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OpenWrt: What Is It? How Can You Use It? How Do You Get Started?

OpenWrt What Is It How Can You Use It How Do You Get Started 2

Table of Contents

Everyone loves it when their smartphone or laptop operating systems get new updates years after they’ve bought them. Some even go to the extent of tinkering with their devices to change the operating system (OS) from the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) version or update it long after the manufacturer has stopped offering updates. These operating systems often add new capabilities to old hardware and have become vastly popular over the years.

But what about the humble home router? These devices often come with hardware capable of much more than what the OEM firmware can make use of. So how can you get the most out of them?

This is where OpenWrt comes in.

What Is OpenWrt?

OpenWrt is a GNU/Linux distribution that was initially designed as firmware for wireless routers. But it has since evolved to be a basis for the firmware to manage the network routing capabilities of many embedded systems. These systems include LTE and Bluetooth gateways, wired routers, smartphones and even certain laptops.

The difference between most firmware — including the OEM ones — and OpenWrt is that the latter is not static. With firmware for most embedded systems, if you want to make a change — add or remove a capability for instance — you’ll be forced to flash a completely new OS. With OpenWrt, users can make the changes just like installing or removing a package.

OpenWrt began when Linksys released a wireless router based on an open-source code and was forced to release the modified code. Later, this code became the basis for the Linux distribution of what is now known as OpenWrt.

OpenWrt is available for a wide range of embedded systems from many different manufacturers. Earlier, OpenWrt was open to routers with a significant number of hardware capabilities. But the latest versions of OpenWrt focus only on routers with at least 8 MB of flash memory and 64 MB of RAM.

With OpenWrt, you can manage your devices easily through a Secure Shell (SSH) connection and a Linux terminal. Users can also use the OpenWrt web user interface (UI), called LuCI and Lua, to configure the firmware on their embedded devices. But this feature may be limited to routers with more than 4 MB of flash memory; others will have to manage with the terminal alone.

While OpenWrt triggered the idea of modified firmware for routers, many alternatives evolved soon after. Many of these alternatives are based on OpenWrt itself, such as DD-WRT, LEDE, ClearOS and Tomato.

The operating system has a very active community behind it maintaining and supporting its development. The developers regularly meet up remotely (and sometimes in person) to discuss changes and developments.

What Are the Benefits of Using OpenWrt?

One of the main benefits of OpenWrt is that you can use it to add more features to your home router. For instance, you can:

  • Run SSH servers and carry out SSH tunneling on your routers.
  • Set up different types of servers including website, Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) and File Transfer Protocol (FTP) on your routers. 
  • Install and run BitTorrent clients on your routers. 
  • Create an independent Wi-Fi network besides the main WLAN as a guest network.
  • Set up a virtual private network (VPN) through your routers, letting you bypass any internet censorship or other content filters.

Besides these, experienced users can also use OpenWrt for traffic shaping, network packet analysis and applying quality of service (QoS) rules on the network. There are claims that you can improve the range of your router with OpenWrt.

While adding more features to your home router is certainly fun, in many instances, OpenWrt is necessary. Sometimes the router is outdated or the manufacturer has stopped releasing updates for the firmware. In many instances, OpenWrt has often been found to be more stable than the manufacturer’s firmware.

How Can You Get Started With OpenWrt?

The difficulty of setting up OpenWrt varies with router models. For around 30% of devices, OpenWrt has a fairly straightforward process.

While it is easy to upgrade the OpenWrt firmware, the steps to replace the OEM firmware and install OpenWrt for the first time are device-specific. In some cases, it may be as simple as going to the OEM firmware’s web UI, choosing “Upgrade Firmware,” and selecting the OpenWrt image file. In other cases, you may have to go through the bootloader where the steps may be more complicated.

The first step to installing OpenWrt is to find your device from the OpenWrt page where the available firmware is listed.

You may find many different firmware options for your devices. Since you’re installing for the first time, click on the link named “Firmware OpenWrt Install URL.” Before proceeding further, OpenWrt recommends users familiarize themselves with the device data. You can find this in the link within the last column in the table. The page will also have a table titled “Data Entry” at the bottom of which you’ll find installation guides. Depending on the device, you may find more than one method.

Once you have installed OpenWrt on your device, it’s easy enough to upgrade it further.

What Precautions Should You Take Before Using OpenWrt?

When you install OpenWrt, you’ll void the manufacturer’s warranty on your device. As with installing any third-party firmware, OpenWrt also comes with the risk of bricking the device. There are no guarantees while working with it; there’s plenty of documentation and an active forum, but if something goes wrong, you’ll have to figure it out without any one-on-one support.

OpenWrt also lets users have almost unhindered access to the device, meaning you may unintentionally violate local or regional laws. For instance, you may use frequencies or bands not allocated for wireless networks. Or you may not use technologies mandated by regulatory authorities to avoid disruption with other communication signals. In the worst-case scenario, you may end up disturbing other services or technologies around the device.

Due to the risks of ending up with an unusable or bricked device, OpenWrt recommends users do every step very slowly and carefully. Users are advised to familiarize themselves very well with the device documentation before they begin. If anything feels wrong or isn’t going the way you imagined it will, the website suggests users stop, find the answers and then proceed. Wherever applicable, OpenWrt shows risks and best practices when working with it.

You can also gauge the risks of modifying your specific device based on how popular it is. According to OpenWrt, the commonly modified routers will have a more thorough and detailed page. It may be easier to find support for these devices in case you get stuck at some point.

Before getting started, make sure that you have all the device information right next to you, both from the manufacturer and the OpenWrt. Make sure you have an uninterrupted power supply, and don’t try to set up the device through a wireless connection.

Install OpenWrt and Unlock a Whole New Set of Features for Your Devices

OpenWrt is a powerful Linux distribution that lets you do a lot more with your home router, Internet of Things (IoT) gateways and other embedded systems. Many manufacturers, including Dusun, use OpenWrt to power their embedded solutions.

With Dusun and its OpenWrt-powered IoT solutions, you can do more.

Sources

OpenWrt — LuCI essentials
OpenWrt — Quick start guide for OpenWrt installation
GitHub — openwrt/luci
OpenWrt — Welcome to the OpenWrt Project
OpenWrt — Table of Hardware: Firmware downloads
OpenWrt — Supported devices

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