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Raspberry Pi 4 as a Desktop Computer

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Introduction

The Raspberry Pi Foundation is promoting the Raspberry Pi 4 as a full desktop computer for only $35. I’ve had my Raspberry Pi 4 for about a month now and in this article we’ll discuss if it really is a full desktop computer replacement. This partly depends on what you use your desktop computer for. My answer is that the $35 price is misleading, you need to add quite a few other things to make it work well.

Making the Raspberry Pi 4 into a Decent Desktop

The Raspberry Pi has always been a barebones computer. You’ve always needed to add a case, a keyboard, a mouse, a monitor, a power supply, a video cable and a microSD card. Many people already have these kicking around, so they don’t need to buy them when they get their Pi. For instance, I already had a keyboard and monitor. The Raspberry Pi 4 even supports two monitors.

Beyond the bare bones, you need two more things for a decent desktop, namely:

  1. The 4GB version of the Raspberry Pi 4
  2. A good USB SSD drive

With these, it starts to feel like you are playing with a regular desktop computer. You now have enough RAM to run multiple programs and any good SSD will greatly enhance the performance of thee system, only using the microSD card to boot the Pi.

The Raspberry Pi 3 is a great little computer. Its main limitation is that if you run too many programs or open too many browser tabs, it bogs down and you have a painful process of closing windows (that aren’t responding well), until things pick up again. Now the Raspberry Pi 4 with 4GB of RAM really opens up the number of things you can do at once. Running multiple browser tabs, LibreOffice and a programming IDE are no problem.

The next thing you run into with the Raspberry Pi 4 is the performance of the SD card. Since I needed a video cable and a new case, I ordered a package deal that also included a microSD card containing Raspbian. Sadly, these bundled microSD cards are the cheapest, and hence slowest available. Having Raspbian bundled on a slow card is just a waste. Switching to a Sandisk Extreme 64GB made a huge difference. The speed was much better. When buying a microSD card watch the speed ratings, often the bigger cards (64GB or better) are twice as fast as the smaller cards (32GB or less). With a good microSD card the Raspberry Pi 4 can read and write microSD twice as fast as a Raspberry Pi 3.

I’ve never felt I could truly trust running off a microSD card. I’ve never had one fail, but people report problems all the time. Further, the performance of microSD cards is only a fraction of what you can get from good SSDs. The Raspberry Pi 4 comes with two USB 3 ports which have a theoretical performance ten times that of the microSD port. If you shop around you will find M.2 and SATA SSDs for prices less than those of microSD cards. I purchased a Kingston A1000 M.2 drive which was on sale cheap because the A2000 cards just started shipping. I had to get an M.2 USB caddy to contain it, but combined this was less than $100 and USB caddies are always useful.

Unfortunately, you can’t boot the Raspberry Pi 4 directly off a USB port yet. The Raspberry Pi foundation say this is coming, but not quite here yet. What you can do is have the entire root file system on the USB drive, but the boot partition must be on a microSD card. Setting up the SSD was easier than I thought it would be. I had to partition it, format it, copy everything over to the SSD and then edit /boot/config.txt to say where the root of the main file system is.

With this done, I feel like I’m using a real desktop computer. I’m confident my data is being stored reliably, the performance is great.

Overheating

The Raspberry Pi 4 uses more power than previous Pis. This means there is more heat to dissipate. The case I received with my Pi 4 didn’t have any ventilation holes and would get quite hot. I solved the problem by removing the top of the case. This let enough heat out that I could run fine for most things. People report that when using a USB SSD that the USB controller chip will overheat and the data throughput will be throttled. I haven’t run into this, but it is something to be aware of.

I installed Tensorflow, Google’s open source AI toolkit. Training a data model with Tensorflow does make my Pi 4 overheat. I suspect Tensorflow is keeping all four CPU cores busy and producing a maximum amount of heat. This might drive me to add a cooling fan. I like the way the Pi runs so quietly, with no fan, it makes no noise. I might try using a small fan blowing down on the Pi to see is that helps.

Summary

Is the Raspberry Pi 4 a complete desktop computer for $35? No. But if you get the 4GB model for $55 and then add a USB 3 SSD, then you do have a good workable desktop computer. The CPU power of the Pi has been compared to a typical 2012 desktop computer. But for the cost that is pretty good. I suspect the Wifi/Lan and SSD are quite a bit better than that 2012 computer.

Keep in mind the Raspberry Pi runs Linux, which isn’t for everyone. A typical low cost Windows desktop goes for around $500 these days. You can get a refurbished one for $200-$300. A refurbished desktop can be a good inexpensive option.

I like the Raspberry Pi, partly because you are cleanly out of the WinTel world. No Windows, no Intel. The processor is ARM and the operating system is Raspbian based on Debian Linux. A lot of things you do are DIY, but I enjoy that. With over 25 million Raspberry Pis sold worldwide, there is a lot of community support and you join quite an enthusiastic thriving group.

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Written by smist08

August 26, 2019 at 8:17 pm

Raspberry Pi 4 First Impressions

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Introduction

I’ve received my Raspberry Pi 4B with 4GB or RAM a few weeks ago. I’ve been using it to write my forthcoming book on Raspberry Pi Assembly Language Programming, so I thought I’d give a few of my first impressions. The biggest change for the Raspberry Pi 4 is the support for three memory sizes, 1GB, 2GB and 4GB. This overcomes the biggest complaint against the Raspberry Pi 3, that it bogs down too quickly as you run browser tabs and multiple windows.

