Pi-tomation

Screen Automation – Selenium (and some other stuff), meets Raspberry Pi

Lets set the scene, you need to display some stuff on a screen so everyone in the office can see it. Easy, you mount a couple of TVs on the wall get a dvi-splitter and an old mac mini you had in the store room on the top shelf behind a roll of cat5 cable.

Set everything up, get the mac mini to auto login and mount a shared drive, then run a little script that uses selenium to open a browser and show pre-determined images of the stuff want to display, all stored on the same shared drive, done….

Fast forward a couple of years and you now have a lot more to display on a lot more screens, but what are you going do? It’s impractical – and expensive – to buy a bunch of mac minis just to run a script that opens a web browser. The end goal of all this is to have dashboards that are easily manageable by their respective teams.

 

Challenge Accepted

 

Have you heard of this new Raspberry Pi thing. Its a small ARM PC that’s the size of a credit card, and they’re cheap. What they’re also USB powered? Bonus now we can just power them from the TV itself and when the TV comes on the pi comes on. Now we just replace the mac mini with the pi and run the same script when it boots and we’re all done. Wait not so fast, the share isn’t public so we need a credentials to connect. That’s OK we can store them in a file locally and use fstab to connect. Yeah that works but we want to display different things on different screens so now I have to create different scripts and manually tell each Pi which one to use. OK that’s not too bad, the first time you set up each one just point it to the script it needs to run and then you can just update the script and reboot the pi. So far its shaky but it works, sometimes. One of the problems was that sometimes it would try to run the script on the network share before it was mounted properly and also running a script or (multiple at this point) over the network on a device with the processing power of about 7.4 hamsters isn’t really going to cut it. I’m getting tired of crowbarring fixes into something that wasn’t really designed for this use and troubleshooting seemingly random issues.

What do I actually want to accomplish here and how am I going to do it??

  1. Have the script run locally, its only managing a web browser after all.
  2. Config easily changeable and centrally managed.
  3. Get the pi to check for new config on startup.

Done, yes that’s it pretty simple, so here’s what I did.

Ingredients

  • bash script
  • json file. Lists the pages that the web browser should visit. Could also be local files loaded into the browser images etc.
  • python script. Loads the json ‘config’ and specifies how long each page should be displayed etc and does a bit of error checking.
  • Git (or other) repository

Method

Edit your rc.local to run a bash script that lives somewhere locally on the pi. eg /opt/scripts/ The bash script downloads selenium, firefox (actually iceweasel on debian) and facter (so we can get info really quickly)

I did consider using puppet for this whole thing at one point but that was a bit of overkill plus it had its own complications at the time try to run on on an ARM processor)

The bash script also uses facter to determine the mac address of the pi and remove the colons. (I must admit that facter may be a bit overkill here as well but hey, I’ve gotten used to having it around). It then searches your webserver (or other location) for files carrying its mac address as a name, ( I have a set of defaults that it uses if none are found). Have your webserver run a cron that pulls the repository of all your files. You could have each device pull the repository directly but the more screens you have the more inefficient that will be as you’ll be storing a whole repo on the pi just to get at 1 or 2 files. you could also have a web hook that only updates the web server when there are changes to the repo but I didn’t think it was worth it at this point. The json is self explanatory.

You can take a look at the principle here.

https://github.com/mindcandy/pi-screens.git

Plans for the future of this project includes a self service dashboard that will take the ingredients and mix them with the right config without the user necessarily having any coding knowledge.

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