What is OpenWrt?

This Linux distro might be more stable than your router's firmware

Over the last year, it was discovered that many commercial routers suffered from various backdoor flaws that could allow snooping (or worse) from various entities. Couple that with the limited features found in the firmware of those routers, and it becomes quite clear an alternative might be necessary for some users. But what are the alternatives? One is called OpenWrt, a Linux distribution made specifically for routers that offers a vastly improved feature set and a level of reliability and security the default firmware cannot touch.

WRT54G Linksys router
I, Jonathan Zander [ GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

What is OpenWrt?

OpenWrt is an embedded Linux distribution that can be installed on certain routers to vastly improve how they perform and what features they offer. In some cases, a basic router (with limited features) can be transformed into a very flexible network traffic routing tool.

OpenWrt started in 2004 after Linksys released the code for their WRT54G wireless routers under the GNU General Public License. Under the terms of that license, Linksys had to make the firmware code available to the general public. This also meant that developers could modify the code and/or create derivative versions of the platform. That’s exactly what happened. Originally, the new firmware only supported the WRT54G series of routers. Over the years, support spread out to include a number of routers and devices from different manufacturers. To view a list of supported devices, check out the OpenWRT Table of Hardware.

The primary reason OpenWrt became so popular was that it vastly expanded what commercial devices could do. The current feature set includes the likes of:

  • Writeable file system for customization.
  • Can be configured through either command line or a web-based interface.
  • Mesh networking support.
  • Packet injection.
  • Stateful firewall, NAT, and port forwarding via netfilter.
  • PeerGuardian support.
  • Port knocking via knockd and knock.
  • IPS via Snort.
  • Active queue management.
  • Load balancing (for use with multiple ISPs).
  • IP tunneling.
  • Real time network monitoring.
  • DNS and DHCP via Dnsmasq, MaraDNS, and more.
  • Dynamic DNS.
  • Wireless Distribution System.
  • Printer support.
  • File sharing via Samba.

For a complete list of the feature set, visit the OpenWRT Wikipedia page.

Why Would You Want to Use OpenWrt?

The answer to this question is quite simple: You’ve found your current router too limited to handle your needs. In many cases, that need is one of speed. Some router firmware simply cannot keep up with the high demands placed on home (or small office) networking. When you have multiple devices streaming content, game consoles, and other needs, you might find your network bottlenecking at the router. With OpenWrt, you won’t have such issues. In other cases, you might find your current router firmware has simply limited your ability to manage your network in the way that best fits your needs. Other reasons to opt for OpenWrt, over your router’s stock firmware, include:

  • Share files between devices via an external storage drive connected directly to the router.
  • Run a BitTorrent client from the router.
  • Connect a printer directly to the router to create a networked printer.
  • Limit bandwidth usage of a particular device or even schedule times devices are allowed to use the network.
  • Gain full control over your network.
  • Increase your wireless signal strength.
  • Create MAC filters.
  • Create multiple WiFi networks (such as a visitor/guest network).

How Do You Install OpenWrt?

Locating the firmware download link for a Linksys router.

The first thing you must do is make sure your router is supported by OpenWrt. Remember to check out the Table Of Hardware page to find out if the router you have (or the router you want to purchase) is supported. Once you know the router in question is supported by OpenWrt, the installation process is as follows.

Installing the OpenWrt firmware on a Linksys router.

Find your device on the Table Of Hardware page and click the View/edit data link. Here you will be presented with a good amount of information about your device. Near the bottom of that page, you will see the entry marked Firmware OpenWrt Install URL. Click the link associated with that entry to download the necessary file for flashing the firmware of your router. Remember, you MUST make sure to download the file that matches your router model. To flash the firmware, follow these steps carefully:

  1. Connect a computer or laptop to the router, via Ethernet cable (do NOT do this over wireless).

  2. Make sure your computer (or laptop) is configured with an IP address that allows the device to connect to the router.

  3. Log into your router's admin web interface (how this is done will be dictated by the router make and model) and locate the device-specific firmware installation function. For some routers, there will be a manual option that allows you to choose a file to be uploaded (the firmware you downloaded). If you’re unsure of how to transfer the file from your computer to the router, check the manufacturer’s user guide for installing the firmware.

  4. Wait for the flashing process to complete and the router will automatically reboot itself.

For more specifics on first-time installation, check out the OpenWRT factory install documentation. Once the process is complete, you can log into OpenWRT via IP address with the following credentials.

  • Username: admin or root (depending upon the firmware used)
  • Password: password

Enjoy your router’s new-found flexibility.

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