Linux Fu: Stupid Systemd Tricks

Last time, I gave a whirlwind introduction to a very small slice of systemd. If you aren’t comfortable with systemd services, timers, and mounts, you might want to read that now. Otherwise, press on to see a few interesting uses for custom systemd units, including running a few things on a schedule and automatically mounting a Raspberry Pi Zero.

Can you do every one of these things in a different way? Of course you can. I’m not debating the relative merits of using or not using systemd. However, unless you totally control your own environment, good chance you are going to have to interact with systemd at some point.

Stupid Trick #1: Update Your IP Address

A few years ago, I talked about updating your remote DNS server with your public IP address. This lets you refer to a hostname like and get back to your computer that often changes IP addresses. Sure, you can get services to do that for you, but you must either pay or agree to read ads on their site to keep your hostname going. This is all under your control. In the original post, I suggested using cron or NetworkManager to run the update script. I also hinted you could do it with systemd, but I didn’t tell you how. Let’s fix that.

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Linux Fu: Getting Started With Systemd

I will confess. I started writing this post about some stupid systemd tricks. However, I wanted to explain a little about systemd first, and that wound up being longer than the tricks. So this Linux Fu will be some very fundamental systemd information. The next one will have some examples, including how to automount a Raspberry Pi Pico. Of course, by the end of this post, you’ll have only scratched the surface of systemd, but I did want to give you some context for reading through the rest of it.

Like many long-time Unix users, I’m not a big fan of systemd. Then again, I’m also waiting for the whole “windows, icon, mouse, pointer” fad to die down. Like it or not, systemd is here and probably here to stay for the foreseeable future. I don’t want to get into a flame war over systemd. Love it or hate it, it is a fact of life. I will say that it does have some interesting features. I will also say that the documentation has gotten better over time. But I will also say that it made many changes that perhaps didn’t need to be made and made some simple things more complicated than they needed to be.

In the old days, we used “init scripts,” and you can still do so if you are really motivated. They weren’t well documented either, but it was pretty easy to puzzle out the shell scripts that would run, and we all know how to write shell scripts. The systemd way is to use services that are not defined by shell scripts. However, systemd tries to do lots of other things, too. It can replace cron and run things periodically. It can replace inetd, syslog, and many other traditional services. This is a benefit or a drawback, depending on your point of view.

(Editor’s note: And this logging functionality was exactly what was abused in last week’s insane liblzma / ssh backdoor.)

Configuring systemd requires you to create files in one of several locations. In systemd lingo, they are “units.” For the purpose of this Linux Fu, we’ll look at only a few kinds of units: services, mounts, and timers. Services let you run programs in response to something like system start-up. You can require that certain other services are already running or are not running and many other options. If the service dies, you can ask systemd to automatically restart it, or not. Timers can trigger a service at a particular time, much like cron does. Another unit you’ll run into are sockets that represent — you guessed it — a network socket.

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Upgrading PC Cooling With Software

As computing power increases with each new iteration of processors, actual power consumption tends to increase as well. All that waste heat has to go somewhere, and while plenty of us are content to add fans and heat sinks for a passable air-cooled system there are others who prefer a liquid cooling solution of some sort. [Cal] uses a liquid cooler on his system, but when he upgraded his AMD chip to one with double the number of cores he noticed the cooling fans on the radiator were ramping quickly and often. To solve this problem he turned to Python instead of building a new cooling system.

The reason for the rapid and frequent fan cycling was that the only trigger for the cooling fans available on his particular motherboard is CPU temperature. For an air cooled system this might be fine, but a water cooled system with much more thermal mass should be better able to absorb these quick changes in CPU temperature without constantly adjusting fan speed. Using a python script set up to run as a systemd service, the control loop monitors not only the CPU temperature but also the case temperature and the temperature of the coolant, and then preferentially tries to dump heat from the CPU into the thermal mass of the water cooler before much ramping of cooling fans happens.

An additional improvement here is that the fans can run at a much lower speed, reducing dust in the computer case and also reducing noise compared to before the optimizations. The computer now reportedly runs almost silently unless it has been under load for several minutes. The script is specific to this setup but easily could be modified for other computers using liquid cooling, and using Grafana to monitor the changes can easily be done as [Cal] also demonstrates when calibrating and testing the system. On the other hand, if you prefer a more flashy cooling system as a living room centerpiece, we have you covered there as well.

Linux Fu: Moving /usr

Linux has changed. Originally inspired by Unix, there were certain well understood but not well enforced rules that everyone understood. Programs did small things and used pipes to communicate. X Windows servers didn’t always run on your local machine. Nothing in /usr contributed to booting up the system.

These days, we have systemd controlling everything. If you run Chrome on one display, it is locked to that display and it really wants that to be the local video card. And moving /usr to another partition will easily prevent you from booting up, unless you take precautions. I moved /usr and I lived to tell about it. If you ever need to do it, you’ll want to hear my story.

