Tech Memorandums

Building a Digital Homestead: Chapter 1

At first I hoped that such a technically unsound project would collapse but I soon realized it was doomed to success. Almost anything in software can be implemented, sold, and even used given enough determination. There is nothing a mere scientist can say that will stand against the flood of a hundred million dollars. But there is one quality that cannot be purchased in this way — and that is reliability. The price of reliability is the pursuit of the utmost simplicity. It is a price which the very rich find most hard to pay. – C. A. R. Hoare, on PL/1

Problem statement

The HC2s can only boot from the SD card. The SD card is painfully slow. Having to update individual OS installs all the time would add overhead. A proposed solution is to PXE boot the hardware and use an NFS root system. This way updates only have to be done once and can be available to all.

To complete the boot, a root filesystem image will have to be provided to the hardware. There are a few options for building this rootfs:


While it would be good to have Debian on the HC2s, this looks like a fair bit of work.


While this appears rather widely used, nothing that I read for a day made sense to me.


This was spoken of as having the lowest barrier of entry, so off we go.

Buildroot provides a Vagrant file to quickly get started. Installed vagrant and vagrant-lxc from Debian and attempting to use this file and we run into our first problem:

Bundler, the underlying system Vagrant uses to install plugins,
reported an error. The error is shown below. These errors are usually
caused by misconfigured plugin installations or transient network
issues. The error from Bundler is:
conflicting dependencies ttfunk (= 1.5.1) and ttfunk (~> 1.4.0)
  Activated ttfunk-1.4.0
  which does not match conflicting dependency (= 1.5.1)
  Conflicting dependency chains:
    prawn (= 2.1.0), 2.1.0 activated, depends on
    ttfunk (~> 1.4.0), 1.4.0 activated
    ttfunk (= 1.5.1)
  Gems matching ttfunk (= 1.5.1):

After configuring lxc to use my existing libvirt-bin bridge and some blind hacking on the Vagrantfile, I got to the stage that it would attempt to pull the image bento/ubuntu-16.04 cannot be used with lxc. Now I try to install the vagrant-mutate plugin and I come up against the same error as above. Looking at the BTS leads me to #896904 which has a similar error message. Following the Github issues dotless-de/vagrant-vbguest#292 and devopsgroup-io/vagrant-hostmanager#256 leads me to the suggestion that I install vagrant from Hashicorp’s repository.

At this point, I give up on vagrant. I figure I can do all this in an lxc.


Turns out that Debian only has LXC 2.0.9 and does not have lxd at all. Never mind, I just need a chroot.

Recently, I had to enable unprivileged user namespaces for Chromium. The same reasoning applies to lxc, escaping the container results in root on the host. My user is sudo’d up to the hilt that there is no real difference between my user and root. But it is principle of the thing. To configure sub{u,g}ids, pick a random number and add 65536 to it. I picked 100000 and thus ended up with 165536.

# apt install uidmap
# usermod --add-subuids 100000-165536 $USER
# usermod --add-subgids 100000-165536 $USER
# # cat > 80-lxc-userns.conf
# sysctl --system
$ echo "$USER veth lxcbr0 10"| sudo tee -i /etc/lxc/lxc-usernet

Now add the following to ~/.config/lxc/default.conf. Make sure the sub{u,g}ids match the numbers above.

lxc.include = /etc/lxc/default.conf
# Subuids and subgids mapping
lxc.id_map = u 0 100000 65536
lxc.id_map = g 0 100000 65536
# "Secure" mounting = proc:mixed sys:ro cgroup:mixed

Create the container as below. Note that you cannot use the on-disk ubuntu template with unprivileged LXC. At this point, I didn’t really want to know.

$ lxc-create -n buildroot --dir=$PWD/buildroot -t download -- --dist ubuntu -r xenial -a amd64

If you get the error that lxc cannot write to ~/.cache, add an ACL for the subuid that was used above.

$ setfacl -m u:100000:rwx .cache/

The next problem is that the container cannot start in unprivileged mode. Get verbose logs with

$ lxc-start -n buildroot -l trace -o u.log

The first error is lxc_utils - utils.c:mkdir_p:257 - Permission denied - failed to create directory '/sys/fs/cgroup/freezer/lxc'. This leads me to some patches that are in Ubuntu or various workarounds.

Perhaps, just a good ol’ schroot will at least let me get started on buildroot. Long term, it appears that Ubuntu might be a better choice for development.


$ mkdir xenial
$ fakeroot debootstrap xenial ./xenial

Let it chug along for a while, then realise that debootstrap requires sudo.

$ sudo debootstrap xenial ./xenial

Create a file /etc/schroot/chroot.d/xenial.conf with:

description=Xenial Buildroot

Create a schroot session named buildroot with,

$ schroot -b -c xenial -n buildroot

Enter that session with,

$ schroot -r -c buildroot

You can become root with

$ schroot -r -c buildroot -u root

Or setup sudo inside the chroot.

Finally, we can get started with buildroot.

Buildroot setup

Use Ubuntu’s mirror protocol and add universe to /etc/apt/sources.list. Something like,

deb mirror:// xenial main universe


# dpkg --add-architecture i386
# apt update
# apt purge -q snapd lxcfs lxd ubuntu-core-launcher snap-confine
# apt install build-essential libncurses5-dev git bzr cvs mercurial subversion libc6:i386 unzip bc wget device-tree-compiler

117 kBps. Gosh, my internet sucks. Change to the TOT mirror like so,

deb xenial main universe

4.4 MBps. That’s more lke it. Now, get the latest buildroot image.

$ wget -q -c
$ tar xaf buildroot-2018.08.tar.gz

make nconfig followed by make will build an image.

So endeth the lesson.