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Enhancing your embedded Linux updates reliability - OTA

The update of embedded Linux product fleets represents a strategic imperative. Risks and solutions - discover how to enhance reliability and standardize your update process


Nathanaël Landais

image blog OTA update embedded Linux fleet

Updating Embedded Linux Systems: A Strategic Imperative

Whether you're an established industrial company or a startup, you inevitably face the challenge of updating your products that embed Linux. Once deployed, these systems need regular updates to fix bugs, enhance performance, add features, or bolster security.

But how do you efficiently manage updates for these embedded Linux systems? What off-the-shelf solutions are available in the market? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?

In this article, I will present the various challenges and solutions related to updating embedded Linux systems. We'll particularly explore how to enhance the robustness of your update processes to reduce risks, detect bugs, and continuously improve the quality of updates.

Managing Embedded Linux Fleets

The Challenges of Updating an Embedded Systems Fleet

Keeping your products up to date is crucial, both to ensure the security and reliability of your systems and to allow your customers to benefit from the latest features and improvements.
However, updating a fleet of embedded Linux systems is also critical: the major risk is completely locking a system and requiring human intervention to repair it. Having a few units blocked is a problem in itself, but if you have tens or hundreds of thousands of systems blocked or at least malfunctioning, it becomes a complete disaster.

Therefore, it is essential to do everything necessary to prevent this scenario from occurring and to minimize the consequences if it does.

Ensuring Update Reliability

The first essential element is to ensure the reliability of the update process. The system must be robust, capable of withstanding unexpected scenarios: network outages, power failures, transmission errors.
An interrupted or non-functional update at the end of the process should be able to revert to the previous state without human intervention.

Deploying Incrementally

The second element aims to mitigate risks in case of major malfunction of the update process. To achieve this, the deployment strategy must be incremental, limiting the number of systems exposed to a potentially problematic update.

This is called canary testing. It is an effective strategy to measure the impact of a new version in the field with limited risk.
Gathering statistics, especially successes or failures, helps validate the update before deploying it to all users.

The Benefits of These Strategies

These strategies offer several advantages for managing fleets of Linux-based products:

These are real benefits to distinguish yourself from competitors and protect your image.

Proprietary Solutions for Updating Embedded Linux Systems

Many industrialists develop their own solutions internally to manage updates for their Linux-based products. These solutions are often specific to each project and rely on proprietary protocols and data formats.

The reasons for this choice can vary, including the age of the solution (before the arrival of robust off-the-shelf alternatives), unfamiliarity with existing tools, and the search for a tailor-made solution to problems that seem very specific to their use cases.

However, these solutions may have significant limitations, especially in terms of costs, flexibility, security, and reliability. Indeed, these solutions often are:

In this latter case, one solution is to have updates validated by a human operator capable of reverting the system to its previous state in case of problems. An automobile manufacturer requires a visit to the dealership to update its system, while a vending machine fleet manager has technicians perform updates. This is undoubtedly a constraint in deploying updates to large fleets of products. It also limits the ability to respond quickly to security vulnerabilities or critical bugs.

So, if you want to improve your update process reliability and reduce costs, how do you go about it?

Open-Source Solutions for Updating Embedded Linux Systems

If you know Lenewt, you've seen this coming; I want to talk to you about open-source update deployment solutions. There are several mature solutions today, actively supported by the community. More comprehensive, flexible, and robust than any custom-developed solution can be.

SWUpdate, Mender, RAUC

Among the most popular are SWUpdate, Mender, and RAUC. These solutions are based on the principle of atomic updates: an update is either applied in its entirety or canceled.

Implementing Atomic Update

In detail, these systems operate with two partitions (or images) for the system:
an active partition, which contains the currently used system, and a passive partition, which receives the new version of the system.

During the update, the passive partition is written with the new image, then the system restarts on this partition. If the update fails or if the new system does not function correctly, it is possible to revert to the active partition, which contains the old version of the system. This mechanism avoids the risks of unbootable system or corrupted update.

The robustness of this update strategy eliminates the need for human presence with the machine and allows for simple deployment of updates across large fleets of Linux-based products.

Too Specific Use Cases?

Do you find your specific case incompatible with these generic solutions? These tools are more flexible than you might think. For example, if you need to update firmware for another component communicating with your Linux system via UART, SWUpdate allows you to implement what they call a handler, which even allows you to integrate any proprietary tools and processes into your update packages.

These tools are used in large industrial projects with very diverse use cases; your specific use case is likely to be configurable in these tools.
And if it's not? It's open-source; you can contribute to enriching the tool of your choice, with the bonus of community support that can help you integrate your needs into the tool for the benefit of everyone.

Solutions for Progressive Deployment

And what about progressive deployment, how do you perform canary testing to ensure their stability and mitigate the risks of major malfunction?

The three mentioned tools allow for progressive deployment in one way or another.


Updating embedded Linux systems is a strategic challenge for companies, which must ensure the quality, security, and reliability of their products, while meeting the expectations and needs of their customers. The consequences of failed update deployments can be significant both financially and in terms of reputation.

While inertia and existing processes may discourage abandoning internally developed update solutions, they can also represent a real barrier to product evolution. Modern open-source solutions improve the user experience and make new use cases possible by enabling remote (OTA) updates of entire fleets.

It's a turning point best taken with expert guidance. Contact us to benefit from our expert advice on embedded Linux topics.

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