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6 common challenges to IoT OTA updates

Keeping technology updated will become even more critical with IoT devices. Over-the-air updates can ease the process if administrators know how to address the obstacles.

Billions of IoT devices will be in use by 2030, and organizations will face a significant challenge in keeping them updated with the latest software and firmware. Organizations must create a plan to deploy updates to these devices sooner than later.

Updates are critical for all technology, but especially IoT devices because they're often located in the field, on the factory floor or healthcare center. Organizations use connected devices to track inventory, manage machines, increase efficiency, save costs and save lives. Making the update process easy and secure is critical to business. Over-the-air (OTA) updates offer organizations these advantages for IoT devices. OTA updates use the same wireless communication that the devices already send and receive data through.

However, OTA updates of IoT devices are not the silver bullet organizations want. IoT OTA updates pose a set of six challenges that could cost organizations time, effort, money and resources.

1. Create context-aware updates

Many organizations use an IoT platform to manage updates for their hundreds or thousands of IoT devices. In today's 24/7 work environment, however, even the best platforms struggle to update all IoT devices.

Over-the-air update process for IoT devices

When IoT devices run every moment of the day, updates will reach the devices when they're in use. That could force the device to stop its primary function to handle the update and disrupt the entire work process. Alternatively, the device will prioritize its work and ignore the update entirely until its ready, which might be days, weeks or even months in the future. Depending on the update, this could lead to future device disruption, increased cybersecurity risk or device failure.

Ideally, updates should be sent to IoT devices when they're free from their regular tasks to avoid disrupting work processes. Administrators could also schedule partial updates to save time and processing power. For example, by sending a partial firmware update, the device could apply only the necessary changes to the onboard firmware image, reducing the total update time.

2. Plan for connectivity issues

A device's hardware and software may make it difficult to receive and perform an OTA update because it cannot establish and maintain a network connection long enough. Maintaining a connection for the duration of an update is especially important for devices that are not normally continuously connected to the network. Devices with hardware connectivity issues are easy to detect and fix, whereas software connectivity issues are not. Bad or failed software updates due to a connectivity issue can brick a device or fleet.

5 steps to a smooth software update

To avoid bricking devices, perform a connectivity test before sending updates to devices. Remove any updates that are unable to sustain the connection from the update list and schedule them for maintenance.

3. Prepare for recovery from failed or interrupted updates

OTA updates should be an all-or-nothing proposition because they either succeed or fail completely. When they fail, they should do it in a way that the device can recover functionality and not disrupt work processes and alert IT staff of the issue.

For example, an IT administrator could set devices to automatically roll back an update if network connectivity isn't restored in a set time or enable always-on network connectivity during the entire update process for devices that don't remain in constant contact with the network.

Organizations should implement an IoT platform that's able to scale quickly and efficiently from the very beginning.

4. Reduce security risks

Code and integrity checks for IoT device updates are essential. A connected device's ability to receive OTA updates is advantageous, but it also poses security concerns. To reduce security risks for IoT devices, consider setting digital signatures on both the update code and the devices themselves. This ensures that only verified updates are used and that the code hasn't been altered in transit. OTA updates should also only be performed over encrypted communication channels, including any local connections between devices and the network.

5. Scale with IoT deployments

As an IoT deployment expands, everything must scale accordingly. Networks must be able to adapt automatically and efficiently or else the system will quickly reach a breaking point that will cause IoT services to slow down or crash.

When OTA updates add to the normal network traffic, it could lead to a breaking point. Each portion of a network has scalability features and costs that could quickly be affected with regular OTA updates.

Organizations should implement an IoT platform that's able to scale quickly and efficiently from the very beginning. Platforms that store data in the cloud will enhance scalability and make OTA updates more efficient, while reducing bandwidth usage and costs.

6. Learn from consumers' challenges

Organizations should consider the effect of IoT OTA updates on their customers. Consumers might use an IoT device in an unexpected way, creating unanticipated issues with updates. For example, consumers might install Wi-Fi components onto their IoT device that lead to a mismatch between what the update should do and how the device accepts the update. The IT pros sending updates might not know the device is Wi-Fi-capable and the change makes the update incompatible.

Developing a relationship with customers will make it easier to stay in constant communication about how they're using their IoT devices. Organizations can then use customer feedback to develop updates that are agile and flexible enough to handle any curveballs.

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