Why MSOs Need Automatic Firmware Management

Firmware is the Rodney Dangerfield of the HFC network – it gets no respect.

When it is doing its job quietly, reliably, and efficiently, we do not even think about it. The only time people talk about firmware management is when it is causing problems; i.e., when it’s ‘buggy’, hard to upgrade, out of date, preventing a new service rollout, or needing hundreds of hours of testing when new, only to discover ‘missed’ bugs in the field.

It is no surprise that firmware is one of the last things we have figured out how to manage efficiently and effectively.

But as MSOs push forward with DOCSIS 3.1 rollout plans, the importance of firmware management is becoming more apparent. In fact, it is probably one of the three biggest roadblocks that Ops has to deal with (the other two being frequency reassignment and OFDM monitoring during deployment).

Impact, challenges, and solutions to obsolete firmware management

It is a multi-dimensional challenge. Existing modems have to be identified and brought up to at least DOCSIS 3.0 level. Modems that cannot support 3.0 need to be replaced. Multi-step upgrades (first to one or more intermediate firmware revs, then the final rev) are common.

Other issues include coping with modems that are off-line, not rebooting in time, failing the download, and, the always important, getting the right firmware to the right brand/model.

New challenges appear when deployment starts. These include handling the inevitable firmware bugs that lab testing missed (there are always missed bugs), rollbacks, handling “one-of’s”… And finally, the challenge of maintaining an up-to-date list of modem firmware status, organized by CMTS, region, modem, service, etc., so solid planning can be done. These challenges are simply overwhelming the common ‘script’ method of managing firmware.

The script method of sweeping a network for information and pushing uploads is probably the most common form of firmware management there is. And it has served the MSOs well. Bright engineers have produced scripts to fit a wide range of situations. Some have even gone to the extent of building script management systems, to help automate the process.

But the new 3.1 firmware files, the need for multi-step upgrades and automated roll-backs has pushed the script method past the point of usefulness. In fact, many Network people we have talked to have said that simply trying to manage all the different scripts is rapidly becoming a major task. Then many of the scripts are old and the original creators long since moved on. All while the consequences of getting a script wrong have increased dramatically, while the chances of getting it wrong have also climbed.  It is time to change our paradigm.

What MSOs need is an automatic firmware management platform that can:

  1. Monitor in real-time the status of all modems in the network, including make/model/firmware rev/ and CMTS.
  2. Easily perform multi-step upgrades and downgrades.
  3. Pushes only approved firmware.
  4. Supports scheduled or ‘on-boot’ upgrades.
  5. Supports upgrade ‘policies’ so automatic upgrades can be done the moment a modem with old firmware come online.
  6. Can upgrade modems singly, in groups, regions, by type, by CMTS, by firmware level, or any combination.
  7. Maintains a stateful awareness of the firmware status of the entire network (no need to run a script).
  8. Is compatible with any provisioning or monitoring software.
  9. Does not require different procedures for different modems or CMTSs.
  10. Tracks upgrade progress in real-time by policy, region, make/model, or CMTS.
  11. Is easy to learn and use. Does not require scripting knowledge or expertise.
  12. Is vendor-neutral.
  13. Can handle high-volume upgrades.
  14. Supports automatic rollbacks.
  15. Has management dashboard and built-in reports.

In short, MSOs need to bring cable modem firmware management into the 21st Century. Is that too much to ask?

Many MSOs are moving to automatic firmware management systems. We have worked with a number of MSOs on this and the benefits are striking.

  • Networks where every modem is running the desired firmware for its make and model.
  • Stateful information on every modem in the network, including make, model, firmware, CMTS, and current status.
  • Both on boot and scheduled upgrade abilities.
  • Real-time customizable reports and dashboards.
  • Engineering time freed up, even during massive upgrades.
  • No more ‘script writer availability’ bottleneck, or special knowledge requirements to upgrade any number of makes or models.

And best of all, cable modem firmware once again becomes the part of the network we almost never think about – because it simply works!

Learn more about how we address cable modem firmware issues.

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