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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  • FlyingPenguin - Wednesday, February 29, 2012 - link

    In order to get adequate coverage I have three WRT54G routers in my home running DD-WRT. One is the main gateway and the other two are access points only.

    I have used a lot of consumer grade routers over the years myself and on client installs and found them all to be unreliable in the long term. I'd have performance issues and lockups requiring occasional reboots of the routers. Ever since switching to DD-WRT, my home routers have been ROCK stable. They have been running continuously for years without reboots. I also love the logging features.

    I would like to upgrade to newer 802.11N routers, but I have no idea what's ideal to run DD-WRT on, so I would love to hear more on this topic.

    Thx!
    Reply
  • PedroMenezes - Thursday, March 01, 2012 - link

    This has been my setup for.... I don't know, 7 or 8 years now?!

    At the time I was running m0n0wall on old PC for a couple of years so instead of investing in a Soekris with m0n0wall, I decided to try out the WRT54G as a basis platform instead.
    Anyway, started out with an old 2nd hand v1 WRT54G (fabulous kit, still had the NIC mode/activity LEDs on it) and very soon after I tried different firmwares.
    Eventually I settled for DD-WRT (don't remember the version at the time).

    After 2 years the PSU died on me (5v 1A, stupid power rating actually) so I bought another PSU but eventually 2 years down the road the whole thing just died. I could do JTAG recovery but I never did bother so I bought a brand new WRT54GL.

    Since then I've been running that WRT54GL + DD-WRT (v24 preSP2 - don't remember which development build, but it was one that addressed UPnP properly, because of my Xbox) and I'm quite happy with it.

    I've been thinking about swapping it to a WirelessN+Gigabit router but DD-WRT support on those is a mess, so many tricks in so many models and so many variants e, so I decided to postpone it.

    But apart for the slow NIC ports (100Mbps) and the slow Wifi speeds (17/20Mbps is the most realistic figure), I really do love it. It has all the UPnP, Shaping, WOL, VPN, Management and Bandwidth facilities I cater for and all with rock-hard stability. I don't remember when was the last crash or reboot I had on it.
    As far as I'm concerned it's on for 4 years with no crashes or reboots, apart for reconfiguration (very rare) or power failures.

    I actually also want try out Tomato, as when I tried (old release) I didn't really like it, but I hear the WiFi performance is better than the DD-WRT, which is currently an issue for me.
    Reply
  • PedroMenezes - Thursday, March 01, 2012 - link

    And... I forgot why I started writing my comment.

    Yes!, I defenitively want to hear more about this topic! Specially in regards to WifiN and OpenWRT/DD-WRT/Tomato/m0n0wall hardware, as these kind of routers seem to be "frozen" in the G-era :)
    Reply
  • maglito - Thursday, March 01, 2012 - link

    Most WISPs use mikrotik, runs on PPC, X86, mips. Cheap custom hardware solutions are available at www.routerboard.com ... I run a RB750G in my home. Reply
  • eriktar - Monday, March 26, 2012 - link

    I work for an ISP with these home routers. I can confirm that most customers could not care less about the router. Stability and ease of use is the only two things they care about. We use an autoconfiguration system so that the customer is not forced to log in to the device. 70% does never log in. 10% change some settings. The settings the customers actualy do is: ESSID & encryption key, port forwarding. Less than 1% changes other settings.

    If you do intend to do such an comparrison test, talk to the guys at QA Cafe. See if they will lend you CD Router to do tests with. It will run through a lot of features on the routers, and see if they do follow the standards. And probe for other well known problems.

    You will be suprised to se how many ways DHCP can be implemented badly:
    - Only support broadcast (dont unicast for renew -> allways lose lease)
    - Never renew, allways end up with lease expire and start over with discover proccess
    - Leak layer 2 broadcast while doing discover/renew/bootup. (LAN clients ending up with WAN IP)
    - All routers with a certan firmware uses the same mac address on wan
    - Does not complete renew if the wan side is renumbered
    - Dropps or duplicates(!) (bad for multicast IPTV) packets when renewing
    - Has lower priority on DHCP than P2P traffic, so it will allways fail if you fill up your uplink
    - Does not respect lease time -> router things it has a valid ip when the lease is lost

    And that is just DHCP, a well known protocoll used by all devices since the dawn of the internet.
    Reply
  • keith_h - Tuesday, November 20, 2012 - link

    I used a wrt54g with Tomato for years. I originally did this for the reporting and ability to extend functionality via scripting. Running adblock and automatically updating profiles for example. It was rock solid for years but eventually the need for greater wireless performance needed to be addressed. So I moved up to N wireless and changed my routing strategy entirely.

    Now I run untangle on a repurposed Juniper WXC chassis and a TPLink N300 AP. I have another TPLink AP in client mode elsewhere in the house providing a connection back to the network for other wired devices. The TP Link devices were chosen because they were inexpensive and work effectively. I see no need to pay more for home use.

    The benefit of this arrangement is increased flexibility and security as untangle provides edge protection, AV, content filtering, spam and spyware protection, and of course ad blocking. And more besides. Use of a pico power supply has cut down on noise, heat and power consumption. Its not as quiet as the wrt54g for example but its quite acceptable. Maybe a bit extreme for home for some but it has proven a very effective solution nonetheless.
    Reply

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