Apr 032014

What is this about?

How to set up a Raspbian system as a read-only system in a couple of easy steps.


This penguin has been doing a lot of reading as of lately.

Why is this of interest to me?

The filesystem on the Raspberry Pi’s SD card, as every filesystem on every computer, can be corrupted if you disconnect the power suply.

Once you make the filesystem read-only (all changes go to a RAM-Disk), you will be able to disconnect the power supply whenever you want.

An additional bonus is less wear on the SD card – sometimes you do NOT want the logfiles which a standard Linux / Raspbian will write to anyway. Our solution will write those to a RAM-Disk and discard them on reboot / power cycling.

Last but not least, you can set up a known state to boot into, experiment, and if things go wrong, simply reboot.

How-To make Raspbian read-only

all commands to be run as root (sudo su) if not specified otherwise.

This how-to is based on another how-to I found on the Internet, in German. Thanks guys!

Disable swap

dphys-swapfile swapoff
dphys-swapfile uninstall
update-rc.d dphys-swapfile disable

Install UnionFS

UnionFS is an overlaying filesystem (you can mount from several different locations into the same folder). In case of collisions, UnionFS uses priorities for the filesystems. It is frequently used to create RAM-Disk Overlays for read-only systems, for instance also with Live CDs.

aptitude install unionfs-fuse

Create mount script

nano /usr/local/bin/mount_unionfs

Add the following content to this file:

 ROOT_MOUNT=$(awk '$2=="/" {print substr($4,1,2)}' < /etc/fstab)
 if [ $ROOT_MOUNT = "rw" ]
   /bin/mount --bind ${DIR}_org ${DIR}
   /bin/mount -t tmpfs ramdisk ${DIR}_rw
   /usr/bin/unionfs-fuse -o cow,allow_other,suid,dev,nonempty ${DIR}_rw=RW:${DIR}_org=RO ${DIR}

make it executable:

 chmod +x /usr/local/bin/mount_unionfs

Update /etc/fstab:

nano /etc/fstab

Modify the file to read (adjust partitions for NOOBS!) as follows:

proc            /proc           proc    defaults          0       0
/dev/mmcblk0p1  /boot           vfat    ro                0       2
/dev/mmcblk0p2  /               ext4    ro,noatime        0       1
mount_unionfs   /etc            fuse    defaults          0       0
mount_unionfs   /var            fuse    defaults          0       0
none            /tmp            tmpfs   defaults          0       0

Prepare the directories

cp -al /etc /etc_org
mv /var /var_org
mkdir /etc_rw
mkdir /var /var_rw

At this point your Raspberry Pi should be read-only already. You can verify this with


This command should show something like the following:

/dev/root on / type ext4 (ro,noatime,data=ordered)
devtmpfs on /dev type devtmpfs (rw,relatime,size=215824k,nr_inodes=53956,mode=755)
tmpfs on /run type tmpfs (rw,nosuid,noexec,relatime,size=44820k,mode=755)
tmpfs on /run/lock type tmpfs (rw,nosuid,nodev,noexec,relatime,size=5120k)
proc on /proc type proc (rw,nosuid,nodev,noexec,relatime)
sysfs on /sys type sysfs (rw,nosuid,nodev,noexec,relatime)
tmpfs on /run/shm type tmpfs (rw,nosuid,nodev,noexec,relatime,size=89620k)
devpts on /dev/pts type devpts (rw,nosuid,noexec,relatime,gid=5,mode=620)
/dev/mmcblk0p1 on /boot type vfat (ro,relatime,fmask=0022,dmask=0022,codepage=437,iocharset=ascii,shortname=mixed,errors=remount-ro)
ramdisk on /etc_rw type tmpfs (rw,relatime)
unionfs-fuse on /etc type fuse.unionfs-fuse (rw,relatime,user_id=0,group_id=0,default_permissions,allow_other)
fusectl on /sys/fs/fuse/connections type fusectl (rw,relatime)
ramdisk on /var_rw type tmpfs (rw,relatime)
unionfs-fuse on /var type fuse.unionfs-fuse (rw,relatime,user_id=0,group_id=0,default_permissions,allow_other)
none on /tmp type tmpfs (rw,relatime)

This indicates to you that the filesystems are mounted read-only and unionfs is active.

Clean up the Log directory

mount -o remount,rw /
for f in $(find . -name \*log); do > $f; done
cd /var_org/log
rm -f *.gz


Another reboot and you’re done!


How-To Install additional Packages after “read-only-modding”

You’ve got to remount the root filesystem as readable. For instance, as root, you can do:

mount -o remount,rw /
aptitude update
aptitude install stress
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