Some of the other hardware improvements are:

  • Dual 4K monitor support with dual micro-HDMI ports.
  • Two of the four USB ports are USB-3.
  • The ethernet is now gigabit and the WiFi is faster.
  • A 1.5GHz quad-core 64-bit ARM Cortex-A72 CPU.
  • The SDRAM is now LPDDR4.
  • The GPU is upgraded to Broadcom’s VideoCore VI.
  • Hardware HEVC video support for 4Kp60 video.

On paper, this makes the Raspberry Pi 4 appear far superior to its predecessors, In this article, I’ll discuss what is much better and a few of the drawbacks. This release will squash a lot of the compatible Pi competitors, but I’ll compare it to my NVidia Jetson Nano and mention a few places where these products still surpass the Pi.

Raspbian Buster

At the same time the Raspberry Pi Foundation released the Raspberry Pi 4, they also released the new “Buster” version of Raspbian, the Debian Linux derived operating system tailored specifically to the Raspberry Pi. On the day this was announced, I ordered my Raspberry Pi 4, then went and downloaded the new Buster release, then installed it on my Raspberry Pi 3B.

If you have a Raspberry Pi 4, then you must run the Buster release as older versions of Raspbian don’t have support for the newer hardware. If you are running an older Pi then you can keep running the older version or upgrade as you like.

Is it 64-Bits?

The first rumour that was squashed was that Raspbian would move to 64-bits. This didn’t happen. Raspbian is a 32-bit operating system. The Raspberry Pi Foundation says it will stay this way for the foreseeable future. The first reason is that the Raspberry Pi 1 and Raspberry Pi Zero use a much older ARM processor that doesn’t support 64-bits. The Raspberry Pi Foundation still supports and sells these models and they are quite popular due to their low price. They don’t want to support two operating systems, so they stick to one 32-bit version that will run on every Raspberry Pi ever made. Perhaps other hardware vendors should look at this level of support for older models.

Even though 32-bit implies a 32-bit virtual address space for processes, which limits an individual process to 4GB of memory, the ARM SoC used in the Pi has memory access hardware for 48-bit addresses. This allows the operating system to give each process a different 4GB address space, so if Raspberry Pi models with more than 4GB of memory are released, Raspbian can utilize this memory.

Another problem with going to 64-bits is that all the previous Raspberry Pi models, and one version of the Raspberry Pi 4 only have 1GB of RAM. This isn’t sufficient to run a 64-bit operating system. You can do it, but the operating system takes all the RAM, and once you run a program or two, everything bogs down. This is due to all addresses and most integers becoming 64-bits, and hence twice as large. A definite nice feature of Raspbian is that it can run effectively in only 1GB or memory.

Based on Debian Buster

Raspbian is notorious for lagging behind the mainstream releases of Linux. The benefit of this is that Raspbian has always been very stable and reliable. It works well and avoids the problems that happen at the bleeding edge. The downside is that it can contain security vulnerabilities or bugs that are fixed in the newer versions.

With Buster, Raspbian released its version ahead of Debian releasing the main version. Linus Torvalds himself was involved in moving the Pi up to a newer version of the Linux kernel. His concern is that as other hardware platforms adopt proprietary software like UEFI firmware, with government mandated backdoors, that the benefits of open source are being lost. The Raspberry Pi, including its firmware are all open source and there is a feeling in the open source community that this is the future to fight for.

Some Software Not Ported Yet

As a result of the move to Buster, some software that Raspberry users are accustomed to is missing. The most notable case is Mathematica. A port of this is underway and it is promised to be included in a future upgrade.

I had problems with CubicSDR, a Software Defined Radio (SDR) program. It could detect my SDR USB device, but didn’t run properly, just displaying a blank screen when receiving.

Heat Dissipation

The Raspberry Pi 4 uses more power than previous models. It requires a USB-C power adapter which means you can’t use a power adapter from previous models. I bought my Pi 4 from buyapi.ca and got the bundle with a case, power adapter, heat sinks and micro-HDMI cable. I needed the cables. The case is their Raspberry Pi 3 case, with the holes for the cables moved for the slightly different Pi 4 configuration. The case lacked any ventilation holes and the Pi would throttle due to overheating fairly easily. My solution was to run it with the top of the case removed. This seems to provide enough air circulation that I haven’t seen any overheating since.

Some people claim the Raspberry Pi 4 requires a fan for cooling, but that hasn’t been my experience. I think the cases need properly thought out ventilation and that is all that is needed. I think a bigger heatsink like the one included with the NVidia Jetson Nano would be warranted as well. I don’t like fans and consider the quietness of the Pi as one of its biggest features.

Cons

All this sounds great, but what are the downsides of the Raspberry Pi 4?

All New Cables

I purchased an NVidia Jetson Nano and to run it, I just unplugged the cables from my Raspberry Pi 3 and plugged them into the Jetson and away it went. Not new cables required.

The Raspberry Pi required a new USB-C power supply and a lot has been made of how you can’t use Apple laptop power supplies, but I think the real issue is you can’t use an older Pi power supply, even if it can provide sufficient power.

To support dual monitors, the Pi went to micro-HDMI ports to fit both connectors. This means you need either new cables or at least micro- to regular-HDMI adapters. The NVidia Jetson supports dual monitors but annoyingly with two different cables, HDMI and a DisplayPort cable. At least the cables are the same for the two video ports.

Otherwise all my USB devices that I was using with the Raspberry Pi 3 seem to work with the Pi 4.

