By: Sam Light
On: 17th November 2018
What is OpenWRT?
OpenWRT is an open source custom firmware that can be installed on many off the shelf wireless routers. It is very powerful peice of software based on Linux. OpenWRT gives you very advance configuration of your Wireless network, internet (WAN) connection, and local network. It also gives you a very powerful firewall using IP Tables which is apart of the Linux Kernel.
Why did I want to use it?
I decided that I want to use OpenWRT as mainly because I like playing with different software. Also, I find that software on home wireless routers is getting more and more dumbed down so having something with some more advance features is always good. Its great that OpenWRT is open source and fully controlled by me. No manufacturer is going to be able to have access to my router or force an update. In my opinion as having an open source Linux based router is quite important for the networks security.
Finding compatible hardware
I found it tricky to find a modern router that I could buy in the UK that would work with my internet connection. The reason this was difficult was in the UK we don't get separate modems from our ISP. We normally get a router with a ADSL or VDSL modem build in. When looking for hardware that was compatible with OpenWRT I found that there was very few known compatible devices with VDSL support. Finding compatible hardware As far as I'm aware allot of VDSL modems use Broadcom chipsets which have no open source support. This makes it hard to support devices with this kind of modem. I reached out on the on the OpenWRT freenode IRC and did get some help. It wasn't the help I really wanted to hear but I basically got told to use an external VDSL modem. Although this wasn't ideal I would make things allot easier. It just so happened that I had an old Huawei HG612 that Open reach, the people who maintain BT's network in the UK, provide to new FTTC VDSL customers for the first few years of fiber broadband. This meant I could use any cable router that is supported by OpenWRT. I found the TP-Link Archer C7 which has 2.4GHz and 5GHz wireless support with AC. I was happy with this, I don't need the best wireless I can get. It also has 4 x Gigabit Ethernet ports which is ideal. I found one of these in an eletronics chain for a reasonable price a picked one up.
This was far easier than expected it to be. I found the correct fireware image on the OpenWRT website. To install it I simply went to the manual firmware upgrade page in the TPLink firmware and uploaded the OpenWRT image. It installed and rebooted the router. This was the scary bit. Have I just bricked a router that I had just brought. What if it boots up but doesn't work probably. Much to my surprise it booted up fine.
I then connected to the gateway IP for the router in my web browser and up came the login page. I then setup the internet using PPPoE and the OpenReach VDSL modem. This was relatively simple. I then went to setup the wireless. With this, I had to configure the 5GHz and 2.4GHz wireless seperately I gave them both the same SSID so devices that are connected pick the connection type they want. After this everything was basically working, I had wireless that all my devices could connect to and everything had internet access. Ethernet worked with no configuration. DHCP for assigning IP addresses was configured fine by default. I was happy.
So far this setup has worked flawlessly. I have not had any issues with wireless not connecting or dropping connections. The internet has not gone down once while I'm using it since the change over. This has been a amazing improvement from the BT Hub 5 which use randomly disconnect from the internet and reboot. This was just what I wanted to achieve from changing my router. I wasn't sure when I brought this if the reason for the internet dropping out was because of the router or the internet connection its self. This has so far shown me that it most likely was the old BT Router causing the problems. Good result!
In my sections about setup and configuration I have left out a lot of detail. Installing OpenWRT does come with a large amount of risk. It will also be different with every device you try and install it on. I may have got lucky with the hardware I ended up using. Also the configuration was pretty simple for me as I know the basics of how computer networking works. The admin interface is very nice but it is for advanced users. You do need to know what you are doing to get everything setup. If you want to use this, spend some time really researching what you are going to install it on and how that is done. Also learn how to setup your internet, configure a local network and setup the wireless. Other wise you may get it installed successfully but you may not be able to get everything working.
Check out OpenWRT here