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What is Firmware?

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By: Jessica

August 19, 2018

professional black camera next to a laptopComputer-savvy or not, anybody who has ever touched a computer has heard the terms “software,” “hardware,” “adware,” “spyware,” and “malware,” whether it be from the news, the Internet, or everyday conversation. There’s another type of “ware,” however, that does not seem to be as familiar to many, but it should be: firmware.

Firmware Defined

Firmware is a very specific type of software installed in the hardware of a device that makes the hardware function according to the manufacturer’s intended purposes. It provides instructions that allow the device to operate and communicate with other devices. Firmware is installed in the read-only memory (ROM) or programmable read-only memory (PROM) of a device. Although firmware can technically be erased and rewritten, it is designed to be permanent.

Firmware vs. Software

Although firmware is technically a form of software, there are some distinctions that should be made between it and the software in programs that we use on devices every day. Software is broader in that it is used for to provide operational instructions to hardware to run applications on an operating system. Firmware is specific to a particular piece of hardware. Another notable difference between the two is that while software can be installed and uninstalled from a device, firmware is usually only updated. Firmware is not meant to be removed from a piece of hardware, nor would a user ever need to install it; the manufacturer creates the hardware component with everything it will need, including the firmware.

Firmware vs. Drivers

Another differentiation to make is that between firmware and drivers. A driver is also a special type of software that enables a computer’s operating system to interact with and control a hardware device. It is through a driver that the operating system communicates with a device inside of the computer to direct the hardware to perform a task, such as printing a document. Unlike the firmware that is installed in the hardware of a device, the driver is stored inside of the operating system.

Why Are Firmware Updates Necessary?

Because the firmware on a device provides instructions that enable the device to function and communicate with other devices, it’s important that it is always performing optimally to keep the hardware safe from threats that can come from the Internet or other devices. It’s for this reason that manufacturers of many hardware devices send firmware updates so that the devices can stay current with any new advancements in Internet and network technologies. These firmware updates also address any functionality problems and security bugs that may be present. However, because the hardware of devices differ greatly in nature and in the types of firmware they have installed, the methods of updating firmware vary from device to device.Because the firmware update method depends on the device, the first step in checking for updates is to read the device manual for the manufacturer’s information and instructions on how updates are implemented. Some devices require manual updating, which may involve downloading the update package from the manufacturer’s website and then installing it onto the device. Other devices have dashboards or settings portals where users can check for update notifications; if any notices are present, the user just clicks on the necessary update buttons or options. Devices with more sophisticated workings may provide automatic wireless updates, or they may provide an option in settings for users to decide if they want automatic updates or would prefer manually running updates.

Keep Devices Safe on the Internet

Whether you need to run updates on firmware or other types of software on your devices, you want to make sure you do it as safely as possible. This is especially critical because most if not all devices nowadays are part of the IoT, the Internet of Things. Any device that is part of this collective network of devices that are connected to the Web are always vulnerable to sneaky cyberattacks that can often be hard to detect and mitigate without the right knowledge and tools. For knowledge on how cyber thieves and hackers work and the tools you can use to thwart their attacks, educate yourself with classes from Cybrary’s catalog of cybersecurity courses.
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