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Bertrand Boisseau
on 26 October 2023

Implementing FOTA updates for vehicles using a Dedicated Snap Store


If you’ve been following my previous blog posts, you already know that the automotive industry is changing faster than ever. Updating software and firmware in vehicles is one area that’s particularly challenging and in flux. 

Firmware Over-the-Air (FOTA) updates can be quite a puzzle when it comes to updating entire vehicle fleets. That’s because there are tons of Electronic Control Units (ECUs) in each vehicle, and each car has its own unique configuration. Updating a car is a lot trickier than updating your smartphone or PC. 

In this blog, we’ll dive into the world of FOTA updates in the automotive industry. We’ll focus on important aspects such as reliability and security, and we’ll also discuss how a Dedicated Snap Store can make life easier for automotive companies when it comes to managing and making these updates as smooth as possible.

Why FOTA is crucial for vehicles

The automotive landscape is constantly changing, and FOTA updates have emerged as a game-changer. But why are FOTA updates so important for vehicles today?

Modern vehicles have evolved into complex software-driven machines. From infotainment systems to advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) and vehicles themselves, software is at the heart of almost every aspect of automotive technology.

The automotive ecosystem involves many different stakeholders, including manufacturers (OEMs) and suppliers (Tier1, Tier2, etc), each providing hardware and software to different ECUs. Each vehicle can have a significant number of ECUs, with multiple software components running on them, written by different software developers with very different approaches and rules. It becomes very difficult to update them all, even one at a time, without generating incompatibility from a multi-system perspective.

On top of that, users now expect the same level of flexibility and convenience from their vehicles as they do from their smartphones. They want access to the latest features, bug fixes, and security updates without the hassle of visiting a dealership or repair shop. With this in mind, OEMs are using software as a competitive differentiator. Being able to deliver new features and enhancements quickly can set them apart in a highly competitive market.

Given the complexity and criticality of software in vehicles, a robust update process is non-negotiable. All updates have to be reliable, ensuring that every vehicle remains safe and functional. Indeed, a failed update can have serious consequences. Moreover, FOTA updates must be protected against hacks and unauthorised software packages – the highest standard of security is expected. The challenge is to manage a multitude of ECUs and software components while keeping the update process efficient with minimum downtime and limited performance impact.

The Snap Store: A software distribution solution

Now that we’ve established the importance of FOTA updates in automotive, let’s explain what the Snap Store is, and how it helps distribute software.

The Snap Store is a dedicated platform, provided by Canonical, that enables software distribution. Although it is widely used for applications, it is primarily a solution to deliver software packages. One of the key capabilities of the Snap Store is to offer FOTA updates to a wide range of devices and systems, independently of the underlying hardware and software. Picture it as a hub where software developers can publish their software and updates for easy deployment and installation.

From an Over-the-Air (OTA) perspective, the Snap Store provides interesting capabilities. First, it can serve as a centralised repository for software packages, allowing all software packages to be found in one place. It also offers state-of-the-art management features, and makes it easy for developers to ensure the right software is pushed to the right devices, avoiding the need for complex and time-consuming manual processes.

Since the Snap Store manages Snap packages, it is also a very flexible solution. Snaps are self-contained and include all the dependencies required to run. Snaps can also be seen as a solution for payload handling – we’ll get back to that.

Another key element to have in mind is scalability. The Snap Store is currently used by more than 6,500 external developers worldwide, and is distributing snaps to more than 15 million devices, including Ubuntu desktops. It’s not limited to Ubuntu, though, Snap packages can run on any Linux-based system, as long as it runs snapd.

Let’s see how this can be applied to the automotive industry, shall we?

Dedicated Snap Store with enhanced security, reliability and efficiency

The section above focused on the public Snap Store that anyone can have access to. But when it comes to sensitive or proprietary software components, companies need a solution that ensures their software doesn’t end up in the wrong hands. Which is why we offer the private Dedicated Snap Store.

Firstly, OTA updates delivered through a Dedicated Snap Store are cryptographically signed, ensuring that only authorised and trusted packages are sent to vehicles. This also prevents unauthorised access and tampering.

