I wrote an alternative software stack for VanPi: docker-based, with new features and compatible with RPi5 and Bookworm

Admin EDIT: Check out the installation video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_yJqSot-Hc


Hi Forum. I want to present here something I have been working on in the past few weeks which I think many might find useful. It’s basically a full rewrite of the VanPi OS which aims at better extensibility / compatibility and which introduces some native features including GPS, Zigbee2MQTT, multiple batteries, better USB support etc.

A lot of this post will be about rather technical stuff that might not be so interesting to everyone out there, but I also listed a few of the advantages of the work I’ve done so far from the perspective of an end user, so feel free to scroll down if you don’t care about the “how”.

PS: Sorry for writing in English, but my German is not so good and I anyway believe English is better suited for discussing relatively technical topics.

Disclaimer

Everything I’m presenting here today is largely work-in-progress. It’s a pre-alpha version at best. Support is already decent - albeit with some notable missing components (Heater, Shunt and tank sensors) - but the UI around it is certainly not ready for being used in any of your real-life builds.

Additionally: as much as I tried providing “some” documentation already, its state reflects the very young nature of the project. A lot can be improved or is missing entirely.

Background and motivation

Since I plan on building fairly complex stuff in my van (e.g. a recirculating shower, multiple inverters, remote video surveillance etc.), I have a fairly good idea of what my needs are and I know that many of them are not directly supported by the current VanPi software (and for good reason).

I started tinkering with the VanPi OS last month for a few days and I eventually realized that extending the current Node-Red application was going to be messy. I found there is a lot of unnecessary repetition in the code and that the current stack, being installed directly on the Pi, requires a lot of dependencies that bind the OS to outdated libraries and softwares (Debian Buster and such). As I mentioned on some other thread last month, I would much rather work with a docker-based stack which is easy to extend and which deploys focused services that are also portable.

Another thing I was frustrated with, as someone who wanted to develop the system further, was the lack of a version-controlled development workflow (i.e. Git-based). I definitely did not want to implement major extensions of flows and have to copy-paste changes around Node-Red any time an update would occur.

Furthermore, the current stack operates as a monolith, which by definition poses significant challenges (increased complexity, hard to maintain, scale, and adapt). I believe the only concern of the “core” VanPi OS should be controlling the VanPi hardware. Everything else (primarily UI and automation) should probably live somewhere else. In other words, I think the current software does not score well with regards to a sane separation of concerns.

So, long story short, I decided rewriting a brand new stack would be the easiest way forward for me, personally. After a few weeks of working on it in my spare time, I think it’s reached a point where I would present it here and start getting some feedback.

Technical design

Here is a rundown of the main components of “my version” of the VanPi software.

1. Docker-based architecture

GitHub project: GitHub - coconup/vanpi-docker-stack

Everything is based on Docker and docker-compose, taking heavy inspiration from the IOTStack project. This allows the integration of virtually any piece of software alongside the VanPi OS, avoiding conflicts between libraries and enabling a whole bunch of extensions that would be otherwise daunting to implement.

In my case, for example, I am using a Cloudflare tunnel for secure remote access to the system (all of it: the UI, Node-Red and the terminal). I’m also running Zigbee2MQQT without having to install any dependency in the host system. Finally, I can control everything through Portainer - troubleshooting, editing and restarting each service in isolation while developing. Here is a screenshot of the stack at the moment of writing:

2. Hardware

I think it’s worth mentioning that I am currently running this on a Raspberry Pi 5 running the latest Bookworm Raspbian OS. I also got it running on a RPi 4 running Bullseye, so these two are confirmed working. Both my Pi’s have 8GB of RAM, so I am not sure how lower spec’d ones would perform.

3. VanPi core API

GitHub project: GitHub - coconup/vanpi-core-api

This is a massively slimmed-down version of the existing VanPi OS, providing the strict functionality needed to operate the hardware. All it offers is an HTTP API that can be used by any client to control things. An MQTT API might follow if and when I find a reasonable use case for it.

The Node-Red project should be used within the vanpi-core-api container by cloning the repository within Node-Red itself (see Node-Red projects for reference). This enables a Git development workflow where changes are pushed and pulled, PRs are possible and conflict resolution can happen within Node-Red.

