Raspberry Pi as a Dev Server

August 18, 2016

Readers Galore! This post came originally from a Toptal Freelance Software Engineer.  The original article can be located here: https://www.toptal.com/raspberry-pi/how-to-turn-your-raspberry-pi-into-a-development-server. Toptal is an exclusive network of the top freelance software developers and designers in the world. Top companies rely on Toptal freelancers for the their most important projects. Check them out at https://www.toptal.com/.

Now for the awesome article by Pablo Villoslada Puigcerber...


How to Turn Your Raspberry Pi Into a Development Server

The Raspberry Pi is a little computer that you can get for as low as US $35 and on which you can run many different types of software and build many different projects. In this article, I’m going to guide you through the process of setting it up as a home development server and deploying a full-stack JavaScript application that you can access from outside your network. This is great for setting up your own remote digital workspace, or simply to have control over the hardware you use for development.

What Do You Need?

In February 2015, the second generation Raspberry Pi was released with more memory and CPU power. This tutorial will also work fine on the first generation model (in fact, this is what I am using), but if you don’t have one yet, you will be better off buying the latest Raspberry Pi 2 Model B from one of the distributors.

In addition to the board itself, you will need:

  • A Micro USB charger
  • An Ethernet cable
  • A microSD card (minimum 8GB, and cards up to 32GB seem to work fine)

These will also come in handy during the initial setup:

  • A USB keyboard
  • An HDMI cable and monitor

The Raspberry Pi Operating System: Raspbian

Installing an operating system onto a Raspberry Pi is simple. First, using your computer, install the boot image onto a microSD card. Then simply insert the card into the Raspberry Pi, and boot from there.

Raspbian is a Linux distribution ported from Debian 7.0 (Wheezy), and is the official OS for Raspbery Pi optimized for the device’s artchitecture. While there are other options for running your favorite OS on the Pi, we’ll use Raspbian because of its simplicity.

To install Raspbian, head to the official download page and download the zip file with the latest Raspbian version. Then, insert the microSD card into your computer’s SD card slot or adapter. Depending on your computer’s operating system, follow the instructions provided on Raspberry’s website for Linux, Mac OS, orWindows.

Once the process is finished, eject the SD card from your computer and insert it into the Raspberry Pi. Connect the Raspberry Pi to your router using the Ethernet cable, and plug in the Micro USB charger, which will start the Raspberry Pi booting.

For the initial configuration there are two options:

  • If you have a USB keyboard and an HDMI monitor, you can plug them into the Raspberry Pi for the initial setup.
  • Your Pi should recognize these devices as soon as they are plugged in.
  • The first time the Pi boots, it will automatically run raspi-config. After the first boot, you will need to run sudo raspi-config yourself in order to configure the device.
  • If you don’t have them, you can connect to your Raspberry Pi while it is on using SSH:
  • First, you need to find the IP address of your Raspberry Pi in your local network. This can be done byconnecting to your router’s admin page, or by using a network tool like nmap.
  • Once you have the device’s IP address, connect to it using SSH from your terminal (or through Putty if you’re using Windows). The default user is pi, and the default password is raspberry. So, for example, if the IP address is, run ssh pi@ and enter the password when prompted.
  • When you are connected, run sudo raspi-config.

Raspi-config will walk you through the final setup. You can configure all the options but the most important are the first two: to expand the filesystem, ensuring that all the SD card storage is available for the OS, and to change the password for the default Pi user, so that your server will be protected from intruders.

Install the Web Server: Nginx

Next, you’ll install the webserver. I prefer Nginx because it has a small memory footprint, and because it plays well with Node.js (which you’ll be setting up later). Other web servers, such as Apache or lighttpd, would work as well, but you’ll use Nginx for this demonstration.

Before you start installing anything, you need to be sure everything is up to date by running these commands on the Pi:

sudo apt-get update sudo apt-get upgrade

Then you can install Nginx using apt-get:

sudo apt-get install nginx

Once installation is completed, start the server by running:

sudo service nginx start

If you didn’t have to figure out the local IP of your Raspberry Pi in the previous step, it’s time to find out by running ifconfig. The output for your ethernet adaptor will be under eth0, and with it’s local IP address labeled inet addr.

Once you know the IP address, you can point the your computer’s browser at it, where you should see the default Welcome to Nginx message.

Open to the Web: Port Forwarding

You can skip this step if you are not planning to access your Raspberry Pi from outside your local network. But for those wanting to access their server from other locations, let’s make sure that’s possible.

In a typical home network, devices connected to the router are invisible to the outside world. Only your router can be reached from outside, using your network’s external IP address. Your router is responsible for determining which incoming traffic is allowed into the network, and which device it should be sent to.