SDCard Bottleneck

They have improved the data transfer speed to and from the microSD card with the Pi 4, but this is still a bottleneck. I would have loved it if they had added a M.2 SSD interface to the board. You can improve on the microSD card speed by using a USB 3 external SSD. The problem is that you can’t boot from this USB 3 drive. You can copy the root filesystem over to the drive and run mostly from the USB and although I haven’t tried it yet, people report this is an improvement.

Raspberry Pi promote the 4 as a desktop computer replacement and it definitely has the processing power. However, I don’t think this really holds up without something better than running off a microSD card. The Raspberry Pi Foundation say they will add boot from USB support in a future firmware update, but it isn’t there yet. Although the speed of USB 3 is better than the microSD interface, it still isn’t nearly as good as you can obtain with M.2 and a good new SSD.

No 64-Bits Yet

The Raspberry Pi Foundation, caught everyone by surprise with their release. This included the people that maintain alternate operating systems for the Raspberry Pi. There is a good Ubuntu Mate 64-bit version that runs on the Raspberry Pi 3. It is slow and you can’t run many programs, but it does work and you can experiment with things like ARM 64-bit Assembly programming.

The person that maintains this had to order his Raspberry Pi 4, like everyone else and hasn’t produced a Pi 4 version yet. It would have been nice if the Raspberry Pi Foundation had seeded some early models to the people that develop alternate operating systems for the Pi.

As of this writing, Raspbian is the only operating system that runs on the Raspberry Pi, but hopefully the others won’t take too long to modify what they need to.

The Raspberry Pi 4 with 4GB is the first Raspberry Pi that has the power to run a true 64-bit operating system, so it would be nice to play with.

Cost

The Raspberry Pi 4 is still dirt cheap, $35 for the 1GB model and $55 for the 4Gig model. This upgrade is a bit more expensive since you need a new power adapter, new video cables and a new case as well. I think the extra $20 for the extra memory is well worth it.

Compared to the NVidia Jetson Nano

The Raspberry Pi 4 blows most of the current crop of Pi clones out of the water. One exception is the NVidia Jetson Nano. This single board computer has 4GB of memory and runs full 64-bit Ubuntu Linux and as a consequence feels more powerful than the Pi 4.

The Pi 4 has a more powerful ARM CPU, but the Jetson has 4 USB-C ports and a 128 core CUDA GPU. The CUDA GPU is used by software like CubicSDR for DSP like processing, along with most AI toolkits like Tensorflow.

The NVidia Jetson costs $99, so is nearly twice as expensive as a Pi 4. However if you want to experiment with AI, the 128-core CUDA GPU is an excellent entry level system. 

Summary

I got used to the Raspberry Pi 4 fairly quickly and after a couple of weeks thought it was pretty similar to the Raspberry Pi 3. I then needed to do something on my Raspberry 3 and booted it up. After using the Pi 4, going back to the Pi 3, felt like I was working in molasses, everything was so slow. This is a real testament to how good the new Pi is, especially with 4GB of memory.

Yes, there are some teething problems with the new model, as there often is at the bleeding edge. But overall the Raspberry Pi 4 is a solid upgrade, and once you adopt it, you really can’t go back. 

 

Written by smist08

August 2, 2019 at 7:09 pm

Can NVidia Bake a Better Pi Than Raspberry?

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Introduction

I love my Raspberry Pi, but I find it’s limited 1Gig of RAM can be quite restricting. It is still pretty amazing what you can do with these $35 computers. I was disappointed when the Raspberry Foundation announced that the Raspberry Pi 4 is still over a year away, so I started to look at Raspberry Pi alternatives. I wanted something with 4Gig of RAM and a faster ARM processor. I was considering purchasing an Odroid N2, when I saw the press release from NVidia’s Developer Conference that they just released their NVidia Jetson Nano Developer Kit. This board has a faster ARM A57 quad core processor, 4 Gig of RAM plus the bonus of a 128 core Maxwell GPU. The claim being that this is an ideal DIY computer for those interested in AI and machine learning (i.e. me). It showed up for sale on arrow.com, so I bought one and received it via FedEx in 2 days.

Setup

If you already have a Raspberry Pi, setup is easy, since you can unplug things from the Pi and plug them into the Nano, namely the power supply, keyboard, monitor and mouse. Like the Pi, the Nano runs from a microSD card, so I reformatted one of my Pi cards to a download of the variant of Ubuntu Linux that NVidia provides for these. Once the operating system was burned to the microSD card, I plugged it into the Nano and away I went.

One difference from the Pi is that the Nano does not have built in Wifi or Bluetooth. Fortunately the room I’m setting this up in has a wired Internet port, so I went into the garage and found a long Internet cable in my box of random cables, plugged it in and was all connected to the Internet. You can plug a USB Wifi dongle in if you need Wifi, or there is an M.2 E slot (which is hard to access) for an M.2 Wifi card. Just be careful of compatibility, since the drivers need to be compiled for ARM64 Linux.

The board doesn’t come with a case, but the box folds into a stand to hold the board. For now that is how I’m running. If they sell enough of these, I’m sure cases will appear, but you will need to ensure there is enough ventilation for the huge heat sink.

Initial Impressions

The Jetson Nano certainly feels faster than the Raspberry Pi. This is all helped by the faster ARM processor, the quadrupled memory, using the GPU cores for graphics acceleration and that the version of Linux is 64 Bit (unlike Raspbian which is 32 Bit). It ran the pre installed Chromium Browser quite well.

As I installed more software, I found that writing large amounts of data to the microSD card can be a real bottleneck, and I would often have to wait for it to catch up. This is more pronounced than on the Pi, probably because other things are quite slow as well. It would be nice if there was an M.2 M interface for an NVMe SSD drive, but there isn’t. I ordered a faster microSD card (over three times faster than what I have) and hope that helps. I can also try putting some things on a USB SSD, but again this isn’t the fastest.

