John's Musings


Yeah, Me Neither

Open Source Firmware for Routers and Shit.

Sigh. I'm always touting network security and I'm firmly of the belief that one of the best things you can do is to buy a new router and install Opensource Firmware on it such as DD-WRT or LEDE. It's a GREAT first line of defense. In general the firmware is much less prone to exploits, the code is open and when exploits are discovered, the geeks on the projects close them fast. Ok you're sold.


NOT SO FAST!


I've been running Open Source firmware exclusively for years. I won't run any manufacturers firmware at all. So when somebody releases a fancy pants new router and I see it is supported by the Open Source community I get all excited, buy the router and then find out that while the router works it has all kinds of bugs and problems and well, just doesn't work good at all.


Case in point. Linksys WRT3200ACM. On the product web page it says that it is "Open Source Ready" with OpenWRT and DD-WRT.


Let's dissect that statement, shall we? OpenWRT is basically a dead duck. Its developers jumped ship to a new program called LEDE, so technically it's still there but also no great strides are being made. So that's sorta true but not good news. Also what they don't tell you is that the wifi chip uses a driver called "mwlwifi" which is made by Marvel and the driver is PROPRIETARY. So if you buy the router and use the driver Linksys paid for it'll work but if you use DD-WRT and LEDE the Open Source driver is still under development with all kinds of bugs.



So they tighten the driver up real nice and I'm ready to deploy my brand new shiny WRT3200 and lo and behold none of my Internet of Things (IoT) devices with ESP8266 chips in them will connect to the router. I have exactly 10 Home Automation devices in my home that will not connect to this router. That is a problem. A big problem.


JUST BECAUSE A ROUTER CAN USE OPEN SOURCE FIRMWARE DOESN'T MEAN IT CAN USE IT WELL.


So I have this router that cost $200 (I paid $119 for a refurbished one) that I can't use unless I use the factory software on it which I refuse to do.


So you really need to do your homework before you decide to run Open Source Firmware. There are hundreds of devices that can run Open Source Software. There are so very few that do it well. Here's a short list.


- Netgear Nighthawk R7000 I know what you're thinking. This is an old router. Comparatively it is older, however it is still way more router than anyone needs. The router is an AC1900 and reading the box leads you to believe you get 1900 MBPS speed. WAY UNTRUE. That is the combined speed of the 2.4 and 5 Ghz networks. You can't get that speed. In fact, look at this:



I'm in the room next to my router and I connect at 527 Mbps. In fact my MacBookAir maxes out at 867 Mbps so why would I need a router any faster than that. 1300 Mbps on the 5 Ghz band is unachievable. Now tell me again how this is an old router. The R7000 still has a very active community and it is still used by a lot of the super geeks. Years of development have gone in this platform make is super fast, and super stable and secure. That's what we're shooting for. In fact, the R7000 is my number one recommendation.


What are the cons? It's friggin huge. That's about it.


- Netgear R7800 - Ok, you have to have new, I get it. This is what you want. This is the current darling of the Open Source Firmware community. In fact you may want to explore the installation of LEDE firmware for this bad boy. In my mind LEDE is a little faster, a little more secure and a little more stable. I could be wrong about that though but that is my gut feeling. I have an R7800 that I use for my guest network and it runs LEDE and I love it. In fact I installed LEDE and haven't touched it since. It's super stable and I get high wifi speeds over great distances.


- DLink DIR-860L version B1- The reason there are two hot links there is because the B1 version is HARD TO FIND. The amazon link is a version A1. The DIR-860L is the best "cheap" router you can get. You shouldn't pay more than $40 or $50 for it. Also it doesn't have big honking antennas on it so it's better suited to small homes and apartments. The guys at LEDE are working hard at making it faster than Richard Petty on crank as well. It's an amazing little device.


- Archer C7v2 - This router came out a couple years ago and had bells and whistles on it that only much higher priced routers had at the time at a fraction of the price. It immediately became a hit and that hit gravitated over to the Open Source Community. Good solid builds for this device and excellent open source support for its Qualcomm Atheros wifi chipset. Can't go wrong with this router.


In my mind that's really about it. Honorable mention to Linksys WRT1900ACS. Although it also has Marvel wifi drivers in it they cracked the nut for that particular chipset a while back. The WRT3200ACM remains problematic. I have a WRT1900ACS as the main router in my home with DD-WRT and it works flawlessly. I have a build from late March and my understanding though is that some of the newer builds have problems as well.


I realize that most people don't have the know how to flash routers and understand what chipset is better supported than other ones but that's why us geeks are here. Hug a geek today.

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