Open Source v. Linksys Firmware on the Linksys WRT310N
IST 448/648 Spring 2009

Christopher Doval Michael Fleishman Jerille Lowe

Current State Open source firmware has been a popular alternative for enthusiasts and IT professionals looking to improve the capabilities of SOHO routers beyond proprietary standards. Despite having become popular with the consumer market, open source firmware options for Pre802.11n wireless SOHO routers has not seen much development, and are limited in terms of manipulation to their out-of-box proprietary firmware. Most open source developers have not yet made the jump towards developing for 802.11n products mostly due to the lack of ratification, and so options for enthusiasts and IT professionals alike are limited. Among the many available firmware options DD-WRT is the only open source option available for Pre-802.11n Wireless SOHO Routers. Issue Does the current state of development for open source firmware at all compete against pre-existing proprietary firmware in terms of performance and features on a Pre-802.11n SOHO router? Linksys WRT310N The Linksys WRT310N is a moderately priced (roughly $100) Pre-N 2.0 router aimed at the SOHOmarket. The device utilizes a Broadcom chipset and sports three internal Omnidirectional antennas hidden away within its casing. The 310N is an aesthetically pleasing departure from Linksys’ previous WRT series routers. This sleek and small from factor device sits well at the corner of a desk or mounted to a wall. Linksys has integrated a vast feature set into this router, some of which include firewall protection, four port 10/100/1000 switch, auto-sensing per device, auto-negotiation, auto MDI/MDI-X to prevent the need for crossover cables, Stateful Packet Inspection, VPN passthrough, 256-bit encryption, MIMO technology,
Linksys  WRT310N  (from  CNet)  

Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS), and a DHCP server. In terms of security this device supports

WEP 64/128-bit, WPA-PSK, WPA2-PSK WPA-TKIP, and WPA-AES. There is also some proprietary technology built into the router in the form of Linksys EasyLink Advisor software, which simplifies router setup into a wizard-like process to help novice users. This software will also routinely check Linksys.com for firmware updates for the device and download them automatically. The web-based management tool used to configure the WRT310N will be familiar to anyone who has used a Linksys product before. The interface is available by default at 192.168.1.1 and remote access to the router configuration options is also available using TCP port 8080. All configuration parameters are well labeled, with a help tool available to explain different features. Although the WRT310N supports draft 802.11n, it only works within the more crowded 2.4 GHz band. Therefore, the WRT310N must compete for the medium with the wide range of devices that can provide interference, including microwave ovens and telephone handsets. By not opting for a dual radio configuration the WRT310N has severely crippled its ability to provide the full power of the 802.11n specification to consumers. It seems clear that Linksys didn’t see the need to provide 5 GHz support for a SOHO product yet such a capability would have made this router much more powerful (as well as future proof). DD-WRT Firmware DD-WRT is a third party developed firmware released under the terms of the GPL for many IEEE 802.11a/b/g/h/n wireless routers based on Broadcom or Atheros chipsets. At present DD-WRT is free and the most popular open source firmware on the market. Some manufacturers have opted to use DD-WRT as their primary firmware as opposed to making their own. For example, through a partnership with Buffalo Technology, Buffalo ships routers pre-installed with a customized version of DD-WRT.1 DD-WRT was chosen due to its compatibility with pre-n wireless routers, as other popular firmware such as Tomato and Svensoft were not compatible with any on-the-market equipment.

                                                                                                                         
1

 http://www.engadget.com/2007/10/31/buffalos-­‐whr-­‐hp-­‐g54dd-­‐airstation-­‐router-­‐comes-­‐loaded-­‐with-­‐dd-­‐wr/  

