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How to Configure Your Raspberry Pi for Remote Shell, Desktop, and File Transfer

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So you have a Raspberry Pi and you would like to maximize its tiny footprint by turning into a totally stand alone box—no monitor, keyboard, or other input peripherals. Read on as we show you how to set up remote shell, desktop, and file transfer access on your Pi.

Why Do I Want to Do This?

The Pi, even clad in a sturdy case, is a tiny computer. It’s perfect for tucking somewhere out of sight without a gaggle of wires sticking off of it—for many projects you simply don’t need a permanent monitor and peripheral accompaniment.

That doesn’t mean, however, that you won’t need to connect to the box to make changes, update things, transfer files, and so on. A perfect example of this is the cool little rain indicator we built as part of our Build an LED Indicator with a Raspberry Pi (for Email, Weather, or Anything) article. It doesn’t need all that stuff attached right to it, but we still would like the ability to hop onto the device and easily make changes or try out a new experiments with the LED module without having to drag it back into the workshop, and hook it up to a monitor, keyboard, mouse, etc. By configuring it for remote shell, remote desktop, and remote file transfer, we make it super simple to always interact with our Pi unit from the comfort of our desktop computer as if we’ve hooked the unit up to a full work station.

What Do I Need?

If you’re brand new to working with the Raspberry Pi, we strongly suggest checking out The HTG Guide to Getting Started with Raspberry Pi to get a handle on the basics of the device and get up to speed.

For this tutorial you will need the following things:

  • A Raspberry Pi running Raspbian.
  • A desktop or laptop computer.
  • A local Wi-Fi or wired network to connect the Pi and your computer.

First, most of the steps in this tutorial should work with other Linux-based Pi distributions but we’re going to be using Raspbian. You should have little trouble adapting the tutorial to other distributions.

Second, we’re using a Windows machine as our networked computer to interact with the Raspberry Pi unit as the remote head/interface. When appropriate, we’ll do our best to link to tutorials and suggested reading regarding performing parallel tasks and tools on OS X and Linux.

Setting Up and Connecting to the SSH Server

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Remote command line access to your Raspbian installation is about the handiest little tweak you can make to your system, and it’s down right simple to enable.

Open up the terminal in Rasbian, the shortcut is LXTerminal on the desktop, and type in the following command:

sudo raspi-config

Navigate down to ssh and hit enter. When prompted about the SSH server, select Enable and hit enter again. You will be returned to the Raspi-config panel; navigate down to Finish and hit enter to close out the configuration tool. That’s all you need to do to turn on SSH access to your Pi. The default SSH login and password is pi and raspberry, respectively.

While you’re still sitting at the command line, now is a great time to check the IP of your Raspberry Pi unit on the local network. Type ifconfig at the prompt and then look at the output of the command. If you’re using the Ethernet port you want to look for the init addr in the eth0 section; if you’re using Wi-Fi, you want to look for the init addr in the wlan0 section. In addition to checking and noting the IP address, this is also a great time to set up a static IP entry in your router so you don’t have to hunt for the IP in the future.

Now that we have the SSH server enabled, we know the login, and we know the IP address of the machine, it’s time to connect in via SSH and test it out. To do so from Linux and OS X you can simply use the ssh command at the terminal. Windows users, however, will need an SSH client like PuTTY.

Since we’re using a Windows box to remotely manage our Pi, PuTTY it is. Install a copy of PuTTY or extract the portable version and fire it up. There are a lot of settings you can mess with in PuTTY, but we only need to worry about a single thing to connect to our Pi. On the main Session interface, just type in the IP address of your Pi and select SSH below it:

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Hit Open at the bottom and PuTTY will launch a terminal window for you, connect to your Pi, and prompt you to log in. Go ahead and log in with pi / raspberry:

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Once your SSH connection is functional, you could technically complete the rest of this tutorial remotely from the comfort of your desk—although we’d advise leaving the head and keyboard on your system until you have finish the whole project and have everything running smoothly.

Before we move on, there’s some extra functionality we can squeeze out of SSH. In addition to managing the command line remotely, you can also remotely transfer files using Secure Copy. It’s command line intensive and not particularly convenient for transferring a large number of files sourced from multiple directories, but for a one-off configuration file transfer or other small dump, it’s pretty handy. Check out our guide to copying files over SSH using the SCP command here.

We’re going to be looking closer more user-friendly/GUI-based file transfer techniques later in the tutorial.

Setting Up and Configuring Your Remote Desktop

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Remote command line access is awesome, but so is having access to the desktop for GUI-focused activities. Let’s bring the powers of the command line and the powers of the desktop together.

Although we’ve been referring to it as “remote desktop” to this point, the tool we’re actually installing is known as Virtual Network Computing (VNC)—iterations of which many are familiar with such as RealVNC and TightVNC. For this tutorial, we’ll be installing TightVNC on the Pi. In order to access the Pi-based TightVNC session, you will need a remote client such as:

Grab a copy now, and we’ll be trotting it out later in this section. For now, let’s get down to installing the TightVNC server on your Raspberry Pi. Open up the terminal. Enter the following command to get started:

sudo apt-get install tightvncserver

This will download and unpack the installation files; when prompted to continue press Y. After the installation is complete, you’ll be returned to the prompt.  You can start the VNC one of two ways. Simply running the command for the server like so:

tightvncserver

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Will prompt you enter a password to access your VNC desktop—as seen in the screenshot above. The password needs to be 4-8 characters long. Once you confirm the password, you will be prompted to set a view-only password (you can opt out of the step, as we did).

Continue reading to learn how to configure your server and setup file transfer tools.

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Jason Fitzpatrick is warranty-voiding DIYer and all around geek. When he's not documenting mods and hacks he's doing his best to make sure a generation of college students graduate knowing they should put their pants on one leg at a time and go on to greatness, just like Bruce Dickinson. You can follow him on if you'd like.

  • Published 03/20/13

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