Raspberry Pi Cluster - Image Creation with MPI

I have a few more posts in mind for this summer, but I wanted to create this one while the information was still fresh in my head. Imagine my dismay when I discovered that the original Raspberry Pi cluster tutorial created by Dr. Simon Cox at the University of South Hampton no longer seems to exist. This has always been to me the de-facto go-to tutorial for creating Raspberry Pi images. I’ve used these instructions multiple times to create the images that I post on my website for those who are interested in using ready-made Raspberry Pi images for classroom use. I even adapted my own tutorial from these instructions back in 2014.

So where does that leave us, dear reader? What to do if we wish to create future images? To assist all of you in your own custom cluster projects, I’m reproducing the instructions for the original tutorial.

Getting things ready

Before you start, I encourage you to buy a couple of 8 GB microSD cards. In my experience, the full image (with MPI etc.) doesn’t fit nicely into a 4 GB microSD card, so 8 GB is the next smallest size. You want to pick the smallest microSD cards you can, since it will save a lot of time in the image creation phase. You will also need a laptop with an SD card slot, or an SD card to USB reader.

  • I first use SD Card Formatter first to get rid of anything that could be on the microSD card to begin with.
  • Next, download the latest copy of Raspbian. The one I’ve downloaded and used for this tutorial is Raspbian stretch.
  • Use Win32DiskImager or something similar to “burn” the downloaded image onto your Raspberry Pi.

Once you complete these three steps, you will be in good shape to start the process to install MPI.

Creating the Master Node

Once you’ve booted up your Pi, first set up things in raspi-config

  • Enter sudo raspi-config in the terminal
  • If you are not in the UK, select option 4, Localisation options Use that to set the keyboard layout, locale, time zone and WiFi Country.
  • Next, select option 5, Interfacing Options. Navigate to SSH and choose Yes and Ok then Finish.

This is a crucial step, because the WiFi country must be enabled in order for you to connect your Pi to WiFi. Lastly, the SSH server is not enabled on the Pi by default any longer, so you absolutely must enable it using option 5.

Once you’ve completed the above steps, connect your Pi to the Internet, and download MPICH. While I certainly encourage you to try the latest version of MPICH, I’ve run into problems with MPICH3 on earlier version of the Pi. Perhaps these issues have been have been resolved on the Raspberry Pi 3B+, but I decided not to risk it. The instructions below show what you need to do to install MPICH2 on the Raspberry Pi, but you just need to change the wget location to change the instructions for the latest version of MPICH.

In the home directory, type in the following commands:

wget http://www.mpich.org/static/downloads/1.5rc2/mpich2-1.5rc2.tar.gz
tar -xzvf mpich2-1.5rc2.tar.gz

Next, let’s create some folders that will help us with installation:

mkdir mpich2-install mpich2-build

Next, we are going to cd into the mpich2-build directory, and start the configure process. It is absolutely important that you do this in the build directory, because otherwise files will install in the home directory, which may mess with your permissions.

In these next steps, I’m also choosing not to install fortran77, since all the MPI programming I do is in C. If you want to have fortran, I encourage you to install gfortran ahead of time and to ignore the -disable-fc and -disable-f77 flags that I added to the configure command below:

cd mpich2-build
/home/pi/mpich1.5rc2/configure -disable-fc -disable-f77 -prefix=/home/pi/mpich2-install
sudo make
sudo make install

Next, we need to update the PATH variable in .bashrc so we will be able to access the MPI executables anywhere. From the home directory:

  • Open up .bashrc
  • Add to the end of the file the line: PATH=$PATH:/home/pi/mpich2-install/bin

Once you are done, test out mpiexec using the following command:

mpiexec -n 2 hostname

You should see raspberrypi show up two times. If you get this far, celebrate! You have successfully created the master node.

Creating the first worker image

Now, we will create a worker image that we will use to build all the worker nodes for our Pi cluster:

  • Using win32diskImager or similar, “read” the contents of the master node and save it onto your desktop. Name it master.img or similar.

  • Next, insert a new 8 GB microSD card. Burn master.img onto the new microSD card using the “write” command.

  • Once you are done, network together the worker node and the master node, by connecting them to a router. When rebooting your “cluster”, ensure that the router comes up first, followed by the Pis. I like to boot my router, and then connect my Pis to power afterward. Alternatively, you can boot everything up together, and connect the ethernet cables after the router fully boots up.

  • Let’s double-check that MPI is still working as expected. First, let’s use ifconfig to obtain our IP address. In the examples that follow, assume that ifconfig' returned`. Type in the following commands:

    mkdir mpi_test && cd mpi_test
    echo "" > machinefile
    mpiexec -f machinefile -n 2 ~/mpich2-build/examples/cpi

    You should get some output showing an approximation of pi. If you get here, celebrate!

  • Next, we want to generate ssh keys. Go to the home directory and type in the following commands:

    ssh-keygen -t rsa -C 'pi@raspberrypi'

    Keep pressing enter to accept the defaults. Do NOT enter a passphrase!

  • Login to your router (usually at and check the IP address of your worker node. Suppose the worker’s IP is Ensure the node is reachable by using the ping command: ping

  • If the node is reachable, let’s now try and ssh into it: ssh You wil get prompted for the passphrase. Just CTRL-C it for now.

  • Next, type in the following command:

    cat .ssh/id_rsa.pub | ssh "cat >> .ssh/authorized_keys"

This will place the public key into the set of authorized keys for the worker node.

  • Now, try and re-SSH into the worker: ssh You should now be able to access it without a password!

  • You should be now connected to the the worker node. Let’s change its hostname. Type sudo nano /etc/hostname to launch the nano editor. Replace the hostname with something like worker001. Restart the machine to see the new changes: sudo shutdown -r now. I would also recommend changing this in /etc/hosts next to the local host IP.

  • Once the worker node comes back up, we can rerun the CPI example from earlier:

    cd mpi_test
    echo "" >> machinefile
    mpiexec -f machinefile ~/mpich2-build/examples/cpi               

You should now see the same output from before, but now with two different hostnames! Great work!

Burn and Churn

Our worker node now contains the authorized keys for our master node. Burn a copy of your worker node onto your desktop, using Win32DiskImager or something similar and the read command. Next, burn the image onto a new microSD card using the write command.

All that remains to be done is:

  1. Connect the new worker node to the cluster via the router.
  2. Discover the new worker node’s IP address using the router homepage.
  3. SSH into the new worker node (you shouldn’t need a password!)
  4. Change the hostname in /etc/hostname and /etc/hosts.
  5. Reboot the new worker node
  6. Add new IP to machinefile and rerun the CPI example from above

Repeat steps 1-6 as needed until all your worker nodes are connected to the cluster and have unique hostnames. You now have a working Raspberry Pi cluster that runs MPI! Congratulations!

Next steps: Install NFS on your Raspberry Pi Cluster


Here are some tips if you run into trouble:

Q: ssh-keygen is suddenly failing! What do I do??

A: A big difference between Raspbian Stretch + later vs. prior releases of Raspbian is that the SSH server is not turned on by default. Ensure that you run sudo raspi-config and enable SSH through option 5.

Q: When I try to SSH into the worker node, I get a message saying, “connection refused”. What did I do wrong?

A: Ensure the worker pi is plugged in. If it, check the ethernet port. Is it receiving data? Check the router home page. Does it have an IP address? Can you ping it? If any of the above fails, your worker node is not properly connected to the router. Next, double check and ensure that you do have the SSH server installed on the worker nodes as well. If you did the step AFTER you burned the master image (instead of before, like specified in the instructions, you may have to turn it on the workers as well. This is the main reason why this command would fail.