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Delta Over-the-Air Updates

The ability to update device software Over-the-Air (OTA) is becoming increasingly important as more embedded devices get connected to the cloud. OTA updates enable operators to apply security fixes and add new features to already deployed devices, at scale, quickly and reliably, and without requiring an expensive or impractical technician visit.

While OTA benefits all connected devices, those on low bandwidth networks such as LoRaWAN and NB-IoT face some additional challenges. These networks are severely constrained in bandwidth, making OTA updates costly if they require sending large firmware (or other) images to these devices. Sending large images over the air is also problematic for battery-powered devices connected to more power-hungry Wi-Fi and cellular networks - the sooner the radio is turned off the longer the battery will last. So it can be seen that introducing a mechanism that reduces the transmitted image size will benefit both these use cases. This blog describes one such mechanism- Delta Over-the-Air Updates. Instead of sending an entire new firmware image to a device, Delta Over-the-Air Updates only send the portions of the image that have actually changed.

Delta Over-the-Air Updates Using Binary Difference

Delta Over-the-Air Updates reduce the size of the OTA update by sending only the binary difference (binary diff) between the firmware currently running on the device and the new firmware, instead of sending the complete firmware image. The binary difference is sent to the device as a patch file. A patching library running on the device then reconstructs the new firmware image from the patch file and the firmware already on the device. The following two components are major parts of the binary diff mechanism:

  • Diff Utility – The developer runs this utility on their PC to compute the binary difference between the current firmware and the new firmware. This difference is sent over the air to the device as a patch file.
  • Patching Library – The patching library runs on the device and reconstructs the new firmware from the patch file and the current firmware on the device.

The following diagram shows the process of updating the firmware on a device or a fleet of devices using a Delta Over-the-Air Update:

Available binary diff algorithms include bsdiff, xdelta, jojodiff, and courgette. The application writer is free to choose the algorithm best suited for their application. Some of the things to keep in mind when choosing a binary diff algorithm are memory requirements, performance, and the size of the delta image.

Using the AWS IoT OTA Library for Delta Over-the-Air Updates

The AWS IoT OTA library runs on devices and manages receiving notifications of newly available updates, downloading the update, and performing cryptographic verification of the update received. The same library can be used for Delta Over-the-Air Updates. The AWS IoT OTA library requires the application to supply implementations of the following interfaces:

  • MQTT Interface
  • HTTP Interface
  • OS Interface (Operating System interface)
  • PAL Interface (Platform Abstraction Layer interface)

The only component that requires an update to support Delta Over-the-Air Updates is the OTA PAL. More specifically, the OtaPalCloseFile_t function of the OTA PAL must invoke the patching library to reconstruct the new firmware image from the patch file and the current firmware.

The following pseudo code shows an example implementation of the OtaPalCloseFile_t function that supports Delta Over-the-Air Updates:

Getting Started

Start with this example which uses the jojodiff utility and the janpatch library to demonstrate Delta Over-the-Air Updates on Espressif's ESP32 system-on-chip (SoC.) The step by step instructions for running the example are here.


Delta Over-the-Air (OTA) Updates reduce the time, cost, and power consumption of OTA updates on bandwidth-constrained or battery-powered networked devices. If you are using the AWS IoT OTA library, then you can achieve these benefits by adding a patching stage to the function that writes a received image to non-volatile storage on your device. There are several patching algorithms available, each with its own trade-offs between resource requirements, processing speed, and achieved image size reduction.

About the author

Prasad is a Software Development Engineer at Amazon Web Services where he focuses on developing libraries to enable IoT connectivity for edge devices. Prior to AWS, he worked in developing low power network stacks and embedded software for in-vehicle infotainment systems , cellular modem and industrial analytical instruments.
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