Here is the list of currently supported devices, which matches exactly the hardware I have at hand and nothing less:

  • Relays on the relay board
  • Tasmota WiFi relays
  • Temperature sensors
  • JBD BMS over Bluetooth
  • USB GPS dongles (I got this one)
  • Zigbee USB dongles (I got this one)

The most notable missing components (imho) are:

  • Heater: I want to get a Webasto + the currently sold out K-bus from the shop and add support for it. I did already some research and this should be easy, since it’s again something that goes through USB
  • Tank sensors: Again due to missing hardware and I am personally leaning towards Ultrasonic distance sensors in place of the currently supported options. I haven’t spent enough time researching those, though.
  • Shunt: no idea how easy or hard this would be. I don’t have a plan to include this in my build, but if anyone wants to send me one, I can give it a go.

Of course I plan on extending this as soon as I get my hands on more devices. Contributions are of course welcome. In case anyone wants to port functionality from the original VanPi OS and has access to the related hardware, feel free to fork the project and open a pull request :wink: .

3. VanPi automation API

GitHub project: GitHub - coconup/vanpi-automation-api

This is currently a proof of concept. The idea is that all automation (including timers, IoT-triggered flows, thermostat-based heater control etc.) should live here instead than in the core API.

This repo will likely include very standardized functionality (like heater control) and otherwise provide a collection of examples and merely serve as inspiration for others to create their own flows based on their needs. It is certainly the place where being able to git pull updates will be the most valuable, since these flows are going to be very specific to individual builds.

One pattern that is already implemented, and also reflected in the UI, is so-called “Modes”. In essence, it is possible to create a button through the UI which switches a “mode” on and off. This can be then the basis for automating some actions.

As an example, I have put a “Winter travel” mode which would automatically start a loop of hot water as soon as the tank temperature falls below two degrees. It would then stop such loop as soon as the temperature rises again to at least six degrees:

4. VanPi React frontend

GitHub project: GitHub - coconup/vanpi-react

This is likely the least mature part of the stack at the time of writing, since it’s also going to be the easiest to develop once everything else caught up with the list of required features.

It’s a frontend written in React and therefore it can run on any browser or be embedded into an app. At the moment, it allows to define settings and organize switches (Relays, WiFi Relays, Modes and Action Switches).

Modes were already described above, while action switches (not too happy with the name here) deserve a little explanation. These are buttons that will operate a combination of Relays and WiFi relays and force their state to either ON or OFF while the button is active.

This means you can, for example, have a single “Shower maintenance” switch that will simultaneously turn off the water pump and open some valve for water disposal. Conflicts with other switches are also handled, so as long as something like the above is turned “on”, it will not be possible for another switch to turn on the water pump.

Since it became dark while I was writing this, the next screenshots automatically switched to “night mode”:

Other settings at the moment include adding batteries (plural) and setting a GPS and Zigbee USB device. These will be remembered even if you swap ports around or add a USB Hub, unlike in the original implementation:

5. VanPi App API

GitHub project: GitHub - coconup/vanpi-app-api

This is the backend utilized by the React App, which provides the needed functionality to handle resources (Switches, batteries, settings etc.). It also acts as an intermediary to the more low-level APIs described above.

Advantages for Final Users:

This is a list of what I think are end-user advantages of the current and envisioned implementation.

1. Enhanced Hardware compatibility:

The system is compatible with newer hardware, including Raspberry Pi 5 on Bookworm and RPi4 on Bullseye.

2. Enhanced Software compatibility:

The system can be much more easily paired with other widespread, end-user facing software like Home Automation, thanks to the fact that everything is containerized.

3. Extended switches / relays features

Organize switches into categories and control multiple relays with a single switch button. Define “Modes” through the UI and automate actions through Node-Red based on their state.

See the writeup above for more details.

4. Native support for multiple batteries

An endless amount of batteries can be configured in the UI.

5. Cleaner, more modern UI

Only show what is relevant and allow the user to choose how to organize their dashboard.

Additionally, building a UI in React allows for adding any sort of widget which is freely available (weather forecast, maps etc.).

6. Improved USB Support

The way USB devices are handled has been greatly improved, with the result that:

  • Devices are recognized automatically once added, regardless of the USB port used.
  • Support for USB hubs allows for the connection of more devices beyond the standard four ports of the Pi.

