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AWS IoT Core, Elixir, and Nerves: A Crash Course

Build on a solid foundation of Nerves, quickly write robust firmware in Elixir, and rocket through the clouds with AWS. Along the way, this post will expose you to some of the biggest pieces of the IoT puzzle.


AWS IoT Core is a managed cloud service that facilitates managing devices, securely communicating to and from them, and taking action based on their messages.

Elixir is a functional language that is well suited for maintainable, low-latency, and fault-tolerant systems. It runs on the Erlang VM which has decades of history enabling long running remote devices.

Nerves is the combination of a platform, a framework, and tooling, where the output is the ability to “craft and deploy bulletproof embedded software in Elixir”.

NervesHub facilitates secure and dynamic OTA firmware updates for embedded devices. It is a managed service but it can be hosted privately, and there are a variety of other Elixir libraries under the NervesHub namespace.

General Management

AWS IoT Core

AWS IoT Core manages many resources fundamental to operating an IoT deployment. These include but are not limited to: Things, Types, Thing Groups, Billing Groups, and Jobs. A Thing is the AWS term for some IoT device, it could be a doorbell, a camera, a thermometer, or in reality, anything. These Things allow you to manage and take certain actions even when a Thing is not currently online. For example, Device Shadows allow you to read the last known state of a Thing and even edit it, so that the next time that Thing comes online it could respect those changes.

Types are just categories of Things, Thing Groups allow you to attach policies and configure logging options at the Group instead of Thing level. Billing Groups are similar to Thing Groups, but can be associated with tags which facilitates categorization and tracking of IoT related costs. Finally, Jobs are essentially a remote command that will be interpreted by one or many Things, but with bells and whistles. Jobs can be scheduled, applied to Thing Groups, or rolled out in stages. Things report the status of a Job when starting or stopping it.


NervesHub manages resources similar to AWS IoT Core, but with more of an emphasis on secure over-the-air (OTA) firmware updates. This includes: Products, Devices, Firmwares, and Deployments. A Product is a name that acts as grouping for Devices, Firmwares, and Deployments. A Device in NervesHub is conceptually analogous to a Thing in AWS IoT. It has a name, is associated with a device key and certificate (though NervesHub is only ever privy to the certificate), and it can be assigned tags. A Firmware is a signed chunk of binary information associated with some metadata like version, VCS identifier, author, time-to-live, etc.

Deployments are where the rubber meets the road. They represent a resource that can be assigned a Firmware, tags, and version requirements among other things. This facilitates very powerful resolution of eligible firmwares for a Device. Through version requirements and tags one can dictate a complex multi-step upgrade path for Devices.


AWS IoT Core

The communication protocol of choice between Things and AWS IoT Core is MQTT due to its low bandwidth overhead, small code footprint on clients, and topic based messaging. It is worth noting that while MQTT has 3 QoS levels (0, 1, 2), AWS IoT only supports 0 and 1. Remember that Things can not only publish messages to topics to be processed in the cloud, but also can subscribe to topics so that information can be pushed down to them as well.

To tie off that functionality are Actions: a convenient way to react to messages published to topics. This is not an inflexible configuration either, AWS IoT Core allows you to leverage MQTT topic wild cards like + and # to specify multiple topics at once. When an action is triggered you can take predefined actions like writing to a dynamo table, adjusting a CloudWatch alarm, or a whole host of other actions, but the escape hatch is invoking a lambda which allows you to do whatever you want.


NervesHub and AWS IoT do not need to talk to each other, but your device does need to talk to NervesHub. For this you can leverage the Elixir library aptly named NervesHub. This will allow your device to maintain a websocket connection to the NervesHub service to allow real-time pushes of firmware and facilitate useful metadata like whether a device is currently online or not.

This always-on connection may be restrictive contextually if you have strict power or bandwidth concerns. In which case you simply do not leverage the real-time features of the NervesHub service and instead opt to poll at your leisure. In order for your device running Elixir to speak MQTT to AWS IoT, Martin Gausby’s Tortoise library will do the trick.


AWS IoT Core

AWS IoT supports four types of identity principals for authentication:

  • X.509 certificates
  • IAM users, groups, and roles
  • Amazon Cognito identities
  • Federated identities

However, we will stay within the bounds of public key cryptography as that is the standard with respect to communication between Devices and AWS IoT over MQTT. As such, AWS IoT solves both identity verification and transport security via the use of TLS. Typically when TLS handshakes are performed only the server’s identity is verified such that the client can trust it. However, it is common in the case of IoT for the server to in turn authenticate the identity of the client. In this manner TLS allows both parties to trust the identity of each other and communicate securely. This may be referred to as mutual authentication, mutual TLS authentication (mTLS), or client-authenticated TLS.

Any further security within the boundary of the AWS cloud is managed by the combination of AWS IoT Policies and traditional IAM Policies. Through these one can dictate the particulars regarding a Thing’s ability to connect, subscribe, publish, receive, etc. The same control is allowed over Actions and the services they interact with.

