their devices remotely and effortlessly. Along with it, they have gained the necessary stability and sustainability, features so craved for in the industry nowadays.

FOTA challenges & chances

By now, you may have been wondering why all this stuff about reliability and comprehensiveness is so important. It’s simply because picturing FOTA as the unsung hero of the Internet of Things only rings true if we are dealing with a truly reliable and full-featured piece of solution. In other words, while virtually every IoT platform provider overtly claims to have FOTA support, paying lip-service doesn’t cost them a thing. Yet, the harsh reality of smart deployments makes it really hard to keep up with the challenges that lie ahead, especially in terms of increasingly popular resource-constrained battery-powered sensors and actuators.

The first thing to consider when picking a FOTA solution is its ability to adapt and scale to accommodate the specific needs of your project. Here, much depends on the protocol used throughout the deployment. Against the common belief, the popular communication protocols such as MQTT and AMQP don’t offer well-defined firmware-over-the-air mechanisms but are just tools to provide the building bricks for developing a custom solution to be built from scratch. As you can easily guess, this is neither cost- nor time-effective.

In fact, among the standards used in IoT device management, the Lightweight M2M protocol seems to be the leading solution in the field of firmware-over-the-air upgrades. By providing a well-defined model for performing over-the-air upgrades, LwM2M allows you to:

  • choose the right moment for triggering the FOTA process to reduce downtime,
  • make use of the blockwise transfer to counteract file fragmentation,
  • provide DTLS security for firmware-over-the-air data transport,
  • single out devices that need upgrading and leave out the already upgraded ones,
  • fine-tune and customize the FOTA upgrade procedure to fit your devices’ requirements.

As one of the early adopters of this comprehensive standard, AVSystem’s Coiote IoT Device Management platform benefits from all the features that it offers. It gives its users freedom and flexibility in planning upgrade campaigns by ensuring that only eligible devices are involved in the upgrade, effectively reducing network traffic and power drain. By dint of using the blockwise file transfer, the platform divides firmware image into parts and, in case of unexpected connection or power disruption, resumes the FOTA upgrade process as soon as the circumstances are more favourable. Also, the Coiote IoT Device Management platform provides top-class file transfer security by leveraging the DTLS standard to avoid data transport layer vulnerabilities.

Final thoughts about FOTA

The problem of keeping the Internet-connected devices upgraded has been around for years, inducing some heavy head-scratching among the developers and stakeholders alike, but ultimately, FOTA is there to cater to (probably) every device management challenge. As long as it’s based on a powerful standard and implemented within a robust management platform, the over-the-air technology will guarantee seamless integration and reliable performance.

On the other hand, failing to see the real value in a robust FOTA solution may simply condemn one’s fleet to operating on obsolete firmware, effectively blocking the new features that the devices may gain the support of with the arrival of fresh firmware. Therefore, FOTA support should be considered as a must in every IoT device management project.

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