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Over-The-Air Updates Are Critical to Your IoT Deployment. Here’s What It Means for You.
Enterprise IoT

Over-The-Air Updates Are Critical to Your IoT Deployment. Here’s What It Means for You.

Enterprises and solution providers should expect certain core functionality from IoT devices and platforms. Over-the-air configuration, application, and firmware updates (in order of increasing complexity and bandwidth cost) should be high on that list.

Until recently, the concept of Updates Over the Air (UOTA) was merely a promise on an exciting, if hazy, horizon. However, rapid developments in technology and standardization have made over-the-air updates a meaningful reality for many businesses. The importance of this functionality should not be overlooked in yours.

The ability to execute wireless updates on networked devices offers tremendous advantages to enterprises with respect to launching, maintaining, and improving their IoT systems. Though these capabilities may seem like table stakes for any IoT solution, the reality is that many wireless products were never designed to accommodate remote updates. In some cases, this was an intentional design choice, whether as a cost-savings measure, lifespan prediction, or simply a product assumption that the device, once online, would never need to be updated. This design myopia introduces unnecessary risk – and unfavorable certainty – in the already-unfamiliar space of IoT investment.

Conversely, by leveraging the ability to update devices without physical access to the equipment, you can be confident in launching projects at the enterprise level. That’s because you know your system can support incremental feature enhancements, configuration changes such as transmit frequency and measurement sensitivity, adapt to new requirements and changing standards, or address vulnerabilities with security patches long after the technology has been deployed.

Let’s look at some of the ways solution providers and device manufacturers can design for updates over-the-air.

Future-Proof Your System

With the many benefits of UOTA come corresponding complexities. Selecting a technology stack designed for native UOTA functionality should now be paramount in any IoT implementation. As such, its complexities cannot be ignored.

The challenges to implementing true UOTA capabilities on high-performance, low-energy protocols are non-trivial. This is especially true in the context of LoRaWAN® – the clear front-runner in IoT networking – which imposes strict power-consumption requirements, limited data rates, and designed uplink priority versus continuous-connectivity technologies such as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth; all this, on top of the sheer number of devices and gateways to be managed on an IoT network.

In a given deployment, devices may be installed in remote and inaccessible locations, or in such quantities across separate facilities that individual upgrades become cost-prohibitive or logistically impossible. This is the last scenario an IT Manager wants to face after launching thousands of devices reporting across hundreds of locations and multiple time zones.

Adding complexity is the fact that not only must your wireless network support remote updates, every component in your solution must be able to do so as well. However, few IoT platforms can provide full-stack, integrated experiences from device to cloud that make UOTA seamless and thus enterprise-worthy.

Select a Cohesive Architecture for UOTA

Though device manufacturers or software providers may advertise over-the-air capabilities, in practice the overall solution can be highly fragmented, often relying on a host of disparate third-party components glued together by a non-native application layer.

Fortunately, tech leaders around the world have invested substantially in standardizing and de-fragmenting the landscape of low-power, scalable, wireless connectivity – including the introduction of critical features like remote device updates. The LoRa Alliance®, for example, is an international consortium of over 500 members committed to furthering the LoRaWAN® protocol as the leading open standard for secure, enterprise-grade, low-power wide-area networking (LPWAN). Notably, the global alliance supports three critical specifications enabling and standardizing UOTA capabilities for LoRa®-enabled IoT devices. These are Application Layer Clock Synchronization, Remote Multicast Setup, and Fragmented Data Block Transport, all of which were developed and released by the LoRa Alliance® in October 2018.

While the three can be implemented independently, together they enable a cohesive solution for native OTA updates. The standards allow for large files to be pushed to a single device or messages to be distributed quickly to a group of end nodes, while maintaining end-to-end security and network-wide time synchronization for minimized packet loss.

Design for System Cohesion, From Bare-Metal to Cloud and Beyond

What does it actually mean to bring UOTA design considerations into practice? Well, there are a few things.

At the hardware level, device manufacturers should prioritize UOTA as an essential feature. This means their solution must be built on an embedded device with enough processing power and memory to support over-the-air updates. For example, the promises of reduced BOM cost and PCB size can make it tempting to select a low-cost, commoditized microcontroller with just enough performance to realize a simple edge node. However, such design choices could adversely impact the circuit’s ability to support incremental upgrades, security enhancements, and other vital firmware updates over the air.

Looking upstream, one obligation that connectible devices have to their networks is the ability to manage firmware image downlinks without requiring a precursor uplink transmission. Meanwhile, the network must accommodate multicast to address numerous devices simultaneously. Because multicast is natively supported by LoRa, this is another area where MachineQ and LoRaWAN® offer big advantages, especially to device manufacturers and solution providers.

As a third consideration in putting UOTA design sensibility into practice, verification of firmware integrity should be a required process. Irrespective of the technology or application, errors happen, and this critical step prevents erroneous or corrupted images from overwriting a functional device, rendering it unusable.

Leverage Expertise and Partnerships

Understanding these requirements and ensuring robust UOTA functionality in your system is no simple undertaking. It can be incredibly helpful to have a partner with the expertise, knowledge, and enterprise scale to help you succeed. The highly-integrated MachineQ platform has been specially designed to support over-the-air updates, alleviating the burden from our customers and ensuring the success of their IoT investments without future headaches.

If you are ready to learn more about the criticality of over-the-air updates and how MachineQ makes it simple to future-proof your system, continuously meeting your data and security requirements as your business evolves, please contact us today.

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