Raspberry Pi Cluster headless setup with VNC

Yesterday, I was in Providence RI presenting a workshop with the CSinParallel folks at SIGCSE'22. As part of the workshop, we demo’d the self organizing clusters that my students use at West Point (shown below):


Before I continue, I should mention that these clusters are truly a reflection of the collaborative effort that is CSinParallel. Specifically:

  • The case design was developed at West Point by myself and Frank Blackmon
  • The self organizing cluster concept an initial image was developed at St. Olaf by Dick Brown and his students
  • The image that the cluster uses was perfected at Macalester by Libby Shoop
  • The patternlets concept that we use to teach concepts was developed at Calvin University by Joel Adams

After our successful workshop yesterday, a lot of people asked me for information on how to replicate our design at their own universities. I put together this short guide so faculty can replicate my setup at their own universities.

How we use the clusters

As I mentioned in my last post, the classroom I use for my course is currently equipped with a number of Windows desktops running Windows 10. I share this classroom space with a number of other professors, all who are teaching different courses, one after the other. Therefore, a dedicated Pi lab really isn’t an option, and we don’t want students to be tempted to disconnect/reconnect workstations peripherals as it can create problems for classes that take place after mine.

We have extra powerstrips in the classroom for students to plug in their own devices, but a classroom of Raspberry Pi clusters can lead to a lot of power strips being utlized. The design that is discussed here is a “headless” cluster setup that allows two 3-node clusters to share a single 6-outlet power strip, in contrast to the 8 outlets that two clusters would normally require. There is an assumption that the workstation/laptop that the student is using has a USB C port, which we use to power the head node.

Raspberry Pi 3s

The other thing I should note is that our clusters use the Raspberry Pi 3, not the newer Raspberry Pi 4. Obviously, it would be great to have Raspberry Pi 4 boards; however I (like many of you) have had a really hard time getting ahold of them, thanks to the chip shortage. The Raspberry Pi 3 boards are easier to find, and you (like me) may have some lying around already.

The classroom assessments that I’ve done suggest that students learn parallel computing concepts equally as well on older Raspberry Pis as on the Pi 4. However, I would caution you against using the even older Raspberry Pi 2. While it is possible to use Raspberry Pi 2 clusters using our image, my experiments suggests that the network connectivity on those boards are not as good as the Pi 3, leading to the head node getting randomly disconnected. Older boards than the Raspberry Pi 2 will likely not work, since I believe that the latest OS version for Raspberry Pi does not support boards that old. However, the Raspberry Pi 3 was released in 2016, which is six year old hardware.

Why 3 nodes instead of 2, 4 or more?

We picked three nodes for our clusters because we wanted to illustrate concepts on more than just two nodes. However, three nodes were less expensive than four. You can certainly create larger clusters with our image and 3-D printed case design – the true limiting factor is the number of ports on the switch.

Parts List to replicate one of our clusters

To replicate our cluster you will need:

  • 3 Raspberry Pis ($35 each) - $105.00
  • 3 microSD cards ($8 each) - $24.00
  • 2 Raspberry Pi power supplies ($10 each) - $20.00
  • 1 Gigabit 5-port Ethernet Switch ($12) - $12.00
  • 4 1-ft Ethernet Cables ($2 each) - $8.00
  • 2 Ethernet to USB Adapters ($10 each) - $20.00
  • A USB-C to microUSB (Raspberry Pi 3) charging cable OR
  • A USB-C to USB-C charging cable (Raspberry Pi 4) - $10.00
  • 4 3-D printed baseboards - high-density print
  • 12 3-D printed single connectors - low-density print
  • 3 velcro dots to connect Pis to switch - $0.20
  • 4 little rubber feet (optional) - $0.50
  • 12 #0/#0-80 machine screws - $0.50


I have no real estimate how much it costs to 3-D print the baseboards and single connectors, since my department has 3-D printers that I can use free of charge. However, I think it is generally pretty cheap. I have earlier posts that talk about commercial options for assembling clusters.

