Raspberry Pi: Installing, hardening and optimising Ubuntu 20.04 Server

By | 5th September 2021

I have been trying to document the process of configuring a Raspberry Pi as a Time Machine Capsule, but the article became far too long. It covered far too much information and was really hard to read.

I then decided to break the stages into more manageable steps. This has the advantage of allowing the common stages, like setting up the OS, to be shared between different projects.

Therefore, this is that first entry. Some others will follow about how to build different things from this first base image.

Selecting the OS

The 64-bit beta release of Raspberry Pi OS I tried didn’t let ZFS install easily. Ubuntu has the advantage of being a like for like experience regardless of the platform, so it is my preferred choice. Any experience you gain with it will be easily transferable.

You can download Ubuntu Server images from https://ubuntu.com/download/raspberry-pi. The LTS version is also the preferred one.

The Raspberry Pi model will determine the supported versions of the OS.

Model32-bit Ubuntu64-bit Ubuntu
Raspberry Pi 2SupportedNot supported
Raspberry Pi 3SupportedRecommended
Raspberry Pi 4SupportedRecommended
Supported Ubuntu versions.

The Raspberry Pi 3 has limited benefits when using the 64-bit image due to its limited RAM. In addition, it won’t support ZFS for the same reason. The Pi will restart/reset when ZFS volumes are accessed due to a lack of RAM.

If you are going to use a GUI, you should choose a Raspberry Pi 4 with at least 4GB of RAM.

The image can be directly installed on a micro SD card:

# ddrescue -y -c 4Ki ubuntu-20.04.3-preinstalled-server-arm64+raspi.img /dev/sdxx

Installing Ubuntu Server on a USB stick

It is possible to boot from a USB stick, which is preferable for several reasons. They are cheaper, easier to access from another system, and simple to replace.

First, enable USB boot on your Pi.

ModelUSB Boot SupportNotes
Raspberry Pi 1Not supportedn/a
Raspberry Pi 2 and 3BSupportedOn Raspberry Pi OS echo program_usb_boot_mode=1 | sudo tee -a /boot/config.txt and reboot.
Raspberry Pi 3B+SupportedSupported out of the box
Raspberry Pi 4SupportedOn Raspberry Pi OS rpi-eeprom-config --edit and set BOOT_ORDER=0xf41 and reboot.
Raspberry Pi’s with supported USB boot.

You might have to boot from an SD card at least once to configure USB boot. Once enabled, it remains activated.

Additional information about the different boot modes for the Raspberry Pi

The following links are provided for reference.

Raspberry Pi booting from USB mass storage https://www.raspberrypi.org/documentation/computers/raspberry-pi.html#booting-from-usb-mass-storage

Raspberry Pi 4 bootloader configuration https://www.raspberrypi.org/documentation/computers/raspberry-pi.html#raspberry-pi-4-bootloader-configuration

Raspberry Pi 4 boot flow https://www.raspberrypi.org/documentation/computers/raspberry-pi.html#raspberry-pi-4-boot-flow

Configuration steps

Once the Pi has been configured to boot from a USB device, install the image on a USB stick like the SD card.

# ddrescue -y -c 4Ki ubuntu-20.04.3-preinstalled-server-arm64+raspi.img /dev/sdxx

For the image to be bootable, you need to make some changes. I extracted the steps from this Raspberry Pi forum post. You might find it easier to apply changes if you mount it on another system.

There are two options to make the changes:

  • Mount the USB stick on another system, and then issue the commands on the USB device. This other system can be the Raspberry Pi itself booting from the SD card, and accessing the USB device.
  • Or make the changes on the SD card, and then copy the SD card image to the USB device.

Apply the following changes.

1) On the /boot of the USB device, uncompress vmlinuz.

$ cd /media/*/system-boot/
$ zcat vmlinuz > vmlinux

2) Update the config.txt file. The pi4 section is shown in this example, but it has also been tested on a Pi 3. Just enter the information for your Pi model.

$ vim config.txt

The dtoverlay line might be optional for headless systems, but if you have the time and inclination, there is some documentation regarding Raspberry Pi’s device tree parameters.

initramfs initrd.img followkernel

3) Create a script in the boot partition called auto_decompress_kernel with the following content:

#!/bin/bash -e

## Set Variables


## Check if compression needs to be done.

if [ -e $BTPATH/check.md5 ]; then
	if md5sum --status --ignore-missing -c $BTPATH/check.md5; then
    	echo -e "\e[32mFiles have not changed, Decompression not needed\e[0m"
	    exit 0
        echo -e "\e[31mHash failed, kernel will be compressed\e[0m"

# Backup the old decompressed kernel


if [ ! $? == 0 ]; then
	exit 1
    echo -e "\e[32mDecompressed kernel backup was successful\e[0m"

#Decompress the new kernel
echo "Decompressing kernel: "$CKPATH".............."


if [ ! $? == 0 ]; then
	echo -e "\e[31mKERNEL FAILED TO DECOMPRESS!\e[0m"
	exit 1
	echo -e "\e[32mKernel Decompressed Succesfully\e[0m"

# Hash the new kernel for checking
md5sum $CKPATH $DKPATH > $BTPATH/check.md5

if [ ! $? == 0 ]; then
    	echo -e "\e[31mMD5 GENERATION FAILED!\e[0m"
        echo -e "\e[32mMD5 generated Succesfully\e[0m"

# Exit
exit 0

Normally you would need to mark the script as executable, but unless you modify the partition from its FAT32 default, there is no executable flag to set. So leave it as it is.

