Secure and robust OTA updates for ultra-fast, resilient, carrier-grade, cost-effective 5G mmWave solutions

The Device Chronicle interviews Antony King, principal engineer at Blu Wireless on the role of OTA updates in the next generation of telecommunications infrastructure.

OTA is essential for the next generation of telecommunications infrastructure. A great example of this is backhaul infrastructure that enables access to high-speed internet connectivity on trains, vehicles and over urban communications networks. Antony evaluated and selected Mender as a best-of-breed solution for enterprise-grade over-the-air (OTA) software updates of the company’s mmWave products. 

Blu Wireless is leading a new era of high-speed connectivity. The company utilizes mmWave frequencies to generate ultra-fast, resilient, carrier-grade, cost-effective wireless networks.

Blu Wireless’ mmWave solutions have been engineered for emerging connectivity needs – from intelligent city networks to defense use cases to connected vehicles. The company works with integrators, manufacturers, and service providers to deliver superior connectivity speeds for future data-intensive applications. 

Antony begins by explaining that his product development and engineering group needed to find an over the air (OTA) mechanism to update the built software releases in public products such as trackside infrastructure. This mechanism had to be very manageable as this was fundamental for rolling out software packages for feature updates and security patches as the product is improved over its lifecycle, which could typically be ten years or more. Antony says “Long life cycles are the norm as replacing equipment on the trackside can be costly as it is a highly regulated environment.” 

Reliable and fast internet access on high speed trains

Blu Wireless also supports use cases to help upgrade to the next generation of fast Wi Fi from the existing Wi-Fi infrastructure on train networks. This Wi-Fi service can provide reliable and high speed web access to passengers on train services on several UK rail service franchises as well as some international ones. Blu Wireless provides an improved backhaul implementation that replaces legacy infrastructure based on 4G and GSM cellular technology. The next-generation replacement sees Blu Wireless equip each train with equipment. Blu Wireless provides the backhaul network which W-iFi equipment on the train connects to the Internet.

The Blu Wireless technology leverages the 802.11ad standard, which is in the 58GHz to 70GHz spectrum range. It uses beam-forming technology to connect the radios and provides a secure system which is subject to regulatory controls and extends to supporting network services such as OTA update systems. Antony explains that all the IP traffic that goes through has been pre-encrypted via the endpoints. “The encryption starts on the train and ends at the data center. The Blu Wireless kit only communicates through these encrypted tunnels, and there are multiple layers of security beyond just performing standard pen testing on the product.”

OTA software updates

Blu Wireless’s products have a sophisticated and multi-layered architecture. Antony says “Mender provides a number of solutions for OTA that allow Blu Wireless the flexibility of choosing how to deploy updates.” 

Antony continues to say that whilst the equipment is long life, there is a need to be able to upgrade the software both for feature and capability evolution, and also for in life updates, such as security updates.

Homologation and regulatory requirements

There are critical regulatory standards associated with the equipment hardware, equipment emissions and equipment security that must be complied with to be industry best practice. For example, in the UK, Ofcom governs basic radio, and the train operators will have their own independent set of standards. 

Management challenge for software deployments

Antony says that setting up a program of software updates in an organized way for a large and complex fleet is a big challenge. Mender enterprise allows Blu Wireless to subdivide its product real estate into groups and to have a rolling program of updates However, when a project goes into total production at scale, the management and automation features in a commercial enterprise offering are required. Then it becomes a question of how best the software supplier and the product owner can handle the deployment process and artifact deployment. 

Trackside is easy to update, as it is always on and predictable. Moving trains are more unpredictable, and Blu Wireless needs to negotiate with the operators of the trains and organize when are the optimal windows to do the updates. The compatibility of software updates also has to be considered. Blu Wireless is very focused on an environment where releases would be staggered through intermediate upgrades to leverage the latest software and product improvements. “In a 10-year lifespan, we are in year zero, which is the start of the program for the product.”

The train moves at 120 miles per hour. The software cannot be upgraded while the train is in operation since this would interrupt the service It is providing and therefore Blu Wireless needed to select an OTA product that supported the need to schedule updates. 

Blu Wireless has different product profiles and differentiates products by the software installed on units. Product profiles can change depending on the environment in which the product operates, and this is controlled by the Blu Wireless Intelligent Control Plane technology.

​​In a use case for high density fixed wireless backhaul infrastructure, Blu Wireless provides a wireless backhaul radio hardware to connect between 5G and the fixed cell on the street. 

In a use case in the defense sector, inter-vehicle communication sees real-time data feeds and updates between vehicles. The vehicles are moving, the hardware must find them, and the transmission must be highly secure. 

Why Mender for OTA updates?

Antony says Mender provided Blu Wireless with an off-the-shelf agent that did everything required for OTA software updating: Full rootFS updates, roll back recovery mechanism, off-the-shelf delivery system, scheduling, tenancies, and organizing software updates. He continues “Mender is also a well-maintained project, and the customer base is constantly expanding.” Antony admits that Blu Wireless can’t do everything, and prefers to focus on its core product and technology, so the company has to leverage good-quality commercial solutions like Mender. “Homebrew open-source solutions for OTA would not work, as they need to have the maturity and provide the required ongoing technical support. By selecting a best in class commercial OTA solution, backed up with commercial support packages, Blu Wireless is free to concentrate its resources on its core business of developing innovative mmWave technology solutions.

Antony discovered Mender through a conference presentation that listed and reviewed all the OTA options. He concludes “Mender was outstanding as every alternative came from another project where someone solved the problem and put it on GitHub as free to use. Blu Wireless wanted to go commercial and not have to maintain homegrown OTA ourselves.” 

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