I tried running the TensorFlow MNIST tutorial program. The version of TensorFlow for this is 1.11. If I want to try TensorFlow 2.0, I’ll have to compile it myself for ARM64, which I haven’t attempted yet. Anyway, TensorFlow automatically used the GPU and executed the tutorial orders of magnitude faster than the Pi (a few minutes versus several hours). So I was impressed with that.

This showed up another gotcha. The GPU cores and CPU share the same memory. So when TensorFlow used the GPU, that took a lot of memory away from the CPU. I was running the tutorial in a Jupyter notebook running locally, so that meant I was running a web server, Chromium, Python, and then TensorFlow with bits on the CPU and GPU. This tended to use up all memory and then things would grind to a halt until garbage collection sorted things out. Running from scratch was fine, but running iteratively felt like it kept hitting a wall. I think the lesson here is that to do machine learning training on this board, I really have to use a lighter Python environment than Jupyter.

The documentation mentions a utility to control the processor speeds of the ARM cores and GPU cores, so you can tune the heat produced. I think this is more for if you embed the board inside something, but beware this sucker can run hot if you keep all the various processors busy.

How is it so Cheap?

The NVidia Jetson Nano costs $99 USD. The Odroid is $79 so it is fairly competitive with other boards trying to be super-Pis. However, it is cheaper than pretty much any NVidia graphics card and even their Nano compute board (which has no ports and costs $129 in quantities of 1000).

The obvious cost saving is no Wifi and no bluetooth. Another is the lack of a SATA or M.2 M interface. It does have a camera interface, a serial interface and a Pi like GPIO block.

The Nano has 128 Maxwell GPU cores. Sounds impressive, but remember most graphics cards have 700 to 4000 cores. Further Maxwell is the oldest supported platform (version 5) where as the newest is the version 7 Volta core.

I think NVidia is keeping the cost low, to get the DIY crowd using their technologies, they’ve seen the success of the Raspberry Pi community and want to duplicate it for their various processor boards. I also think they want to be in the ARM board game, so as better ARM processors come out, they might hope to supplant Intel in producing motherboards for desktop and laptop computers.

Summary

If the Raspberry Pi 4 team can produce something like this for $35 they will have a real winner. I’m enjoying playing with the board and learning what it can do. So far I’ve been pretty impressed. There are some limitations, but given the $100 price tag, I don’t think you can lose. You can play with parallel processing with the GPU cores, you can interface to robots with the GPIO pins, or play with object recognition via the camera interface.

For an DIY board, there are a lot of projects you can take on.

 

Playing with Julia 1.0 on the Raspberry Pi

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Introduction

A couple of weeks ago I saw the press release about the release of version 1.0 of the Julia programming language and thought I’d check it out. I saw it was available for the Raspberry Pi, so I booted up my Pi and installed it. Julia has been in development since 2012, it was created by four MIT professors as an open source project for mathematical computing.

Why Julia?

Most people doing data science and numerical computing use the Python or R languages. Both of these are open source languages with huge followings. All new machine learning projects need to integrate to these to get anywhere. Both are very productive environments, so why do we need a new one? The main complaint about Python and R is that these are interpreted languages and as a result are very slow when compared to compiled languages like C. They both get around this by supporting large libraries of optimized code written in C, C++, Assembler and Fortran to give highly optimized off the shelf algorithms. These work great, but if one of these doesn’t apply and you need to write Python loops to process a large data set then it can get really frustrating. Another frustration with Python is that it doesn’t have a built in array data type and relies on the numpy and pandas libraries. Between these you can do a lot, but there are holes and strange differences between the two systems.

Julia has a powerful builtin array type and most of the array manipulation features of numpy and pandas are built in to the core language. Further Julia was created from scratch around powerful new just in time (JIT) compiler technology to provide both the speed of development of an interpreted language combined with the speed of a compiled language. You don’t get the full speed of C, but it’s close and a lot better than Python.

The Julia language borrows a lot of features from Python and I find programming in it quite similar. There are tuples, sets, dictionaries and comprehensions. Functions can return multiple values. For loops work very similarly to Python with ranges (using the : built into the language rather than the range() function).

Julia can call C functions directly (meaning you can get pointers to objects), and this allows many wrapper objects to have been created for other systems such as TensorFlow. This is why Julia is very precise about the physical representation of data types and the ability to get a pointer to any data.

Julia uses the end keyword to terminate blocks of code, rather than Pythons forced indentation or C’s semicolons. You can use semicolons to have multiple statements on one line, but don’t need them at the end of a line unless you want it to return null.

Julia has native built in support of most numeric data types including complex numbers and rational numbers. It has types for all the common hardware supported ints and floats. Then it also has arbitrary precision types build around GNU’s bignum library.

There are currently 1906 registered Julia packages and you can see the emphasis on scientific computing, along with machine learning and data science.

The creators of Julia always keep performance at the top of mind. As a result the parallelization support is exceptional along with the ability to run Julia code on CUDA NVidia graphics cards and easily setup clusters.

Is Julia Ready for Prime Time?

As of the time of this writing, the core Julia 1.0 language has been released and looks quite good. Many companies have produced impressive working systems with the 0.x versions of Julia. However right now there are a few problems.

  • Although Julia 1.0 has been released, most of the add on packages haven’t been upgraded to this version yet. In the first release you need to add the Pkg package to add other packages to discourage people using them yet. For instance the library with GPIO support for the Pi is still at version 0.6 and if you add it to 1.0 you get a syntax error in the include file.
  • They have released the binaries for all the versions of Julia, but these haven’t made them into the various package management systems yet. So for instance if you do “sudo apt install julia” on a Raspberry Pi, you still get version 0.6.

