Raspberry Pi, Send Me a Letter

The abundance of small networked boards running Linux — like the Raspberry Pi — is a boon for developers. It is easy enough to put a small cheap computer on the network. The fact that Linux has a lot of software is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it is a good bet that anything you want to do has been done. On the other hand, some of the solutions are a bit large for a tiny embedded system.

Take, for example, e-mail. Historically, Linux hosts operate as mail transfer agents that can send and receive mail for all their users and possibly even relay mail to others. In today’s world, that’s usually overkill, but the capability is there. It is possible to install big mail transfer agents into a Raspberry Pi. The question is: should you?

What Do You Want?

The answer, of course, depends on what you want to do. If you have a dedicated board sending out text and maybe even files using an external mail server (like, say, Gmail), then the answer is no. You don’t need a piece of software listening for incoming connections, sorting through multiple users, and so on.

Luckily, there are some simple solutions if you know how to set up and configure them. The key is to avoid the big mail programs that do everything you don’t need.

Mail Front Ends

Let’s tackle sending mail first. If you try to grab the mailutils package, you’ll see it drags along a lot of stuff including mysql. Keep in mind, none of this will actually send mail. It just gives you some tools to get mail ready to send.

Luckily, the bsd-mailx package has a lot less overhead and will do the job. Look at the man page to see what options you have with mailx; you can do things like attach files, set a subject, and specify addresses.

It is a little difficult to set up for Gmail, though, thanks to Google’s security. You’ll need the certutil tool from the libnss3-tools package. You’ll need to create a certificate store, import Google’s certificate, and then set up a lot of options to mailx. I don’t suggest it. If you insist, though, you can find directions on the Web.


By default, programs like mailx and other Linux mail commands rely on a backend (often sendmail). Not only does that drag around too much overhead, it is also a full mail system, sending and receiving and relaying–overkill for our little Pi computers.

Luckily, SSMTP is available which only sends mail and is relatively lightweight. You need a configuration file to point it to your mail server. For Gmail, it would look like this:

# Config file for sSMTP sendmail
# The person who gets all mail for userids < 1000
# Make this empty to disable rewriting.

# The place where the mail goes. The actual machine name is required no 
# MX records are consulted. Commonly mailhosts are named mail.domain.com

# Where will the mail seem to come from?

# The full hostname
# Are users allowed to set their own From: address?
# YES - Allow the user to specify their own From: address
# NO - Use the system generated From: address

You can use a mail agent like mailx or you can just use ssmtp directly:

ssmtp someone@somewhere.com

Enter a message on the standard input and end it with a Control+D (standard end of file for Linux).

Google Authentication

There’s only one catch. If you are using Gmail, you’ll find that Google wants you to use stronger authentication. If you are using two-factor (that is, Google Authenticator), this isn’t going to work at all. You’ll need to generate an app password. Even if you aren’t, you will probably need to relax Google’s fear of spammers on your account. You need to turn on the “Access for less secure apps” setting. If you don’t want to do this on your primary e-mail account, considering making an account that you only use for sending data from the Pi.

Sending Files

Depending on the mail software you use, there are a few ways you can attach a file. However, the mpack program makes it very easy:

mpack -a -s 'Data File' datafile.csv me@hackaday.com

The above command will send datafile.csv as an attachment with the subject “Data File.” Pretty simple.

Receiving Mail

What if you want to reverse the process and receive mail on the Pi? There is a program called fetchmail that can grab e-mails from an IMAP or POP3 server. It is possible to make it only read the first unread message and send it to a script or program of your choosing.

You have to build a configuration file (or use the fetchmailconf program to build it). For example, here’s a simple .fetchmailrc file:

poll imap.gmail.com
protocol IMAP
user "user@gmail.com" with password "yourpassword" mda "/home/pi/mailscript.sh"
folder 'INBOX'
fetchlimit 1

You can leave the “keep” line out if you don’t mind fetchmail deleting the mail after processing. The file should be in your home directory (unless you specify with the -f option) and it needs to not be readable and writable by other users (e.g., chmod 600 .fetchmailrc). According to the fetchmail FAQ, there are some issues with Gmail, so you might want to consider some of the suggestions provided. However, for simple tasks like this, you should be able to work it all out.

In particular, the mailscript.sh file is where you can process the e-mail. You might, for example, look for certain keyword commands and take some action (perhaps replying using ssmtp).

Special Delivery

You might not think of the Raspberry Pi as an e-mail machine. However, the fact that it is a pretty vanilla Linux setup means you can use all sorts of interesting tools meant for bigger computers. You just have to know they exist.

Lock Up Your Raspberry Pi with Google Authenticator

Raspberry Pi boards (or any of the many similar boards) are handy to leave at odd places to talk to the network and collect data, control things, or do whatever other tasks you need a tiny fanless computer to do. Of course, any time you have a computer on a network, you are inviting hackers (and not our kind of hackers) to break in.

We recently looked at how to tunnel ssh using a reverse proxy via Pagekite so you can connect to a Pi even through firewalls and at dynamic IP addresses. How do you stop a bad guy from trying to log in repeatedly until they have access? This can work on any Linux machine, but for this tutorial I’ll use Raspberry Pi as the example device. In all cases, knowing how to set up adequate ssh security is paramount for anything you drop onto a network.

