There's a not so very well kept secret hiding behind those bland enclosures of home/small office routers. Despite marketing claims of impressive feature sets, inconsistent performance and stability issues hobble many models. Luckily, there exist a few groups dedicated to improving how consumer grade routers handle your traffic.
What's going on inside that blinking box?
Before we get started, it helps to take stock of the basic hardware inside most consumer routers. The vast majority sport some sort of MIPS-based CPU working alongside an Ethernet switch chip with a bit of RAM tossed in for data caching and flash memory to store its operating system. There is also the matter of its included radio card that enables wireless access.
The components are commodity, of course. The more exotic hardware is left to the professional grade products that demand a price premium and are privy to quite a bit more support. For most small office/home office users, these routers handle their daily networking and web access needs when all is working well.
Unfortunately, working well is more often than not a limited time offer.
Stability issues pop up with the introduction of the operating system software. For reasons unknown (probably tied to cost) routers ship with comparatively poor quality software and user interfaces that leave a lot to be desired.
One needs to only go so far as noticing degraded wireless performance, frequent disconnections, and the random router lockup to see that something isn't right. There are plenty of other culprits that can cause radio interference but many issues can be pinned down to the horrible state of shipping firmwares on these products.
The poor performance of these devices would have most likely continued if not for a chance discovery made by a few pesky enthusiasts. They noticed that the popular Linksys WRT54G router was running a version of Linux. The source code, it turns out, had not been released despite a stipulation of its usage license. Fixing this oversight, Linksys finally released the source code freely, which leads us to the current scene.
The Winds of Change
Since that time, the open source community modified the original Linksys firmware, improving on it drastically and adding features commonly found on more expensive routers. The story would end there, but enthusiasts being who they are, have found ways to extend their software to quite a few other routers on the market, making it possible to improve on some interesting hardware from other makers.
Before we go any further, here comes the usual disclaimer: There's a very real chance you can "brick" your hardware by using third-party firmwares and your warranty is very likely void after any such attempt. So proceed at your own risk.
As with any software you'll also have to trust the source. Most firmware projects provide source code along with their precompiled binaries that you or your resident programming guru can easily peruse and compile.
There is a veritable glut of open source firmware projects for routers available. Some provide the basic features you would expect from a wireless router while others are attempting some rather ambitious feats, with security emerging as a top focus along with adding the latest and greatest networking technology.
Each firmware has its own list of compatible hardware, which you would do well to carefully peruse before attempting to flash your router. The DD-WRT firmware, for example, has an extensive list of compatible hardware, but variations in RAM and flash memory sizes during simple revisions to a router line makes choosing the correct firmware tricky.
Having run down many of the options myself over the past few years, I've settled on Tomato as my firmware of choice for a collection of wired computers, Internet-aware appliances and a rotating array of wireless hardware. It has been a generally pain-free experience when compared with the shipping firmwares of old, which could barely cope with a few devices before buckling under for unknown reasons.
Many of the other available firmwares are just as competent at handling the rigors of data transfers and offer a wider array of advance options, but Tomato strikes the right balance between added features and snappy performance along with a well laid-out configuration page and plenty of feedback and logs so you know most of what's going on behind the scenes.
Its pleasing Scalable Vector Graphics based graphs, for example, offer a simple look at what's going on with your router's traffic, but one of its most welcome features is its Quality of Service (QoS) controls that allow you to easily categorize your traffic and limit connection utilization by device, IP address, or service. This is a fantastic tool to have when you're attempting to limit connection disruptions by rogue devices.
Part two of this article will explore configuring Tomato into various modes, opening up connectivity options that just weren't possible or workable with the stock software. A number of these modes are time, money, and headache savers if you've been looking around for ways to fine tune your network without spending considerable sums on dedicated gadgets.
This article was first published on EnterpriseITPlanet.com.