Pi 3 booting part II: Ethernet

Yesterday, we introduced the first of two new boot modes which have now been added to the Raspberry Pi 3. Today, we introduce an even more exciting addition: network booting a Raspberry Pi with no SD card.

Again, rather than go through a description of the boot mode here, we’ve written a fairly comprehensive guide on the Raspberry Pi documentation pages, and you can find a tutorial to get you started here. Below are answers to what we think will be common questions, and a look at some limitations of the boot mode.

Note: this is still in beta testing and uses the “next” branch of the firmware. If you’re unsure about using the new boot modes, it’s probably best to wait until we release it fully.

What is network booting?

Network booting is a computer’s ability to load all its software over a network. This is useful in a number of cases, such as remotely operated systems or those in data centres; network booting means they can be updated, upgraded, and completely re-imaged, without anyone having to touch the device!

The main advantages when it comes to the Raspberry Pi are:

  1. SD cards are difficult to make reliable unless they are treated well; they must be powered down correctly, for example. A Network File System (NFS) is much better in this respect, and is easy to fix remotely.
  2. NFS file systems can be shared between multiple Raspberry Pis, meaning that you only have to update and upgrade a single Pi, and are then able to share users in a single file system.
  3. Network booting allows for completely headless Pis with no external access required. The only desirable addition would be an externally controlled power supply.

I’ve tried doing things like this before and it’s really hard editing DHCP configurations!

It can be quite difficult to edit DHCP configurations to allow your Raspberry Pi to boot, while not breaking the whole network in the process. Because of this, and thanks to input from Andrew Mulholland, I added the support of proxy DHCP as used with PXE booting computers.

What’s proxy DHCP and why does it make it easier?

Standard DHCP is the protocol that gives a system an IP address when it powers up. It’s one of the most important protocols, because it allows all the different systems to coexist. The problem is that if you edit the DHCP configuration, you can easily break your network.

So proxy DHCP is a special protocol: instead of handing out IP addresses, it only hands out the TFTP server address. This means it will only reply to devices trying to do netboot. This is much easier to enable and manage, because we’ve given you a tutorial!

Are there any bugs?

At the moment we know of three problems which need to be worked around:

  • When the boot ROM enables the Ethernet link, it first waits for the link to come up, then sends its first DHCP request packet. This is sometimes too quick for the switch to which the Raspberry Pi is connected: we believe that the switch may throw away packets it receives very soon after the link first comes up.
  • The second bug is in the retransmission of the DHCP packet: the retransmission loop is not timing out correctly, so the DHCP packet will not be retransmitted.

The solution to both these problems is to find a suitable switch which works with the Raspberry Pi boot system. We have been using a Netgear GS108 without a problem.

  • Finally, the failing timeout has a knock-on effect. This means it can require the occasional random packet to wake it up again, so having the Raspberry Pi network wired up to a general network with lots of other computers actually helps!

Can I use network boot with Raspberry Pi / Pi 2?

Unfortunately, because the code is actually in the boot ROM, this won’t work with Pi 1, Pi B+, Pi 2, and Pi Zero. But as with the MSD instructions, there’s a special mode in which you can copy the ‘next’ firmware bootcode.bin to an SD card on its own, and then it will try and boot from the network.

This is also useful if you’re having trouble with the bugs above, since I’ve fixed them in the bootcode.bin implementation.

Here’s a video of the setup working from Mythic Beasts, our web hosts, who are hoping to use this mode to offer hosted Pis in the data centre for users soon.

Raspberry Pi, Power over ethernet, boot over ethernet

Booting a Raspberry PI 3 over ethernet, powered over ethernet. No SD cards were harmed.

Finally, I would like to thank my Slack beta testing team who provided a great testing resource for this work. It’s been a fun few weeks! Thanks in particular to Rolf Bakker for this current handy status reference…

Current state of network boot on all Pis

Current state of network boot on all Pis