Please note that my setup substitutes one of the Raspberry Pi power supplies with a USB-C charging cable. If your host computer does not have a a USB-C port, you should buy another power supply in lieu of the USB-C charging cable.

Step 1: Assemble the cluster

I pre-assembled my clusters prior to giving them to students. However, your students may have fun putting together the clusters themselves. If you 3-D print the case parts, it is recommended that you pre-thread the screw holes in the case to make it easier to attach the board. Again, another alternative is to just use acrylic baseboards and metal standoffs.GeekPi has a commercial version for about $20.00 on Amazon, if you do not want to 3-D print.

Essentially, the assembly instructions are as follows:

  • Attach the Pis to the baseboards using screws, and then use the standoffs to stack them on top of each other. At the end, you should have three Raspberry Pis stacked on top of each other, with a baseboard at the top, and another at the bottom.

  • Using the velcro dots, position the switch underneath the bottom of the cluster. To get things to line up well, I usually put the dots on the switch (velcro stuck together, sticky part up), and then just stick the cluster to the switch. You have a little time to adjust the positioning when you first stick it – it is relatively easy to readjust while the glue is still refresh. However, once the glue dries, it’s a pretty solid bond.

  • Next, use three of Ethernet cables to connect the ethernet ports on the Raspberr Pis to the switch.

  • Take the last Ethernet cable, and connect the Ethernet adapters to either end. Set aside for now.

Step 2: Flash the Images

The next step is to flash the microSD cards. Here is a link to the image.

  • If you are having trouble downloading the image, ensure that your browser isn’t blocking downloads from http addresses. If it is, just right click on the image link and click save. You should be prompted on whether or not you really want to download. Say yes/keep to actually download it.

  • Unzip the image from the downloaded zip file. When decompressed, the image should be about 6GB in size.

  • Use an application like Balena Etcher to flash the microSD cards.

  • Once flashed, insert the microSD cards into each Pi.

Step 3: Final Setup

To save time and use the clusters in the context of a 2-hour lab period, I usually give my students the clusters with steps 1 and 2 above already complete. You could easily spend a 2-hour lab period assembling the clusters (some students may find this very enjoyable).

Once steps 1 and 2 are done, it is time to boot up the cluster.

  • Connect the power strip to an wall outlet and turn it on.

  • Plug the switch into one of the outlets on the power strip.

  • Next, plug in the bottom two nodes into the power strip.

  • Connect the USB-C cable to your laptop/workstation, and put the other end to the top node of the Raspberry Pi cluster. This will be our head node.

  • Lastly place one end of the Ethernet adapter-ethernet cable-Ethernet adapter daisy-chained cable into the top (head) node’s USB port. Place the other end into your laptop/workstation.

Before we continue I want to briefly discuss how connections work in this cluster.

  • The user/student connects to the Raspberry Pi head node via eth1 (this is the usb adapter to ethernet to usb adapter cabling system)
  • The cluster uses eth0 to communicate with itself.

Step 4: Connect to the Pi (from Windows 10)

For the next set of steps, we will be following the instructions from the Raspberry Pi Cluster C MPI tutorial on learnpdc.org.

The image that we provide has us connect to the cluster using the default Raspberry Pi username and password using SSH or VNC viewer.

  1. Ensure that the Pi is discoverable by attempting to ping it. Typing ping should result in a series of replies.

  2. Open up Windows PowerShell by clicking the Windows icon and typing in “PowerShell”

  3. Confirm you can SSH into the Raspberry Pi by typing: ssh pi@ in Powershell. This should land you on the command line of the Pi. If you are satisfied with your students connecting to the Pi via command line you can stop here.

  4. Download and Install the VNC Viewer client

  5. Open up VNC Viewer by clicking the Windows icon and typing “VNC Viewer”

  6. In the top bar, type the hostname of the Raspberry Pi:

  7. Enter the username (pi) and the password (default is raspberry) and click “OK”.

After that, your students should be all set to start using the Raspberry Pi MPI tutorial that we shared during our workshop. You can get additional tutorials on the learnPDC website.

Have fun!