Update that firmware!

This past week I taught Learning Tree’s Introduction to Networking. All the course participants were online. (If you are unfamiliar with the course, it is a very comprehensive introduction to computer networking). The course was fun and one participant shared an interesting experience that I’d like to share with you.

The participant explained some trouble he was having with his home Wi-Fi network. After trying multiple potential solutions he ended up fixing the issue by reloading the router’s firmware. That fixed everything and he was happy. I was pleased to hear of his success, but it reminds me of an important point we discuss in Learning Tree’s System and Network Security Introduction: keep your software up-to-date.

Firmware is software. For some reason, when many people hear the word “firmware” they think of some built-in, unchangeable aspect of a system. While firmware is sometimes “locked in”, on many systems – including routers – the firmware can and should be updated. The firmware is just software stored in some non-volatile memory (memory that keeps its contents when the power goes off). In my participant’s case the firmware needed to be updated to fix what he perceived as a bug; it also may need to be updated to fix security issues.

Routers are “just” computers. They have network ports, maybe Wi-Fi radios and such, but they are computers. Many SOHO (small-office, home-office) routers run a version of the Linux or some other open-source operating system. Whether they do or not, they must be kept current to keep computers on the network as safe from attack as possible.

Firmware updateFortunately for users, the process is generally quite simple. It may involve one or two mouse clicks or it may require saving a file to a local computer and copying (uploading) it to the router. In either case the process is simple enough for anyone with limited Windows. Linux, or Mac experience to do. Of course, the process varies from model to model.

I hate to update software for fear of breaking something I depend on. I suppose that caution is good, most of the time. But when there is a security update, I tend to be less cautious as the risk of breaking a feature may be less than the risk of a security breach.

Many routers today update their own firmware automatically. That’s good and a wonderful feature from the manufacturers. If yours does, great. If yours doesn’t, click on the “Check for updates” or whatever your router calls it, and update as appropriate.

Please let us know in the comments below how easy or difficult the process was for you.

To your safe computing,
John McDermott

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