There are many ways to update an embedded system in the field. Images can fly through the air one a time, travel by sneaker or hitch a ride on other passing data. OK, maybe that’s a stretch, but there are certainly a plethora of ways to get those sweet update bytes into a target system. How are those bytes assembled, and what are the tools that do the assembly? This is the problem I needed to solve.
Recall, my system wasn’t a particularly novel one (see the block diagram below). Just a few computers asking each other for an update over some serial busses. I had chosen to bundle the payload firmware images into the binary for the intermediate microcontroller which was to carry out the update process. The additional constraint was that the blending of the three firmware images (one carrier and two payload) needed to happen long after compile time, on a different system with a separate toolchain. There were ultimately two options that fit the bill.
Performing over-the-air updates of devices in the field can be a tricky business. Reliability and recovery is of course key, but even getting the right bits to the right storage sectors can be a challenge. Recently I’ve been working on a project which called for the design of a new pathway to update some small microcontrollers which were decidedly inconvenient.
There are many pieces to a project like this; a bootloader to perform the actual updating, a robust communication protocol, recovery pathways, a file transfer mechanism, and more. What made these micros particularly inconvenient was that they weren’t network-connected themselves, but required a hop through another intermediate controller, which itself was also not connected to the network. Predictably, the otherwise simple “file transfer” step quickly ballooned out into a complex onion of tasks to complete before the rest of the project could continue. As they say, it’s micros all the way down.
If you ever need to write a binary file from a traditional language like C, it isn’t all that hard to do. About the worst thing you might have to deal with is attempts to fake line endings across Windows and Linux, but there’s usually a way to turn that off if it is on by default. However, if you are using some type of scripting language, binary file support might be a bit more difficult. One answer is to use a tool like xxd or t2b (text-to-binary) to handle the details. You can find the code for t2b on GitHub including prebuilt binaries for many platforms. You should be able to install xxd from your system repository.
These tools take very different approaches. You might be familiar with tools like od or hexdump for producing readable representations of binary files. The xxd tool can actually do the same thing — although it is not as flexible. What xxd can even reverse itself so that it can rebuild a binary file from a hex dump it creates (something other tools can’t do). The t2b tool takes a much different approach. You issue commands to it that causes it to write an original hex file.
Both of these approaches have some merit. If you are editing a binary file in a scripting language, xxd makes perfect sense. You can convert the file to text, process it, and then roll it back to binary using one program. On the other hand, if you are creating a binary file from scratch, the t2b program has some advantages, too.
I decided to write a few test scripts using bash to show how it all works. These aren’t production scripts so they won’t be as hardened as they could be, but there is no reason they couldn’t be made as robust as you were willing to make them.