Setting Up Headless Raspberry Pi Server

The Raspberry Foundation has recently launched Raspberry Pi 3, a new version of their popular developer board. It features a faster ARM processor, 1 GB of RAM and, most importantly, on-board wifi. This makes it even better choice for a headless Linux server. This guide shows how to do the basic Raspberry Pi server setup, with password-less SSH and automatic updates.

Get the Raspbian Lite image

First of all, you have to download a Linux image for your Raspberry Pi. For using it as a headless server I recommend the Raspbian Lite, which is a minimal image shipped without the desktop packages (which are obviously not needed for a headless server). You can download it here. When the download is complete, open the .zip file and unzip the .img file containing the image.

Write the image to SD card

Now, with the image ready, you can flip out your SD card. First of all, run df -H command to see what filesystems are currently mounted. Insert your SD card and df -H again. It should show up as something along the lines of /dev/sdb1 or /dev/mmcblk0p1. Take note of the device path. Before proceeding further, you have to unmount all the partitions of the SD card (sdb1, sdb2 etc.). The command for /dev/sdb1 partition would be:

pi@raspberrypi$ sudo umount /dev/sdb1

With all the partitions of the SD card unmounted, you can proceed with writing the image on it. For that, use the dd command. dd takes two arguments – if=, which specifies the input file, and of=, which specifies the output file. if= would be the complete path to your image file and of= the path to your SD card. You must use the device path of the whole SD card, not just the partitions. If your partition’s name is /dev/sdb1, then the device path would be /dev/sdb. In case of /dev/mmcblk0p1, it would be /dev/mmcblk0. Make sure to get the if= and of= parts right, as you could potentially compromise your whole system. The example command is:

pi@raspberrypi$ sudo dd bs=4M status=progress if=2016-03-18-raspbian-jessie-lite.img of=/dev/sdb

The command will take couple minutes to complete, but it will keep you periodically updated about the progress.

Connect to your Raspberry Pi

The recent versions of Raspbian have the ssh server turned off by default. To turn it on, create a file called ssh in the boot partition.

pi@raspberrypi$ sudo mount /dev/sdb1/ /mnt
pi@raspberrypi$ cd /mnt
pi@raspberrypi$ touch ssh

When finished, use the sync command to make sure that the cache is flushed, take out the SD card and put it in your Raspberry Pi. Plug in the ethernet cable, power it on and you can happily use ssh to connect to it by using the hostname and the default password raspberry:

user@computer$ ssh pi@raspberrypi.local

If somehow this does not work, just scan your network for devices with open port 22 (the ssh port). First of all, check your ip address with ip addr. It should be something like 192.168.0.100/24. In that case you would use the following command to scan the network:

user@computer$ nmap -p 22 192.168.0.1/24

One of the devices with open port 22 (or, perhaps, the only such device) is your Raspberry Pi. Let’s say its ip address is 192.168.0.105. You can login with using the following command and the password raspberry:

user@computer$ ssh pi@192.168.0.105

Basic configuration

Congratulations, you should be logged in to your Raspberry Pi! Now it is time for some basic configuration. First of all, expand the file system, so that your Pi can use the whole SD card. You can use the raspi-config utility for that:

pi@raspberrypi$ sudo raspi-config

From there, go to Advanced Options and choose the first option. While at it, change the Memory Split to 0. You do not need a graphic memory on your headless server, so you might as well use it for something useful.

Set up automatic updates

Last, but not least, you should set up automatic updates, so you get the latest security patches. First, let’s do a regular update by the following command:

pi@raspberrypi$ sudo apt update && sudo apt upgrade -y

This might take a while. Next, install the unattended-upgrades package:

pi@raspberrypi$ sudo apt install unattended-upgrades

Edit its config using the command line:

pi@raspberrypi$ sudo nano /etc/apt/apt.conf.d/50unattended-upgrades

and uncomment these lines:

“o=Raspbian,n=jessie”;
“o=Raspbian,n=stable”;
Unattended-Upgrade::Remove-Unused-Dependencies “true”;

If you do not mind having your server reboot for the updates that require it, uncomment the following lines as well:

Unattended-Upgrade::Automatic-Reboot “true”;
Unattended-Upgrade::Automatic-Reboot-Time “02:00”;

Where to go next?

Since the post was getting a bit long, I have split off the other sections to separate articles:

  1. Configure the wifi on Raspberry Pi
  2. Set up password-less SSH login and secure your SSH
  3. Change the username, hostname and password for Raspberry Pi
  4. Assign your Raspberry Pi static IP
  5. How to connect external hard drive to Raspberry Pi

You can also check how to set up specific services:

  1. Turn Raspberry Pi Into Torrentbox
  2. Install Nextcloud on Raspberry Pi
  3. Blocking Ads with Raspberry Pi
  4. Automatically turn off LEDs on Raspberry
  5. Setup Mosh

Set up anything you fancy and enjoy your Raspberry Pi!

11 thoughts on “Setting Up Headless Raspberry Pi Server

    1. Not really, though I do plan to experiment with a Minecraft server during the holiday period.
      But I would say there are two advantages to running a game server on Linux over Windows – better security and less resources used by the host operating system.

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