Monday, January 26, 2015

DD-WRT overrated

DD-WRT was so overrated that when I replaced my broken wifi router I flashed with DD-WRT and hope to use the extra features one day. But just when I needed the features, they don't work or won't work out for me. I have been using DD for nothing.

DD may once been useful. The firmware is basically written by the chipset makers. A few manufacturers can save a lot without hiring firmware engineers by using DD-WRT. Range extenders and repeaters once cost more than a router. Now everybody can get a cheap personal one and set all they like. Depending on your hourly rate, it doesn't worth to tweak DD-WRT. Just buy the feature off the shelf. For the same reason, it isn't worthwhile to find good uses for old routers by putting DD in it.

Once manufacturers started to add non-router features into routers, because it's a low power, always-on internet device. This is not any more. People don't need file servers that much because of the cloud, like Dropbox and Google Drive. Also a router can't do encryption on the fly. Print server is absolutely obsolete because of Google Cloud Print. Once you can put a private digital telephone exchange into it. The only good reason is that you can have a free phone with Google Voice. Now that's gone. If you need a private exchange you better buy a different box and save yourself a lot of trouble. Also with Android stick computers, set top box, and internet ready low power device like Raspberry, it's hardly needed to get into the router for anything.

There are major disadvantages of DD. First, it can't catch up with chipset makers. There are only a few contributors to DD and they don't work together. A cost reduced new version of a well known router can use a totally different chipset and the DD guys need to take months to support it, if ever.

I never know the intended users of DD. It's absolutely not for home users though you may find something useful in it. Home users don' t need that much feature and they need easy UI to do it. System admins can't use it that much because if they make use of the wide array of features, finding support of it is a nightmare.

To be specific, if you use OpenDNS for parental control, you need to set the DNS servers and then add a command elsewhere. So I never have control until I just happened to discover that I can access to any URL I wanted on my kids computer.

Even a couple of years ago parental control on stock firmware became easy to use. You can find the MAC from current connections, give it a name and then set restrictions. You never need to look at the MAC on the device, nor type the MAC. And it easy to change since you can recognize the name instead of the MAC. The so called "simpler" DD-WRT alternatives such as Tomato all have that. As a home router you must have parental control and must make sure that average parents know how to set it with ease.

Version control of DD is a nightmare. No body cares what the features are. They only care about their router model. Instead of listing by models, they list by build. You can't just buy a router and look up the version for it. Each router have a recommended firmware version for it but it's so outdated that the recommendation is not recommended.

For the same reason, each version/build have a feature matrix like 10x10. The only reason for that is because the memory size of routers are limited and vary greatly across manufacturers. So for the smaller size routers you have about 10 versions to pick depending what feature you want. Again if you list the versions suitable for a specific router life will be easier.

The recommended version for your router isn't recommended, that is not the worse. The worse is that it doesn't work. I set up a MAC filter restriction and it doesn't do anything. So I doubt if it actually block all the protocols it claimed, or anything it claimed.

For my story, I flashed DD to the new and old router. All is good because I don't need much. At the time I think I may add a PBX, file server and BT down loader. Also print server. Then I find out that actually the huge firmware that I flashed still can't do the job. I need optional extras. The situation is far far worse than DD-WRT itself. There's is the right way, and the right way take two. And then you need older USB drives formatted exclusively for Linux. Nothing make sense for me so I didn't do anything. Just brought an overpriced older router for nothing.

But then it work well and so I though I can get extra old router for a few dollars and use up all the bandwidth and channels around my spacious house and yard with few neighbours. But then the same old router I brought has a different chipset than the one I have, and it has so small memory that DD-WRT can't even load on it. Nothing else can flash into it, except for a pure command interface.

Finally I need to setup parental control, then I found out that the official recommended build doesn't work. Some say that MAC isn't reliable and some say that any other build should work. So after careful research, I decided to go with an improved version of the stock router firmware.

It's easy to flash. The UI is so much nicer, and the parental control is so much easier without typing the MAC. The problem is, my IP phone can't stay register for long, meaning that I have no phone. My phone is connected to a wireless bridge, and there are a lot of other things connected to it too.

So I don't trust any improvements by outsiders. I revered to the stock firmware and it's easy. But then the same situation happens. "Features" on the stock firmware got copied to the "improved" version.

Then I decided to try Tomato. They are actually not simpler, but feature rich command line openwrt plus UI from the stock firmware. Then I found out that you have to use Windows utility to flash it. Then I found out that it's easier to flash DD-WRT first and "upgrade" flash again to Tomato.

Then I decided to give DD-WRT another try and find out the actually recommended build. The flashing procedure don't work seamlessly. After almost bricking the thing, I succeed in having DD again, thought a slightly later version. The phone works again.

The MAC restriction works but then those connections coming across the bridge doesn't. Because the router don't see the original MAC. I can set the MAC restriction on the endpoint, the wireless access point that is just an old router. But this router can't give out IP's so it doesn't work for the MAC too. Hard luck.

I can try something else like openwrt with other UI's. But I think they will be the same for the MAC filter and my phone may not work again.

Now I have to rethink it again. The main thing is that repeaters can half the bandwidth and it doesn't work well across multiple walls. Dual band may be easier to partition but higher frequency band have less range. Increase the power or a larger antenna is out of the question because of health concerns. Power is measured in log scale. You have to double the power to have some effect and 10 times is noticeable. Also, sometimes reducing the power works better because of multi path interference indoors. Those powerline extenders is good for penetrating walls but they are less stable unless you never use those electrical sockets.