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The Wireless Edge: Linksys WRT54G--Not What It Used to Be

The Cisco Linksys WRT54G is one of the most popular SOHO 802.11 b/g
wireless routers available. However, because of a recent redesign, this product
is nowhere near as reliable as it used to be. Worse yet, it's difficult to tell
whether the version you are getting is the old version or the new version.

I stumbled across this a couple of weeks ago when I decided to update my
home small-office router, a Linksys BESFR41 v1. Though functional, I had to
reset the product once or twice a week, and having had good success with a
WRT54G (router, four-port Ethernet switch, 802.11b/g access point) at
another location, I decided to get one for my office. As part of my due
diligence, I contacted my local ISP, which has well-informed technical support,
and asked them about the WRT54G. They assured me it was "rock solid." That
was good enough for me.

After obtaining the product, a WRT54G v5, I installed it and instantly found my
first problem: extremely slow Web admin screen updates that took five to 10
seconds to update. I then looked at the firmware version: 1.00.0. That was
scary. Then I downloaded the latest version of the firmware, release 1.00.2,
dated Nov. 1, 2005. This fixed the slow admin page updates, and I completed
the installation. It was then that the real problems began. The router ran fine
for a while, then I lost wireless connectivity but still had wireline connectivity.
I checked all the router wireless settings and found that the MAC address
access list I had enabled had disappeared. A one-time glitch, I thought, so I
reentered the information. Things continued to work for another several hours.
Then I lost Internet connectivity again. I reset the router, which restored
operation. However, from that point forward, I had to reset the router at least
a couple of times a day. Another problem occurred when I tried to change
wireless security settings. I was unable to do so without first restoring the
router to its factory settings--not exactly convenient and anything but rock

I then started researching these problems on the Internet and found no
shortage of complaints about the product, including stability and throughput
issues. The comments were all consistent: people complained that their
WRT54G v5 products were unstable, whereas their WRT54G v4 products were
highly stable.

Further research into this issue revealed that Linksys changed the operating
system in v5 from Linux to VxWorks. Motivations for this change are not
entirely clear, though the open-source license requirements for Linux (see Gnu General Public License)
did require that Linksys publish the
source for the router. This resulted in people customizing software for the
router, thereby allowing the device to perform the functions of repeaters,
bridges, VPN servers, VoIP gateways, etc. (There's an interesting story about
this at Wi-Fi Planet.) Linksys
does not support any of these extensions, of course, but the platform did
create a legion of devoted supporters and developers. It's likely that scrutiny
of the source also helped debug the software and may be one reason the
earlier versions are as stable as they are. By going to VxWorks, Linksys closes
off and retains full control of the platform.

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