Why small computers are awesome

#nix #Raspberry Pi #rpi #homelab #nixos
Time to read: 15m

One of my earliest experiences using a Linux-based computer, at my desktop was with a Raspberry Pi Model B. It was around 2013, I was still in the early years of High School, I was learning C++ from an old "C++ For Dummies" book that I picked up at a charity shop and my autistic hyperfixation on computing was in full swing.

I'm lucky to have some very supportive parents, and around this time the Raspberry Pi was taking off like wildfire in the UK, being lauded even in the non-technical press as a good way to get children invested in programming. Because of this, they decided to get me one.

The Original Raspberry Pi models were under powered by today's standards, sporting a whole 256 MiB of RAM, a single core ARMv7 processor, and no Wi-Fi. I used it a bit, read some tutorials, made some LEDs blink with the GPIO, but I started to become too swamped with work at high school to really do much with it.

Since then, it's sat in drawers collecting dust, an interesting technical novelty that is less powerful than even my Wi-Fi router at this point. Whilst I didn't find much use for it, others did. Each generation has become increasingly powerful and capable. Presumably this is due to the meteoric rise in demand for both IoT devices, and Mobile Phones, forcing innovation in fitting more and more computation into tiny packages.

All of this is to say, last week I bought a Raspberry Pi 4B with 8 GiB of memory for retail price, and I am dumbstruck by how powerful, and how useful this tiny SBC is!


I have a pretty extensive infrastructure. I own 2 physical servers (1 NAS and 1 ProxMox), 1 OVH Dedi and 2 VPSes (Which Are retiring soon, and their stuff moved to the dedi).

As such, it's sensible to ask why I would want a Raspberry Pi since I already Own/Rent so many devices. The answer is rather simple, I like to own my devices, and I also despise subscription fees.

As such, there was a cost-benefit analysis to perform, so I ended up breaking it down like so.

VPS Pros

VPS Cons

Pi Pros

Pi Cons

After weighing this up, I thought it would be worth taking a punt. I waited for a UK seller to get the 8 GiB model in stock (Because I refuse to take part in the absolute farce that is profiteering from chip shortages by buying from a scalper), and waited for it to arrive.


I am a NixOS user, and as such the first thing I did, after unwrapping and checking the device powers on was to install NixOS.

I was prepared to have to fight my toolchain in order to do this, but other than having to enable aarch-64 emulation (boot.binfmt.emulatedSystems = ["aarch64-linux"] on an x86_64 NixOS machine) due to deploy-rs needing to build its activation binary on my machine, it was rather painless.

Integration with existing config

When I wrote my NixOS config for all of my current systems, I made certain assumptions. Since the first device I wrote it for, was a desktop computer, some of the assumptions that I made are an incredibly bad.

Because this device broke all of these assumptions, it forced me to remove these assumptions. This has resulted in slimming down the minimal "just a system" configuration by quite a large degree. After sorting out the issues with deploy-rs, the resultant size of the closure (on top of the default NixOS Raspberry Pi install) was an additional 1GiB. Most of this seems to come from deploy-rs, sops, tailscale and tools that I require to feel at home on any device (zoxide, exa etc.).

What I use it for

So, given the pro/con list above, it should be obvious that my main interest was in setting up "internal infrastructure" with the device. My main interests were the following

Universal Ad Blocking

My Firefox setup is rather paranoid. I run uBlock, Privacy Badger, HTTPS Everywhere, ClearURLS, FastForward, SponsorBlock and various userscripts with ViolentMonkey. Almost all of these serve one of two purposes; either to block ads, or to block trackers.

Unfortunately, I can't always use my desktop. I own a Fairphone 4 (Fantastic phone, it's user repairable by design!), multiple games consoles, a FireTV stick and a Kobo e-reader. With all of these devices it is either impossible, or difficult to install an ad blocker on.

My phone is the least plagued by this, as Firefox on mobile supports uBlock and Privacy Badger, but that doesn't stop adverts and tracking outside the device itself.

What I sought then, was a method to block adverts and trackers at a "router level" so that all devices on my network would be protected from web-based trackers and advertising.

Many of you are probably thinking I'm now going to talk about PiHole. This was one of the first major platforms to do this, however, it is rather heavyweight, difficult enough to package that it's not on nixpkgs and doesn't support DoH or DNSCrypt without some tinkering.

Instead, I opted for AdGuard Home. AdGuard provide commercial "plug and play" DNS ad-blocking devices, however the software that actually runs on these devices is open source and licensed under GPL3!

AdGuard has some advantages over PiHole; It's written in Go so is rather easy to package, it supports DoH, DNSCrypt and even the less popular DNS over TLS, and it's already packaged on nixpkgs.

Local DNS

Funnily enough, given that AdGuard itself is a DNS Resolver, it also provides the ability to write your own DNS resolutions. Previously, I was using the dnsmasq implementation that was part of my router, however this involved telneting in, and adjusting the dnsmasq config.

This was obviously a horrible user experience. Partly because the only reason to use telnet when SSH exists is to watch Star Wars, but also partly because it involved manually editing a text file, over telnet, on my router, and then restarting the device (Because you can't restart dnsmasq from the telnet session!).

As such, this has meant that 99% of the time I have just not done it, and stuck to memorising IP addresses.

The way I am currently handling this, is to write an entry for each service in the form $SERVICENAME.local, but, given the next part, this might not stick around forever.


I like NGINX, I hate configuring it. Thankfully Nix makes this a lot less trouble since if I mess up the config file it will often error when building the derivation which is rather convenient.

Because I intended to be hosting multiple services off of this one device, it made sense to make use of NGINX for its actual purpose, as a reverse proxy. This is quite nice, as it means I can make each service its own logical "domain" on the local network, whilst still running off of one device.

For example, whilst this device hosts Prometheus, Grafana (spoilers!) and AdGuard each one has its own domain prometheus.local grafana.local and so on.


When I first soft-deployed this blog, I realized I had no way of collecting metrics. I didn't want anything invasive/tracker-y, and so I sought to do what any sane person does, roll it from scratch.

In that search, I came across Open Metrics, and thus Prometheus. There's a good rust library for exposing an Open Metrics endpoint, and so I decided to settle on using it.

The metrics collected are intentionally minimal, providing me hit counts, and nothing more. The metrics are public, and are available here if you would like to inspect them yourself.

Of course, it's all well and good exposing these metrics, but I also need a way to consume, and visualize them! My Raspberry Pi now runs a small Prometheus instance which reaches out to the blog's metrics endpoint, and in turn stores those metrics in a time series database.

These metrics can then be read from Prometheus into something to visualise it. I personally chose Grafana for this, mostly because I've used it before (for 5 minutes) and also because it's well-supported in nixos.

Eventually, this will expend to more than my blog. The goal is to build myself a single pane of glass for all of my devices and services.

Future work

There are some services that already run on my Venerable R710 (such as ZNC) which I intend to move to the raspberry pi soon. There are also some new services that I intend to spin up. Most of these are infrastructure such as Loki and Gitea, but some are actual useful tools like PrivateBin, an encrypted pastebin clone.


In summary, I am incredibly impressed with the power of modern SBCs. The fact that a device the same width and height as a credit card is able to provide this much value to me, and my home lab setup is incredible.

This tiny device has rapidly become an indispensable asset for my homelab, and was well worth the money. In the future, I expect to see more and more small, useful services delegated to this device.