When a device on the local network initiates a connection (for example, when you open a website on your browser), the router recognizes the incoming response traffic as being part of this connection, and allows it through. However, if the router receives incoming traffic that is not part of an open connection (for example, when an outside device attempts to initiate a connection with an inside device), it will block the incoming traffic from crossing into the network. This is an important security feature to protect the network!

So how can you connect to your Pi from outside? The answer is port forwarding. The router must be configured to allow incoming connections on specific ports to pass through, and be sent to the correct device. By the default, the HTTP protocol uses port 80, and SSH uses port 22, so these are the two ports that you need to open on your router in order to access your web application, and allow secure connections for managing your server.

The steps to configure your router to open and forward the ports may vary depending on your internet provider and the brand of your router, but in any case, you should be able to accomplish it through the advanced configuration options of your router’s admin page. Just look for an option with a name like “Forwarding,” “Port Forwarding,” or “Network Address Translation.”

You need to open a port for HTTP connections, and another one for SSH. The basic idea consists of forwarding data addressed to these two external ports to your Raspberry Pi, with web traffic going to port 80 where Nginx is listening, and SSH traffic going to port 22, where the SSH server accepts connections from external computers. Here’s an example of how this might look in your router’s configuration page:

Port forwarding configuration if your Raspberry Pi’s internal IP address is All incoming traffic bound for ports 80 or 22 are forwarded to this internal address.

You can determine your router’s external IP address by simply typing “what’s my ip address” into Google. If you then move outside your router’s network, you can test that port forwarding is working by opening an SSH connection with ssh pi@{external IP address}. Likewise, HTTP port forwarding can be tested by entering the external IP address into your browser’s address bar. Just keep in mind that port forwarding allows anyone from outside to access the device on these ports if they know your router’s external IP.

Install the Framework: Full-stack JavaScript

You can run most web frameworks on top of Nginx, but let’s see how to go full stack with JavaScript. To do this, you need to install Node.js and MongoDB.

Node.js is easily installed onto the Raspberry Pi’s ARM architecture thanks to the node-arm project:

wget http://node-arm.herokuapp.com/node_latest_armhf.deb sudo dpkg -i node_latest_armhf.deb

Once it finishes installing, you can check if it’s working by running node -v.

Unfortunately, off-the-shelf MongoDB doesn’t currently run on ARM machines, and although the MongoDB team is working on the issue, there is no official support yet.

So for now, you can’t have the latest MongoDB. But, as always, the community provides other solutions, and the easiest I’ve found (without the need of compiling the code by yourself) is this repository, which will set up version 2.1.1 of MongoDB:

git clone https://github.com/svvitale/mongo4pi cd mongo4pi ./install.sh

To start the MongoDB shell, you need to modify your path to access the binaries:

PATH=$PATH:/opt/mongo/bin/ export PATH

Just be aware that if you ever need to turn off the Raspberry Pi, you need to shut down the service first in order to avoid database corruption:

sudo service mongod stop

Deploy Your App

You can develop on your local machine, and then push your changes to a Git repository on Bitbucket. Since Raspbian comes with Git preinstalled, you can then pull your latest application code onto the device and run it.

Scaffold the Project

First let’s set up some application code and push it to a Git repository. There are many ways of starting an application, but one of my favorites is generator-angular-fullstack, which scaffolds both server and client code.

Install the generator-angular-fullstack in your computer:

npm install -g generator-angular-fullstack

Create a new directory for your application:

mkdir my-app cd my-app

And scaffold the application:

yo angular-fullstack my-app

Create the Repository and Push the Code

Now create a repository in Bitbucket, as described here. Then set up your local directory:

git init git remote add origin git@bitbucket.org:USER/REPO.git

So you can commit and push the code:

git add . git commit -m 'Initial commit' git push -u origin master

The generator comes with the grunt-build-control plugin, which allows you to commit the build code to a specific branch in your repository. Just add the configuration for Bitbucket to Gruntfile.js in your application’s root directory:

buildcontrol: {   options: {      dir: 'dist',      commit: true,      push: true,      connectCommits: false,      message: 'Built %sourceName% from commit %sourceCommit% on branch %sourceBranch%'   },   bitbucket: {      options: {         remote: 'git@bitbucket.org:USER/REPO.git',         branch: 'build'      }   } }, ...

Now run:

grunt build

To create the distribution folder, followed by:

grunt buildcontrol:bitbucket

To commit and push the code to the build branch in your repository.

