How to enhance your router with open-source firmware

We explain how to use use powerful open-source firmware to unleash the beast in your router.

As the number of connected devices in our homes and offices continues to multiply, the limitations of many consumer-grade broadband routers become increasingly apparent. Not so long ago, many users had just one or two systems connected to the Web through their router. But today, many users have multiple smartphones, tablets, printers, laptops/notebooks, and desktop systems connected to their routers, along with such consumer electronics devices as Blu-ray players, HDTVs, and game consoles.

When a basic broadband router has to juggle so many connected devices simultaneously, bad things can happen. If you're lucky, everything works; but for many routers, the load that the connected devices impose becomes excessive, resulting in poor performance or instability.

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One potential solution is a drastic upgrade to open-source firmware that can increase the performance and enhance the stability of many routers, and also add lots of new features.

Prepare Before You Commit

Flashing open-source firmware on a broadband router isn't particularly difficult, but the broad range of routers currently on the market means that the process varies from one device to another. If you decide to give open-source router firmware a try, we strongly recommend that you conduct all of your research and obtain all of the files necessary for completing the task before making a single modification; a little prep work will help ensure that the process goes smoothly.

The crucial first step is to confirm that the firmware you plan to install supports your router. We'll focus on using the excellent, open-source firmware DD-WRT here, but other good options, such as Tomato, are available as well. Though DD-WRT and Tomato aren't related, their device support and installation processes are similar. You can find plenty of information at the DD-WRT website and on the Tomato homepage; in addition, consider running a few Google searches to see what other users' experience has been with using open-source firmware on a particular router. Numerous sites across the Web are devoted to open-source firmware, and it's a good idea to consult a number of them to make sure that users are having good experiences.

If the background check yields positive results, look up your router model on the DD-WRT website's wiki, and grab whatever files are essential for completing the modifications that you'll need to make. You'll probably have to download a couple of firmware files: an initial "mini" version that installs basic functionality; and a final, full-featured version. For the Asus RT-N16 router that we used for our project, we needed both the mini and the full-size files.

At this point, some warnings are in order. First, as noted earlier, installing firmware on routers is not a universal process. You can update some routers via a simple file upload; others require elaborate, multistep procedures. Second, as also noted earlier, you should search for and read any information relevant to your particular router model in the DD-WRT wiki and forum. Third, before starting, you should investigate and learn about any potential recovery procedures for your particular router, in case problems arise. And finally, you should use a hardwired ethernet connection to perform all of the router modifications that we discuss in this article; don't attempt to flash firmware over a wireless connection.

The Installation Process

Now we're ready to walk through the process of installing DD-WRT open-source firmware on an Asus RT-N16 wireless N300 gigabit router. These steps probably won't exactly match those for your router, but typically the steps do entail resetting the router to factory defaults, flashing an initial mini build of DD-WRT, resetting the router again, and then flashing the final or upgraded build of DD-WRT.

1. Clear NVRAM and restore factory defaults: Assuming that you've already downloaded the required firmware files, you now need to clear the router's NVRAM (where any nonfactory-default settings are stored) and restore the unit's factory defaults. Doing so will minimize the likelihood that a problem will arise during the initial phase of installation.

To perform this step, hold down a reset (or restore) button for a few seconds, or choose the option to restore factory defaults from the Administration menu in the router's Web graphic interface. Our Asus RT-N16 supported both methods, so we chose the hard reset option. We held down the reset button on the back of the device for a few seconds, and waited for the router's power light to start blinking; then we released the button, and let the router reboot.

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