RFC-0170: Remove binary images from the update package

RFC-0170: Remove binary images from the update package
  • Software Delivery

Reorder image writes during an OTA to save space.

Gerrit change
Date submitted (year-month-day)2022-05-12
Date reviewed (year-month-day)2022-06-22


To reclaim space on the system, we must split up the update package. On at least one space constrained product, we'll save ~14MiB. It is a non-trivial change that requires a stepping stone release. According to RFC 103, all stepping stone releases require their own RFC. This RFC details the new update package format.


An Over-The-Air (OTA) update is the mechanism for upgrading the version of Fuchsia on a running device. If an update is available, the system-updater will fetch the update package. To fetch a package means that the contents of the package are written to BlobFS and protected from garbage collection. The update package contains the images (like the recovery image and Zircon Boot Images) that also have reserved space on the Zircon partitions, and a list of other packages to download to complete the update.

Currently Fuchsia devices must store two copies of each image:

  1. One copy in the destination partition (for example, ZIRCON_A) which the device uses at runtime.
  2. One copy in blobfs, because images are delivered to the device as blobs inside the update package.

By protecting the images from garbage collection, the update guarantees forward progress if disrupted. Forward progress is an extremely important property to guarantee for an update system. However, on a space-constrained product, writing the images to both the disk partition and BlobFS is suboptimal budgeting.

Image writing is the penultimate step in the OTA process before switching which partition is the active partition and rebooting into the new system image. Until the next update, the kernel, firmware, and recovery images are protected from being garbage collected and deleted. By reordering image writing during an OTA, we can garbage collect the images from BlobFS before we download the majority of packages in the OTA, and reclaim the space budget for use by those other packages. Changing the SWD design to remove the duplicate copy of images has the potential to save a significant amount of space, which is at a premium on some Fuchsia devices.

In order to garbage collect our binary images during an OTA while still guaranteeing forward progress, we need to make a change to the format of the update package.


Facilitator: hjfreyer@google.com


  • Software Delivery: wittrock@google.com, jsankey@google.com
  • MOS: gtsai@google.com
  • Security: ampearce@google.com
  • Product Assembly: awolter@google.com
  • Release: billstevenson@google.com


Currently the update package is a package that also contains images that get fetched and written to blobfs when the update package is fetched.

We propose to pull the images out of the update package and put each image in its own package.

This fits cleanly with our current OTA process and package format, but does require a change to the update package format.

To reference these new packages, we'll add a file to the update package called images.json which contains metadata describing the image packages. An example of that file is:

  "version": "1",
  "contents": {
    "partitions": [
        "type": "zbi",
        "slot": "fuchsia",
        "size": 1,
        "hash": "0a",
        "url": "fuchsia-pkg://fuchsia.com/fuchsia-zbi/0?hash={merkle_hash}#path/to/fuchsia.zbi"
        "type": "vbmeta",
        "slot": "fuchsia",
        "size": 2,
        "hash": "0b",
        "url": "fuchsia-pkg://fuchsia.com/fuchsia-vbmeta/0?hash={merkle_hash}#path/to/fuchsia.vbmeta"
        "type": "zbi",
        "slot": "recovery",
        "size": 3,
        "hash": "0c",
        "url": "fuchsia-pkg://fuchsia.com/recovery-zbi/0?hash={merkle_hash}#path/to/recovery.zbi"
        "type": "vbmeta",
        "slot": "recovery",
        "size": 4,
        "hash": "0d",
        "url": "fuchsia-pkg://fuchsia.com/recovery-vbmeta/0?hash={merkle_hash}#path/to/recovery.vbmeta"
    "firmware": [
        "type": "",
        "size": 5,
        "hash": "0e",
        "url": "fuchsia-pkg://fuchsia.com/update-images-firmware/0?hash={merkle_hash}#path/to/firmware"
        "type": "bl2",
        "size": 6,
        "hash": "0e",
        "url": "fuchsia-pkg://fuchsia.com/update-images-firmware/0?hash={merkle_hash}#path/to/firmware"

The version property defines how the contents property should be interpreted. Version must always be "1" when using the format defined by this RFC but introducing a version property now simplifies additional changes that may be required in the future. This pattern has been used elsewhere in the SWD stack's manifests and integrates well with serde.

