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Homebrewers Abuzz Over Linksys Router Hacks

Want to turn a low-cost consumer router into a heavy duty piece of enterprise networking gear? Well, there's a large community of Linksys homebrewers who are ready to help you. I was turned onto this the other day by a Twitter tweet; read on for the details.

Here's the Sunday tweet, via storage writer Stephen Foskett: "In case you missed it last time, Amazon has the Linksys WRT54GL Tomato-hackable router on sale for $59 again." It ends with a shortened URL that takes you to the page for the "Linksys-Cisco WRT54GL Wireless-G Broadband Router (Compatible with Linux)," priced at $59.99.

The first thing that strikes me is, it's interesting that this listing is headlined "Linksys-Cisco." I thought the marketing rationale of peeling off the low-cost Linksys brand was to separate it from its higher-end Cisco cousin. That's why you don't see sales signs for a Toyota-Lexus Camry. [UPDATE: I just happened to check out a Linksys router I have at home, and what do I see on the front but a "Cisco Systems" logo. So Cisco is co-branding its lower-end line, letting customers know that they're paying for Linksys but getting a little piece of the big-company pie at the same time.]

But the whole point of the homebrewer activity surrounding the WRT54GL is that, with a little software upgrading, this $60 Linksys product -- Foskett says $59 and Amazon has $59.99; I'm going with $60 -- can perform functions usually reserved for higher-end Cisco SKUs.

The community of hackers (good hackers, not nefarious ones) doing this stuff came into public view over three years ago, when Lifehacker posted the piece "Turn your $60 router in a $600 router." A recent search -- and our Sunday tweet -- indicates there's been lots activity since then, including a passel of third-party firmware projects.

As Wikipedia points out: "The WRT54G is notable for being the first consumer-level network device that had its firmware source code released to satisfy the obligations of the GNU GPL. This allows programmers to modify the firmware to change or add functionality to the device."

Most of those mods come via two projects: Tomato and DD-WRT. Here's the boilerplate from the Tomato site:

"Tomato is a small, lean and simple replacement firmware for Linksys' WRT54G/GL/GS, Buffalo WHR-G54S/WHR-HP-G54 and other Broadcom-based routers. It features a new, easy-to-use GUI, a new bandwidth usage monitor, more advanced QOS and access restrictions, enables new wireless features such as WDS and wireless client modes, raises the limits on maximum connections for P2P, allows you to run your custom scripts or telnet/ssh in and do all sorts of things like re-program the SES/AOSS button, adds wireless site survey to see your wifi neighbors, and more."

DD-WRT is similarly a piece of third-party firmware. It goes beyond the original firmware by adding functionality such as advanced QoS controls, WDS wireless bridging and wireless radius authentication.

Expanding the ecosystem radius a little further, one sees that there are an incredible number of projects -- many of them free or open source -- from which one can secure router firmware. (For another third-party project list, click here.)

Of course, at the end of the day one has to ask whether this stuff is simply interesting hobbyist material or real business fodder for actual enterprise use. I guess if you have enough time on your hands, you can indeed hand-tweak all your networking equipment and boost the value of your spend by several orders of magnitude.  On the other hand, for most businesses it's more efficient just to buy what you need from the get-go.

More likely, the real value of this stuff lies beneath the radar, delivering real-world networking educations to engineers and software developers who augment their theoretical training through their use of, or work on, these projects (much as us old electronics types used to build amplifiers or program Commodore VIC-20s).  Some of those folks will undoubtedly end up at the startups, which will become the networking behemoths of the future.