Hopefully these problems will be sorted out fairly quickly and are just a result of being too close to the bleeding edge.

I was able to get Julia 1.0 going on my Raspberry Pi by downloading the ARM32 files from Julia’s website and then manually copying them over the 0.6 release. Certainly 1.0 works much better than 0.6 (which segmentation faults pretty much every time you have a syntax error). Hopefully they update Raspbian’s apt repository shortly.

Julia for Machine Learning

There is a TensorFlow.jl wrapper to use Google’s TensorFlow. However the Julia group put out a white paper dissing the TensorFlow approach. Essentially TensorFlow is a separate programming language that you use from another programming language like Python. This results in a lot of duplication and forces the programmer to operate in two different paradigms at once. To solve this problem, Julia has the Flux machine learning system built natively in Julia. This is a fairly powerful machine learning system that is really easy to use, reducing the learning curve to getting working models. Hopefully I’ll write a bit more about Flux in a future article.

Summary

Julia 1.0 looks really promising. I think in a month or so all the add-on packages should be updated to the 1.0 level and all the binaries should make it out to the various package distribution repositories. In the meantime, it’s a good time to learn Julia and you can accomplish a lot with the core language.

I was planning to publish a version of my LED flashing light program in Julia, but with the PiGPIO package not updated to 1.0 yet, this will have to wait for a future article.

 

Written by smist08

August 31, 2018 at 7:34 pm

Erlang on the Raspberry Pi

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Introduction

Erlang is a rather interesting programming language with a number of rather unique properties. If you are used to procedural languages like C or its many variants, then Erlang will appear very different. Erlang was originally developed by Ericsson to program telephone switches. The name is either based on Ericsson Language or is named after Agner Krarup Erlang depending on who you ask. In Erlang there are no loops, all loops are accomplished via recursion. Similarly once a variable is assigned, it can never be changed (is immutable). A lot of the function execution is controlled via pattern matching. Beyond the basic language the Erlang system is used to create highly available, scalable fault tolerant systems. You can even swap code on the fly without stopping the system. Erlang is still used in many telephony type applications, but it is also used to create highly reliable and scalable web sites. The best known being WhatsApp. Plus Facebook, Yahoo and many others have services implemented in Erlang serving massive numbers of users.

In this article we’ll begin to look at the basic language and consider an implementation of our flashing LED program for the Raspberry Pi implemented in pure Erlang. ERLang runs on most operating systems and is open source now. It is easy to add to the Raspberry Pi and is a very good system if you want to make use of a cluster of Raspberry Pis.

How to Run the Program

Erlang doesn’t come pre-installed with Raspbian, but it’s easy to add with the command:

sudo apt-get install erlang

After this completes you are good to go.

Erlang includes a terminal based command system where you can compile modules and call functions. To run the programs included here, you need to save the first file as lights.erl and the second as gpio.erl. Then you can compile and execute the program as indicated in the screenshot of my terminal window below:

Some things to note:

  1. Erlang is case sensitive and case has meaning. For instance variables start with a capital letter and functions with a lowercase letter.
  2. Punctuation is very important. The periods end a statement and in the erl shell will cause it to execute. If you miss the period, nothing will happen until you enter one (it assumes you have more text to enter). Similarly inside functions , and ; have a specific meaning that affects how things run.
  3. You do everything by calling functions both in the shell and in the Erlang language. So the c() function compiles a module (produces a .beam file). The q() function exits the shell after terminating all programs. lights:flashinglights() is our exported entry point function to run the program with. You can also call things like ls() to get a directory listing or cd() to change directories or pwd() to find out where you are. Remember to enter any lines with a period to terminate the line.
  4. To access the gpio /sys files, erl must be run from sudo. You could fix the file system permissions, but this seems easy enough.

Flashing LED Program

Below is my main module to flash the lights. Unlike the C or Fortran version of this program, there is no loop, since loops don’t exist in Erlang. Instead it uses recursion to accomplish the same things. (Actually in the Erlang tutorials there are design patterns on how to accomplish while or for loops with recursion). Notice that once a variable is assigned it can never be changed. But you accomplish the same thing with recursion by passing a modified version of the variable into a function. Similarly you can preserve variables using function closures, but I don’t do that here. I included edoc comments which are Erlang version of JavaDoc. Otherwise this is just intended to give a flavour for the language without going into too much detail.

 

%% @author Stephen Smith
%% @copyright 2018 Stephen Smith
%% @version 1.0.0
%% @doc
%% A erlang implementation of my flashing lights program
%% for the Raspberry Pi.
%% @end

-module(lights).
-export([flashlights/0]).
-author('Stephen Smith').

flashlights() ->
    Leds = init(),
    flash(Leds, 10).

init() ->
    L0 = gpio:init(17, out),
    L1 = gpio:init(27, out),
    L2 = gpio:init(22, out),
    {L0, L1, L2}.

flash(Leds, Times) when Times > 0 ->
    gpio:write(element(1, Leds), 1),
    timer:sleep(200),
    gpio:write(element(1, Leds), 0),
    gpio:write(element(2, Leds), 1),
    timer:sleep(200),
    gpio:write(element(2, Leds), 0),
    gpio:write(element(3, Leds), 1),
    timer:sleep(200),
    gpio:write(element(3, Leds), 0),

    flash(Leds, Times-1);

flash(Leds, Times) when Times =< 0 ->
    true.

