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OpenBSD on a PC Engines Alix Board


PC Engines' Alix boards are a useful hardware platform for a low-bandwidth Tor relay or bridge. A quiet and fanless platforum, they feature a 32-bit 500MHz AMD Geode LX processor with 256MB of RAM. In this example, the Alix 3d2 model will be the target platform. Note that AMD announced the discontinuation of this processor, so a residential Tor bridge is an ideal final home for this hardware. The example could be utilized on many other embedded platforms.

Alix boards are fully supported by OpenBSD's i386 platform. In this case the OpenBSD -stable branch will be installed. -stable releases happen at or before the first of May and November each year. Security updates are easily done remotely with syspatch, while -current would require physical or serial console access for more frequent snapshot updates.

The downside of choosing -stable over -current is that ports are not updated as frequently. OpenBSD only provides stable application releases in its ports tree, which means that the Tor-alpha ports and packages are not available.


Enclosed in a case, Alix boards consume a minimal amount of space, only 16 cm at the longest dimension.

For storage, Alix boards need a compact flash card (CF). In this example a 8GB CF card will be employed, but a 4GB card could also be used. A CF card reader is also necessary.

A bootable copy of OpenBSD -i386 will be written to a USB flash drive for the install, which will be initially booted off a bootstrap x86 laptop. To ensure the bootstap laptop's hard drive is not overwritten, a cautious move would be to remove it temporarily.

Finally, a null modem cable with a “female” db9 connector is needed to access the device until [sshd]8( is configured. Some Alix boards do provide a VGA port, but the Alix3d2 does not.


The full installation notes for OpenBSD's 6.1 i386 platform provides all the necessary steps for installation.

The first step is to ensure the CF card is clean, and doesn't includes any residual data. The CF card will be the storage media for the OpenBSD system.

The dmesg 8 command displays the system's message buffer, which in this case shows that the 8GB (or 7815MB) CF card is assigned the /dev/sd2 device:

sd2 at scsibus4 targ 1 lun 1: <USB2.0, CompactFlashCard, \\001> SCSI0 0/direct removable sd2: 7815MB, 512 bytes/sector, 16007040 sectors

To completely wipe the CF card, use dd 1 to write random data to the device:

$ doas dd if=/dev/random of=/dev/rsd2c dd: /dev/rsd2c: Input/output error 1659677+0 records in 1659676+0 records out 849754112 bytes transferred in 5875.890 secs (144617 bytes/sec)


The same process can be used to wipe the USB flash media which will contain the bootable install files. dmesg(8) shows the following entry for the inserted 2GB flash device:

sd1 at scsibus4 targ 1 lun 0: <Generic, Flash Disk, 8.07> SCSI2 0/direct removable sd1: 1920MB, 512 bytes/sector, 3932160 sectors

Again, dd(1) will wipe the device with random characters, ensuring the device is clean.

s dd if=/dev/zero of=/dev/rsd1c dd: /dev/rsd1c: end of device 3932161+0 records in 3932160+0 records out 2013265920 bytes transferred in 4287.774 secs (469536 bytes/sec)

The [OpenBSD mirror sites]( are available globally. The _install61.fs_ file is available in the relative path of OpenBSD/6.1/armv7/ from the main mirror directory. For instance, to use the [ftp4 mirror in the US](, navigate to the 6.1, then i386 directory. OpenBSD maintains a simple version/architecture hierarchy in the mirror layout.

Downloading the install set files, those ending in .tgz, is not necessary as the full install will be done over the internet in this example.

To verify the integrity of the _install61.fs_ file, download the _SHA256_ file. For verifying the digital signature, also download the _SHA256.sig_ file. Instructions for checking both the file integrity and the digital signature on OpenBSD is available on [the project web site](

Each operating system writes disk images differently to flash and similar media. The Unix tool dd is avaible on most Unix and Unix-like systems.

On OpenBSD, assuming that /dev/sd1 is the USB flash media, the boot image is written like this:

$ doas dd if=install61.fs of=/dev/rsd1c bs=1m

Which should output something like:

240+0 records in 240+0 records out 251658240 bytes transferred in 46.148 secs (5453199 bytes/sec)

The same wipe process can be done with the USB flash media, which will be used for the install.

$ doas dd if=/dev/zero of=/dev/rsd1c dd: /dev/rsd1c: end of device 3932161+0 records in 3932160+0 records out 2013265920 bytes transferred in 4287.774 secs (469536 bytes/sec)

To confirm the data is written to the microSD card, mount it and check the contents:

$ doas mount /dev/sd1a /mnt $ ls /mnt/ total 7382 drwxr-xr-x 4 root wheel 512B Apr 1 16:23 ./ drwxr-xr-x 15 root wheel 512B Jun 25 18:49 ../ drwxr-xr-x 3 root wheel 512B Apr 1 16:23 6.1/ -rw-r–r– 1 root wheel 85.2K Apr 1 16:23 boot -rw-r–r– 1 root wheel 3.5M Apr 1 16:23 bsd drwxr-xr-x 2 root wheel 512B Apr 1 16:23 etc/


Some devices can boot off USB, while others cannot. Alix3d boards do not boot off USB, therefore a boostrap laptop is used with the CF card as the install target.

As mentioned previously, an ideal bootstrap computer might be a laptop with the hardware removed, to prevent overwriting the hard drive instead of the actual CF card install target.

On the boostrap laptop, connect the USB CF card reader with the wiped CF card, and connect the USB flash media with the 6.1 i386 install files.

The installation step requires connecting to the BBB with the serial cable with an ethernet connection, with the installation microSD card inserted in the BBB.

Insert the microSD card into the slot on the bottom of the BBB board.

Next, the 4-pin TTL serial cable needs to be connected to the BBB.

There are four pins, black, green, white and red. Only three of the pins are used, and the red pin is not used.

pin 1: black

pin 4: green

pin 5: white

Using the USB power, boot the BBB, holding down the small button next to the xxxslot to

The install target will be the eMMC storage on the BBB, and the microSD slot can be empty or used for other purposes. The 4GB of storage provided by the eMMC is more than adequate for full OpenBSD install. Earlier versions of OpenBSD's armv7 platform were restricted by slow input/output speeds to the eMMC, but this has been resolved.


As with other operating systems, both the base operating system and the applications require regular updates. OpenBSD provides simple mechanisms for updating both. [syspatch 8]( enables painless binary security patching. [pkg_add]( with the [-u]( option should update the packages. At this point, the full /usr/ports tree needs to be populated and updated for package updates.

In this case, net/tor is the critical application to keep updated. First update the ports tree, then update the port.

$ cvs up -Pd

$ cd /usr/ports/net/tor

$ make update

en/openbsd_on_pcengines_alix_boards.txt · Last modified: 2018/01/31 22:07 by gman999