Because Everyone Needs a Router

*
programming and human factors
by Jeff Atwood
Enter your search terms Submit search form
Web Coding Horror

 

Sep 25, 2010

Because Everyone Needs a Router

Do you remember when a router used to be an exotic bit of network kit?

Those days are long gone. A router is one of those salt-of-the-earth items now; anyone who pays for an internet connection needs a router, for:

  1. NAT and basic hardware firewall protection from internet evildoers
  2. A wired network hub to connect local desktop PCs
  3. A wireless hub to connect laptops, phones, consoles, etcetera

Let me put it this way: my mom — and my wife’s mom — both own routers. If that isn’t the definition of mainstream, I don’t know what is.

Since my livelihood revolves around being on the internet, and because I’m a bit of a tweaker, I have a fancy-ish router. But it is of late 2007 vintage:


Although the DGL-4500 is a nice router, and it has served me well with no real complaints, the last major firmware update for it was a year and a half ago. There have been some desultory minor updates since then, but clearly the vendor has, shall we say, moved on to focusing on newer models.

The router is (literally!) the central component in my overall internet experience, and I was growing increasingly uncomfortable with the status quo. Frankly, the prospect of three year old hardware with year old firmware gives me the heebie-jeebies.

So, I asked the pros at Super User, even going so far as to set up a Recommend Me a Router chat room. (We disallow product recommendation questions as they become uselessly out of date so quickly, but this is a perfect topic for a chat room.) I got some fantastic advice from my fellow Super Users via chat, though much of it was of the far too sane “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” variety. Well, that’s just not how I work. To be fair, the router market is not exactly a hotbed of excitement at the moment; it is both saturated and heavily commoditized, particularly now that the dust has settled from the whole 802.11 A/B/G/N debacle. There just isn’t much going on.

But in the process of doing my router research, I discovered something important, and maybe even revolutionary in its own quiet little way. The best router models all run open source firmware!

That’s right, the truly great routers are available in “awesome” edition. (There may be other open source router firmwares out there, but these are the two I saw most frequently.) I learned that these open source firmwares can turn a boring Clark Kent router into Superman. And they are always kept updated by the community, in perpetuity.

In my weaker moments, I toyed with the idea of building a silent mini x86 PC that could run a routing optimized distribution of Linux, but the reality is that current commodity routers have more than enough memory and embedded CPU power — not to mention the necessary wireless and gigabit ethernet hub bits already built in. Dedicating a whole x86 PC to routing is power inefficient, overly complex, and awkward.

Yes, today’s router marketplace is commoditized and standardized and boring — but there are still a few clear hardware standouts. I turned to the experts atSmallNetBuilder for their in-depth technical reviews, and found two consensus recommendations:

Buffalo Nfiniti Wireless-N High Power Router ($80)


NETGEAR WNDR3700 RangeMax Dual Band Wireless-N ($150)


Both of these models got glowing reviews from the networking experts at SmallNetBuilder, and both are 100% compatible with the all-important open source dd-wrt firmware. You can’t go wrong with either, but I chose the less expensive Buffalo Nfiniti router. Why?

  1. It’s almost half the price, man!
  2. The “high power” part is verifiably and benchmarkably true, and I have some wireless range problems at my home.
  3. I do most of my heavy network lifting through wired gigabit ethernet, so I can’t think of any reason I’d need the higher theoretical wireless throughput of the Netgear model.
  4. Although the Netgear has a 680 Mhz embedded CPU and 128mb RAM, the Buffalo’s 400 MHz embedded CPU and 64mb of RAM is not exactly chopped liver, either; it’s plenty for dd-wrt to work with. I’d almost go so far as to say the Netgear is a bit overkill… if you’re into that sort of thing.

I received my Buffalo Nfiniti and immediately installed dd-wrt on it, which was very simple and accomplished through the existing web UI on the router. (Buffalo has a history of shipping rebranded dd-wrt distributions in their routers, so the out-of-box firmware is a kissing cousin.)

After rebooting, I was in love. The (more) modern gigabit hardware, CPU, and chipset was noticably snappier everywhere, even just dinking around in the admin web pages. And dd-wrt scratches every geek itch I have — putting that newer hardware to great use. Just check out the detailed stats I can get, including that pesky wireless signal strength problem. The top number is the Xbox 360 outside, the bottom number is my iPhone from about 10 feet away.

