5 Best Practices for Over-the-Air (OTA) Updates

In my last post, I explored how OTA updates are typically performed using Amazon Web Services and FreeRTOS. OTA updates are critically important to developers with connected devices. In today’s post, we are going to explore several best practices developers should keep in mind with implementing their OTA solution. Most of these will be generic although I will point out a few AWS specific best practices.

Best Practice #1 – Name your S3 bucket with afr-ota

There is a little trick with creating S3 buckets that I was completely oblivious to for a long time. Thankfully when I checked in with some colleagues about it, they also had not been aware of it so I’m not sure how long this has been supported but it can help an embedded developer from having to wade through too many AWS policies and simplify the process a little bit.

Anyone who has attempted to create an OTA Update with AWS and FreeRTOS knows that you have to setup several permissions to allow an OTA Update Job to access the S3 bucket. Well if you name your S3 bucket so that it begins with “afr-ota”, then the S3 bucket will automatically have the AWS managed policy AmazonFreeRTOSOTAUpdate attached to it. (See Create an OTA Update service role for more details). It’s a small help, but a good best practice worth knowing.

Best Practice #2 – Encrypt your firmware updates

Embedded software must be one of the most expensive things to develop that mankind has ever invented! It’s time consuming to create and test and can consume a large percentage of the development budget. Software though also drives most features in a product and can dramatically different a product. That software is intellectual property that is worth protecting through encryption.

Encrypting a firmware image provides several benefits. First, it can convert your firmware binary into a form that seems random or meaningless. This is desired because a developer shouldn’t want their binary image to be easily studied, investigated or reverse engineered. This makes it harder for someone to steal intellectual property and more difficult to understand for someone who may be interested in attacking the system. Second, encrypting the image means that the sender must have a key or credential of some sort that matches the device that will decrypt the image. This can be looked at a simple source for helping to authenticate the source, although more should be done than just encryption to fully authenticate and verify integrity such as signing the image.

Best Practice #3 – Do not support firmware rollbacks

There is often a debate as to whether firmware rollbacks should be supported in a system or not. My recommendation for a best practice is that firmware rollbacks be disabled. The argument for rollbacks is often that if something goes wrong with a firmware update then the user can rollback to an older version that was working. This seems like a good idea at first, but it can be a vulnerability source in a system. For example, let’s say that version 1.7 had a bug in the system that allowed remote attackers to access the system. A new firmware version, 1.8, fixes this flaw. A customer updates their firmware to version 1.8, but an attacker knows that if they can force the system back to 1.7, they can own the system. Firmware rollbacks seem like a convenient and good idea, in fact I’m sure in the past I used to recommend them as a best practice. However, in today’s connected world where we perform OTA updates, firmware rollbacks are a vulnerability so disable them to protect your users.

Best Practice #4 – Secure your bootloader

Updating firmware Over-the-Air requires several components to ensure that it is done securely and successfully. Often the focus is on getting the new image to the device and getting it decrypted. However, just like in traditional firmware updates, the bootloader is still a critical piece to the update process and in OTA updates, the bootloader can’t just be your traditional flavor but must be secure.

There are quite a few methods that can be used with the onboard bootloader, but no matter the method used, the bootloader must be secure. Secure bootloaders need to be capable of verifying the authenticity and integrity of the firmware before it is ever loaded. Some systems will use the application code to verify and install the firmware into a new application slot while others fully rely on the bootloader. In either case, the secure bootloader needs to be able to verify the authenticity and integrity of the firmware prior to accepting the new firmware image.

It’s also a good idea to ensure that the bootloader is built into a chain of trust and cannot be easily modified or updated. The secure bootloader is a critical component in a chain-of-trust that is necessary to keep a system secure.

Best Practice #5 – Build a Chain-of-Trust

A chain-of-trust is a sequence of events that occur while booting the device that ensures each link in the chain is trusted software. For example, I’ve been working with the Cypress PSoC 64 secure MCU’s recently and these parts come shipped from the factory with a hardware-based root-of-trust to authenticate that the MCU came from a secure source. That Root-of-Trust (RoT) is then transferred to a developer, who programs a secure bootloader and security policies onto the device. During the boot sequence, the RoT verifying the integrity and authenticity of the bootloader, which then verifies the integrity and authenticity of any second stage bootloader or software which then verifies the authenticity and integrity of the application. The application then verifies the authenticity and integrity of its data, keys, operational parameters and so on.

This sequence creates a Chain-Of-Trust which is needed and used by firmware OTA updates. When the new firmware request is made, the application must decrypt the image and verify that authenticity and integrity of the new firmware is intact. That new firmware can then only be used if the Chain-Of-Trust can successfully make its way through each link in the chain. The bottom line, a developer and the end user know that when the system boots successfully that the new firmware is legitimate. 

Conclusions

OTA updates are a critical infrastructure component to nearly every embedded IoT device. Sure, there are systems out there that once deployed will never update, however, those are probably a small percentage of systems. OTA updates are the go-to mechanism to update firmware in the field. We’ve examined several best practices that developers and companies should consider when they start to design their connected systems. In fact, the bonus best practice for today is that if you are building a connected device, make sure you explore your OTA update solution sooner rather than later. Otherwise, you may find that building that Chain-Of-Trust necessary in today’s deployments will be far more expensive and time consuming to implement.

2 thoughts on “5 Best Practices for Over-the-Air (OTA) Updates”

  1. Regarding Best Practice #3, what would happen if for some reason ver. 1.8 isn’t successful while 1.7 was working fine and, the real reason for updating is to fix something else and nothing to do with Security ?

    1. The idea is that when you build the bootloader you have no idea whether the update will be to fix a security flaw, fix a bug or add a feature. You assume the worst, that it will be to fix a security flaw. For that reason, you then don’t allow rollback. Now, if you are able to, you would not delete v1.7 until v1.8 has been installed and verified to work correctly. That way if it doesn’t work or there is an issue, the v1.7 is able to continue to work.

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