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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  • Tator Tot - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - link

    I do agree with some of the user comments that a comparison of "Easy of Use" as well as "Indepth Features" needs to be separated.

    Though, I think a large comparison between all of the options with a focus on "This one is easy for new guys to use, while being better than the stock firmware" and "This one offers you the most features and abilities as a user" need to be made so that folks can definitely find a happy medium for themselves.
    Reply
  • ron_nelson - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - link


    I originally used DD-WRT on a linksys WRT54GS, then moved to Tomato on Netgear hardware to get 802.11N and pretty graphs.

    Now I'm back using DD-WRT on my Linksys WRT400N and it works great. DD-WRT v24-sp2 gives me the traffic logs/graphs to easily watch my usage, and the userbase/documentation made it easy to use powerline networking to bridge to a second WRT400N set up as an access point for a flat network space (and less spouse agro for WiFi dead-zones).
    Reply
  • Paazel - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - link

    I switched from Linksys WRT devices some time ago. While not open source D-Link DIR-655 was the BEST router I have ever used. I kept it at stock firmware (1.24) as I heard newer firmwares were buggy. This router was rock solid, I never had to reboot it (I'm on DSL), and if I rebooted to make changes, it was fast!

    I've since had to upgrade as my friend (negatively tech savvy) needed more range than his WRT54G could provide and was given my rock solid DIR-655. I've since upgraded to a Netgear WNDR3800 (which is open source). Has some great features, easy to use firmware, and also has been very stable (no restarts except when changing settings). While not as fast as the D-Link, this has been a rather painless router.

    I regularly use Buffalo WHR-HP-G300N flashed with DD-WRT as Access Points, as the Buffalo Firmware can be iffy.
    Reply
  • Kostazu - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - link

    My Linksys WRT310N v2 with DD-WRT has been a solid performer, but would love to see some options on both the hardware and firmware side, for a potential upgrade. Reply
  • Denkkar - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - link

    I have a WRT54G running DD-WRT. The stock firmware was underwhelming, in particular it needed manual resets shortly after purchase (since it was losing connectivity). I got a full year out of it before I needed to start resetting the router running DD-WRT and was able to automate it using the setting that schedules weekly resets.

    BTW: I'd also be interested in case mods that add additional cooling to reduce the need for resets. This is my number one gripe with all routers/cable-modems I've ever owned: they get hot and then they eventually start needing resets every freaking day.
    Reply
  • bman212121 - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - link

    Chances are you're running more traffic through the device than it was meant for. If you have a bit of knowledge about computers it is definitely worth a look at some of the software based distros as you can get much better hardware for them. If you have a P4 box laying around you can grab an additional 10/100 NIC and have better throughput since the hardware is much faster. The only downside is the power bill is going to go up.

    What I'd suggest is keep your DD-WRT for your Access Point by turning off DHCP on it and plugging a lan port into the lan port on your new firewall. Wireless still works as normal without the need to buy a wireless NIC plus it gets rid of some of the complications trying to get that working on your new box.
    Reply
  • Zds - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - link

    Not running one ATM, but would love an overview article about the options. Reply
  • bman212121 - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - link

    I definitely agree that an article covering some of the different firewall packages would be useful to many people. I've personally tested several to decide what one I wanted to use.

    Like others have said, it comes down to ease of use versus functionality. DD-WRT is a great platform for low to moderate needs with ease of use and lots of features. Most of the hardware you can install it on will be the least costly solution for both initial price plus operating costs (Power). The only downside to it is that those boxes simply won't have as much customization and scalability that a pc running PFSense could provide. If you want the full IDS suite you'll need something like snort which can't be done on the embedded hardware DD-WRT can run on. Snort is very functional but it's definitely not an entry level feature to get working properly.

    I could see doing an article for entry level showcasing DD-WRT, OPEN-WRT, FreeWRT and tomato and all of the advantages they have over stock routers. Then there could be another article showing PFsense, Untangle, IPCop, m0n0wall, endian showing some of the additional things they can do with the ability to add packages into them. I think it would be hard to try to clump all of them into one article simply because they cover many different things. Any of the WRT software would be a much easier solution for a person who doesn't know how to build a pc, since they can goto a website, download a file, and put it onto their router and be up and running. With the second group it might go smoothly, it might not depending upon the hardware you're trying to install it on.
    Reply
  • WebFooL - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - link

    I my self are running a Netgear 3500L with Tomato with a Site to SIte tunnel to my Office to a Untangle UTM firewall.

    I am a long time user of OpenVPN and when i found Untangle a few years a go (2009) I fall for it.

    It is the easiest firewall out there to configure OpenVPN with.

    NIce and easy gui and ju just love there "Distrubution" system.

    //WebFooL Untangle Evangelist
    Reply
  • Conficio - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - link

    to control buffer bloat - http://www.bufferbloat.net/ Reply

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