Auto-Update Functionality


Introduction

install4j can help you to include auto-updating functionality into your application. Auto-updating means two things: First, there must be a way to check if there is a newer version available for download. This check can be initiated by the user in various ways or the check can be triggered automatically by your application. Second, there must be a way to download and execute an appropriate installer for the new version.

install4j creates a special file updates.xml in the media output directory when you build the project. This file describes the media files of the current version. If you want to use install4j's auto-update functionality, you have to upload this file to a web server. This file is downloaded by deployed installations as described below and delivers information about the current version.

Downloading and installing the new version is done with a custom installer application. install4j offers several templates for updaters that correspond to the update strategies outlined below in this help topic.

Quick start

To get update functionality similar to the one you see with install4j, please follow these instructions:

  1. When you build your project, install4j will create a file named updates.xml in the media file output directory. Upload that file together with your media files to a directory on your web server.
  2. Go to Installer->Auto-Update Options and enter the URL for updates.xml. This must be the full URL to the file (like http://www.server.com/download/updates.xml).
  3. Go to Installer->Screens & Actions, click on the add button, choose Add application from the popup menu, select the "Updater with silent version check" template and confirm with [OK] to add the application.
  4. Enter the "Executable name" property for the new updater application (for example automaticUpdater).
  5. Activate the "Launcher integration" tab for the new updater application and select the "Start automatically when launcher is executed" check box. Leave all other settings at their default.
  6. In your installer, add a "Configurable form" and add an "Update schedule selector" form component to it.

That's it. In the installer, the user will get the possibility to choose the frequency of the update checks. When the user executes a launcher after you publish an update, the updater will be shown after the application window is displayed and tell the user about the new version. If the user accepts, the new installer is downloaded and installed.

Of course your ideas for auto-update might be different. Maybe you do not have a GUI application and you want to perform unattended updates, or you want to notify your users about updates directly in your application. That's why we have made the auto-update functionality so flexible. The updater installer application is composed of standard form components and actions, so you can tailor it to your needs. Also, you can use the API to check for updates. Please read on for a more in-depth explanation of the auto-update process and different auto-update strategies.

updates.xml

The updates.xml file is created in the media output directory each time you build the project. You can use this file as is, however, some situations require that you modify the file before uploading it to the web server. The file looks like the sample below:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<updateDescriptor baseUrl="">
  <entry targetMediaFileId="8" updatableVersionMin="" updatableVersionMax="" fileName="hello_windows_4_0.exe"
         newVersion="4.0" newMediaFileId="8" fileSize="2014720" bundledJre="">
    <comment />
  </entry>
  <entry targetMediaFileId="9" updatableVersionMin="" updatableVersionMax="" fileName="hello_linux_4_0.rpm"
         newVersion="4.0" newMediaFileId="9" fileSize="817758" bundledJre="">
    <comment />
  </entry>
  <entry targetMediaFileId="10" updatableVersionMin="" updatableVersionMax="" fileName="hello_macos_4_0.dmg"
         newVersion="4.0" newMediaFileId="10" fileSize="1359872" bundledJre="">
    <comment />
  </entry>
</updateDescriptor>

The root of the updates.xml file is the updateDescriptor element. It contains the baseUrl attribute that can be used to specify an alternate download URL for the installers. By default, it is empty which means that the installers must be located in the same directory as the updates.xml file. The updateDescriptor element contains one or more entry elements which correspond to the media files that were created by the build.

When install4j determines whether an entry in the update descriptor is a match for the current installation, it looks at three attributes of the entry element: Most importantly, the targetMediaFileId attribute has to match the media file ID of the current installation. You can show media file IDs by invoking Project->Show IDs in the main menu. If you discontinue a media file, you can migrate users of that media file to a different media file by duplicating the desired entry in updates.xml and changing the targetMediaFileId attribute to that of the discontinued media file. Another criterion is the installed version of the application. Depending on that version, you might want to offer different updates. The updatableVersionMin and the updatableVersionMax attributes can set lower and upper limits for the installed versions that should download the associated entry in the update descriptor. By default, these attributes are empty, so no version restrictions apply.

Attributes that describe the update installer include fileName which is necessary to construct the download URL, and fileSize which contains the size of the file in bytes. newVersion contains the available version while newMediaFileId is the media file ID of the update installer which is the same as targetMediaFileId unless you changed it yourself. Lastly, bundledJre contains the original file name of the JRE bundle without the .tar.gz extension or the empty string if no JRE is bundled in the installer. In addition to the above attributes, the nested comment element can contain a description that should be displayed to the user. All of this information can be used for custom logic to select a suitable update installer or be displayed to the user in the updater. In addition, you can add any number arbitrary attributes to the entry element yourself.

The update descriptor

The install4j runtime API contains the com.install4j.api.update.UpdateChecker utility class that can download the updates.xml file and translate it to an instance of com.install4j.api.update.UpdateDescriptor. From there, you can get a suitable com.install4j.api.update.UpdateDescriptorEntry with a single method call. Please see the Javadoc for more detailed information. The above API is primarily intended for use in your application. The install4j runtime API contained in resource/i4jruntime.jar is always on the class path for a generated launcher.