Erlang GPIO Library

Rather than write the file access library for the GPIO drivers myself, doing a quick Google search revealed several existing ones including this one from Paolo Oliveira.

 

%% @author Paolo Oliveira <paolo@fisica.ufc.br>
%% @copyright 2015-2016 Paolo Oliveira (license MIT)
%% @version 1.0.0
%% @doc
%% A simple, pure erlang implementation of a module for 
%% <b>Raspberry Pi's General Purpose
%% Input/Output</b> (GPIO), using the standard Linux kernel
%% interface for user-space, sysfs,
%% available at <b>/sys/class/gpio/</b>.
%% @end

-module(gpio).
-export([init/1, init/2, handler/2, read/1, write/2, stop/1]).
-author('Paolo Oliveira <paolo@fisica.ufc.br>').

%% API

% @doc: Initialize a Pin as input or output.
init(Pin, Direction) ->
  Ref = configure(Pin, Direction),
  Pid = spawn(?MODULE, handler, [Ref, Pin]),
  Pid.

% @doc: A shortcut to initialize a Pin as output.
init(Pin) ->
  init(Pin, out).

% @doc: Stop using and release the Pin referenced as file descriptor Ref.
stop(Ref) ->
  Ref ! stop,
  ok.

% @doc: Read from an initialized Pin referenced as the file descriptor Ref.
read(Ref) ->
  Ref ! {recv, self()},
  receive
    Msg ->
      Msg
  end.

% @doc: Write value Val to an initialized Pin referenced as the file descriptor Ref.
write(Ref, Val) ->
  Ref ! {send, Val},
  ok.

%% Internals

configure(Pin, Direction) ->
  DirectionFile = "/sys/class/gpio/gpio" ++ integer_to_list(Pin) ++ "/direction",

  % Export the GPIO pin
  {ok, RefExport} = file:open("/sys/class/gpio/export", [write]),
  file:write(RefExport, integer_to_list(Pin)),
  file:close(RefExport),

  % It can take a moment for the GPIO pin file to be created.
  case filelib:is_file(DirectionFile) of
      true -> ok;
      false -> receive after 1000 -> ok end
  end,

  {ok, RefDirection} = file:open(DirectionFile, [write]),
  case Direction of
    in -> file:write(RefDirection, "in");
    out -> file:write(RefDirection, "out")
  end,
  file:close(RefDirection),
  {ok, RefVal} = file:open("/sys/class/gpio/gpio" ++ integer_to_list(Pin) ++ "/value", [read, write]),
  RefVal.

release(Pin) ->
  {ok, RefUnexport} = file:open("/sys/class/gpio/unexport", [write]),
  file:write(RefUnexport, integer_to_list(Pin)),
  file:close(RefUnexport).

% @doc: Message passing interface, should not be used directly, it is present for debugging purpose.
handler(Ref, Pin) ->
  receive
    {send, Val} ->
      file:position(Ref, 0),
      file:write(Ref, integer_to_list(Val)),
      handler(Ref, Pin);
    {recv, From} ->
      file:position(Ref, 0),
      {ok, Data} = file:read(Ref, 1),
      From ! Data,
      handler(Ref, Pin);
    stop ->
      file:close(Ref),
      release(Pin),
      ok
   end.

%% End of Module.

Summary

Erlang is a very interesting language. If you are interested in functional programming or how to create highly scalable reliable web servers, then Erlang is definitely worth checking out. We only looked at a quick introduction to the language, really by example. There are lots of good documentation, tutorials and samples just a Google search away. Perhaps in a future article we’ll look at processes and messages and how to build such a highly scalable server.

 

Written by smist08

February 18, 2018 at 11:59 pm

Posted in raspberry pi

Tagged with , ,

Kali Linux on the Raspberry Pi

with one comment

Introduction

Raspbian is the main operating system for the Raspberry Pi, but there are quite a few alternatives. Raspbian is based on Debian Linux and there has been a good uptake on the Raspberry Pi which means that most Linux applications have ARM compiled packages available through the Debian APT package manager. As a consequence it’s quite easy to create a Raspberry Pi Linux distribution, so there are quite a few of them. Kali Linux is a specialist distribution that is oriented to hackers (both black and white hat). It comes with a large number of hacking tools for gaining access to networks, compromising computers, spying on communications and other fun things. One cool thing is that Kali Linux has a stripped down version for the Raspberry Pi that is oriented towards a number of specialized purposes. However with the apt-get package manager you can add pretty well anything that has been left out.

If you watch the TV show Mr. Robot (highly recommended) then you might notice that all the cool in-the-know people are running Kali Linux. If you want to get a taste of what it’s all about and you have a Raspberry Pi then all you need is a free micro-SD card to give it a try.

Are You a Black or White Hat?

If you are a black hat hacker looking to infiltrate or damage another computer system, then you probably aren’t reading this blog. Instead you are somewhere on the darknet reading much more malicious articles than this one. This article is oriented more to white hat hackers or to system administrators looking to secure their computing resources. The reason it’s important for system administrators to know about this stuff is that they need to know what they are really protecting against. Hackers are very clever and are always coming up with new hacks and techniques. So it’s important for the good guys to know a bit about how hackers think and to have defenses and protections against the imaginative attacks that might come their way. This now includes the things the bad guys might try to do with a Raspberry Pi.

Anyone that is responsible for securing a network or computer has to test their security and certainly one easy way to get started is to hit it with all the exploit tools included with Kali Linux.

Why Kali on the Pi?

