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Updated by Bertel King, Jr. on 05/15/2017

You’ve replaced the operating system on your computer and on your phone, but what about your router?  If you salivate at the idea of turning your router into an SSH server, VPN, traffic-shaping system, or a BitTorrent client — consider OpenWrt.

OpenWrt is an embedded Linux distribution that can be installed on various routers. OpenWrt has a web interface, and it may be more stable than your hardware’s default firmware. If you find yourself having to restart your router every few days because it’s become bogged down, you’re a candidate for OpenWrt.

With privacy concerns stemming from cloud computing 3 Tips To Stay Safe From The Dangers Of Cloud Computing 3 Tips To Stay Safe From The Dangers Of Cloud Computing Cloud computing is the big buzz these days and we have more choices available to us now than ever before. How many of us use Dropbox, SkyDrive, or Google Drive on a daily basis? How... Read More and Internet of Things 7 Ways Your Privacy May Be At Risk in Your Friend's Smart Home 7 Ways Your Privacy May Be At Risk in Your Friend's Smart Home Your best buddy's home may be filled with a dazzling array of the latest smart home devices. From the moment you arrive to the moment you leave, your privacy could be under attack. Read More adoption, the OpenWrt community has grown enough to have hosted not one, but two summits dedicated to the project. You could be the next person to fall in love with tinkering with their router.

Uses for OpenWrt

If the idea of having a modular Linux distribution available on your router doesn’t excite you with all the possibilities, you may be reading the wrong article. But we’ll give you a list of the cool things you could do with OpenWrt , aside from having it function as a router:

This isn’t a complete list, not by a long shot – but it should get you thinking about what’s possible with OpenWrt. It’s an embedded Linux system with a wide variety of software packages available for it, and in many ways it’s as flexible as a computer running Linux — although its hardware is much more constrained.

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Installing OpenWrt

OpenWrt was originally developed for the Linksys WRT54G, but it now supports many more router models. You can find a list of supported hardware on OpenWrt’s website.

You’re about to replace your router’s built-in firmware with the OpenWrt Linux system, akin to flashing a custom ROM How to Install a Custom ROM on Your Android Device How to Install a Custom ROM on Your Android Device Ready to revitalize your Android phone or tablet? Installing a custom ROM is the best way to do that -- powering it up with even better performance and features. Read More to your smartphone. The wiki details four different ways to install OpenWrt on your router.

If you’re lucky, the process is as straightforward as selecting a file and hitting a the upgrade button. If not, you may need to access your router’s bootloader via an ethernet port or serial port and get more hands-on.

The Terminal & Web Interface

Once OpenWrt  is installed, you can access its BusyBox shell using an SSH client like PuTTY on Windows or the ssh command built into Linux and Mac systems. Busybox is a common shell used on embedded Linux systems, and OpenWrt includes common programs like the vi text editor for editing files. Like other Linux systems, you can run various scripts on it and set up cron jobs to perform actions on a schedule.

OpenWrt uses the opkg package manager to install packages from its repositories, which contain thousands of packages. It also uses the UCI (Unified Configuration Interface) for configuring your system. The OpenWrt wiki has all the information you should need.

openwrt router

You don’t really need to know all of this, however. OpenWrt includes LuCI, a web interface for configuring your OpenWrt router. The web interface contains a variety of different configuration pages, including a package manager page that allows you to browse, search, and install available packages. The number of packages you can install depend on the storage space available on your router. There’s nowhere near enough room to install everything. However, OpenWrt’s modular nature allows you to choose which features you want installed and assemble your own router operating system.

Some software packages also have LuCI configuration pages, allowing you to easily configure them after installing them. Note that not all software available for OpenWrt has a LuCI interface, so you may have to get down-and-dirty in the terminal when configuring some software.

Does Your Router Need OpenWrt?

OpenWrt isn’t the ideal solution for everyone. Most people will be happy with their router’s default firmware. Others will want a drop-in replacement firmware like DD-WRT What Is DD-WRT And How It Can Make Your Router Into A Super-Router What Is DD-WRT And How It Can Make Your Router Into A Super-Router In this article, I'm going to show you some of the coolest features of DD-WRT which, if you decide to make use of, will allow you to transform your own router into the super-router of... Read More . OpenWrt is more flexible, but if you just want a web interface with more features, you’re probably better off with another replacement router firmware The Top 6 Alternative Firmwares for Your Router The Top 6 Alternative Firmwares for Your Router Alternative firmwares offer more features and better functionality than stock firmwares. Here are some of the best ones to use. Read More .

