Bitcoin nodes are the network’s validators: they keep miners honest and they also allow users to verify their own transactions and manage their own financial privacy. They are a tool of sovereignty which works on pretty much any computer manufactured since 2010. And yet, for many reasons, the Raspberry is among the finest choices for your validator hardware.
This article is not paid or endorsed by the Raspbery Pi Foundation and isn’t meant to convince you to purchase a new device. As a matter of fact, the best computer that you can use to run a Bitcoin full node is the one you already own. However, there are some undeniable advantages that these tiny ARM-based machines have.
Sure, the earlier iterations were sluggish and unreliable. When I tested the Raspberry Pi 3-powered Casa node in February 2019, it was disappointingly slow. Most of the times I wasn’t even sure if the device was stuck or if I should wait a little longer for it to load. But later in the year, the Raspberry 4 was launched and it brought faster quad-core processors, as well as 4 gigabytes of RAM – everything at the price of $55.
Thanks to this breakthrough in microprocessing and economies of scale, becoming financially sovereign was never easier and more affordable. So without further ado, here are the reasons why you should run your Bitcoin node on a Raspberry Pi 4.
1. The Raspberry Pi 4 is energy-efficient and green
For all the “Bitcoin mining is boiling the oceans” narratives, it’s good to have the validating side of Bitcoin run on such low-powered devices. Keeping your Raspberry Pi 4 Bitcoin node 24/7 will consume just as much energy as leaving your Max-sized iPhone to charge every day. And this is no small feat – millions of people can afford to run their own Bitcoin validators with minimal maintenance and operation costs.
At any given moment, my Raspberry Pi 4 Bitcoin and Lightning node never uses more than a third of the device’s processing power. This means that the energy consumption oscillates around the 4-watt range (a kilowatt every ~24 hours, approximately 365 kilowatts a year). At my energy provider’s rate of 8.5 cents per kilowatt, it costs me $31 a year to keep the node running 24/7.
The fact that I use it to run both Bitcoin and the Lightning Network is nothing short of impressive. And given the large amount of Raspberry Pi computers that process Lightning transactions, it’s safe to say that this second layer is the world’s most environmentally-friendly way of sending money.
2. The Raspberry Pi 4 is inexpensive, general-purpose, and easy to source globally
If mining rigs can cost a few thousands of dollars, then buying a new Raspberry Pi 4 with a large hard drive, a cool case, a touchscreen, and cables shouldn’t cost more than $200. In this setup, it’s actually the 1 TB hard drive that will cost more (especially if you go for the faster, quieter, but lesser rewrite-friendly SSD).
Furthermore, the popularity of the Raspberry Pi has significantly increased its global availability and use cases. So you can walk into a local electronics store (or go to a retailer’s website) and buy one of these tiny ARM machines with the maximum amount of plausible deniability. If your authoritarian government asks, you can simply claim that you want to build a video game console or an everyday desktop computer out of it – both use cases are popular and plausible, so nobody will feel suspicious about it.
In the case of Bitcoin hardware, it’s important for it to not be application-specific or labelled as such. If the potential reward involves scarce pieces of digital gold, then malevolent actors will have a greater incentive to take the risk of compromising your device during the delivery process. Yet the non-Bitcoin use cases for Raspberry Pi computers the most common. For extra plausible deniability, you can even buy a couple of units and use one for the most common and expected use case. This way, the probability of supply chain attacks diminishes significantly (though this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do a chip verification yourself).
3. There’s a lot of Bitcoin software that works on the Raspberry Pi 4
Hardware is only as valuable as the software that makes use of its capabilities. In Bitcoin’s case, there are lots of robust and free open source options for Raspberry Pi nodes. Since the creation of the RaspiBolt operating system by Stadicus, we have witnessed an entire wave of user-friendly operating systems which run Bitcoin and Lightning on affordable hardware.
I usually recommend people to use RaspiBlitz, as it offers a great amount of features and extensions on top a minimalistic but well-written user interface. However, there are other great options out there such as MyNode and Start9 Labs’ Embassy OS. Another popular option is Umbrel – however, its license is not specific for free open source software (at least not yet) and therefore I can’t recommend it.
If I were to find desktop operating system equivalents for these solutions, RaspiBolt would be Debian Linux, RaspiBlitz would be Ubuntu, MyNode would be Mint Linux, Start9 Labs’ Embassy OS would be Red Hat Linux, while Umbrel would be Mac OS.
Regardless of which one you choose, you’re going to find some of the same powerful software. This includes Electrum Server, Run the Lightning, BTCPay Server, Tor integration, LNBits, a mixing service like JoinMarket, and a decentralized chat application such as Sphinx (among many others).
All of these software applications offer you a secure and accessible way to access Bitcoin and Lightning applications on a Raspberry Pi, while retaining all the advantages of a first class citizen of the Bitcoin network. Validating your own transactions, generating receiving addresses from a self-hosted xpub, opening your own Lightning channels and managing your own private keys are all part of this technical but rewarding experience.
Kind of insane to think that the Raspberry Pi offers you a more compact and efficient Bitcoin experience than personal computers running Windows and MacOS.
