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

Alternatively, you can use a much more precise, albeit longer to type out, command that gives you more control over how the remote computer will see the desktop—most importantly, what resolution the desktop will display so you can enjoy a full screen view on the remote computer. To specify the resolution of the VNC desktop, use the following command, swapping out the resolution value (the fourth item in the command) for the resolution of the remote desktop:

vncserver :1 -geometry 1600×900 -depth 16 -pixelformat rgb565:

If at any point you make a mistake in setting up your VNC server instance and/or you want to shut down the VNC server, simply enter the following (changing the number after the colon to the number of the VNC instance you want to kill):

vncserver –kill :1

Now that we have the VNC server up and running, let’s connect into it from our remote desktop. Fire up TightVNC viewer on your computer and plug in the IP address of the Raspberry Pi unit followed by :1 like so:

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And here’s our reward for successfully configuring our VNC server—a nice full screen view of our remote Raspberry Pi unit:

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There’s a known issue with TightVNC and Rasbian that, thanks to a wonky permission change, will cause trouble with the actual monitor-is-attached desktop (while leaving the remote desktop interface provided by the VNC server untouched).  To fix this issue before it even becomes a problem for you, head right to the command line and enter the following command:

sudo chown pi /home/pi/.Xauthority

This command changes the ownership of the .Xauthority file back to the user pi—for the curious, the .Xauthority file is used by the X-windows system in Rasbian and something during the TightVNC server installation and configuration process causes that little permissions hiccup.

With that little minor detour out the way, let’s get back to finishing our remote desktop configuration.

Now that we have full command line and desktop access to the Raspberry Pi, there’s one not-so-trivial tweak we need to make. The Raspi-config tool set the SSH server to automatically start on boot for us, but the VNC server is not yet configured in such a fashion. You can skip this step and manually start the server at the command line via SSH when you need it, but we’re trying to make this as fuss-free as possible for future use. Let’s take a minute now and create a startup file for the VNC server.

In order to automatically start the VNC server, we need to set up an init, or initialization, file that Raspbian will use to cleanly start and shut down the server during the boot and shut down process. Let’s create the init file now. At the command line type in the following command:

sudo nano /etc/init.d/tightvnc

This will create a file in the initialization directory called “tightvnc” and open the nano editor so we can paste in our script. In the nano editor, paste the following code (make sure to change the 1600×900 resolution value to match the screen of your remote computer:

#!/bin/sh
### BEGIN INIT INFO
# Provides: tightvncserver
# Required-Start:
# Required-Stop:
# Default-Start: 2 3 4 5
# Default-Stop: 0 1 6
# Short-Description: start vnc server
# Description:
### END INIT INFO

case “$1″ in
start)
su pi -c ‘vncserver :1 -geometry 1600×900 -depth 16 -pixelformat rgb565:’
echo “VNC Started”
;;
stop)
pkill Xtightvnc
echo “VNC Terminated”
;;
*)
echo “Usage: /etc/init.d/tightvnc {start|stop}”
exit 1
;;
esac

In addition to modifying the screen resolution portion of the script, there is one other thing you can modify. In line 14 you can change the command “su pi -c” to any other user account besides “pi” if you wish to VNC to the specific desktop for that account.

Once you have pasted and modified the code, it’s time to save it. Press CTRL+X to exit and save your work in nano. Once you are back at the command line, we need to make a few quick changes to the permissions of the file:

sudo chmod 755 /etc/init.d/tightvnc

Now the initialization file is executable. We can test it from the prompt:

sudo /etc/init.d/tightvnc start

sudo /etc/init.d/tightvnc stop

The last change we’re going to make is to update the rc.d file (which tracks which initilization scripts are in the /init.d/ folder):

sudo update-rc.d tightvnc defaults

After you enter that command, you’ll get a confirmation that the file was updated. Now it’s time for the real test: does the file load properly after reboot? Enter the following at the command line to reboot and be prepared with your VNC client to test the connection in a moment:

sudo reboot

Once the system has finished rebooting, log in with your VNC client. If your VNC session fails, visit the command prompt and run the tightvnc start command (from the test portion above) again to double check that the file is executable and that the password was saved properly.

At this point, we’re even further along in our mission to totally remote-control our Raspberry Pi unit. With remote command line access via SSH and remote desktop access via VNC under our belts, let’s move on to simplifying the process of transferring files between our Pi and desktop computer.

Setting Up and Configuring File Transfer Tools

2013-03-16_195437

Since we already have SSH set up, the easiest way to set up dead simple file transfer between our Pi and remote computers is to piggy back a GUI interface on the SSH connection. Remember how we talked about using SCP over SSH earlier in the tutorial? Running it from the command line gets real tedious, real fast. With a GUI wrapper, we’ll be able to spend more time moving files and playing with our Pi and less time pecking at the keyboard.

While there are a variety of GUI wrappers for the SCP command, we’re going to go with a cross-platform tool that many people already know, have, and love (and may even be unaware that it does SCP transfers): FileZilla. It’s available for Windows, OS X, and Linux—you can grab a copy here.

Once you have installed FileZilla, fire it up and go to File –> Site Manager. Create a new site entry, name it, and plug in user name and password for your Pi.

2013-03-16_191919

Finally, make sure to set the port to 22 and the Servertype to SFTP – SSH File Transfer Protocol. Click connect at the bottom and you’ll be treated to a view similar to this one:

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Your local directories are in the left-hand pane and the remote directories on the Pi are in the right-hand pane. Moving files between the two is as simple as drag and dropping them.

Taking advantage of the existing SSH file transfer is the easiest way to get at the files on the Pi with no additional configuration necessary but if you want to configure your Pi to receive and share files without the remote user requiring any fancy tools (like an SCP capable FTP client such as FileZilla), we highly recommend checking out the Samba configuration portion of our guide: How to Turn a Raspberry Pi into a Low-Power Network Storage Device. Reading over that will familiarize you with setting up a basic Samba share on Pi to create a shared folder easily accessible by just about anyone on your network without any additional tools.


You’ve configured SSH, you’ve configured VNC, and you’ve set up simple SFTP and/or Samba access to your Pi—at this point you can boot down your Raspberry Pi, strip away the monitor, keyboard, and mouse, and tuck it away as a silent and headless machine.

Have an idea for Raspberry Pi project and you’re dying for us to write a tutorial for it? Sound off in the comments or shoot us an email at tips@howtogeek.com and we’ll do our best to help.

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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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