7. Native Support for other commonly needed devices

At the moment, I am using these devices with native support:

8. Actually secure remote access through Cloudflare

A Cloudflare tunnel integration allows for secure access to VanPi from anywhere in the world (as long as the Pi is connected to the internet), without the need for any extra hardware. I want to write up a guide of all the steps involved in setting this up, but I basically followed this video with little adaptations: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZvIdFs3M5ic

9. Simplified Update Process:

Updates can be streamlined with a simple git pull command and don’t involve any manual copy-pasting of flows, if they were ever edited by the user.

Advantages for Developers:

Similarly, this is a list of what I personally see as significant advantages for anyone wishing to develop the platform further:

1. Docker-Based Architecture:

This is imho a game changer over any solution that requires dependencies being installed in the host machine. It makes services run in isolation, avoiding conflicts and easily allowing to add / remove / troubleshoot any component in the system. It also allows for the whole system to be much more portable and generally lightweight. The setup is much faster than the original “Manual setup” procedure, and also much less prone to incompatibilities arising. I actually did not manage to get through the manual installation process of VanPi OS on my RPi4, for whatever reason.

2. Hardware compatibility

I think it’s important for any developer to know they can work in the latest version of hardware (RPi5) and software (Linux). This is an almost direct effect of switching over to docker, since local dependencies are virtually non-existent and everything is containerized within the Pi.

3. DRY code and proper separation of concerns

Going back to the motivation paragraph I wrote above, I think this is the main point being addressed by the rewrite. Define logic once, where it belongs, and use it from anywhere.

4. Git-Based Development Workflow

In my mind this could unlock the real open source potential of this project. Making changes, proposing them through pull requests, getting someone to review them and eventually merging them upstream is here possible and in fact natural.

5. Cloudflare Integration

I have actually been developing most of this while being at my parents’ place over Christmas, while my hardware was sitting in my living room at home some 1,000km away. This is possible because of the Cloudflare tunnel which not only allows access to Node-Red and to the UI remotely, but also allows opening an SSH session to the terminal from the browser. As I wrote above - I want to write up a guide of all the steps involved in setting this up, but I basically followed this video with little adaptations: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZvIdFs3M5ic

6. Database-Backed Application:

The application now relies on an actual database (MariaDB), providing structure and consistency. This allows to extend the API logic horizontally without making a mess, thanks to common concepts like primary / foreign keys, uniqueness constraints and so on. It also allows a safer storage of credentials through encrypted columns, in case any third party service should be integrated into the stack (I plan on integrating Blink cameras, for example).

7. API-based stack

The core system is developed as an API, which is consumed primarily by the rest of the stack. This means the API will, by definition, always be up to date. The fact that the OS is an API makes it easy to write different clients for it, integrate it in different automation systems and so on.

Conclusion

This take me quite a long time to write up so I hope it was worth it. To whomever went through the whole wall of text, thank you :smiley: . And of course thank you to the core Pekaway team for the invaluable ground work that made all of this rather easy to achieve. If anyone has any feedback and/or is interested in starting a conversation, I’d be happy to do so.

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Well, let me say it was definitely worth it :smiley:
This looks awesome.
I’ll install it to a Pi4 and have a deeper look into it over the next few days.

Wish I could say more, given the effort you put into that, but for now I just want to try it all out :smiley: Then I’ll get back to you.

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Verry nice, i am looking forward to have a closer look. It is definitely addressing a lot of points where i am also struggling with.

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@Vincent it wouldn’t have been possible without all the work you guys have done :+1:. If you have trouble getting it up and running, feel free to reach out. I crammed together the install.sh script out of my last install attempt, so I didn’t yet test it on a fresh Pi. Also, the Dockerfile for vanpi-core-api (this one) currently uses Bookworm as base. I should probably make that configurable, but for now you can change it to Bullseye if that is the base OS. Looking forward to your feedback :slight_smile:

@coconup I’m failing to get “VanPi App API” up and running (port 3001). When I try to run it manually, there’s an error:
“libc.musl-aarch64.so.1: cannot open shared object file: No such file or directory”

Also, the mariadb container states "connect to server at ‘localhost’ failed error: ‘Access denied for user ‘root’@‘localhost’ (using password: YES)’ "

I created a new user + database (named everything vanpi), granted privileges and inserted that into .envrc

Apart from that everything seems to run fine on a RPI4 Bookworm 4GB.

@Vincent wow thanks for giving it a try already.

Regarding MariaDB, it shouldn’t be necessary to manually create a user / database. Just fill the .envrc file before the first boot and the container should do everything for you. The error sounds related to the root user, which has a separate password and account than the regular user. So if things are set up manually, I’m not sure what that one defaults to.