 

Worried your router is running low on embedded CPU grunt, or that 64 megabytes of memory is insufficient? Never fear; dd-wrt has you covered. Just check out the detailed, real time memory and cpu load stats.

 

Trying to figure out how much WAN/LAN/Wireless bandwidth you’re using? How does a real time SVG graph, right from the router admin pages, grab you?

 

It’s just great all around. And I haven’t even covered the proverbial laundry list of features that dd-wrt offers above and beyond most stock firmware! Suffice it to say that this is one of those times when the “let’s support everything” penchant of open source projects works in our favor. Don’t worry, it’s all (mostly) disabled by default. Those features and tweaks can all safely be ignored; just know that they’re available to you when and if you need them.

This is boring old plain vanilla commodity router hardware, but when combined with an open source firmware, it is a massive improvement over my three year old, proprietary high(ish) end router. The magic router formula these days is a combination of commodity hardware and open-source firmware. I’m so enamored of this one-two punch combo, in fact, I might even say it represents the future. Not just of the everyday workhorse routers we all need to access the internet — but the future of all commodity hardware.

Routers; we all need ’em, and they are crucial to our internet experience. Pick whichever router you like — as long as it’s compatible with one of the open source firmware packages! Thanks to a wide variety of mature commodity hardware choices, plus infinitely and perpetually updated open source router firmware, I’m happy to report that now everyone can have a great router.

[advertisement] JIRA Studio – SVN hosting, issue tracking, CI and Google Apps integration. Free trial »
Posted by Jeff Atwood    View blog reactions

Comments

Also, if you’re upgrading your router, don’t forget to choose fast DNS nameservers when setting it up!

http://code.google.com/p/namebench/

The NameBench tool will use your browser’s history to tell you which (free) DNS servers are optimal for you. Very, very slick tool. (and yes UltraDNS wins for me as well.)

Jeff Atwood on September 25, 2010 3:00 AM

I see you’re sharing your MAC address. Is it risk-free? Don’t you fear being tracked?

Federico Poloni on September 25, 2010 3:11 AM

MAC addresses are routable only on the local ethernet, so feel free to post those all over the place 🙂

Thomas on September 25, 2010 3:35 AM

> I’m so enamored of this one-two punch combo, in fact, I might even say it represents the future

It has been for some time with a range of manufactures, so that is a safe bet! I mean, using the GPL sources the vendors are obligated to share it, and the community has pretty much ‘forced’ the issue by providing forked versions of the firmware.

By now, vendors are beginning to understand.

Seth Heeren on September 25, 2010 3:35 AM

These open source firmwares are indeed great, but I have one major problem with them: They are just inferior to my old clunky USR Robotics Router when i comes to QoS/Traffic Shaping (a very importing feature for me).

I am still using a 2005 US Robotics 9107 (http://www.usr-emea.com/support/s-prod-template.asp?loc=grmy&prod=9107), which has a horrible web interface and doesnt have a lot of options, but its QoS Technology is, for some reason, just way better than anything else i tested. I wanted to replace this router for years and tested a couple of different models (dlink,linksys,zyxel) with a lot of differnt firmwares (openwrt, ddwrt, tomato, oem firmware) but a soon as i turn on my Torrents web access becomes slow. If you use Traffic Shaping with them it gets a lot better. (Accessing web pages is not slow anymore, but you can still tell if your torrents are running or not).

With my old USR i can upload with uTorrent at 80Kbyte/sec (~85 is my connection’s maximum) and ping/latency goes up from around 40 ms to around 50-55 ms for most of the web sites i visit. I can even play online shooters without noticing that my torrent-pc is pumping stuff at almost full throttle. When using other routers you can just feel that web pages come in more slowly.

Maybe it has sth. to do with the way the USR applies his rules to the traffic. On the webinterface you can specify an ‘atm priority’ which I havent seen on other firmwares.

 

Erik Winter on September 25, 2010 4:08 AM

Forgot to mention, that the issue is even bigger when working remotely.

I do a a alot of stuff over ssh/rdp and with ddwrt/tomato i always had to close uTorrent or limit the upload rate. (I hate it when a console has a delay for every keystroke you make, really annoying) With the USR router the ssh/rdp connection stays responsive.