Linksys’ WRT series routers have been commonly associated with enthusiasts as one of the most popular brands of SOHO routers since the DD-WRT project began in 2004. The popularity of open source firmware like DD-WRT even forced Linksys into re-releasing the WRT54G as the WRT54GL, with the “L” standing for Linux. Linksys had changed the amount of memory and operating system of the WRT54G, therefore ending it’s compatibility with open source firmware. The release of the WRT54GL shows the impact that these open source firmware packages have had on the industry as a whole. DD-WRT Installation and Versions Linksys and Buffalo routers are not the only devices capable of running DD-WRT. The DD-WRT wiki (located at dd-wrt.com/wiki/) lists all compatible devices as well as installation instructions for each. Currently the DD-WRT project is making a searchable database of supported hardware, easing installation for all users. As of April 2009 more than 100 routers from all major, and many minor, manufactures are on the supported hardware list with more devices being added frequently. DD-WRT comes in a multitude of versions, each with slightly different feature sets. The possible choices include micro, mini, nokaid, standard, VoIP, VPN, and mega. The micro build is specialized to only require 2mb of ram on the router, while the mega build is only for routers with 8mb available. Some of the differences between these versions are the inclusion of other open source applications into DD-WRT, such as the management of hotspots using Chillispot and NoCatAuth or the inclusion of VoIP services using SIP. All versions of DD-WRT include features that cannot be found in most other out-the-box firmware, such as the ability to change radio transmission power and enhanced QoS capability. DD-WRT also has one version of its firmware up for sale that includes additional QoS capabilities beyond those of the free versions. Installing DD-WRT on the Linksys WRT310N was very simple. Using the DD-WRT wiki I found out that for our particular hardware it was required that we first flash the router with the “mini” firmware and then flash “standard” on top of it. Our device was not capable of running any other versions of DD-WRT due to RAM limitations. Using DD-WRT’s download repository I managed to download both the mini and standard versions specially tailored for the WRT310N. I was explicitly warned in the wiki that I

was to perform a “30/30/30” hard reset after each firmware flash. This technique consisted of pressing the reset button for 30 seconds, unplugging the router while holding the reset button for another 30 seconds, then plug the router back in while holding the reset button for another 30 seconds. Our group followed the DD-WRT wiki’s instructions and before long had an operational WRT310N running DD-WRT standard. According to the DD-WRT wiki it seems common to have to flash mini then standard as opposed to simply flashing the standard firmware, yet some popular routers (like the WRT54g) can take standard firmware off the bat. We decided to exercise caution, as we didn’t want to end up with an expensive Linksys paperweight. Overall we found the process relatively painless. Unique DD-WRT Abilities DD-WRT can also be used to drastically change the way the router operates, such as support for WDS and workgroup bridging. These features can in a way “break” limitations set up by manufactures of other products. For example, WDS can be used with Apple’s “AirTunes” music streaming service, which typically requires the user to buy Apple’s expensive “Airport Extreme” wireless router. Yet the WDS feature within DD-WRT allows for the firmware to be used in exchange for Apple’s expensive product. Workgroup bridging allows any cheap DDWRT router to be used as a four port Ethernet to wireless adapter. Devices that exclusively connect via Ethernet can use the DD-WRT configured router to provide connectivity to devices that rely on Ethernet, such as game consoles (which sometimes require a specific and expensive console specific hardware device). DD-WRT also includes support for advanced technologies, such as IPv6 and VLAN support. While these features are typically overkill for the home user if the router is being used in a SOHO environment it could be a very cost effective solution for a small business IT manager. DD-WRT has a list of tutorials that show just how powerful the firmware can be, located at www.dd-wrt.com/wiki/index.php/Tutorials. Other notable advanced abilities include separate WLAN from LAN with independent DHCP, dynamic DNS, and samba file system sharing. DDWRT has lot of options and an easy to use interface that organizes the features in an coherent way. The next section will show our test setup

N Strength Testing To perform distance testing of the Linksys and DD-WRT routers, we used a native network stumbling application for OS X tool called AirMoose. We took the average dBm level of based on our location in Hinds Hall. Basement – Hinds Hall

1st Floor – Hinds Hall (*locations 1-3, 1-4, were the fringe point of routers)

2nd Floor – Hinds Hall

3rd Floor – Hinds Hall (*locations 3-2, 3-3, were the fringe point of routers)

Based on what we found the coverage area for the routers were similar, with DD-WRT doing a little bit better. Both routers could fully cover any RF-friendly SOHO environment. In the next section we present the results of the performance test we did in the Hinds Hall basement.

