Monday Jan 21, 2013

Building an SD Card Image For a Raspberry Pi Java Hands On Lab

Building an SD Card Image For a Raspberry Pi Hands On Lab Last year we ran a very successful hands on lab for developers at Devoxx in Antwerp.  The concept was to have 40 people in a room, give them all a Raspberry Pi, cables and a pre-configured SD card and get them to build cool JavaFX apps.  One of the things I had to do was organise all the equipment and make a suitable image for the SD card.  As this was before Oracle had announced the early access of JDK8 for the Raspberry Pi with hard float support we used the soft float of Java SE embedded version 7 for ARMv6 and a non-production build of JavaFX.  As we're repeating this lab at JFokus in a couple of weeks I thought it might be useful to write up how I built the SD image as there may well be people who want to run something similar.

Hardware Setup

To simplify matters from a hardware perspective (and to make the lab economically viable) we decided not to provide attendees with monitors, keyboards and mice.  All interaction with the Pi would need to be via the network connection.  To eliminate the need for two power outlets per attendee we also decided to use USB Y power cables that can draw power from two USB ports on the attendee's laptop.  Since USB ports are rated at 500mA two would give us more than the minimum 700mA required for the Pi (as a side note I've found that you can happily boot a Pi from one USB port on a MacBook Pro - although that is without any USB peripherals attached to the Pi). 

With no monitor or USB keyboard/mouse all interaction would be via the network connection.  Again, to simplify the infrastructure we provided all attendees with an ethernet cross-over cable.  One end is connected to the ethernet port on the attendee's laptop, the other to the ethernet port on the Raspberry Pi.

The hardware setup is shown in the diagram below:
Machine setup

Software Setup

For this part I'll describe the setup necessary for the Rasbian distro so we can use the new JDK8 EA build.  One issue with this is that the JavaFX libraries included no longer supprt rendering via X11.  Since the ARM port of JavaFX is aimed at embedded devices like parking meters and point-of-sale devices we don't expect these to use an X based desktop underneath.  Now that rendering is only supported directly to the framebuffer (which gives us significantly better performance) projecting the JavaFX applications back to the attendees laptop via VNC will no longer work.  Although there is a package calld fbvnc this will not work as the rendering on the Pi does not use areas of memory that are accessible this way.

Here is a step-by-step guide:
  1. Install the Rasbian distro on an SD card.  I use 4Gb SanDisk class 4 cards which provide enough space, work with the Pi and are cheap.  When you need to replicate a significant number of cards, smaller is quicker.  To install the distro either use DiskImager (on Windows) or a simple dd command on Linux or Mac (detailed instructions can be found on the Raspberry Pi web site).
  2. Put this in a Pi and boot.  I do this with a monitor and USB keyboard connected to make life simpler.  When the Pi has finished booting you will be presented with a screen as shown:
  1. Move down to expand_rootfs and select this by pressing RETURN.  This will expand the filesystem to fill the available space on the SD card.
  2. Select overclock and accept the notice about potentially reducing the lifetime of your Pi.  Remember: live fast, die young.  Seriously, though, given the cost of the Pi and the fact that the manufacturers will honour the warranty for anything up to a 1GHz clockrate and I think this is pretty safe.  I go for the medium setting of 900MHz.  This has not given me any issues, although you may want to go higher or lower as preferred.
  3. Select SSH.  I think this is enabled by default, but just to make sure select it.
  4. Lastly on this screen select update.  This will update any packages necessary in the Linux distribution.  Obviously for this you will need your Pi connected to a network where it can find the internet settings via DHCP, etc.
  5. Tab to 'Finish', hit RETURN and you will be dropped into a shell.
  6. Being an old school UNIX hacker I really don't like sudo, so the first thing I do is sudo bash and then set a password for root so I can su whenever I need to.
  7. There is a user account, pi, that is created by default.  For our labs I create a separate account for attendees to login as.  Use something like useradd -u 1024 -d /home/lab -m -s /bin/bash lab.  Remember to set the user's password: passwd lab.
  8. Since we want things to be as simple as possible we setup a DHCP server on the Pi.  Before we do that we need the Pi to use a static IP address.  Edit the /etc/network/interfaces file and change

  9. iface eth0 inet dhcp


    iface eth0 inet static


    In these settings I've used a class A private network which is the same as the one I use in my office.  This makes things easy, as I can also configure the gateway so that the Pi can access the internet which will be required for the next stages.  If you are using a class C private network (like 192.168.0.X) you will need to change this accordingly.

    At this point I reboot the machine with the monitor and keyboard disconnected and switch to doing everything over SSH.

