Links WRT54G

I have to tell you I am not a happy camper when it comes to Cisco / Linksys products. Linksys equipment that I bought prior to Cisco’s acquisition of Linksys worked extremely well for me.

Recently, we added a Linksys WRT54G wireless router to our home network here to provide wireless access. It would run a number of hours then lock up. Power cycling got it running again but it got real old having to go power cycle the router every few hours.

I went through the various suggestions on the Linksys website including upgrading the firmware. It came with version 1.0.9, I upgraded it to 1.1.1, and it only made things worse. The crashes came much more frequently after the upgrade.

Then I called customer support. I had to go through four layers of phone tree menus just to get to a human being, and when I finally did get a human being online he had such a strong accent that I could just barely understand him. I asked him where he was located, India.

It rapidly became obvious that he was just a script reader. He wanted me to do a bunch of things I had already done. Upgrade the firmware, did that. Hard reset the router, did that. Finally he said he would get a technician on the line. The phone started ringing and rang for about five minutes then cut me off and went back to dial tone.

I started over. The person that answered was still in India but his English was decent enough to be understood easily. We went through the same script even though I had explained that I had already done it all on a previous call. But after getting through the script this person actually had some suggestions to try. We tweaked a number of settings and it seemed to run while he was on the phone. He said that if it still locked up it was probably just defective and they’d replace it. I hung up, the router locked up.

I wanted to exhaust all possibilities before having to exchange the unit because I thought it more likely to be a software issue than hardware. I did some digging around the net and found a forum discussing problems with this particular router. Seems that up to version 4 they were stable, but version 5 and version 6 were not. It seems more than coincidental that versions 4 and below were Linux based, but version 5 and above switched to VxWorks. One message stated, nothing that Linksys did helped, but flashing the unit to DD-WRT fixed the problem and it’s been entirely stable sense.

So I chased down DD-WRT on the net, I was fortunate to find this very excellent step by step guide to installing dd-wrt on WRT54G version 5 and 6.

Everything went exactly as described in the guide. The only “gotcha” I ran into is that this firmware does not work with Firefox. You can view things fine but you can’t make any changes with Firefox. Internet Exploder worked fine so I guess it is actually useful for something after all.

The menu and configuration layout of DD-WRT is exactly the same as Linksys software except for added tabs and added options in some of the menus. Some of the new functionality is really cool. It is a superset of the original though and all the original functionality is laid out exactly the same as it is in the Linksys software which made setup a breeze.

Once I had it up and running, the improvement in performance for the machines accessing the network wirelessly was enormous. Websites which used to take quite a while to load popped up instantly.

Previously, parts of the house had a weak signal, but the tweakable transmit power allowed us to fix that and get the transmit errors way down. That probably accounted for much of the speed improvement by eliminating a lot of re-sends.

But there are other fun things, for example, a hotspot gateway, if you want, you can set it up and redirect non-subscribers to your pay me website.

And then there is a function called Site Survey that tells you about all the other routers you can talk to and allows you to join their network if you want. So if your own network is down and your neighbors isn’t and they didn’t bother so setup their security (and so far I’m seeing about 30% of the wireless connections in this area are unencrypted), you can scarf away.

The wireless tab on the Status menu allows you to see who all is connected to your router so you’ll know if your neighbors are leaching. It also tells you the signal strength, signal to noise ratio, etc.

All in all I’m very happy with the effects of excising Cisco / Linksys firmware from the unit. The hardware seems capable enough with DD-WRT, and it seems fitting that a Linux-Friendly ISP can run Linux even on their routers.

One bit of irony, Broadcom, the makers of the chip set used in these routers, and Cisco / Linksys have run afoul of the copyright protections for open source software related to Linux, which required if they used the open source code they must make source code for derivative works available. Broadcom and Cisco have been reluctant to do so because they fear it will give away their competitive advantage. I suspect this was the motivator for switching to the VxWorks software in version 5 and up.

I’d never buy a Linksys product again if the way it ran under their proprietary software was what I was stuck with. DD-WRT firmware addresses those issues and adds functionality which turns a very inexpensive router into a very functional piece of equipment.

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