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How to Use Docker to Cross Compile for Raspberry Pi (and More)

It used to be tedious to set up a cross compile environment. Sure you can compile on the Raspberry Pi itself, but sometimes you want to use your big computer — and you can use it when your Pi is not on hand like when on an airplane with a laptop. It can be tricky to set up a cross compiler for any build tools, but if you go through one simple step, it becomes super easy regardless of what your real computer looks like. That one step is to install Docker.

Docker is available for Linux, Windows, and Mac OS. It allows developers to build images that are essentially preconfigured Linux environments that run some service. Like a virtual machine, these images can run together without interfering with each other. Unlike a virtual machine, Docker containers (the running software) are lightweight because they share the same underlying kernel and hardware of the computer.

The reality is, setting up the Raspberry Pi build environment isn’t any easier. It is just that with Docker, someone else has already done the work for you and you can automatically grab their setup and keep it up to date. If you are already running Linux, your package manager probably makes the process pretty easy too (see [Rud Merriam’s] post on that process). However, the nice thing about the images is it is a complete isolated environment that can move from machine to machine and from platform to platform (the Windows and Mac platforms use a variety of techniques to run the Linux software, but it is done transparently).

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Shell Game

A lot of us spend a lot of time switching between Windows and Linux. Now that platforms like the Raspberry Pi are popular, that number is probably increasing every day. While I run Linux on nearly everything I own (with the exception of a laptop), my work computers mostly run Windows. The laptop is on Windows, too, because I got tired of trying to get all the fancy rotation sensors and pen features working properly under Linux.

What I hate most about Windows is how hard is it to see what’s going on under the hood. My HP laptop works with a cheap Dell active stylus. Sort of. It is great except around the screen edges where it goes wild. Calibration never works. On Linux, I could drill down to the lowest levels of the OS if I were so inclined. With Windows, it is just tough.

War is Shell

One place where Linux always used to have an advantage over DOS and Windows was the shell. There are lots of variations available under Linux, but bash seems to be the current pick for most people. If you want more power, you can move to some alternatives, but even bash is pretty powerful if you learn how to use it and have the right external programs (if you don’t believe it, check out this web server).

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Raspberry Pi Hive Mind

Setting up a cluster of computers used to be a high-end trick used in big data centers and labs. After all, buying a bunch of, say, VAX computers runs into money pretty quickly (not even counting the operating expense). Today, though, most of us have a slew of Raspberry Pi computers.

Because the Pi runs Linux (or, at least, can run Linux), there are a wealth of tools out there for doing just about anything. The trick is figuring out how to install it. Clustering several Linux boxes isn’t necessarily difficult, but it does take a lot of work unless you use a special tool. One of those tools is Docker, particularly Docker Swarm Mode. [Alex Ellis] has a good video (see below) showing the details of a 28 CPU cluster.

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Google’s New OS Will Run on Your Raspberry Pi

According to reports from Android Police and ZDNet, you may soon have a new operating system from Google to run on your Raspberry Pi. Details are still extremely sparse, the only description on the GitHub page is “Pink + Purple == Fuchsia (a new Operating System)”. But, here’s what we do know:

The new OS, called Fuchsia, will be based on Magenta, which is in turn built on LittleKernel. That means that, surprisingly, Google will not be using a Linux kernel for the new OS but something more like an embedded RTOS. Although Google is targeting embedded systems, the possibility of being able to run it on a desktop has been mentioned, so it may not be too minimalistic.

Google’s Travis Geiselbrecht has named the Raspberry Pi 3 specifically as one system it will run on, and said that it’ll be available soon. But, it seems Google is aiming to make it run on a variety of ARM devices (both 32 bit and 64 bit), as well as 64 bit PCs. This is a direct effort to compete against other commercial embedded operating systems that are currently available, and especially on IoT devices.

If you’re eager to see what this is all about, you can follow Google’s quick start recipes and see what you can come up with, although details are still sketchy enough that we’re just going to wait a bit.

Hacker Builds New Single Board Computer Out of Old Single Board Computer

[Ncrmnt] had a busted tablet PC with an Allwinner A23 SoC inside. He combined two of our favorite past-times, Linux hacking and 3D printing, to make a rather sweet little single-board-computer out of it, giving the tablet a second life.

Step one was to make sure that the thing works. Normally, you’d hook up a wired serial terminal and start hacking. [Ncrmnt] took it one step further and wired in a HC-05 Bluetooth serial module, so he can pull up the debug terminal wirelessly. The rest of the hackery was just crafting a bootable SD card and poking around in the Android system that was still resident in the flash memory of the system.

Once the board was proven workable, [Ncrmnt] designed and printed a sweet custom case using Solvespace, a constraint-based 3D CAD modeler that was new to us until recently. The case (after three prints) was a perfect fit for the irregularly shaped system board, a 3.7 V LiIon battery, and a speaker. He then added some nice mounting tabs. All in all, this is a nice-looking and functional mini-computer made out of stuff that was destined for the trash. It’s fast, it’s open-source, and it’s powerful. Best of all, it’s not in the dumpster.

There are pictures and more details on his blog, as well as [Ncrmnt]’s TV-stick to computer conversion that we’ve covered before.