Regarding the API, not sure… that container is actually very simple and just runs a server, provided the repo has been cloned into ./volumes/vanpi-app-api:

vanpi-app-api:
    container_name: vanpi-app-api
    image: node:21-alpine
    command: sh -c "cd /usr/src/app && npm install && node server.js"
    volumes:
    - ./volumes/vanpi-app-api/src:/usr/src/app
    ports:
    - "3001:3001"
    depends_on:
    - mariadb
    restart: unless-stopped
    network_mode: "host"
    environment:
      ENCRYPTION_KEY: ${ENCRYPTION_KEY}
      DB_HOST: "127.0.0.1"
      DB_USER: ${DB_USER}
      DB_PASSWORD: ${DB_PASSWORD}
      DB_NAME: ${DB_NAME}
      AUTOMATION_API_ROOT_URL: "http://127.0.0.1:1881/api/v1"
      VANPI_API_ROOT_URL: ${VANPI_API_ROOT_URL}
      VANPI_APP_API_ALLOWED_DOMAINS: ${VANPI_APP_API_ALLOWED_DOMAINS}
      VANPI_APP_API_ENABLE_AUTHENTICATION: ${VANPI_APP_API_ENABLE_AUTHENTICATION}
      VANPI_APP_API_USERNAME: ${VANPI_APP_API_USERNAME}
      VANPI_APP_API_PASSWORD: ${VANPI_APP_API_PASSWORD}

Do you get the error while the container is building, or within the logs after it tried to start?

I will try installing everything on my RPi4 running Bookworm (probably tomorrow or on Monday) and let you know if I encounter similar issues. Maybe I’ll also record my screen so I can post it here as a quickstart guide.

@Vincent as promised I made a screencast walkthrough of the installation steps, here it is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_yJqSot-Hc. I will also update the post above and link to it there.

Edit: doesn’t seem like I can edit the original post anymore :confused:

An dem stift kannst du editieren

@ahtdf not anymore after a couple of days apparently. But the admins added the link to my original post, so all good :slight_smile:

Thanks for the Video, I installed it on a fresh Bookworm. Not sure why the MariaDb wasn’t working on my first try. I had to restart the App Api Container via Portainer the same way you did in the video.
So all in all, pretty simple to set up in the end.
GeoLocation is obviously getting blocked by every browser, because of the unsecured connection, but I found a way around that :smiley: (at least in Firefox, had to enable the geo.security.allowinsecure flag).

@Vincent nice! Yes I want to swap geolocation on the browser with data from the GPS sensor. I added a weather widget as one of the first things I did and I still haven’t updated it since I implemented GPS in the backend :slight_smile:

Hi, well done @coconup i been thinking how to create my own frontend as i do not like node-red dashboard and seems like you found the way.

The advantages of this software architecture are perfectly described and it’s the way to go.

What i would prefer is to have typescript and other modern and widely used standard tools like Prisma or drizzle ORM. I guess there are a lot of devs living in the van making living by using those tools and thus get more support.
May be i can try something :slight_smile:

So definitely curious about the Pekaway roadmap after your invention :slight_smile:

@petr happy to hear this is something useful for someone else :smiley: . You’ll be happy to hear that the “project” has already come a long way since this post. I reworked the frontend and it’s now almost production ready. Also, I added support for security cameras through Frigate and I’m working on a thermostat that should be able to steer heaters. I even added a voice assistant so you can talk to the app (unnecessary but fun to build). I will soon post an update once I have stitched everything together and updated the documentation.

Regarding your other comments, I thought TS might be a good improvement but I didn’t want to use ORM frameworks, just to keep things simpler. The API is a really simple one and a lot of the heavy lifting is still done in node red. All of this is absolutely up for improvements though, so feel free to make proposals or fork the project :slight_smile: . More coming soon!

@coconup
I also find your project very helpful. I am considering running my system with your software stack in the future. I’m currently using node-red for some basic tasks, mostly hardware related, and push data to the mosqitto broker via mqtt. For the logic layer I currently use iobroker with Javis UI and a NSPanel flashed with tasmota and nspanel-lovelace-ui as hadware touch-interface in my van. It all works very well and can be easily expanded using the iobroker plugins. The separation of concerns using docker containers and an even more individual UI using React and TS has its appeal for me as software developer :wink:
Thank you and the pekaway team for the great work. I think it’s great what’s happening here in the community.

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