06 May 2017, 21:40

Open source router

I recently went through the exercise of setting up a gateway router for one of my customers. The choices I had to make were two-fold, hardware & software

Hardware

I wanted to try and find the sweet spot between affordability, processing power, reliability. I could pickup an old desktop PC for $0 which would be more than adequate in terms of performance, however I wasn’t confident it would last the distance running 24x7 in a non air-conditioned storage room!

A low power ARM chip on a consumer router (that would support OpenWRT) was my next thought, however these tend to be a little underpowered for what I needed, not to mention very limited in terms of RAM + persistent storage.

I ended up getting a ‘mini pc’ with the following properties:

  • fan-less (heat dissipation via heat sink & aluminium chassis)
  • low power consumption quad-core x86-64 CPU
  • 2 GB RAM, 16GB SSD flash (expandable)
  • 4x 1GB ethernet ports

AUD$250 including delivery from Aliexpress. Something the above lacks which others may want is hardware offload for crypto (AES-NI)

Software

This was a harder choice in a lot of ways - there are so many options!! While the hardware I have is capable of running pretty much any Linux or BSD distro, I decided at the outset that I really needed a purpose built firewall distro that includes a web gui interface. I reviewed the following:

pfSense

https://www.pfsense.org/ · FreeBSD based

Being possibly the best known open source firewall distro available, I felt obliged to check it out. Certainly very slick, and years of constant refinement certainly shine through.

At the end of the day, I feel a certain unease about the future direction of pfSense. The open-source community does seem to be taking a back seat as the public face becomes more corporate friendly.

OPNSense

https://opnsense.org/ · FreeBSD based

OPNSense is a fork of pfSense and as such is very similar in many ways. Something that really impressed me about the project is the enthusiasm and effort being put in by the core developers. I submitted a couple of bug reports to their Github repo and both were fixed very quickly. The UI is quite different to pfSense as it has been completely reworked, and equally slick and easy to use as pfSense while possibly lacking some of the whistles and bells.

Definitely one to keep an eye on.

IPFire

http://www.ipfire.org/ · Linux based

I’m afraid I could spare much time for this distro. The web UI is looking very dated. I’m sure it does the job, but without a nicer UI experience, I may aswell just stick to the command line.

OpenWRT

https://openwrt.org/ · Linux based

OpenWRT is designed for low end, embedded hardware and what they’ve managed to achieve with such limit hardware resources is astonishing! Sadly x86 support is lacking - the prebuilt image I used didn’t detect all CPU cores or available RAM!? - so was crossed off the list pretty quickly.

If you’re after a distro for your wifi/modem/router device, then OpenWRT fits the bill nicely. A word of warning however, the documentation is atrocious! But hey, I’ll take what I can get.

LEDE Project

https://lede-project.org/ · Linux based

LEDE is a fork of OpenWRT. As such, it’s a younger project which seems to have a more vibrant community than its parent. I had originally passed it over, assuming it would be more or less identical to OpenWRT given how recently it forked. Somebody pointed me back to it citing better x86 support, so I thought I’d give it a spin. I’m glad I did as, this is what I’ve ended up using for my install!

Conclusion

I ended up going with LEDE for these reasons:

  • runs Linux. I’m simply more comfortable with Linux on the command line which gives me more confidence when things go wrong.
  • is an extremely light weight distro out of the box that offers advanced functionality via an easy to use packaging system
  • a gui that strikes a good balance between usability, feature set and simplicity
  • supports my x86 hardware (unlike OpenWRT)

Update December 2017

I’ve been using LEDE for 6 months and overall very happy with it. There are a couple of issues I’ve encountered worth mentioning:

  • I found the firewall configuration confusing where it talks about ‘zone forwardings’ vs iptables ‘forward’ chain. I wrote this Stack Exchange post to clarify (and remind myself how it works!)
  • upgrading between LEDE releases is far from fool-proof. The upgrade process requires you to upgrade the running system in place. Upon reboot, you’re left holding your breath wondering if it’s actually going to boot! Not something I’d ever want to attempt remotely. Better approaches I’ve seen allow you to load the new software version into a secondary partition that you then flag as being the next place to boot from (Ubiquiti works this way).