Methods & Tests & Results Our motivation for performing these tests were to see if open source firmware could compete or outperform the Linksys proprietary firmware pre-installed on the Linksys WRT310N. We decided to focus on 802.11N because we felt that it will be the future of SOHO wireless networks.

Figure 1: Test setup To perform testing we stood near the router (point 1), facing away from it we started taking readings and turned 45 degrees clock-wise every 30 seconds for two minutes. This helped us take into account antenna orientation of the laptop WLAN card. We repeated this for all points shown in the above image, and for all tests. N-downstream To perform this test we ran a network cable from one of our laptops into the router and used Chariot Version 5 build 3186 to send data to the client associated to the WLAN. We used the

throughput scripts for all of our testing. The laptop used a 10/100 NIC (We noticed when we used another laptop with a 10/100/1000 NIC our results were different…the WLAN performed better). The client laptop used a Linksys WPC300n V1 card. N-down and upstream test were performed between 9am and 2pm on a Saturday April 25th 2009 in the basement on Hinds Hall.

Figure 2: N-Downstream test Results: From the results shown above DD-WRT outperforms the Linksys firmware on the router in downstream data throughput. DD-WRT beat the Linksys firmware at all distances from the router. DD-WRT performed 16%, 25%, 31%, 21%, 8%, and 23% better at points 1 through 6, respectively.

N-upstream To perform this test we ran Chariot from the client laptop associated to the WLAN, and sent data to a laptop connected to through a network cable to the router. The laptop used a 10/100 NIC. The client laptop used a Linksys WPC300n V1card.

Figure 3 N-upstream Test Results: From the results obtained DD-WRT outperformed the Linksys firmware at distances 22 meters or less, but the Linksys did about the same between 26 and 45 meters. For clients between 26 and 45 meters they are receiving about half of what 11g clients might get.

NG-downstream To perform this test we ran a network cable from one of our laptops into the router and used Chariot to send data to the client associated to the WLAN. We also had an associated G-client constantly pinging the wireless router. The laptop used a 10/100 NIC. The N-client laptop used a Linksys WPC300n V1 card, and the G-client used a Cisco AIR-CB21AG-a-K9 card (see previous image for G laptop placement). NG-down and upstream test were performed between 9pm and 11:40pm on a Monday April 27th 2009 in the basement on Hinds Hall.

Figure 4: NG-Downstream Test

Results: From the results obtained Linksys’s throughput was 20% greater next to the router than DDWRT in mix-mode, but DD-WRT performed moderately better overall of distances we measured. NG-upstream To perform this test we ran Chariot from the client laptop associated to the WLAN, and sent data to a laptop connected to through a network cable to the router. We also had an associated Gclient constantly sending ping packets to the wireless router. The laptop used a 10/100 NIC. The N-client laptop used a Linksys WPC300n V1card, and the G-client used a Cisco AIR-CB21AGa-K9 card.

Figure 5: NG Upstream test Results: From the results obtained Linksys’s performed better close to the router, but DD-WRT did moderately better over the range of points we tested.

Conclusions and Recommendations DD-WRT with only N-clients associated performed significantly better than the out-ofbox firmware provided by Linksys, but performed moderately better than the Linksys with a Gclient attached. Most SOHO environments currently are not N-only, so flashing the router to DDWRT may not make much of a difference in these environments. For enthusiasts and IT professionals managing environments with mostly pre-N clients moving to DD-WRT may improve the overall performance of their SOHO networks. Overall we recommend DD-WRT firmware over Linksys standard firmware in N-only and in a N/G environments in distance and performance, and offer a lot more features. All of the features and the act of flashing may be overkill for most in the SOHO environment, but if possible we recommend updating to DD-WRT. Upgrading will boost what can be done on the same hardware, at no extra cost (unless you brick your router). With all of the features that DD-WRT includes it could be very helpful to an SOHO WLAN administrator or an enthusiast to switch over to an open source firmware solution. People that try this will have to follow the careful directions given to them but the benefits would out way the cons, in this case.

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