The system-updater will parse the manifest to determine if the images need to be fetched (based on whether files with the corresponding hashes are already on the appropriate slot). For each image that has changed, then it will be fetched, written to its partition, and then garbage collected from BlobFS. If an image is not present in images.json, then we do not overwrite what is present on the zircon partition.

The size and hash of the image are included for verification checking. The hash is a SHA256 hash of the image file represented in hex. As partitions are variable across devices, we also need to know the size of the images for comparison. The url has the merkle hash. Merkle hashes are more complex to compute which is why the SHA256 hash is chosen for doing faster comparisons.

The process we propose for an OTA is:

  1. Download the update package
  2. Parse the new metadata file containing the update images package references
  3. For each image which is listed in that file, if the image is the same as the image in the designated Zircon partition on the non-active partition, continue. The metadata file contains the hash and size of the image (as the image size is not equal to the partition size) and we can quickly compare to the hash of the image on the non-active partition. Else:
    1. Fetch the package containing the image which will write the image to BlobFS and will handle integrity checking. Add the package to the retained index.
    2. Write to the partition.
    3. Garbage collect (by removing the package from the retained index) from BlobFS in order to reclaim space.
  4. Proceed with downloading the rest of the packages specified in the update package, and finish the OTA.

Changing the structure of update packages allows us to solve the space constraint problem. Writing to BlobFS and then garbage collecting allows us to make use of the already comprehensive security guarantees provided by our current storage architecture.


To make this change to the update package, we must have a three phase release: first to handle a superset of the current update package's format and the new update package's format, and a second release to produce just the new format, and a final release to stop handling logic for the old version of the update package.

In the first phase system_updater will be modified to successfully parse both the original update package format and the modified format proposed in this RFC. MOS will still produce update packages using the original format. This release containing this work will be marked as a stepping stone, ensuring all Fuchsia devices receive a system_updater that is capable of parsing the new format before they receive an update package that uses the new format.

In the second phase MOS will begin producing update packages using the new format proposed by this RFC.

In the third phase, once we are confident no devices will need to roll back to a release that used the original update package format, system_updater will be modified to remove support for the original update package format.

If we do not stage the release, devices that can only interpret the current version of the update package will be bricked if they receive the updated update package. We will need to mark the first phase release as a 'stepping stone' build to ensure that all devices pass through that build.

Users of the update package will need to be aware of the staged release. Known users are Security vis a vis Scrutiny, MOS, Product Assembly, and Software Delivery.


No significant change expected.

We will need to take a hash of the images and compare. In the best case, the hashes match and we do not need to spend time fetching or writing them. In the worst case where all images change, we still need to download and write the same number of bytes.

Security Considerations

Scrutiny (our build-time security analysis tool) analyzes the update package to extract the ZBI from it. We will need to update Scrutiny tests to reflect the new location of the ZBI in the update package.

The integrity checking of the images does not change. We will continue to use the same method for fetching the update package, and the update package contains the hashes of the image packages and all other security properties are enforced by verified boot when the device reboots into the new system.

Privacy Considerations

This RFC does not introduce any changes to the creation or content of images, only the order in which they are delivered, and therefore does not impact privacy.


We already have unit and end-to-end integration tests for the update package and the system-updater. We need to extend those tests to cover going from the current version of the update package to the intermediate version for the first stepping stone release. For the second release, we need to have tests that handle both the intermediate version of the update package and the new version of the update package. When the work is completed, we will remove the intermediary tests and test that a downgrade OTA with the old format of the update package will always fail.


We'll need to update the update package documentation and OTA docs should this change be approved.

Drawbacks, Alternatives, Unknowns

The alternatives are designs which do not write images to BlobFS at all.

The naive approach would be pave the images directly to their partitions, garbage collect the update package from blobfs, and finally download the new package blobs that were part of the retained index. This alternative is simple to implement, avoids duplicate writes, and does not require a stepping stone release. However, we would no longer guarantee forward progress. If an update is interrupted, there is a chance that the device could fail to update at all.

There is an alternative in which we keep images in the update package, but treat the update package as even more special than it already is: we could avoid saving images to blobfs at all. This design would remove the need for format changes to the update package, but would require extensive changes to the system-updater logic, and diverge the handling of the update package from the handling of 'normal' packages. We believe the proposed design simply refactors the update package, rather than introducing special handling logic.

Prior Art

The design of the update package was previously documented on fuchsia.dev.