Generate the SSH Key

You now have your code hosted. Before you can deploy it to your Raspberry Pi, you need to generate an SSH key for the Raspberry Pi and add it to your Bitbucket account. We’ll run through this step quickly, but if you have any trouble, please follow the Bitbucket guide. So, log back into your Raspberry Pi terminal, and generate the public/private key pair:


Then, start the agent:

ssh-agent /bin/bash

And add the key to the agent:

ssh-add /home/pi/.ssh/id_rsa

Now you just need to output the content of the public key:

cat /home/pi/.ssh/id_rsa.pub

So you can copy and paste it into Bitbucket.

In Bitbucket, click on your profile picture and go to Manage account. Under SECURITY, find SSH keys, and click the button Add key.

Clone the Repository

There isn’t a convention for where to place the code of your apps, but you can create a /var/www directory and put all your projects there.

cd /var sudo mkdir www

To avoid the use of sudo when you want to place files in the webroot, you can change the owner to your Pi user, and the group to www-data, which is used by Nginx:

sudo chown -R pi:www-data www cd www

Now, you can clone the build branch of your repository and install the dependencies:

git clone git@bitbucket.org:USER/REPO.git --branch build --single-branch cd REPO npm install --production

Once it’s finished you can start your app, setting the environment to production:

export NODE_ENV=production; node server/app.js &

And point your computer browser to the device IP address to check if it works.

Wish you had a dev server you could call your own? You can, with a #RaspberryPi. 

Configure Nginx Reverse Proxy

There is one more step remaining to make your application accessible from the outside. Although Nginx is listening on port 80, where it will receive HTTP requests for your Pi, the Node application itself is listening on a different port (for example, port 8080). Therefore, you need to configure Nginx to act as a reverse proxy, recognizing requests intended for your application, and passing them to Node.

Nginx keeps the configuration file for each application it serves in the sites-available folder:

cd /etc/nginx/sites-available/

Here, you can copy the default configuration file and edit at your convenience:

sudo cp default my-app sudo nano my-app

The final configuration file should look like this, with Nginx acting as a proxy to the Node.js server:

server {   listen 80;   root /var/www/my-app/;                  # identifies the location of the application you are configuring   server_name my-app.dev;                 # identifies the hostname used by this application's traffic   location / {      proxy_pass http://localhost:8080/;   # configures the back-end destination for this traffic   } }

In order to enable this configuration, you need to create a symlink in the sites-enabled folder, where Nginx looks for active configurations during runtime:

sudo ln -s /etc/nginx/sites-available/my-app /etc/nginx/sites-enabled/my-app

And reload the service to activate these changes:

sudo service nginx reload

At this point, your application is ready to receive HTTP traffic intended for the my-app.dev domain (thanks to the server_name my-app.dev directive you configured above). The final issue you need to solve is how to make traffic you send from outside match this domain name. Although you could buy a domain name and point it to your IP, the hosts file comes to the rescue and makes that unnecessary.

On the workstation from which you will access the site, simply add your router’s external IP address, and match it with the host name my-app.dev. Any HTTP traffic you generate for my-app.dev will then be sent directly to your router, with the correct host name in the Host HTTP header.

On Windows, with administrator privileges, you can edit the file located in c:\windows\system32\drivers\etc\hosts with the notepad. On Linux and Mac you can use the terminal with sudo nano /etc/hosts and sudo nano /private/etc/hosts respectively.

## # Host Database # # localhost is used to configure the loopback interface # when the system is booting. Do not change this entry. ##       localhost broadcasthost ::1             localhost my-app.dev    # add your host name to the list

What’s Next?

Now that everything is set up, you can deploy as many applications as you want, and install forever or pm2 to keep your node servers alive.

And just remember that if something goes wrong, you can just wipe the SD card and start again from scratch!

About the author

Pablo Villoslada Puigcerber, Netherlands

Pablo is a skilled software engineer with over five years of experience developing websites. He has spent the last three years as a front-end engineer creating a variety of JavaScript applications. He is a team player who cares deeply about code quality and standards. [click to continue...]

Back to blog

Related Posts

Check out our thoughts here.

What is important to a career

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about my career and where it’s going. I don’t want to give the impression that I have never thought about my career before, but now the thoughts are becoming constant.

May 8, 2018
Databases: Component or Infrastructure?

There is always strong debate around databases and their role in development. Sometimes they are considered components, while others will consider them infrastructure. Is there a right answer? Let's discuss!

March 15, 2018
Software Maintenance: The Never-Ending Feud

There is one, and only one, primary focus that any software developer acknowledge: the ability for software to be maintainable. Of course, correctness, functionality, and performance are all important, these will always be easier to address with maintainable software.

January 25, 2018