4. The Raspberry Pi 4 is tiny and quiet
There’s a lot to be said about the advantages of a small computer. But mostly, especially in the case when you want to have an always-on device, it’s great to be able to place it in your living room without having to worry about the noise.
If you pick a good aluminium case which dissipates heat very well, you won’t even have to deal with noisy active cooling solutions. And if you run your Bitcoin and Lightning node on an SSD, there won’t be any spinning to make any noises. You get the quietest, most cost-efficient, and environmentally-friendly experience.
The fact that it comes in a tiny palm-sized form factor that you can fit behind pieces of furniture also adds up to your privacy, plausible deniability, and peace of mind.
5. The Raspberry Pi 4 is pretty secure as a dedicated Bitcoin node
People use Raspberry Pi computers to run servers, relays, video game emulators, livestreaming machines, payment processors, and the killer app which rules them all: validating Bitcoin and Lightning transactions. And it’s not like they couldn’t do it on a more powerful computer which runs everything in virtual machines.
The issue at stake is security: if you have a device which only does one specific task and its entire hardware is optimized for it, then its attack surface is lower. On the other hand, the multi-core work computer that can run anything in virtual machines is more vulnerable to attacks due to the greater complexity of the setup.
A Raspberry Pi Bitcoin node takes you back to a time when every item in your house fulfilled a single basic task: you had a turntable for music, a TV set for video entertainment, and a video game console that played cartridges. Though it’s convenient to have it all on a smartphone or computer, it’s also fundamentally more insecure. This is why having hardware which fulfils only one task is important, especially when you deal with sound money.
However, the Raspberry Pi 4 is NOT open source hardware
Remember the second paragraph of the article, in which I mentioned that the Raspberry Pi Foundation doesn’t pay me for this and it’s merely a representation of my own thoughts? Well, I was serious about it. The Raspberry Pi is great for what it does, but there are a few reasons why it’s not ideal for something like Bitcoin.
Bitcoin is free open source code that anyone can read, download, verify, and potentially modify. It works on the basis of a permissionless philosophy where you don’t have to appeal to any authority in the world in order to access the network. Free open source software also needs free open source hardware. However, there isn’t enough of it right now.
So if you want to build your own Raspberry Pi because you find yourself in a country that won’t let you import one, you’re gonna have a hard time. And if you need to replace or upgrade parts of the board, it’s also unlikely to find replacements (unless you purchase a new Raspberry Pi altogether). This is part of the tradeoff involved in the ARM architecture: you get systems on chips (SoCs) and systems on modules (SoMs) that are hard to replicate by using general-purpose parts that you find on the market.
There’s also a debate to be had about chips with NSA backdoors: as consumer-grade computers, the Raspberry Pies are most likely surveilled and hackable by government agencies.
If you want a truly open source hardware experience, then look into RISC-V computers. By manufacturing or purchasing (and subsequently verifying) one of these, you know that you’re using an open standard that nobody can compromise without leaving a visible trace. There is a price to pay for your extra privacy, though: a computer that can barely surf the web will cost you about $4000 and there isn’t as much Bitcoin software that you can run on it.
Though Bitcoin Core has been running on RISC-V since the release of version 0.18.0 in May 2019, I couldn’t find any Lightning clients that work with these open source CPUs. And if LND or c-lightning don’t work, then you won’t benefit from the other applications either (RTL, LNBits, BTCPay, and Sphinx Relay).
Part of the reason why the RISC-V standard doesn’t get too much support is the cost of the hardware – very few people can afford it, which is the exact opposite of the reason why the Raspberry Pi is so popular. But given the recent resurgence of open source hardware thanks to Trezor’s Tropic Square and bunnie’s Precursor project, we can hope that in the future they will also turn their attention to processing units, RAM memory, and mother boards that are verifiably open source and don’t cost more than the average gaming PC.
It has only been 12 years since Bitcoin got launched and 8 years since Edward Snowden revealed to us the magnitude of NSA’s surveillance operations. Also, it wasn’t until 2018-2019 that the RISC-V really became popular and open source chip manufacturers started to raise money.
Maybe that for now, low-powered computers such as the Raspberry Pi and the Arduino are the kings of the game. But in the future, we might have completely open source hardware to run all the great Bitcoin free open source software.
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Bitcoin base layer: bc1q4y3g7cu65qxnt79d7najjjgxrd8wgjyzj855ng
Lightning Network: lnbc200u1psdnmyqpp5mydfsetwsvfpnug090wapw0tg5mau4jlyjy9fdnlut96dzukh7sqdpg2fshxurzv4e8y7fq2p5jqsnfw33k76twyp8x7er9cqzpgxq97zvuqsp5d77580nmhr4xfyn9s7jzlr48qyqp744psewjd767ftlr4egffjuq9qy9qsqaljlkf2lqmkkzkjz947ted0csggueeegz767lqme7tmqm45rdnz9hkrrfcewmw39gtf54zwjqkmy62crgq6fqclj8l9kkghkrhrn5kgpaf0xa4