2011-07-11

Open Source Routers to the Rescue!

I spent a few happy hours this weekend fiddling with routers and stumbled across a great open source project called dd-wrt.  This one is not for the timid as there is a serious risk of bricking your router but if you are anything like me you have an old box gradually filling up with discarded routers you are keeping just in case you main router fails.

I recently switched tariffs with my broadband supplier, Virgin Media.  As a result, they replaced my cable modem with an all-in-one wireless-router/cable modem.  I can see that this simplifies their business for most customers but when you already had a good router before it is a pain when you realise that you are now tied to something with poorer range and and annoying tendency to make your printer panic.

Anyway, as a result I went and bought an ASUS device (RT-N12) capable of being used as a wireless repeater to improve coverage in those hard-to-reach corners of my small 3-bed semi.  Unfortunately, try as I might I could not get it to work as advertised.  At one point I actually got it to repeat the wifi signal from the Virgin router but the LAN ports were all on their own private network.  My attempts to fix the LAN ports broke wifi connectivity for everyone in the house and almost bricked the device.  I updated to the latest ASUS firmware but still no joy - I was beginning to get bored of the recovery mode procedure for restoring factory defaults.  There has to be a better way, surely?

Part of the problem is that the ASUS device has attempted to simplify the user interface of the router to an extreme making it very hard to fix issues.  The quality of the translation in the UI is very poor and the little help icon almost always brings up a little box with placeholder text explaining what the help function does, rather than actually providing any useful insight into the settings.  The one saving grace is that, with so few settings to control, one can quickly exhaust all possible combinations and conclude that home-networking is not for mere mortals.

But, masochists take note: there is even more fun you can have with these devices and you don't need to spend a penny more (the RT-N12 is available from £28 at 52 stores according to Google).

The software distributed by dd-wrt is a replacement firmware that actually works. Don't be scared off by the use of 'beta' or the frightening stories of bricked devices. I'm sure there is a reason why you are supposed to use the special ASUS firmware updating tool on Windows but I just flashed the firmware through Safari from my Mac and within a few minutes I was looking at a whole new user interface. This software is a breath of fresh air. It may be free but there is more documentation than the supplied firmware and being German the quality of the English is better than I could write myself.

The ASUS device clearly has software shortcomings but it isn't clear when linkingWifi devices which party is to blame. The market always seems to be getting ahead of the standards and even with the faster 802.11n mode it seems that devices can't agree which frequency to talk on and that in practice most networks are operating at b/g speeds for legacy reasons.

Routers like the Virgin hub are understandably configured for compatibility so most people seem to recommend turning off the wireless completely and then using one of the four LAN ports to plug in a completely separate wireless infrastructure to split new 'n' devices from the old b/g - now where is that box I keep all my old routers in...