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Coding on Raspberry Pi remotely with Visual Studio Code

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Jim Bennett from Microsoft, who showed you all how to get Visual Studio Code up and running on Raspberry Pi last week, is back to explain how to use VS Code for remote development on a headless Raspberry Pi.

Like a lot of Raspberry Pi users, I like to run my Raspberry Pi as a ‘headless’ device to control various electronics – such as a busy light to let my family know I’m in meetings, or my IoT powered ugly sweater.

The upside of headless is that my Raspberry Pi can be anywhere, not tied to a monitor, keyboard and mouse. The downside is programming and debugging it – do you plug your Raspberry Pi into a monitor and run the full Raspberry Pi OS desktop, or do you use Raspberry Pi OS Lite and try to program and debug over SSH using the command line? Or is there a better way?

Remote development with VS Code to the rescue

There is a better way – using Visual Studio Code remote development! Visual Studio Code, or VS Code, is a free, open source, developer’s text editor with a whole swathe of extensions to support you coding in multiple languages, and provide tools to support your development. I practically live day to day in VS Code: whether I’m writing blog posts, documentation or Python code, or programming microcontrollers, it’s my work ‘home’. You can run VS Code on Windows, macOS, and of course on a Raspberry Pi.

One of the extensions that helps here is the Remote SSH extension, part of a pack of remote development extensions. This extension allows you to connect to a remote device over SSH, and run VS Code as if you were running on that remote device. You see the remote file system, the VS Code terminal runs on the remote device, and you access the remote device’s hardware. When you are debugging, the debug session runs on the remote device, but VS Code runs on the host machine.

Photograph of Raspberry Pi 4
Raspberry Pi 4

For example – I can run VS Code on my MacBook Pro, and connect remotely to a Raspberry Pi 4 that is running headless. I can access the Raspberry Pi file system, run commands on a terminal connected to it, access whatever hardware my Raspberry Pi has, and debug on it.

Remote SSH needs a Raspberry Pi 3 or 4. It is not supported on older Raspberry Pis, or on Raspberry Pi Zero.

Set up remote development on Raspberry Pi

For remote development, your Raspberry Pi needs to be connected to your network either by ethernet or WiFi, and have SSH enabled. The Raspberry Pi documentation has a great article on setting up a headless Raspberry Pi if you don’t already know how to do this.

You also need to know either the IP address of the Raspberry Pi, or its hostname. If you don’t know how to do this, it is also covered in the Raspberry Pi documentation.

Connect to the Raspberry Pi from VS Code

Once the Raspberry Pi is set up, you can connect from VS Code on your Mac or PC.

First make sure you have VS Code installed. If not, you can install it from the VS Code downloads page.

From inside VS Code, you will need to install the Remote SSH extension. Select the Extensions tab from the sidebar menu, then search for Remote development. Select the Remote Development extension, and select the Install button.

Next you can connect to your Raspberry Pi. Launch the VS Code command palette using Ctrl+Shift+P on Linux or Windows, or Cmd+Shift+P on macOS. Search for and select Remote SSH: Connect current window to host (there’s also a connect to host option that will create a new window).

Enter the SSH connection details, using user@host. For the user, enter the Raspberry Pi username (the default is pi). For the host, enter the IP address of the Raspberry Pi, or the hostname. The hostname needs to end with .local, so if you are using the default hostname of raspberrypi, enter raspberrypi.local.

The .local syntax is supported on macOS and the latest versions of Windows or Linux. If it doesn’t work for you then you can install additional software locally to add support. On Linux, install Avahi using the command sudo apt-get install avahi-daemon. On Windows, install either Bonjour Print Services for Windows, or iTunes for Windows.

For example, to connect to my Raspberry Pi 400 with a hostname of pi-400 using the default pi user, I enter pi@pi-400.local.

The first time you connect, it will validate the fingerprint to ensure you are connecting to the correct host. Select Continue from this dialog.

Enter your Raspberry Pi’s password when promoted. The default is raspberry, but you should have changed this (really, you should!).

VS Code will then install the relevant tools on the Raspberry Pi and configure the remote SSH connection.

Code!

You will now be all set up and ready to code on your Raspberry Pi. Start by opening a folder or cloning a git repository and away you go coding, debugging and deploying your applications.

In the remote session, not all extensions you have installed locally will be available remotely. Any extensions that change the behavior of VS Code as an application, such as themes or tools for managing cloud resources, will be available.

Things like language packs and other programming tools are not installed in the remote session, so you’ll need to re-install them. When you install these extensions, you’ll see the Install button has changed to Install in SSH:< hostname > to show it’s being installed remotely.

VS Code may seem daunting at first – it’s a powerful tool with a huge range of extensions. The good news is Microsoft has you covered with lots of hands-on, self-guided learning guides on how to use it with different languages and development tools, from using Git version control, to developing web applications. There’s even a guide to learning Python basics with Wonder Woman!

Jim with his arms folded wearing a dark t shirt
Jim Bennett

You remember Jim – his blog Expecting Someone Geekier is well good. You can find him on Twitter @jimbobbennett and on github.

Website: LINK

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