Replacing the firmware on wireless routers can add a whole new set of features, many of which you might find useful in a small or medium-sized business environment. These firmware replacements can add virtual LAN (VLAN) and multiple SSID support, a VPN server and client, customizable firewall support, hotspot functionality, and many other features to your consumer-level router. Most also add WDS, repeating, and wireless bridge modes.
Not all wireless routers can be loaded with third-party firmware, however. So you’ll have to check the compatibility of your router with your desired firmware. The methods to flash your router with the firmware vary, which may take just a quick upload via the factory web GUI or may require uploading via TFTP.
Keep in mind that flashing your router with third-party firmware will likely void the manufacturer warranty. And if issues arise with the flashing you may brick the router, possibily damaging it permanently and rendering it useless. So proceed with caution and carefully follow the flashing directions offered by the firmware replacement you choose.
DD-WRT is a popular full-featured firmware you’ll find packed with many different features and functions. It’s well documented and you shouldn’t have trouble finding compatibility and installation help or tutorials on the features. They provide a convenient router database you can use to check for router and firmware compatibility. Their Wiki provides installation help and tutorials.
DD-WRT includes virtual LAN (VLAN) and multiple SSID support, an OpenVPN and PPTP VPN server and client, and allows customization to the iptables firewall and startup/shutdown. It also has a server and client for SSH and Telnet. It includes basic hotspot functionality and also supports Chillispot and Sputnik Agent. In addition to the regular wireless router, it supports the client mode and WDS repeater modes. On the web GUI, you’ll also find a Site Survey feature that displays status about neighboring networks.
Tomato is similar to DD-WRT but a bit simpler. It doesn’t include as many advanced features like VLAN and multiple SSID support, VPN server or client, or hotspot functionality. However, there are Tomato variants that can add some of these advanced features. The original Tomato firmware can still add some functionality over what the stock router provides, such as bandwidth usage monitoring, more advanced QOS and access restrictions, WDS and wireless client modes, and the ability to run your custom scripts.
OpenWRT is another popular firmware, but takes a different approach when it comes to the features and functionality. Its writable file system allows you to customize the firmware by installing your desired packages from the thousands that are available. Though they provide a listing of supported devices and install notes, they don’t provide great documentation on the features or packages.
Gargoyle is a OpenWRT-based firmware and offers a feature-set between similar to DD-WRT and Tomato. Though it lacks some of the advanced features like VLAN and multiple SSID support, it does offer an OpenVPN client and server. A unique feature is Tor, which enables anonymous Internet access to protect your privacy and prevent tracking. The 3G/UMTS USB dongle support allows you to use mobile broadband as the WAN Internet connection for routers with a USB port. Alternatively, the USB port could be used to connect a printer to the network.
Sveasoft offers a wireless router firmware replacement, called Talisman, and is similar to DD-WRT. Although open source like most other firmware replacements, Sveasoft charges for their firmware. Right now they offer a $25-per-year subscription in order to download their firmware files. In addition to the basic firmware, they offer a VPN version with IPSec support and a version that supports mesh networking.
CoovaAP is an OpenWRT-based firmware replacement for wireless routers, specifically designed for Wi-Fi hotspots. It includes the CoovaChilli access controller, an embedded captive portal, and features bandwidth traffic shaping. It supports a variety of hotspot configurations, such as free access with Terms of Service acknowledgment and even commercial or paid access.
The Sputnik Agent firmware is a DD-WRT-based firmware that you can use when deploying a Wi-Fi hotspot using the SputnikNet web-based management system, which provides a full-featured hotspot solution for free or fee-based hotspots. Though the regular DD-WRT firmware includes the Sputnik Agent feature as well, the Sputnik version of DD-WRT has Sputnik Agent turned on by default and a couple other general settings preconfigured for hotspot environments. This is useful for the initial configuration and even in the future as the settings are restored on factory resets as well.
We discussed how replacing your router’s stock firmware with a third-party firmware can add more functionality, even enterprise-type features like virtual LAN (VLAN) and multiple SSID support, a VPN server and client, customizable firewall support, and hotspot functionality.
Remember, carefully follow the flashing instructions and notes for the firmware you choose so you don’t brick your router.
If you’re looking for a full-featured multi-purpose firmware, DD-WRT is usually a good choice. If you don’t need all the bells and whistles, consider Tomato. If you’d like anonymous Internet access, 3G WAN support, or a USB print server, consider Gargoyle. Or if you’d like a highly customiable firmware, give OpenWRT a try. If you’re building a public hotspot, check out CoovaAP or Sputnik Agent.