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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  • NitroWare - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - link

    "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,"

    Industry and users need EASIER qos not HARDER

    Packet filtering - fw should have a decent SPI that doesnt need tinkering with

    THose who need VPN will know what to buy anyway
    modems and routers support NTFS shares out of the box now

    better stabilily. What. If not the OSS are worse

    WiFI power boosting is a long in the tooth internet expert debate topic thats myth and hyped
  • NitroWare - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - link

    "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."

    Unforuntly many firmware users simply want something for nothing - to 'upgrade' their hardware for free, or follow the hype.

    How many users actually NEED pie charts ?

    While some features of tomato or whatever else do have merit, these are still built on top of the reference fw, of which many do not believe or realise

    The developers themselves have said they cant add or mod feature X because its not in the sauce code
  • NitroWare - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - link

    "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. "

    Contrary to popular belief, the original revisions of WRT54G are no longer supported with updates by many projects. Users of these will not get the newest updates and are better off buying new hw. The newer and later GS/GLs, ASUS and so on are fine.

    Some beta updates may claim support for the older revisions but these will either be unstable or brick, untested.

    Besides these have slow CPUs even compared to other gateways at the time

    The Newer revisions are still supported, mainly due user bases buying a new model and seeing 'something on the internet' about boosting them, and it doesnt help that some models eg the -TM were OEM customised.

    THese projects are maintained by VERY small teams. Some haver 1-2 developers who can not maintain code on all hardware types.

    For new types because they dont have the hw to validate against and these are WIP. You canno't please everyone with open source firmwares.

    The number one issue from all projects I have seen wether broadocm projects or non broadcom projects is manpower. Too many gimme pigs and not enough guinea pigs to beta test or risk thei hw.
    Even if they do, they may not report feedback.

    Its just too expensive. Say you donate $20 to a project. Yes you may get benefit, but new hardware starts at $30.

    For users who brick their hw and cant soft recover it, spend of $20+ is needed on terminal or JTAG hardware, again same price of new hw. For $200 hw it might be viable however

    Yes I have scarificed hardware for the 'greater good' and really at the end of the day npot much gained from routers.

    THe bigger issue is DSL GATEWAY makers blocking out certain features from GPL sources, which is harder for community groups to patch due to properitary nature of DSL drivers
  • Guspaz - Wednesday, February 29, 2012 - link

    I was one of the two developers of Tomato/MLPPP, a fork of Tomato that added support for bonding multiple broadband connections together with MLPPP (layer 2 bonding over PPPoE, real bonding and not just link aggregation).

    Ultimately, we fell into the same situation. We based our fork on mainline Tomato, which doesn't support much beyond the WRT54GL, Unfortunately, as the years rolled by, and broadband speeds increased the WRT54GL became less and less appropriate.

    I personally started out bonding two 5 meg down 0.8 meg up ADSL lines together, and the WRT54GL coped just fine with that. The aggregate bonded throughput was about 12 Mbps. It was, in fact, the speed at which most of our users were bonding too.

    Today, I'm bonding two 25 meg down 7 meg up VDSL2 lines, an aggregate bonded throughput of about 64 Mbps, and a WRT54GL doesn't have anywhere near the power to handle that.

    I ended up switching from our own Tomato/MLPPP to OpenWRT/MLPPP, which runs on a much wider array of hardware. In a funny twist of fate, it's a fork (by a small IPS) of one of our own projects, Linux/MLPPP, which was a port of Tomato/MLPPP to run on generic Debian or Ubuntu boxes :P

    Sadly, touching on another point that you mention, we don't have the time to maintain Tomato/MLPPP or Linux/MLPPP anymore, and will be selling them to the ISP that maintains OpenWRT/MLPPP, where we hope they will be kept more active before eventually being merged into one better supported project.
  • Bremen7000 - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - link

    I run Tomato, and while I've been meaning to play around with some others (and to also do some experimenting with finer-grained QoS in Tomato), the lack of in-depth comparisons/reviews was definitely annoying. I'd love an article with specific recommendations in it. I'm going to go look up what the Victek mod does now..
  • EnzoFX - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - link

    My previous router was an asus G with Tomato. Loved the features, I set it up for auto reboot weekly, mostly because I was paranoid =P. Loved the stability and feature set coupled with a great UI. When I moved to the WNDR3700, I did so knowing that it had DDWRT support (aside from the then top-tier hardware, which is still top-tier IMO). However I never flashed it in fears of some documented wireless issues. Regardless, the stock firmware does what I need it to, and it's been 100% stable for me. No resets needed for months.

    So these days I wouldn't hesitate to give stock firmware a try. I would love some comparisons, stock vs. Open source.
  • Bull Dog - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - link

    I purchased a WRT54GL a few years ago and I looked into trying to flash custom firmware for it.

    Now understand, I'm hobbiest techie sort of guy. Hardware is more my forte.... Software, on the other hand.....well I'm not a programmer. I will never learn how to compile source code. I've tried Linux on more than a half dozen occasions in the past and they have all been unmitigated failures. Whether it be the installer, or a Laptop's Wifi card, or video drivers or trying to get a network share to work, something has always gone wrong. Hundreds of hours of my life down the drain trying to follow flawed step by step guild on some God forsaken forum somewhere.

    To get back to the topic at hand, I looked into flashing something like DD-WRT or something else on my router. But the choices were dizzying. Point being, the process was far from simple for a neophite like me. And, rather than risking bricking my router I decided that these programmers can keep on programming for programmers.

    If the process of finding the custom firmware isn't fairly simple, then there isn't much point as it is going to be useless for the average Joe anyhow.
  • Mangix - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - link

    I use dd-wrt and it is miles ahead of the stock firmware on this linksys router. more secure as well(no WPS). i would like to use Toastman's Tomato mod mainly because of its traffic monitoring capabilities(pretty graphs :)) but this Linksys E1000 does not support it. oh well. dd-wrt is still awesome.
  • Ammaross - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - link

    One thing that turned me off of the WRT54G and some Netgear models was stability issues. Even running DD-WRT, they needed to be reset weekly (good thing DD-WRT has scheduled jobs) in order to keep the wifi working properly. At least for the vertical-standing Netgear devices, I found out it was due to the WiFi chip overheating (which a case-mod and 40mm fan would fix).

    Personally, I'm using the Buffalo WZR-HP series devices now (the High Power ones), such as the WZR-HP-G450H (since I don't have any devices capable of 5GHz band yet).
  • zanon - Tuesday, February 28, 2012 - link

    Currently using DD-WRT on a Linksys, but I've been strongly considering an upgrade and it's been a real struggle to find any remotely up-to-date round up and comparison of the various major open source solutions on more powerful and modern router hardware. It would be extremely useful (and enjoyable from a tech perspective) if AT did an article on this.

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