ATTENTION: You are viewing a page formatted for mobile devices; to view the full web page, click HERE.

Main Area and Open Discussion > Living Room

The fun of installing custom router firmware (tomato, dd-wrt) - an introduction

(1/11) > >>

For those that don't know, a "Router" is a device that connects to your incoming internet connection (after the cable modem if you have a cable modem), and is responsible for "routing" traffic between the multiple computers in your house and the internet.  It's also the thing that provides the wireless access point for any wireless devices in your home.

Modern routers are like tiny little computers (some even run a version of linux); computers that you actually connect to from your web browser when you configure them to change their settings.

The "software" running on your router, that controls what it does and how it can be configured, is called the "firmware".  Many small dedicated hardware devices, like your dvd player, etc, have such "firmware", and these days devices have ways to "UPGRADE" the firmware.  Usually the idea is that the manufacturer might release an updated version of the firmware fixing some bug, and you would upload (flash) the new firmware version onto the device.

Well in the router world, something quite interesting has happened in the last few years -- a number of 3rd party open source alternative router firmware software packages have been released, and they are quite good and can add some extra features to your router.

There have been a couple of posts scattered around the forum mentioning custom 3rd party router firmware, usually in response to a question someone has about how they might tweak their network connection or troubleshoot a bandwidth issue.  But I thought I'd start a new thread where we can discuss the issue.

Now I should say, this is still something for people who don't mind getting their hands dirty and learning about router settings.  If you don't have some time to really get into the nitty gritty of this stuff, don't mess with it.  This is for people who love tweaking their hardware -- overlocking their cpu, rooting their phones, etc.

I'm not normally one of these people -- I generally avoid such things because I don't like having an extra layer of things to troubleshoot when there is some instability, etc.

But I recently decided to try out installing a 3rd party router firmware in my network router (an old classic, the Netgear WRT54GL).  Mainly I figured if something goes wrong it's time for me to buy a new router anyway, and I was curious if I could improve the wireless signal at the far end of my apartment.

To cut a long story short, it's been really fun experimenting with the "Tomato (shiby version)" of the firmware.  I was *not* able to significantly improve my wireless range, despite changing some power and signal settings.  But I am able to get some very fun statistics now about which IPs in my house are using what bandwidth (i can watch netflix bandwidth graphs live, which is very fun).

So, for me, I can't say it gives me any real tangible "improvement", but I really do appreciate being able to see much more detail about the connections and bandwidth in and out.

Anyone else experimented with these alternative router firmwares?

I run Tomato (Shibby) on my main router (ASUS RT-N66U) as well for several reasons:

1. The ability to run multiple networks (VLANs).  I use three separate networks in my house:

* The main network that all my stuff runs on, both wired and wireless.
* A separate, wireless-only network for guests when they visit.  This network has access to the internet access to anything on the first or third networks.  This protects my stuff from any potential harm a guest device might do.
* A third wired/wireless network for my computer workbench.  As with the second network, it has access to the internet but is firewalled from the other two.  I do this in case I'm working on somebody else's computer that might be infested with virii, malware, etc.  This way, said device can reach the internet but not harm my stuff or guest's stuff.2. The interface.  The stock ASUS firmware, while capable, had the typical pseudo-futuristic eye-candy type of interface.  Not my thing, at all.
3. Unlimited static DHCP leases.  The stock firmware had a limit of thirty.  Hard as it may be to believe, I have over thirty devices in my house that are internet-capable.
4. Full OpenVPN support for both client and server.  I use the client portion for connecting to a paid VPN service so that all devices in the house can easily browse anonymously and I use the server portion to connect back to home while I'm traveling.
5. Bandwidth statistics.
6. As mouser mentioned, IP tracking to see stats per device.  Who is using what, basically.

I've done DD-WRT and Tomato installations. (FWIW I prefer Tomato.)

As far as boosting performance on a Linksys WRT54GL, my experience has been much the same. Not so much a boost in performance as more flexibility and stability over the OEM firmware. The supplied Cisco software works ok. But i used to have to reboot the 54GL about twice a week because it would often stall out after (or during) a larger than usual download session. Upgrading the manufacturer provided firmware only made things worse - which is what provoked me into looking into alternative firmware in the first place.

A firmware change could improve performance if the existing firmware had a bug or some poorly implemented code in it. But it can't put something in there that isn't there already. And most of these little consumer-grade router boxes are (mostly :mrgreen:) debugged by now. So some of the performance improvements reported in the past are likely to be a thing of the past as well.

In general, a firmware update makes the most sense if you're looking for: stability, additional features (especially auditing and VPN niceties), or increased options when it comes to settings.

In my case, the biggest selling point is that I can install the same firmware on most of the lower end routers I need to support such that the admin interface becomes identical for all of them. That's a big improvement over looking at 20 different control panels depending on make, model, and firmware version AFAIC. But that's probably not important if you're only responsible for your own router.

Note: be very careful whenever boosting the power settings on any router's radio. These boxes are almost all passively cooled and have power settings engineered to keep the heat they generate within safe tolerances for the device. You probably couldn't 'burn' one of these routers by selecting too high a signal setting despite anecdotal accounts of people who supposedly did succeed in "melting" or "smoking" their routers this way. But the extra power could still make them run hot enough to shorten their service life or prematurely fail.

Note 2: If you do decide to install alternate firmware, make sure to follow the instructions to the letter - and be absolutely sure to install the correct version of the firmware based on the actual version of the hardware you have. That can be a challenge with some makes (i.e. Linksys) which change manufacturing specs within a given model number. Sometimes you may even need to install a basic minimal version of the replacement firmware first before you can install the full version you actually want to use. If so, follow the steps and don't be impatient. And above all DO NOT EVER INTERRUPT a firmware upgrade. Always wait for it to finish.

Sometimes it takes several long minutes after you think it's done installing before the router will reboot. Don't make the mistake of thinking it timed out and doing a power cycle or hitting the reset switch on the router. That will often result in you now having an inoperable (or 'bricked') router on your hands. If that happens you'll have to choose between performing a very tedious and aggravating 'unbricking' procedure - or dropping your now dead router in the nearest trashcan.

Just my  :two:

An important step not to miss is that you need to choose to CLEAR the ram (nvram) after changing (although probably not if you just upgrade to new version of same release) firmware, because the different firmwards use it differently, and you may very well have invalid values if you don't.

Thanks mouser and everyone!  I was always hoping someone here would talk about this.  I just got an 802.11ac router, and was looking into these third party firmwares.  i was also about to try the tomato shibby version, but never got around to it.  I do use VPN and was wondering what improvements it might add to that experience.  the current admin interface of my router is a little too simple for me.  it's working fine right now, but it literally has like 3 things to tweak, lol, and that just bothers me for no good reason.


[0] Message Index

[#] Next page

Go to full version