There have been some exciting trends developing in the home networking space over the last few years, but there are still many people who haven’t heard the news. There are too few consumers who have heard of OpenWRT and many aren’t sure exactly what it is. For those of you who understand firmware, OpenWRT is very similar to Tomato and DD-WRT. For those of you who didn’t know about these other two products, just know that OpenWRT is a type of software (called firmware) that you can install on your wireless router to give it extra functionality to improve its performance – for free!
The OpenWRT firmware is actually heavily rooted in Linux, and it even contains a package manager like most Linux systems use to update, download, and install software. The firmware is really interesting because it will let you use your wireless router much like a server, and allow you to log into it remotely with SSH, with a VPN, implement QoS, and a variety of other cool features that your router didn’t come with by default.
However, most people who detest their router’s original firmware often opt for DD-WRT because of its recent rise in popularity. But the argument can be made that OpenWRT is more agile and suited for more purposes than DD-WRT because it is essentially an entire Linux system. It does provide access to a web interface if you need a GUI, but it also offers many of the commands you would find on a Linux operating system and for that reason it has greatly extended functionality. Lastly, understand that OpenWRT is more often than not going to be a more stable version of software with fewer bugs than the default software on your router because it is based on Linux code.
OpenWRT Features and Tools
One of the top choices of making the switch to OpenWRT is because it is jam-packed with loads of useful features – all for free! Most of these features aren’t even supported on wireless routers’ default firmware. The following are just a few of the cool things you can do with your router after you have installed OpenWRT:
- Setup an SSH Server: Once you have setup the SSH server, you will be able to access your router from the command line no matter where you are in the world. This is extremely powerful, because the command line frequently provides users with more tools and commands than are even available in the GUI. And the best part? SSH is encrypted so no one can steal your key data, username, or password when you make a connection to your router.
- Install a Torrent Client: You can even install a torrent client on your device and login to that device remotely to manage and monitor your torrent downloads. Yes, you heard me right – try doing that with OEM firmware! Though you would need a NAS device or flash drive plugged into the router for storage.
- VPNs: Not only would you be able to share your VPN account with your entire network and give every user the security benefits of a VPN tunnel, but you can also create a VPN tunnel back to your home network.
- Traffic Shaping and Quality of Service: You will even be able to fine-tune and tweak how your network operates. Using special tools you can give certain traffic types priority over others or reserve bandwidth for certain applications.
- Create a Server: Because OpenWRT is a Linux system, you will be able to download and intall Linux server software on your router. This could allow you to create an HTTP web server or IRC server.
- Create Guest Networks: This will allow you to create separate wireless subnet for your guests. This way they won’t be able to access the resources on your home network or interact with connected devices that aren’t on the guest network. It will strictly only provide them with Internet access.
- Packet Captures: You even have the ability to capture network traffic flowing in and out of your router, and you can store that data in certain files for monitoring purposes. Keeping logs of your home network will help you find out if anyone has been abusing your equipment.
This is not by any means a comprehensive list, and there is a wealth of other cool features and tools at your disposal with OpenWRT.
OpenWRT is extremely secure for two reasons. First of all it will give you access to security tools and software that your original firmware didn’t have. This includes encryption technologies and even the ability to use your router as a VPN endpoint.
Secondly, OpenWRT is a Linux based software. The Linux kernel is famous for being more secure than other operating systems like Windows. In fact, it is likely even a little more secure than OSX. OSX is actually a descendant of FreeBSD, which is another UNIX based system. Either way, this firmware is solid, dependable, and very secure.
Given the list of impressive features this software provides, you might think that it would cost a fair amount of money. Wrong! It is completely free to use and there is only one caveat. Your router needs to be able to run the OpenWRT software to begin with.
The Installation and Configuration Process
The only downside to OpenWRT is that it isn’t supported on all router models. Therefore, the first thing you need to do is either purchase a router capable of running the software or check the list of supported models to see if your current router is a candidate for running the software. They also provide instructions for performing the installation procedure.
It’s going to be a little different on almost every router because the firmware will be slightly different to begin with. But the basic idea is to download the OpenWRT software, reset your router, upload the new software to your router and install the new code. The process isn’t too hard and it doesn’t take too long either.
After you have installed the software, you have two choices to go about configuring your router. You can either login to the web interface for a GUI environment or you can fire up a telnet/SSH session to the router for the command line interface. If you want to take the command line approach to making configuration changes, the OpenWRT Wiki provides tons of guides to show you how to download and install new software and make various configuration changes.
However, if you’re like most people you will probably favor the web interface. And it will still give you access to the package manager so you can download and install additional programs and features. The number of additional packages you can download and use is only dependent on the amount of flash memory your router has, and there are ways to expand that memory with a flash drive plugged into the USB port and even with NAS storage. Because all of these features are so flexible, you are essentially being given the opportunity to craft your own custom operating system.
Though it isn’t as popular as DD-WRT, OpenWRT has come incredible features that Tomato and DD-WRT lack. I would highly recommend OpenWRT for novices and Linux experts alike, because the two interfaces make accessing the software incredibly easy for both parties. If you are a Linux nerd, you might favor the functionality of OpenWRT over DD-WRT because you have more control from the command line and direct configuration access to the operating system.