A lot of hacking tasks like cracking WiFi passwords take a lot of processing power. Cracking WPA2 passwords is usually done on very powerful computers with multiple GPU cards and very large dictionary databases. Accomplishing this on a Raspberry Pi would pretty much take forever if it could actually do it. Many hacking tasks are of this nature, very compute intensive.

The Raspberry Pi is useful due to its low cost and small size. The low cost makes it disposable, if you lose it then it doesn’t matter so much and the small size means you can hide it easily. So for instance one use would be to hide a Raspberry Pi at the site you are trying to hack. Then the Raspberry Pi can monitor the Wifi traffic looking for useful data packets that can give away information. Or even leave the Pi somewhere hidden connected to a hardwired ethernet connection. Then Kali Linux has tools to get this information to external sources in a secretive way and allows you to remotely control it to direct various attacks.

Many companies build their security like eggs with a hard to penetrate shell and often locating a device on their premises can bypass their main security protections. You can then run repeated metasploit attacks looking for weaknesses from the inside. Remember your security should be more like an onion with multiple nested layers, so getting through one doesn’t give an attacker access to everything.

Installing Kali Linux

The Kali Linux web site includes a complete disk image of the Raspberry Pi version. You just need to burn this to a micro-SD card using a tool like ApplePi Baker. They you just put the micro-SD in your Raspberry Pi, turn it on and off you go. However there are a few necessary steps to take before you really start:

  1. The root password is toor, so change this first time you boot up.
  2. The Kali Linux instructions point out you need to refresh your SSH certificates since otherwise you get the ones included with the image. The download page has instructions on how to do this.
  3. The image is configured for 8Gig so if you have a larger SD card then you need to repartition it to get all the free space. I used the GParted program for this which I got via “apt-get install gparted”. Note that to use apt-get you need to connect to WiFi or the Internet. Another option is to get Raspbian’s configuration program and use that, it works with most variants of Debian Linux and allows you to do some other things like setup overclocking. You can Google for the wget command to get this.
  4. Update the various installed programs via “apt-get update” and “apt-get upgrade”. (If you aren’t still logged on as root you need to sudo these).

Now you are pretty much ready to play. Notice that you are in a nice graphical environment and that the application menu is full of hacking tools. These aren’t as many hacking tools as the full Kali distribution, but these are all ones that work well on the Raspberry Pi. They als limited the number so you can run off a really cheap 8 Gig micro-SD card.

I see people say you should stick to command line versions of the tools on the Pi due to its processing power and limited memory, but I found I could add the GUI versions and these worked fine. For instance the nmap tool is installed, but the zenmap graphical front end isn’t. Adding zenmap is easy via “apt-get install zenmap” and then this seems to work fine. I think the assumption is that most people will use the Raspberry version of Kali headless (meaning no screen or keyboard) so it needs to be accessed via remote control software like secure shell which means you want to avoid GUIs.

Summary

Installing Kali Linux on a micro-SD card for your Raspberry Pi si a great way to learn about the various tools that hackers can easily use to try and penetrate, spy on or interfere with people’s computers. There are quite a few books on this as well as many great resources on the Web. Kali’s website is a great starting point. Anyway I find it quite eye opening the variety of readily tools and how easy it is for anyone to use them.

Written by smist08

January 16, 2018 at 3:01 am

Flashing LEDs in Assembler

with one comment

Introduction

Previously I wrote an article on an introduction to Assembler programming on the Raspberry Pi. This was quite a long article without much of a coding example, so I wanted to produce an Assembler  language version of the little program I did in Python, Scratch, Fortran and C to flash three LEDs attached to the Raspberry Pi’s GPIO port on a breadboard. So in this article I’ll introduce that program.

This program is fairly minimal. It doesn’t do any error checking, but it does work. I don’t use any external libraries, and only make calls to Linux (Raspbian) via software interrupts (SVC 0). I implemented a minimal GPIO library using Assembler Macros along with the necessary file I/O and sleep Linux system calls. There probably aren’t enough comments in the code, but at this point it is fairly small and the macros help to modularize and explain things.

Main Program

Here is the main program, that probably doesn’t look structurally that different than the C code, since the macro names roughly match up to those in the GPIO library the C function called. The main bit of Assembler code here is to do the loop through flashing the lights 10 times. This is pretty straight forward, just load 10 into register r6 and then decrement it until it hits zero.

 

@
@ Assembler program to flash three LEDs connected to the
@ Raspberry Pi GPIO port.
@
@ r6 - loop variable to flash lights 10 times
@

.include "gpiomacros.s"

.global _start             @ Provide program starting address to linker

_start: GPIOExport  pin17
        GPIOExport  pin27
        GPIOExport  pin22

        nanoSleep

        GPIODirectionOut pin17
        GPIODirectionOut pin27
        GPIODirectionOut pin22

        @ setup a loop counter for 10 iterations
        mov         r6, #10

loop:   GPIOWrite   pin17, high
        nanoSleep
        GPIOWrite   pin17, low
        GPIOWrite   pin27, high
        nanoSleep
        GPIOWrite   pin27, low
        GPIOWrite   pin22, high
        nanoSleep
        GPIOWrite   pin22, low

        @decrement loop counter and see if we loop
        subs    r6, #1      @ Subtract 1 from loop register setting status register
        bne     loop        @ If we haven't counted down to 0 then loop

_end:   mov     R0, #0      @ Use 0 return code
        lsl     R0, #2      @ Shift R0 left by 2 bits (ie multiply by 4)
        mov     R7, #1      @ Service command code 1 terminates this program
        svc     0           @ Linus command to terminate program

pin17:      .asciz  "17"
pin27:      .asciz  "27"
pin22:      .asciz  "22"
low:        .asciz  "0"
high:       .asciz  "1"

