Open-Source Firmware: Old Routers, New Tricks

Is your small business ready for a network hardware upgrade? There are two ways to tackle a job like this. Here's the one that won't cost you an arm and a leg.

Matthew McKenzie, Contributor

June 18, 2008

4 Min Read

Is your small business ready for a network hardware upgrade? There are two ways to tackle a job like this. Here's the one that won't cost you an arm and a leg.Many small businesses, and most home offices, get by just fine using inexpensive, consumer-class networking gear. That's a good thing, since the enterprise version of the $50 router sitting on your desktop could easily cost $300 or $400.

In most cases, there is a real qualitative difference between the two products -- enterprise-class networking gear is built to last, while the consumer-grade stuff is built to croak after a year or two of heavy use. Even so, many small-business users would probably be happy to stick with cheaper hardware, given the difference in price. The problem is that a typical consumer-grade router offers a typical set of consumer-grade features. And sooner or later, a growing business simply can't function effectively without the more advanced network management, configuration, and security tools that an enterprise-class router can provide.

Here's the trick: Some consumer-class routers can provide those advanced features. Back in 2005, Linksys introduced its WRT54G wireless router. In most respects, it was a typical consumer-market networking device; as some enterprising Linux hackers soon discovered, however, the WRT54G was far from typical in one key respect.

"In June 2003 some folks on the Linux Kernel Mailing List sniffed around the WRT54G and found that its firmware was based on Linux components. Because Linux is released under the GNU General Public License, or GPL, the terms of the license obliged Linksys to make available the source code to the WRT54G firmware. As most router firmware is proprietary code, vendors have no such obligation. It remains unclear whether Linksys was aware of the WRT54Gs Linux lineage, and its associated source requirements, at the time they released the router. But ultimately, under outside pressure to deliver on their legal obligation under the GPL, Linksys open sourced the WRT54G firmware in July 2003.

With the code in hand, developers learned exactly how to talk to the hardware inside and how to code any features the hardware could support. It has spawning a handful of open source firmware projects for the WRT54G that extend its capabilities, and reliability, far beyond what is expected from a cheap consumer-grade router."

Today, in fact, more than a half-dozen open source projects offer firmware that is compatible with the WRT54G and a number of other, similar consumer-grade routers. Thanks to these third-party firmware offerings, these routers can support a host of features, ranging from IPv6 support to advanced traffic-shaping and monitoring tools, that are typically available only on products costing hundreds of dollars more.

Two open-source router firmware projects currently stand out among this group. The first, known as DD-WRT, is known for having an extremely robust feature set, some of which definitely qualify as niche technologies even among networking geeks. The project has even gained some traction (and generated some controversy) in the mainstream networking market; Buffalo Technologies, for example, has actually entered an agreement with the DD-WRT developers to support their firmware on some of its routers.

Another well-known router firmware project, known as Tomato, is a more recent arrival on the scene. Nevertheless, Tomato quickly earned a solid reputation both for its robust feature set and for its (relatively) user-friendly interface. While some of Tomato's recent popularity may be due to the controversy surrounding DD-WRT's recent, partially non open-source development work, it is also clear that Tomato benefits from, as one expert describes it, "the simplicity of its layout, the excellent bandwidth management tools, and of course, its attractive charts."

That sounds to me like a winning formula for small business owners who want enterprise-class networking technology at consumer-market prices. Ultimately, even given the relatively inferior physical quality of many consumer-grade routers, quite a few businesses are sure to decide that dirt-cheap hardware combined with reliable, feature-packed software is simply too good a deal to resist. Whether or not your business turns out to be among them, it makes good sense to take a long, hard look at these types of open-source options.

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