Raspberry Pi Network Bootloader Solves the "Chicken and Egg" Problem of Getting an OS on Your SBC
Raspberry Pi has announced the release of a new way to install an operating system on its single-board computers: a menu-based network boot system, which doesn't require a second computer to kickstart into action. Better late than never.
Raspberry Pi single-board computers are incredibly popular thanks to, among other things, their flexibility and low cost. The latter feature, however, typically hinges on having a second computer available through which you can write an operating system image to a microSD card — something Raspberry Pi's Peter Harper describes as "the classic chicken and egg problem."
It's a problem Raspberry Pi believes it has solved with the launch, in beta, of a network installation system. "The new Network Install feature can be used to start the Raspberry Pi Imager application directly on a Raspberry Pi 4, or a Raspberry Pi 400, by downloading it from the internet using an Ethernet cable," Harper explains.
"The Raspberry Pi Imager application, which will run in memory on your Raspberry Pi, can then be used to flash the operating system onto a blank SD Card or USB disk, just like normal."
Booting into the network installer, which is currently available only using wired Ethernet and not the Raspberry Pi's on-board Wi-Fi connection, allows the user to choose from selected operating systems. Once picked, the image is downloaded and flashed to the microSD card currently inserted into the Raspberry Pi — wiping anything currently installed.
At present, the feature is available as an opt-in beta: Users need to upgrade to a beta version of the Raspberry Pi 4 and Pi 400 bootloader with the network installation feature on-board. Once it's been through enough testing, though, the idea is that the network installer will be loaded into the bootloader at the factory - finally solving the chicken-and-egg problem.
More details, including how to participate in the beta by upgrading your bootloader, are available on the Raspberry Pi blog; the company has not yet announced plans to bring the same functionality to older Raspberry Pi models.