A lot of people are critical of systemd — including me — but really it isn’t systemd’s fault. It is the loss of these principles as we get more programmers and many of them are influenced by other systems where things work differently. I’m not just ranting, though. I recently had an experience that brought all this to mind and, along the way, I learned a few things about the modern state of the boot process. The story starts with a friend giving me an Intel Compute Stick. But the problems I had were not specific to that hardware, but rather how modern Linux distributions manage their start-up process.

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Trampoline Bounce Counter Has Raspberry Pi Automate Away Your Parental Duties

If you have a toddler and a mini-tramp you know the rallying cry of “Mama, Count!”. If you don’t don’t have either of these things, become the hero uncle or aunt by building one for your family members who have been social distancing with a three-year-old monster bundle of joy for the last five weeks. This trampoline bounce counter uses a Raspberry Pi and a distance sensor to stream the bounce count to a nice little web GUI.

The hardware couldn’t be more simple, and there’s a good chance you already have everything on hand. The HC-SR04 ultrasonic distance sensor is a staple in beginner microcontroller kits. It simply lays on the floor pointed up at the bottom of the trampoline, connected to a Raspberry Pi via a resistor divider.

The software is where [Eric Escobar’s] project makes your life easy. He’s included a simple calibration routine that marks the low point of a bounce as you stand still on the tramp. There’s even a systemd service file included to ensure the software is always running, even after reboot. Cumulative bounce count can be seen on a webpage served from the Pi via an AJAX script.

Having a running count is a great first step, and surely a magical new feature of the trampoline that will be loved by the little ones. If that sense of wonder runs out, you could always gamify the system by adding in daily or hourly totals and a high-scores board.

It seems [Eric] is well practiced at automating his responsibilities away. We previously saw him use a Raspberry Pi to control the door of his chicken coop.

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Multiple 3D Printers, And One Pi To Rule Them All

If you’ve got a desktop 3D printer, there’s an excellent chance you’ve heard of OctoPrint. This web front-end, usually running on a Raspberry Pi, allows you to monitor and control the printer over the network from any device that has a browser. But what if you’ve got two printers? Or 20? The logistics of each printer getting its own Pi can get uncomfortable in a hurry, which is why [Jay Doscher] has been working on a way to simplify things.

Leveraging the boosted processing power of the Raspberry Pi 4 and some good old fashioned Linux trickery, [Jay] is now controlling multiple printers from a single device. The trick is to run multiple instances of the OctoPrint backend and assign them to virtual network interfaces so they don’t interfere with each other. This takes some custom systemd unit files to get up and running on Raspbian, which he’s been kind enough to include them in the write-up.

But getting multiple copies of OctoPrint running on the Pi is only half the battle. There still needs to be a way to sort out which printer is which. Under normal circumstances, the printers would be assigned random virtual serial ports when the Pi booted. To prevent any confusion, [Jay] explains how you can use custom udev rules to make sure that each printer gets its own unique device node. Even if you aren’t trying to wrangle multiple 3D printers, this is a useful trick should you find yourself struggling to keep track of your USB gadgets.

If you’re wondering why [Jay] needs to have so many 3D printers going at the same time, we hear they’ve been keeping rather busy running off parts for commissioned copies of his popular projects. Something to consider the next time you’re wondering if there’s a way to make a happy buck out of this little hobby of ours, folks.

Pack Your Bags – Systemd Is Taking You To A New Home

Home directories have been a fundamental part on any Unixy system since day one. They’re such a basic element, we usually don’t give them much thought. And why would we? From a low level point of view, whatever location $HOME is pointing to, is a directory just like any other of the countless ones you will find on the system — apart from maybe being located on its own disk partition. Home directories are so unspectacular in their nature, it wouldn’t usually cross anyone’s mind to even consider to change anything about them. And then there’s Lennart Poettering.

In case you’re not familiar with the name, he is the main developer behind the systemd init system, which has nowadays been adopted by the majority of Linux distributions as replacement for its oldschool, Unix-style init-system predecessors, essentially changing everything we knew about the system boot process. Not only did this change personally insult every single Perl-loving, Ken-Thompson-action-figure-owning grey beard, it engendered contempt towards systemd and Lennart himself that approaches Nickelback level. At this point, it probably doesn’t matter anymore what he does next, haters gonna hate. So who better than him to disrupt everything we know about home directories? Where you _live_?

Although, home directories are just one part of the equation that his latest creation — the systemd-homed project — is going to make people hate him even more tackle. The big picture is really more about the whole concept of user management as we know it, which sounds bold and scary, but which in its current state is also a lot more flawed than we might realize. So let’s have a look at what it’s all about, the motivation behind homed, the problems it’s going to both solve and raise, and how it’s maybe time to leave some outdated philosophies behind us.

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