Something that many consumers do not really think about is that hardware you buy in the store actually has software running on it as well. Any router you get – that’s the device that distributes the Internet coming into your house or business to multiple computers – has software running on it. Although “officially” the major companies will only support you and any problems you might have if you run their software, you can actually run software from other sources if it was designed to work on your device.
Let’s run over this list of alternative firmware for routers (firmware is just another name for software that runs on specific hardware) to see if you would benefit from the extra features it provides.
Why Use Alternative Firmware?
First of all, if you are not comfortable with voiding warranties, this article is not for you. Installing custom firmware can and will cancel that warranty, so if you have sunk all of your money into a new $150 router then it might be safer just to keep your manufacturer’s firmware on the device. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. There is also a chance you might brick your router.
If you are still reading this, I’ll assume you are cool with that and are willing to roll up your sleeves.
Turn a Regular Old Router Into an Enterprise-Class Device
The first and main reason you might want to install alternative firmware is that you are adding features that although are possible on the consumer-grade hardware you purchased, the manufacturer decided not to add for a variety of reasons. They want to keep it simple and easy for Joe-consumer to configure and also because they sell much more expensive hardware to people who want those features. Luckily for you, people have been working on ways to get the fancy software on this plain hardware!
Some features that these alternative firmwares offer are:
- QoS (Quality of Service) allows some types of traffic to take priority over others.
- Wireless bridging.
- Ability to turn into a hotspot.
- Adding SNMP (monitoring protocol).
- Detailed diagnostic tools.
- And more…
Which Routers Will Work With Alternative Firmware?
This question greatly depends on the make and model of your router. By and far the largest consumer manufacturer of wireless routers is Cisco (formerly Linksys). Most of the alternative firmwares are made for these models since there are simply more of them out in the wild than any other kind. But, that being said, the chipsets which are the brains behind the routers are also used in other models, so sometimes you will see a crossover even to some brands that hardly anyone uses. But you are safest with one of the tried and true models that have been tested with each particular alternative firmware.
Bottom line is that you should check with each firmware to see which models it supports.
Let’s continue on to the different firmwares that are available:
DD-WRT is by and far the most well known, distributed and tested of the alternative firmwares. It has been in development for a number of years now and is very stable. It is easy to install from your firmware upgrade page and include all of the features listed above. It is free and available for a number of routers – in fact probably the widest number of routers compared to other firmwares.
You can check to see if your router is supported by visiting their router database.
Tomato works just like DD-WRT, is easy to install, and is under active development. Tomato isn’t quite as feature-rich as DD-WRT but makes up for it by being very user friendly while at the same time giving you advanced features like QoS and a shell.
Tomato is also not available on as many routers as DD-WRT. Check their homepage to see if your router (and version number, that is important as well) is listed as being compatible.
OpenWRT is billed as the open router platform. Rather than trying to be everything to everyone, they have built a platform that others can then build packages onto. OpenWRT has a package management system that allows you to expand your router in any way you can think of, should you have enough knowledge and time to program it.
OpenWRT itself does not have a GUI (Graphical User Interface) built in. X-WRT is the extension which adds this functionality, and includes the ability to monitor your router as well as perform maintenance tasks over the web interface.
FreeWRT is a fork of OpenWRT. It focuses more on having an open platform that experienced developers can build upon. It only has a command line, so it is not really geared for consumers. However if you have a need for a cheap remote access point, this might work for you.
If you want to run a Hotspot, Chilifire is the firmware of choice. This professional firmware allows you to offer for-pay or free hotspot access from your consumer router. The downside? They have a free version which supports limited methods of access and up to 10 users per month. If you want to offer more than that, or a pay version of a hotspot, they take a percentage of your revenue.
In return, you get a very professional firmware which will take the headache out of managing such an enterprise. Their firmware is available on many different routers, check their website for full compatibility information.
Gargoyle is another firmware which adds bandwidth management quotas and network access rules to WRT54G and other routers. The web interface looks a bit dated, but the functionality is all there. It is a good alternative if you are looking for something different.
Whatever Works For You
Each package has its pros and cons. Obviously you are limited to what hardware you have or are willing to buy, but beyond that the choice is yours. If you are looking for firmware that is easy to use, check out Tomato. DD-WRT definitely has the most features and the most community support so is a great choice as well.
Do you have another alternative firmware for routers that you think would be good to share with our users? Let us know below!
Image credit: jaygooby