We talk about networking quite a bit on AnandTech, covering everything from the upper end of home routers to WiFi stacks in smartphones and extending all the way up to 10GbE in the enterprise. What we haven't really talked much about is some of the open source networking software that's out there to improve and manage your network.

As router hardware is effectively general purpose hardware running a specific OS/application workload, it's possible to load custom firmware on your router provided it meets the right hardware requirements. It's akin to loading a custom ROM on a smartphone, all you need is a compatible platform. In some cases, that's limited to Broadcom or Atheros, but there are other solutions that run on embedded x86 as well.

The upside to loading a custom firmware on your router is a potentially significantly expanded list of features and improvements. Much finer grained QoS, packet filtering, OpenVPN support, local storage (SMB or FTP shares) from USB, better stability, control over WiFi power amplifier Tx power, and now of increasing import - tracking bandwidth usage. Many home/SMB routers simply don't offer good network monitoring tools, security features or just decent management, and the alternative is to go for some open source based firmware with many more options. Ultimately the tech-savvy home networker will buy a router for the platform and features (eg. CPU speed, RAM, WiFi options like 2.4/5 GHz or number of spatial streams), and choose a firmware to run atop that platform.

Over the years, I've personally tried m0n0wall and pfSense on embedded x86 platforms like PC Engines' ALIX and WRAP, as well as the more common options including OpenWRT, DD-WRT and Tomato on a variety of Broadcom based routers. I generally end up drifting back and forth, but usually use Victek's mod of Tomato-USB on either a WRT54G-TM or more recently a Netgear WNR3500L. I've been wanting to try out and review ASUS' RT-N16 router which seems to be gaining considerable developer traction in the DD-WRT and Tomato communities as well. 


Tomato USB - Victek's Mod

I've tossed around the notion of doing a comparative look at all the open source home/SMB router platforms and thought it might be useful to get some feedback on whether this is something that you guys would be interested in, and if so whether there were any specific topics. Of course that would also be alongside a look at some of the newer 802.11n/GigE routers that are still compatible with the popular open source firmware distros all vying for the now somewhat aging WRT54G/GS/GL's crown. 

I've shared a bit about what I use in my personal setup - but what about you guys? How many of you are using custom firmware on your router? If you are, what are you running?

 

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  • mathew7 - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - link

    I bought my TPlink TL-WR1043ND specifically for OpenWRT. I used their site (openwrt.org) to crosscheck price vs. flash size, and this was one of the cheapest (around 50$) with the 2nd largest flash size (8MB) and gigabit LAN.

    The most notable new functionality for me is being able to route my queries (configure) to my DSL modem (the dhcp address is not the only one assigned to WAN). No stock firmware offers this. Also I can use bind for DNS server and use directly the root servers instead of the 2 provided by ISP.

    My previous router was DLink DIR-655, which I used for almost 3 years before venturing into custom fw (which I did not find for DIR-655).
    Reply
  • Mr Alpha - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - link

    A few years ago now when my cable operator started rolling out DOCSIS 3.0 I got myself a 200Mbps connection. Turns out non of these home routers can do those kinds of speeds. I ended up throwing together a pfSense box of spare parts. Even then I had problems. Turns out those ancient 3Com Gigabit NICs I had lying around couldn't handle it either, so I ended up buying a couple of Intel Gigabit NICs.

    While something smaller than ATX box would be nice for a router, I have not been able to find anything that can keep up performance wise.
    Reply
  • Chupathingy220 - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - link

    When I first purchased my router it was really unstable, and would constantly drop connections. I was about to replace it when I stumbled across DD-WRT. Honestly I was kind of surprised that an open-source firmware would be more compatible with my hardware than the proprietary firmware that linksys installed. But to this day the thing is solid with DD-WRT.

    Anyway, I would definitely be interested in hearing about other firmware distros. Squeezing the value out of all of our technology is definitely interesting.
    Reply
  • ZPrime - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - link

    Consumer-grade router platforms are a joke, IMHO. I use them as APs, and it annoys me when manufacturers refuse to put in a simple "disable all the DHCP and NAT and act like a wireless AP" toggle.

    I've been using x86-compatible hardware (Soekris embedded platforms) running pfSense from flash memory since version 1.1 or 1.2 IIRC.

    It's a fantastic platform for both business and home usage, thanks primarily to the inclusion of UPnP (it's one of the few open source routing systems that does UPnP so your gaming works correctly).
    Reply
  • thatbox - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - link

    Been using WRT54G routers since 2005. Ran DD-WRT for a long time, but switched to Tomato recently since it seems a little more efficient. I'm absolutely interested in learning about OSS-compatible N routers beyond the N16, which is what I've been looking into. Reply
  • MaxDna - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - link

    This is a very interesting subject.
    At home I'm using a TP-Link TL-WR1043ND with DD-WRT.
    I own a NetGear WNDR3700v2 (with original firmware, but supported by DD-WRT if I ever need it)
    In the past years I've used both m0n0wall and pfSense on a virtualPC, doing routing & nat for the DSL connection handled by a zyxel 660HW configured as a "network modem" (routing/nat disabled )

    It would be interesting to compare the feature of different open source firmware, and compare the performance of the original firmware vs opensource firmware.
    Does the opensource firware WiFi is as fast as the original firmware WiFi?is it stable? is the USB faster or slower? does the latency improve?
    Reply
  • npp - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - link

    I'm running a WRT54GL since 2007 (5 years have passed, wow...) with the excellent Tomato firmware and the router is rock solid, which wasn't the case with the original firmware. I would be interested to hear some news about the state of the open source art with newer models! Reply
  • Romberry - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - link

    I installed DD-WRT on a Linksys WRT54GL in February of 2008 and haven't looked back. Solid as a rock. Reply
  • chocks - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - link

    Gargoyle router doesn't get nearly enough love from the community. It's a real easy to set up solution for the problems of the average connected multi-computer home: who used all the download quota? Who is hogging all the bandwidth right now, and how do I slow them down? Lock out everyone except me between these hours of the day. Force all the devices on the network to use OpenDNS. And so on.

    Not that you can't do these things on other software but it's usually much harder to set up and monitor, and you often end up having to load up lots of extra modules, edit config files, etc.
    Reply
  • the_architect - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - link

    Currently running a few Ubiquiti Routerstations (ships with OpenWrt preinstalled from the factory, but you'll need to upgrade to get the most out of it). MIPS 680 MHz, 128 MB ram, USB 2.0, SD card for expandable storage, 4 gigabit ports and up to 3 minipci cards.
    Put a Mikrotik R52Hn 2x2 abgn hi-power card (or more than one!) in there and you're good to go.

    It's obviously not for everyone, but if you're confortable with a command line (and the lack of a case) it's probabily the most versatile small router you can find. One of mine is currently running trunk with ~100 days uptime, with absolutely no stability issues as 2x2 5ghz AP.

    If you're going to review cheap consumer hardware, give a try to a TP-Link TL-WR1043nd and install an OpenWrt image from their /snapshots repo. They've got a pretty good graphical interface nowadays, but still have all the customizability you can ever need if you're willing to SSH into the box. They're surprisingly versatile and reliable for their price, I've a seen a few around with almost ~365 days uptime.
    Reply

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