Basically, routers are little computers. By default, they are set to run a provided manufacture’s operating system, route network traffic, and offer you a variety of features and settings. But often you can replace this firmware.
Most people do not require third-party custom router firmware. While custom firmware certainly provides extra features and benefits, they are much more complex to use, and the majority of people prefer to have their router work like an appliance – plug it in and it functions.
Custom router firmware basics
The router runs an operating system that is called firmware. The manufacturers of routers have a way to flash new firmware. Typically this is how manufacturers upgrade their router’s firmware so that it is up-to-date. It is not necessary for you to flash a file the manufacturer provides, but rather, you could flash a file a third-party provides. This file might have a customized operating system.
Routers aren’t like PCs. You can’t just install any old firmware on any old router. You’ll need to use a firmware that’s been specifically designed for your router – one that supports its hardware devices and one that fits in the limited storage space your router includes.
Why you should bother
People like to install custom router firmware because of the additional features provided. For example, the OpenWrt firmware is a Linux distribution for your router, and it comes with a full package manager. You can use it for the installation of VPN servers, SSH servers, and lightweight web on your router. Even the DD-WRT user-friendly options add powerful features such as QoS (quality of service) − support used to prioritize network traffic. Usually, this feature is found only on higher-end routers.
Custom router firmware can also be more stable than the manufacturer-provided firmware in some cases. If your router requires regular reboots, custom firmware can help it run more stable.
Yet another concern is security. For example, some of the D-Link routers have a backdoor. When your browser uses a special user agent string, without having a username or password, you can access the administration interface. Another example: Asus routers that have network file share features could expose your files online for anyone to access.
How to install custom router firmware
If you want to use a custom router firmware, you’ll first need to choose which one. OpenWrt is a powerful Linux-based firmware written from scratch to support WRT54G routers, and it’s moved on to supporting more models.
DD-WRT is a more user-friendly distribution based on OpenWrt. Tomato has been popular in the past, but it was last updated in 2010 so it won’t support as many routers and is more outdated. There are many other third-party firmware projects, too — you’ll find a long list on Wikipedia.
Next, you’ll need to be sure you actually have a router that supports this firmware. You can find a list of router hardware firmware support on their websites — here’s the list of devices OpenWRT supports and here’s the list of devices that DD-WRT supports.
If you’re shopping for a router, you’ll want to do some research to find a solid modern model that supports third-party routers well. For example, we saw this advertisement on the DD-WRT site — ASUS is advertising directly to enthusiasts looking for third-party router firmware, arguing that their hardware is the ideal platform for running a custom OS. Geeks who hack their routers are a big enough market for manufacturers to pay attention to.
For the installation process, follow the firmware’s instructions. Usually, the process is as easy as downloading the right firmware file for your device, then visiting the Upgrade Firmware menu which can be found in your router’s web interface, and uploading the third-party firmware. The router then replaces the original firmware with the third-party one. Generally, third-party router firmware is not supported by the manufacturer of the router.
Custom router firmware could be a more useful feature than you realize. While it could also be a bit complex to set up, your efforts will pay off once you get access to all the new functions that custom operating systems include. So don’t be afraid to experiment and strive to get the most out of your router.