I know im whining like a crybaby here, but does anyone know a router/modem which has a simliar QoS?

thanks,
erik

Erik Winter on September 25, 2010 4:23 AM

The problem I have with routers is that I prefer the adsl/router combo (because buying two devices seems silly), but the product lines in that area seem a lot more crappy, for some reason.

Oh, and don’t buy anything from Linksys. I’ve got some of their stuff and it is some of the worst hardware I’ve used so far.

WimD on September 25, 2010 5:34 AM

@Erik Winter

Look at this: http://ace-host.stuart.id.au/russell/files/tc/tc-atm/#details

If this is indeed your issue, you can get an experimental build of Tomato with the tc-atm patch here: http://touristinparadise.blogspot.com/2008/04/linksys-wrt54gl-routers-improving.html

The implementation of the tc-atm patch is very early, though, and it hasn’t yet been integrated with the web GUI.

Matt Horner on September 25, 2010 6:02 AM

Which version did you flash? mega, VPN, voip, etc?

Churnd on September 25, 2010 6:06 AM

Interesting. I would have expected you to go for a DrayTek (what with being geeky *and* having built in VPN endpoints…).

Thefalken on September 25, 2010 8:13 AM

If the author cares that much he really shouldn’t be using an all in one anyway. He should be rolling with separate access points and router. I do the whole Airport Express (for music streaming) and pfSense / m0n0wall thing (lately I’ve been using the ALIX boards from PC Engineshttp://www.pcengines.ch/alix.htm).

Jared on September 25, 2010 8:27 AM

> I’m so enamored of this one-two punch combo, in fact, I might even say it represents the future

So…does this mean that you will be replacing your iPhone with an Android phone?

Michael Ross on September 25, 2010 8:37 AM

I’m still running a router from circa 2001.

I tried upgrading once. The results were… less then acceptable.

Miff on September 25, 2010 8:55 AM

I just ordered an ASUS RT-N16 two days ago. It was pretty much a tie between that and the Buffalo, but I decided to go with the ASUS because, if you’ll skim over the Buffalo WZR-HP-G300NH forum thread on dd-wrt.com, you’ll notice that there are different versions of the router, and some simply refuse to work normally with that firmware. Also, I haven’t seen much info on Tomato being able to support the Buffalo router, and I’ve been itching to try it and maybe even get away from DD-WRT, which my current router is running.

Arktronic on September 25, 2010 9:16 AM

To some extent you get what you pay for. My old Linux-based router would break persistent SSH tunnels after about 24 hours. When I upgraded to an expensive but rock-solid Cisco 877 (running IOS, not the consumer Linksys crud), my problems stopped.

Facebook on September 25, 2010 9:16 AM

Good article, but would have been better without the sexism.

Lloyd Budd on September 25, 2010 9:51 AM

What about using a Mac Mini? We don’t own any desktop computer, and as much as I love my TimeCapsule it doesn’t do all the nifty things I’d like it to do, like upload the weekly snapshots to S3, for example. Right now I use the Capsule as a router, but as it’s now time to move on, I was wondering if replacing it with a Mini made sense? Any insight on this?

julien.genestoux.myopenid.com on September 25, 2010 9:51 AM

I recently went and replaced my modded ASUS WL500gP (32MB ram stock, 128MB ram after mod) with a newer Netgear WNR3500L. The L = Linux as would be the case alot so it was easily modded and I dropped DD-WRT almost the day I got it. Internally it contains a 453Mhz Broadcom BCM4716 processor, 8MB flash, and 64MB ram which is plenty. The added bonus is that this particular router came with a TTY interface not only available but the header was already installed. 😉 Therefore if I do happen to brick it then I can easily recover. The cable can be had for $20 and modded to work with the TTY pinout on the router. It went for $90.

Oh and it is gigabit ethernet too.

shinji on September 25, 2010 10:55 AM

Forgot to mention that I usually go by the “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” rule but my ASUS was going on the fritz on me.

shinji on September 25, 2010 10:58 AM

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

Posted by:  | 

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.


Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.

 


Post a comment

Advertisements

About rayrr

10 years as a NetWork Administrator in the Virginia Beach, Virginia Area. 11 years in the San Diego, California area. Went back to Manila Philippines to relax and rest away from the rat race. View all posts by rayrr

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s