Secondly, snaps and the Snap Store provide the ability for easy rollbacks to a previous stable version, in case an update would cause unforeseen problems. This safety net minimises downtime and risks associated with updates. And when it comes to a vehicle, having it bricked because of an update is definitely not an option.

Other elements to consider are the efficiency and performance of the Snap Store. Snap packages are designed to minimise download sizes and the time required for updates. This efficiency is especially important in a fleet scenario, where numerous vehicles need updates simultaneously. It’s also very important from a data consumption perspective. Having a Dedicated Snap Store serving as a centralised point for managing updates across a diverse range of vehicles can streamline the update process, and reduce administrative overhead.

Now that we’ve clarified what a Dedicated Snap Store is, let’s see how a Dedicated Snap Store can be used by automotive companies.

Optimising software management for OEMs with Dedicated Snap Stores

We’ve seen how packaging software for vehicles can be very complex due to the high number of configurations. Thanks to Snap packages, this can all be simplified. Indeed, Snaps allow OEMs and Tier1s to package their software in a modular fashion. One snap can include one ECU update image, or even multiple images that can then be shared throughout the vehicle. Moreover, Snap packages allow for updates to be installed without requiring system reboots. This “snapd” feature ensures that vehicles can continue operating without interruption during the update process.

With a dedicated Snap Store, OEMs can carefully control the timing and deployment of updates. This facilitates staged rollouts and testing on a subset of vehicles before a broader release. The Dedicated Snap Store provides advanced version management tools for precise version control, ensuring that only the right software version is distributed to the intended vehicles.

Access control to what software goes to which car is extremely important. Which is why a Dedicated Snap Store offers granular access control, so that users from the OEM or the suppliers have fine-tuned defined access to the management portal. This ensures that only authorised parties can configure and initiate updates. Snap Stores also support channels, which can be used for a more granular distribution. For instance, OEMs can choose between edge, beta, candidate or stable channels for differentiating their testing and production versions of software updates. This also facilitates staged rollouts and a general validation process.

For handling geographic specific features and updates, the Snap Store provides a feature that allows users to choose which updates have to be pushed to selected regions. This ensures that updates are delivered taking regional regulations, constraints or requirements into account.

From an onboard perspective, the vehicle will actively request updates when they’re ready, following a pull-based approach. Indeed, in contrast to push-based methods, Snap packages use a pull-based mechanism. This approach not only reduces the risk of network congestion, but also considerably limits unwanted updates.

The business value of Dedicated Snap Stores for Automotive FOTA updates

In conclusion, we’ve seen that the use of Dedicated Snap Stores for automotive software management can be a great solution for OEMs and Tier1s. The public Snap Store is already efficiently managing over 15 million devices, its reliability is proven for managing updates on devices, servers, laptops, desktops, robots, and more. Beyond the immediate gains in software distribution efficiency, Dedicated Snap Stores contribute to long-term return on investment (ROI) for automotive companies. Thanks to the enhanced security measures provided, companies can save costs associated with operational surveillance, security breaches monitoring and limit system downtime risks.

Moreover, since the Dedicated Snap Store can be seamlessly integrated into your company’s CI/CD pipeline for software updates, your team saves time and integration costs. On top of that, having a reliable delivery system that ensures only valid updates are sent to vehicles, translates into higher customer satisfaction and potentially less vehicle recalls, improving your company’s operational efficiency.

Keeping the software of a fleet of vehicles up-to-date is no easy task. Dedicated Snap Stores aim to deliver FOTA updates in a simple, secure and efficient way, and they can be used to update vehicles in the same secure and reliable way. 

The flexibility offered allows OEMs to tailor software distribution to their specific needs. Thanks to a modular packaging approach, controlled access and channel management, Snap Stores provide all the required tools for handling state-of-the-art software distribution.

As the automotive industry continues to evolve at an unprecedented pace, the role of FOTA updates is set to become even more significant. OEMs need to adapt and scale in this dynamic environment while focusing on innovative features. A Dedicated Snap Store can offer automotive companies the means to meet the demands of the future.

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