If you can mount the root filesystem in the system you are using to edit the files, you can go ahead with steps 4 and 5. Otherwise, you should be able to boot now and manually do these steps after your first boot.

4) Create a script in /ect/apt/apt.conf.d/ directory and call it 999_decompress_rpi_kernel

# cd /media/*/writable/etc/apt/apt.conf.d/
# vi 999_decompress_rpi_kernel

Fill the file with the following content:

DPkg::Post-Invoke {"/bin/bash /boot/firmware/auto_decompress_kernel"; };

5) Make the script executable.

# chmod 744 999_decompress_rpi_kernel

You can save yourself some time and configure the network at this stage.

In my case, I have a static DHCP lease associated with the Pi MAC address, but if you don’t, you can configure the network with a static IP address by editing the network-config file in /boot.

$ cd /media/*/boot/
$ vim network-config

An example of a static address entry would be:

version: 2
    dhcp4: no
    addresses: []
       addresses: []

You can eject the USB drive, insert it on your Raspberry Pi and boot.

Setting up Ubuntu

The default user name and password are ubuntu / ubuntu.

Upon login, you will be asked to change your password. We will delete this user in the following steps to increase security.

Run an update:

$ sudo su
# apt update
# apt upgrade

Setting up users

Create a new user (or change the name of the existing user).

# adduser <newuser>

Extract the groups for the user ubuntu and compare them with the new user.

# id ubuntu ; echo ; id <newuser>

uid=1000(ubuntu) gid=1000(ubuntu) groups=1000(ubuntu),4(adm),20(dialout),24(cdrom),25(floppy),27(sudo),29(audio),30(dip),44(video),46(plugdev),115(netdev),118(lxd)

uid=1001(newuser) gid=1001(newuser) groups=1001(newuser)

Add the new user to the same groups.

# usermod -a -G adm,dialout,cdrom,floppy,sudo,audio,dip,video,plugdev,netdev,lxd newuser


Set the hostname of your choice.

# hostnamectl set-hostname <system_name>

[Check the change]

# hostnamectl
   Static hostname: pi-capsule
         Icon name: computer
        Machine ID: db0a1818241a47e178f229294f6864ae
           Boot ID: 983818fbaa8246348066c36f2237636e
  Operating System: Ubuntu 20.04.2 LTS
            Kernel: Linux 5.4.0-1029-raspi
      Architecture: arm64

Date and time

Set the time zone.

# timedatectl set-timezone Europe/London

Configure the time sources by editing /etc/systemd/timesyncd.conf.


Restart the service.

# systemctl restart systemd-timesyncd.service

Check the status and check that the time source is correct.

# systemctl status systemd-timesyncd.service

Finally, check that the time zone is correct.

# timedatectl status
               Local time: Sun 2021-08-29 23:24:49 BST
           Universal time: Sun 2021-08-29 22:24:49 UTC
                 RTC time: n/a                        
                Time zone: Europe/London (BST, +0100) 
System clock synchronized: yes                        
              NTP service: active                     
          RTC in local TZ: no

Customising the MOTD

You can get the MOTD from the login screen manually with the following command.

$ for i in /etc/update-motd.d/* ; do if [ "$i" != "/etc/update-motd.d/98-fsck-at-reboot" ]; then $i; fi; done

To get system information (including temperature):

$ /etc/update-motd.d/50-landscape-sysinfo

You can edit, add and reorder scripts in /etc/update-motd.d/.

Configuring SSH

SSH will be enabled by default. Test access with the newly created account.

By default, only the password is required to access the server, but we will add the requirement of needing an SSH key with the password. And also limit access only from authorised IP addresses.

If you haven’t generated a public and private key pair on your system (the one used to log into the Pi), you will need to do it (explained below).

A brief note on encryption. Elliptic curve cryptography (ECC) generates smaller keys and provides faster encryption than non-ECC. The smaller ECC keys also provide an equivalent level of encryption provided only with bigger RSA keys:

ECC key sizeRSA equivalent
160 bits1024 bits
224 bits2048 bits
256 bits3072 bits
384 bits7680 bits
512 bits15360 bits
ECC uses smaller keys with higher equivalent security.

You can use either ECDSA or ED25519 keys. ED25519 isn’t as universally implemented yet due to being quite new, so some clients might not support it, but it is the fastest and most secure one.