 

GPIO and Linux Macros

Now the real guts of the program are in the Assembler macros. Again it isn’t too bad. We use the Linux service calls to open, write, flush and close the GPIO device files in /sys/class/gpio. Similarly nanosleep is also a Linux service call for a high resolution timer. Note that ARM doesn’t have memory to memory or operations on memory type instructions, so to do anything we need to load it into a register, process it and write it back out. Hence to copy the pin number to the file name we load the two pin characters and store them to the file name memory area. Hard coding the offset for this as 20 isn’t great, we could have used a .equ directive, or better yet implemented a string scan, but for quick and dirty this is fine. Similarly we only implemented the parameters we really needed and ignored anything else. We’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to flush these out more. Note that when we copy the first byte of the pin number, we include a #1 on the end of the ldrb and strb instructions, this will do a post increment by one on the index register that holds the memory location. This means the ARM is really very efficient in accessing arrays (even without using Neon) we combine the array read/write with the index increment all in one instruction.

If you are wondering how you find the Linux service calls, you look in /usr/include/arm-linux-gnueabihf/asm/unistd.h. This C include file has all the function numbers for the Linux system calls. Then you Google the call for its parameters and they go in order in registers r0, r1, …, r6, with the return code coming back in r0.

 

@ Various macros to access the GPIO pins
@ on the Raspberry Pi.

@ R5 is used for the file descriptor

.macro  openFile    fileName
        ldr         r0, =\fileName
        mov         r1, #01     @ O_WRONLY
        mov r7,     #5          @ 5 is system call number for open
        svc         0
.endm

.macro  writeFile   buffer, length
        mov         r0, r5      @ file descriptor
        ldr         r1, =\buffer
        mov         r2, #\length
        mov         r7, #4 @ 4 is write
        svc         0
.endm

.macro  flushClose
@fsync syscall
        mov         r0, r5
        mov         r7, #118    @ 118 is flush
        svc         0

@close syscall
        mov         r0, r5
        mov         r7, #6      @ 6 is close
        svc         0
.endm

@ Macro nanoSleep to sleep .1 second
@ Calls Linux nanosleep entry point which is function 162.
@ Pass a reference to a timespec in both r0 and r1
@ First is input time to sleep in seconds and nanoseconds.
@ Second is time left to sleep if interrupted (which we ignore)

.macro  nanoSleep
        ldr         r0, =timespecsec
        ldr         r1, =timespecsec
        mov         r7, #162    @ 162 is nanosleep
        svc         0
.endm

.macro  GPIOExport  pin
        openFile    gpioexp
        mov         r5, r0      @ save the file descriptor
        writeFile   \pin, 2
        flushClose
.endm

.macro  GPIODirectionOut   pin
        @ copy pin into filename pattern
        ldr         r1, =\pin
        ldr         r2, =gpiopinfile
        add         r2, #20
        ldrb        r3, [r1], #1 @ load pin and post increment
        strb        r3, [r2], #1 @ store to filename and post increment
        ldrb        r3, [r1]
        strb        r3, [r2]
        openFile    gpiopinfile
        writeFile   outstr, 3
        flushClose
.endm

.macro  GPIOWrite   pin, value
        @ copy pin into filename pattern
        ldr         r1, =\pin
        ldr         r2, =gpiovaluefile
        add         r2, #20
        ldrb        r3, [r1], #1    @ load pin and post increment
        strb        r3, [r2], #1    @ store to filename and post increment
        ldrb        r3, [r1]
        strb        r3, [r2]
        openFile    gpiovaluefile
        writeFile   \value, 1
        flushClose
.endm

.data
timespecsec:   .word   0
timespecnano:  .word   100000000
gpioexp:    .asciz  "/sys/class/gpio/export"
gpiopinfile: .asciz "/sys/class/gpio/gpioxx/direction"
gpiovaluefile: .asciz "/sys/class/gpio/gpioxx/value"
outstr:     .asciz  "out"
            .align  2          @ save users of this file having to do this.
.text

Makefile

Here is a simple makefile for the project if you name the files as indicated. Again note that WordPress and Google Docs may mess up white space and quote characters so these might need to be fixed if you copy/paste.

model: model.o
    ld -o model model.o

model.o: model.s gpiomacros.s
    as -ggdb3 -o model.o model.s

clean:
    rm model model.o

 

IDE or Not to IDE

People often do Assembler language development in an IDE like Code::Blocks. Code::Blocks doesn’t support Assembler language projects, but you can add Assembler language files to C projects. This is a pretty common way to do development since you want to do more programming in a higher level language like C. This way you also get full use of the C runtime. I didn’t do this, I just used a text editor, make and gdb (command line). This way the above program has no extra overhead the executable is quite small since there is no C runtime or any other library linked to it. The debug version of the executable is only 2904 bytes long and non debug is 2376 bytes. Of course if I really wanted to reduce executable size, I could have used function calls rather than Assembler macros as the macros duplicate the code everywhere they are used.

Summary

Assembler language programming is kind of fun. But I don’t think I would want to do too large a project this way. Hats off to the early personal computer programmers who wrote spreadsheet programs, word processors and games entirely in Assembler. Certainly writing a few Assembler programs gives you a really good understanding of how the underlying computer hardware works and what sort of things your computer can do really efficiently. You could even consider adding compiler optimizations for your processor to GCC, after all compiler code generation has a huge effect on your computer’s performance.

Written by smist08

January 7, 2018 at 7:08 pm