In a custom installer application, you would rather use a "Check for update" action that performs the same actions as UpdateChecker and saves the downloaded UpdateDescriptor to an installer variable. All updater templates included with install4j execute the "Check for update" action at some point.

Instances of UpdateDescriptorEntry expose all attributes of the corresponding entry element in the updates.xml file. They also give access to additional attributes added to the entry element so you can implement custom logic to find a suitable update. The most important method of the UpdateDescriptorEntry class is the getUrl() method that constructs the full URL from which the update installer can be downloaded. If no baseUrl has been specified on the updateDescriptor root element, the URL starts with the parent directory from which the updates.xml file has been downloaded.

Some information in the update descriptor, such as the file names, file sizes, the new media file IDs and others are known to the compiler and are automatically filled in when the updates.xml file is created. Other information, such as the base URL, is information that can be customized on the auto-update options tab. Other customizable information includes version requirements for the installed application, a localizable comment that can be displayed in the updater and custom attributes that can be used for custom logic in updaters.

Strategy 1: Standalone updater

The easiest way to provide auto-update functionality to your users is to create a self-contained updater application. This is done by adding an application on the screens & actions tab and choosing the "Standalone updater" application template. Such an auto-updater can by invoked manually by the user, on Windows, it can also be added to the start menu. No changes in in your application code are required so far.

If you have a GUI application, you could provide integration with the updater by offering a "Check for update" menu item or similar that invokes the updater. One problem in this scenario is that if the updater downloads and executes the update installer, your application will still be running and the user will receive a corresponding warning message in the installer. The solution to this problem is to use the com.install4j.api.launcher.ApplicationLauncher class to launch the updater. With this utility class you can launch the update installer by passing its ID as an argument. IDs can be shown on the screens & action tab by toggling the "Show IDs" tool bar button. If you launch an installer application such as an updater that way, the "Shut down calling launcher" action will be able to close your application. To react to the shutdown, for example, to invoke your own shutdown routine, you can pass a callback to the ApplicationLauncher.launchApplication(...) call. After you were notified through the call back, your application will be terminated with a call to System.exit().

To easily get the code snippet for invoking the updater, select the updater application on the Screens & Actions tab and click on the [Start Integration Wizard] button on the right.

Strategy 2: Updater with silent version check

In this scenario, you invoke the updater like in strategy 1, but rather than offering a "Check for update" menu item, you do so on a regular schedule. For example, you automatically check for updates every week or each time the user starts the application. In that case, the standalone updater template is not suitable since you only want to give the user feedback if there is actually a new version available. However, the standalone updater always starts with a "Welcome" screen, verbosely checks for updates and informs the user that no new version is available. Most likely, your users will be bothered if this is done automatically.

The "Updater with silent version check" application template is intended for this use case. It checks for an update in the startup sequence and terminates the updater if no new version is available. This means that if there is no new version available, your users will not see that a check has taken place. Only if a new version is available will the updater display its window and inform the user of the possibility to download the update installer.

For such an automatic check you will likely want to invoke the updater in a blocking fashion. If you call ApplicationLauncher.launchApplication(...) with the blocking argument set to true, the method will not return until the update installer has exited. If the user decides to run the installer on the "Finish" screen, your application will terminate as explained in strategy 1.

Strategy 3: Updater without version check

If you want to take the integration one step further and display the availability of a new version in your application yourself, you can use the com.install4j.api.update.UpdateChecker class as explained under the "updates.xml" heading. In this way, you can create your own panel that announces the new version and lets the user decide whether to download it or not. If the user decides to download, the "Updater with silent version check" template is not suitable since it informs the user about the new version once more.

The "Updater without version check" application template is intended for this use case. It immediately starts downloading the new version and then proceeds to the "Finish" screen where the user can decide to start the downloaded installer. In the other two templates the user can choose the directory where the downloaded installer should be saved. That screen is omitted in this template and the installer is downloaded to the user home directory by default. You can change this default directory be passing the argument -DupdaterDownloadLocation=[directory] to the ApplicationLauncher.launchApplication(...) call. Again, the updater will terminate your application if the user starts the installer as explained for strategy 1.

Update schedule registry

For strategy 2 and 3 above, you check for an update on a regular schedule. install4j comes with a standard implementation of an update schedule registry that frees you of the task to implement one yourself. The com.install4j.api.update.UpdateScheduleRegistry class is intended to be used in your application. You configure an com.install4j.api.update.UpdateSchedule with a call to UpdateScheduleRegistry.setUpdateSchedule(...) and call UpdateScheduleRegistry.checkAndReset() each time your application is started. If you get a positive response, you can start a suitable updater as explained above. Please see the Javadoc for more information.

To facilitate the configuration of the update schedule in your installer, install4j offers a special "Update schedule selector" form component whose initial value is set to the current setting (if any) and automatically updates the setting for the installed application when the user clicks "Next".