For both types of encryption, it is recommended to use the bigger key size. This is 521 bits for ECDSA (note that 521 isn’t a typo). ED25519 keys have a fixed length of 512 bits.

When issuing ssh-keygen, use the -o option. This forces the use of the new OpenSSH format (instead of PEM) when saving your private key. It increases resistance to a known brute-force attack. It breaks compatibility with OpenSSH versions older than 6.5, but this version of Ubuntu runs version 8.2, so this isn’t an issue.

More information about SSH key generation is available here: https://www.ssh.com/ssh/keygen/

The steps are:

Create a suitable key pair with:

$ ssh-keygen -o -t ed25519


$ ssh-keygen -o -t ecdsa -b 521

Copy the public key to the Ubuntu server. It can be done manually, but it is best to use the appropriate tool:

$ ssh-copy-id -i ~/.ssh/<myprivatekey> <user>@<remotehost>

Note that you use the -i flag with your private key, and ssh-copy-id will send the public key for storage on the remote host.

SSH can be configured on the server side to allow only password logins, only key logins, or to require both.

# vim /etc/ssh/sshd_config

PasswordAuthentication no” will only use the key, and “PasswordAuthentication yes” will use both password and key. Obviously, the second option is safer.

We also disable the option to allow root to login via SSH. The root account is disabled on the image by default, but ensure SSH has been configured correctly anyway.

PermitRootLogin no
PasswordAuthentication yes
# systemctl restart sshd

SSH from another terminal with the new user account, and ensure that the access is working.

If it works, delete the old ubuntu account.

# userdel -r ubuntu

Activate and configure the firewall

Set default rules (deny all incoming, allow all outgoing).

# ufw status

# ufw default allow outgoing

# ufw default deny incoming

UFW requires IPv6 to be enabled. It can be made to work with it disabled, but how to achieve that is out of the scope of this post.

# vim /etc/default/ufw


Allow SSH.

# ufw allow ssh

[but preferably allow only specific clients:]

# ufw allow proto tcp from <SOURCE> to <SERVER> port 22

And limit the allowed connection attempts to thwart brute force attacks:

ufw limit ssh

Enable the firewall and check the rules:

# ufw enable

# ufw status

[List rules with numbers]

# ufw status numbered

Remember that if you are using IPv6, you might need to edit rules accordingly.

Install log2ram

To reduce the number of writes on the USB drive/SD card, you can use the RAM disk utility log2ram.


Not only that, it will speed up the performance of the Raspberry Pi in exchange for a small amount of RAM.


# echo "deb http://packages.azlux.fr/debian/ buster main" | sudo tee /etc/apt/sources.list.d/azlux.list

# wget -qO - https://azlux.fr/repo.gpg.key | sudo apt-key add -

# apt update

# apt install log2ram

Configure the service. The SIZE entry depends on your system; 256M is a lot for a Pi with only 1GB of RAM.

# vim /etc/log2ram.conf


And restart.

# reboot

Check that the service is working:

$ systemctl status log2ram
$ df -h | grep log2ram
log2ram         256M  106M  151M  42% /var/log

Installing additional utilities

Install your choice of applications.

# apt install mosh tmux pydf vim-nox glances iotop

Mosh might require some ports to be opened in the firewall.

The range of ports goes from 60001 to 60999, but if you are expecting few connections, you can make the range smaller.

# ufw allow proto udp from <SOURCE> to <SERVER> port 60001:60010

# ufw limit 60001:60010/udp

Install Cockpit

# apt install -y cockpit
# ufw allow proto tcp from <SOURCE< to <SERVER> port 9090

# ufw limit 9090/tcp

The system can now be reached via the web browser via port 9090:


Other customisation

Argon Fan HAT configuration

If you have an Argon fan HAT, you can configure it as follows.

$ curl https://download.argon40.com/argonfanhat.sh -o argonfanhat.sh
$ bash argonfanhat.sh
Use argonone-config to configure fan
Use argonone-uninstall to uninstall

I have configured with the following triggers.

  • 30 ºC -> 0%
  • 60 ºC -> 10%
  • 65 ºC -> 25%
  • 70 ºC -> 55%
  • 75 ºC -> 100%


On Ubuntu, and most distros, there will be an entry in ~/.bashrc that will look like this:

if [ -f ~/.bash_aliases ]; then
. ~/.bash_aliases

This entry can be added manually if not present. This allows all of the aliases to be grouped in ~/.bash_aliases.

$ vim ~/.bash_aliases
# Show free RAM
alias showfreeram="free -m | sed -n '2 p' | awk '{print $4}'"

# Release and free up RAM
# alias freeram='freeram && sync && sudo echo 3 | sudo tee /proc/sys/vm/drop_caches && freeram -m'

# Show temperature
alias temp='cat /sys/class/thermal/thermal_zone0/temp | head -c -4 && echo " C"'

# Show ZFS datasets compress ratios
alias ratio='sudo zfs get all | grep " compressratio "'

This would create a base image with a decent level of security. I will likely add how to add Fail2Ban to improve security even further.

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