I have the need for a new office router. We only have a couple of people, so a normal home router would be fine, except that we’re geeks, so we need more than one external IP. Most home routers don’t handle that. You can snag yourself a fancy Cisco PIX, which will do the job, but now you’re staring at a bill of at least a couple hundred bucks. Weak.
So here’s the cool part: Linksys used Linux when creating the WRT54G, their wireless home router, and released the source in compliance with the GPL. Several open-source projects have sprung up around this source, the largest of which is OpenWrt, which turns the WRT54G into a tiny little general-purpose Linux box:
OpenWrt is a Linux distribution for the Linksys WRT54G. Instead of trying to cram every possible feature into one firmware, OpenWrt provides only a minimal firmware with support for add-on packages. For users this means the ability to custom tune features, removing unwanted packages to make room for other packages and for developers this means being able to focus on packages without having to test and release an entire firmware.
Firmware hacking can be a bit spooky, but I found OpenWrt to be pretty mature. At least, I didn’t create a brick. Once you have the router running open source, it becomes an amazing little device. It can:
- Separate your wi-fi off to a separate network.
- Treat every single port on the router as a different subnet, with different firewall rules.
- Track usage stats
- Act as a ‘captive portal’ hotspot, like those found in hotels and airports.
- Act as a mesh network wi-fi node.
- Drive a remote control car (with a little soldering).
It took me a few tries to get the firmware loaded, but once I did, I was greeted with a nice, friendly linux shell configured with some sensible defaults for behaving like a router. With an installation of ShoreWall, I converted a $60 router into a device that rivals a $600 device in features (if not in throughput).
This is exactly why open source is great. The WRT54G now has the potential to do things that Linksys never anticipated, and they’ve probably sold a lot more of these because of their willingness to power it with open source software. They win on sales, and I win by getting to eat steak on a hamburger budget.