Have you ever used OpenWrt or any other third-party router firmwares? What do you use them for? Leave a comment to share your experiences and any clever tricks you’ve picked up.

Image Credit: Mayuree Moonhirun via Shutterstock.com

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  1. Fast Eddie
    November 22, 2016 at 11:51 am

    I have a tplink n600 wdr3500 wireless dual band router. It has the openwrt installed on it. Is there anyway i can use this one router as a wireless card and send my wifi service to my laptop? I cant seem to configure it properly! I am a newbie to advanced router usage. Can anyone give me step by step instructions?

    Thanks in advance.

  2. simbatig
    April 23, 2016 at 4:28 pm

    tink3r...I do believe it's..."If it ain't broke, fix it untill it is!" Can't take credit...saw that the other day from someone else on dd-wrt...

  3. tink3r
    December 25, 2015 at 10:30 pm

    If it aint broke, time to take it apart and fix it!

  4. Rajesh
    April 23, 2015 at 3:15 am

    I used openWRT for Home-automation purpose ! Making this router as Coordinatior for " Zigbee and EnOcean devices" and managing other end devices.

  5. Simplius
    September 11, 2013 at 7:08 pm

    The original OpenWRT instructions are as useless as yours how to install the firmware. Where on earth is the step one - getting the chunk of data that is called FIRMWARE???

  6. Aagam
    August 28, 2013 at 12:04 pm

    Can I force any client to send his mac id to particular router, without any handshaking ? I mean with out user input !

  7. Willy
    May 22, 2013 at 4:28 pm

    relectronicsupply.com has the Linksys WRT54G routers with OpenWRT already successfully installed on them for $20

    • pingu
      June 25, 2013 at 6:41 am

      is relectronics for real? pages say 'demo store for testing purposes'

  8. Michael Heffner
    March 29, 2013 at 1:50 am

    I've used DD-WRT for years. I us multiple routers to get my wifi covering 30 acres of wooded land and I couldn't do it with the stock firmware. I haven't tried OpenWrt though. May have to look and see if it'll add anything, but like the saying goes, if it aint broke, don't fix it.

  9. Biobaku Collins
    March 28, 2013 at 9:54 pm

    Good information, will come handy as a technical guy

  10. Darren S
    March 28, 2013 at 4:38 pm

    Thought there would be a comparison of the two.

  11. Scott M
    March 28, 2013 at 11:01 am

    I was looking for a comparison as well.It does seem also that it is forthe more experienced user.

  12. Elia Elias
    March 28, 2013 at 9:20 am

    I tried OpenWRT once inadvisable for the inexperienced user, it needs a lot of command line knowledge for tweaking and making things work just the way you want it, although its feature set is huge yet I recommend dd-wrt less feature set yet more user friendly.

  13. Chris Marcoe
    March 28, 2013 at 5:10 am

    So, can you do all of these things with a single router? Or can you only do one or 2? Is there a limit?

    • Haris Demetriou
      March 28, 2013 at 9:09 am

      You can do thoses and even more things with such a firmware. The thing to nottice is the compatibility between the router you have and the OpenWRT version, not all routers are supported. For more about compatibility (http://wiki.openwrt.org/toh/start).
      Those mentioned in this article are the main, most important features, but OpenWRT has a bunch of features and the best way to find out is to try the firmware yourself....

      • Chris Marcoe
        March 28, 2013 at 2:50 pm

        Good info. Thank you. Before this article, I knew you could flash your firmware but I had no idea you could replace it. I didn't know such a thing existed. After knowing, now, that you can do more than one thing with it, I think I might be changing things around.

  14. null
    March 28, 2013 at 1:35 am

    Where's the part about DD-WRT vs. OpenWRT? I was expecting to see some benchmarks and some commentary about which one is better for what situations. What does WRT stand for anyhow?

    • Mike Wilmot
      March 28, 2013 at 3:51 am

      I currently have a wrt54g with dd-wrt installed, been using it for a few years now and have never had a problem... I too was expecting to read more of a comparison vs openwrt, and how "OpenWrt is more flexible".

  15. Márcio Guerra
    March 28, 2013 at 12:12 am

    I used one of those routers, but not nowadays. It wasn't mine, in fact... However, if I ever go back to another, considering that I'm on Linux at the moment, this might be a good resource!

    Thank you! Cheers!