However, before the aforementioned security dance can occur successfully, there are some manual steps that must be taken within AWS IoT Core for each device that wishes to participate:

  • a Thing has been created for that device
  • a Certificate has been created and associated with that Thing
  • an AWS IoT Policy has been created and associated with that Certificate

This is fine in development and maybe in a beta-esque phase, but you will quickly find out that this is kid mode and as the number of Things scale it will become untenable to provision devices in this manner.

At the application level the previous section mentioned the Thing would leverage the Tortoise library. Tortoise accepts a variety of options but worthy of note is what the :server configuration option passed to a Tortoise.Supervisor.start_child/1 call may look like:

{  Tortoise.Transport.SSL,  alpn_advertised_protocols: ["x-amzn-mqtt-ca"],  cacerts: ca_certs,  cert: cert,  host: Keyword.fetch!(tortoise_opts, :host),  key: {:ECPrivateKey, key},  partial_chain: &partial_chain/1,  port: 443,  server_name_indication: Keyword.fetch!(tortoise_opts, :server_name_indication),  verify: :verify_peer,  versions: [:"tlsv1.2"]}

The partial_chain/1 function resolves successfully against Amazon root CAs. Keep in mind when connecting to AWS IoT to:

  • provide the device certificate and key
  • provide a set of CA certificates including:
    • Amazon’s root CA(s)
    • the CA that signed the device certificate which may or may not be Amazon’s root CA

All of that done successfully, a device may connect and publish/subscribe to its heart’s content. Or at least until it runs into an AWS IoT Policy saying otherwise.


NervesHub leverages the same security story as AWS IoT: public key cryptography to ensure secure communications to and from Devices. It also has a similar pattern of allowing you to generate device certificates and keys using a NervesHub CA. When using the NervesHub library to talk to the NervesHub service it leverages the fact that the device is running on the Nerves platform to know where the device certificate and key are, similarly if they were generated by a NervesHub CA, that CA cert will automatically be sent along with any requests. Like AWS, you must explicitly create a record of the Device associated with the relevant device certificate within NervesHub before it can authenticate successfully.

Just-in-Time Provisioning

AWS IoT Core

Recall the security section above, the manual steps I mentioned can be circumvented by using your own certificates and configuring JITP. At a high level the steps here are:

  • registering a custom CA certificate
  • enable automatic registration
  • configure a provisioning template for the CA

Once this is done, the device certificate and key on a device can be created and signed by the custom CA in your control. The device will also need the custom CA’s public certificate on it as well, this will be presented to AWS IoT during the authentication steps we outlined previously. Keep in mind the only thing within AWS at the moment with respect to your device is the CA certificate that you upload once. Going forward when an unprovisioned device attempts to connect to AWS IoT the following occurs automatically:

  • register a Certificate and set its status to PENDING_ACTIVE
  • create a Thing
  • create a Policy
  • attach the Policy to the Certificate
  • attach the Certificate to the Thing
  • update the Certificate status to ACTIVE

Some of the values used for the resources created in that process are influenced by the provisioning template we configured against the relevant custom CA. These values are limited to what can be extracted from the subject field of the certificate of the device being provisioned. At this point the device has become a Thing and it can communicate with AWS IoT.


To get started quick NervesHub can create a certificate and key for you signed by a NervesHub CA, but eventually you will probably want to switch to a custom CA. This does a couple things for you:

  • eases manufacturing
  • you retain full control over the trust chain
  • you can use the same CA for multiple things where it makes sense, for example if you wanted to leverage both AWS IoT Core and NervesHub while only managing a single device certificate
  • you can leverage a CA external to NervesHub, be it your own custom CA, or a well known one like Amazon

In order to setup JITP with NervesHub one must:

  • register a custom CA certificate
  • ensure device certificates have an Authority Key Identifier pointing at the custom CA certificate
  • provide the custom CA certificate on request
  • still provide the NervesHub CA certificates

Going forward when an unprovisioned device attempts to connect to the NervesHub service the following will happen:

  • a Device will be created
  • an associated DeviceCertificate will be created

At this point the device has become a Device and it can communicate with NervesHub.

Closing Thoughts

Nerves allows one to start writing firmware quickly. Effortlessly transitioning from no hardware, to super early dev boards, and finally to production quality devices all while abstracting you to the high level land of Elixir when you want it but also allowing you to reach down and mess with the metal when you need it.

Writing firmware in Elixir allows you to leverage high level abstractions, the fault tolerance and low-latency inherent to OTP and the Erlang VM, and the efforts of the Elixir maintainers to make the development experience as quick and productive as possible. NervesHub makes it trivial to manage the full firmware lifecycle from design to: implementation, upload to a centralized point of access and management, and finally to complex and dynamic distribution of that firmware to devices.

AWS IoT Core lets you scale to billions of devices and trillions of messages effortlessly, and react to messages from your devices in powerful ways conveniently leveraging pre-built actions into other AWS services or reaching out through the invocation of a lambda to a more complex series of reactions including those external to Amazon.

Together, these tools allow productive development of robust and scalable software.

KEEP READING: Explore our AWS capabilities in optimizing connected solutions running on AWS IoT Core, ensuring our partners benefit from cost-effectiveness, reliability, and high performance.

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