  10. Login over the network using SSH (use either the lab account or the pre-installed pi one) and su to root. 
  11. Install the DHCP server package, apt-get install isc-dhcp-server
  12. Configure DHCP by editing the /etc/dhcp/dhcpd.conf file.  Under the comment line 
     # This is a very basic subnet declaration.

    subnet netmask {

    This will provide an IP address in the range from 164 to 170. Having seven available addresses is a bit of overkill, but gives us some flexibility (change your IP addresses as necessary).  In addition you must comment out these two lines at the start of the file:

    option domain-name "";
    option domain-name-servers,;

    This was one of the things that changed between the soft float Wheezy distro and the hard float Raspbian distro.  It took me ages to figure out why the DHCP server would not work properly on Raspbian.  When I used the soft float distro all I needed to do was add the subnet and range definition.  On Raspbian the DHCP server refused to serve IP addresses even though the log messages seemed to indicate that it was fine.  After I did a diff on the dhcp.conf files from both I noticed the two lines that had been uncommented.  I commented them out again and everything worked fine.
For our lab the attendees wrote the code on their laptops using the NetBeans IDE and then transferred the project across to the Pi to run.  To make life as easy as possible the Pi is configured to support multiple ways of getting files onto it: FTP, NFS and Samba.
  1. Install the FTP server package, apt-get install proftpd-basic.  Although it would seem logical to want to run this from inetd, choose the standalone option as this actually works better and gets started, quite happily, at boot time.
  2. Configure the FTP server by editing the /etc/proftpd/proftpd.conf file.  This is not strictly necessary, but if you want to be able to use anonymous ftp then uncomment the sizeable section that starts with the comment,

    # A basic anonymous configuration, no upload directories.

  3. Install the necessary packages for NFS server support, apt-get install nfs-kernel-server nfs-common
  4. Edit the /etc/exports file to add the user home directory,

    /home/lab     10.0.0.*(rw,sync,no_subtree_check)
At this point you would think, like I did, that rebooting the machine would give you a functioning NFS server.  In fact on the soft float Wheezy distro this is exactly what happened.  As with DHCP there is some weirdness in terms of changes that were made between the soft float Wheezy distro and the Raspbian one.  With Raspbian if you use the showmount -e command, either locally or remotely you get the somewhat cryptic error message, clnt_create: RPC: Port mapper failure - RPC: Unable to receive.

I'm sure with hindsight I should have been able to solve this quicker, but having had it working fine on Wheezy I just couldn't figure out why the same thing didn't work on Raspbian.  Evantually after much Googling and head scratching I determined that it was down to the RPC bind daemon not being started at boot time.  Some kind and thoughtful person decided that RPC didn't need to run at boot time.  Rather than leaving the package out so that when it's needed it gets installed and correctly configured they just moved the links from /etc/rc2.d and /etc/rc3.d from being S (for start) to K (for kill), so it doesn't start.
  1. Make the RPC bind daemon start at boot time by running update-rc.d rpcbind enable (as root)
  2. Install the Samba packagaes with apt-get install libcups2 samba samba-common
  3. Configure samba.  Edit the /etc/samba/smb.conf file and add the following at the end of the file:

    comment = Raspberry Pi Java Lab
    path = /home/lab
    writable = yes
    guest ok = yes
If you want the attendees to be able to project the desktop of the Pi to their laptops then you will need VNC.
  1.  Install the VNC server, apt-get install tightvncserver
  2. As the lab user, set a password for the VNC server with tightvncpasswd.  When doing this you can set different passwords for a fully interactive session and a view only one.
  3. Run tightvncserver :1 to generate all the necessary configuration files.  You will now be able to access the Raspberry Pi desktop remotely using a VNC client (I use [the bizarrely named] Chicken of the VNC on the Mac, RealVNC on Windows and xtightvncviewer on Linux).
  4. In order for the VNC server to start up whenever the system boots a script is required in the /etc/init.d directory.  I call it tightvncviewer, for which the code is:

    #!/bin/sh -e
    # Start/stop VNC server

    # Provides:          tightvncserver
    # Required-Start:    $network $local_fs
    # Required-Stop:     $network $local_fs
    # Default-Start:     2 3 4 5
    # Default-Stop:      0 1 6
    # Short-Description: tightvncserver remote X session projection
    # Description:       tightvncserver allows VNC clients to connect to
    #                    this machine and project the X desktop to the
    #                    remote machine.

    . /lib/lsb/init-functions

    # Carry out specific functions when asked to by the system
    case "$1" in
        echo Starting tightVNC server
        su lab -c 'tightvncserver :1 > /tmp/vnclog 2>&1'
        echo Stopping tightVNC server
        su lab -c 'tightvncserver -kill :1'
        echo Restarting vncserver
        $0 stop
        $0 start
        echo "Usage: /etc/init.d/vncserver {start|stop|restart}"
        exit 1

    exit 0

    Make sure that this script has execute permission.  To create the necessary links into the /etc/rc*.d directories run update-rc.d tightvncserver defaults.  Note that this provides the desktop of the 'lab' user.  If you want to support a different user change the name.  More users can be supported by creating additional servers running on screens other than :1.
To avoid having to provide printed instructions for the lab or distribute files on a CD or memory stick I also configure Apache on the Pi so that once the Pi is connected to the attendee's laptop they can simply open a web page and have whatever instructions and software available from there.
  1. Install Apache, apt-get install apache2
  2. Create your HTML content and put it in /var/www
  3. Finally install the Java runtime.  I put it in /opt and set the PATH environment variable in the user's .bashrc file.


A blog covering aspects of Java SE, JavaFX and embedded Java that I find fun and interesting and want to share with other developers. As part of the Developer Outreach team at Oracle I write a lot of demo code and I use this blog to highlight useful tips and techniques I learn along the way.


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