Paean to the WRT54G, the hackable router of the 2000s

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2021/01/13/paean-to-the-wrt54g-the-hackable-router-of-the-2000s.html

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Used my WRT for the better part of 20 years until I switched to a mesh network a few years ago.

This and the Nokia 3310 are the very definition of “bulletproof”

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I have several. They’re one of the few devices that will reliably run firmware images used to create ham radio mesh networks. The 2.4GHz ISM band partly overlaps the 13cm amateur radio band. I could legally run a 1KW access point (would that be a microwave oven at that point?)

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The FCC amateur radio rules allow operation with such power but also prohibits use of encryption in any way or form. So that means no WPA2 an no HTTPS so in short: you can’t run a 1kW access point.

That said our local radio club runs a few off-the-shelf Ubiquity 5 GHz dishes between mountain tops and they work great for line of sight links as far as 20km.

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I still have one in a box in the garage. Kind of a shame, really. As far as I know, it still works fine.

I got it because it could be hacked, but never actually got around to hacking it.

I got my current router because it also could be hack, and have also never gotten around to actually hacking it. But it makes me happy that I could do it if I wanted to. I like having options.

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Yeah, it’s not an internet access replacement. But it still is a network access point. We use it to pass traffic more easily during events. Sending files and pictures beats trying to communicate the same info over FM voice. And no, we don’t run a KW though we could legally. The built in PAs are more than enough for most uses and a 1KW broadband amplifier would be hella expensive.

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I bought mine before it came out that it was hackable. It already had a good reputation. When it did come out that it was hackable, I was deliriously happy. I used it until about 5 years ago, when I switched to an ASUS. The old WRT54G simply couldn’t keep up with the load now that there were so many users/devices in my household. I’ve still got it, in its original box, just in case I want to use it for something fun…

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I loved the Linksys hardware of that era. I had a switch, cable modem, and of course a WRT54G and later a WRT54GS - naturally, both were using custom FW. I eventually ditched the HW when I wanted GigE wired, and N and A wireless. Now I’m running all Ubiquiti hardware.

My favorite design aspect was how they were designed to be stackable (notice the dimpled area in the top) to use a minimal footprint. So much network hardware these days can’t be stacked or even wall mounted which sucks when you don’t have a lot of space.

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I regularly hacked these for friends, family and business associates over the years. They really deserve all the praise they get.

The WRT54 was a workhorse, but the poor little thing only had 16 meg of ram and 100 megabit ports; not to mention 54 megabit wifi. Some of the cheap linksysi of the era were pretty unreliable, too (which is largely what drove people to community-developed firmware) – unplugging your linksys and plugging it back in became such a meme it featured on southpark

It’s sort of the iPhone Gen 1 of WAPs. The cornerstone of an earlier era, but built on standards and hardware that don’t hold up anymore.

Fare well, my little WRT54. You were good to me, but you’d never keep up with all the 200+ megabit hardware on my network today.

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The GS was… kinda crap, actually. At least the one I have was. (it’s part of an art installation, velcro-strapped to a pair of ridiculously oversized 2.4 Ghz outdoor stick antennnas that are something like a 10 dB boot each.)

I have a stack of five or six WRT54G/GLs sitting in a box for special projects that require either a point to point wireless bridge, or possibly mesh networking, all running DD-WRT. I only stopped using them because they are 2.4 ghz only.

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I’ve got 3 with openwrt on them. I was wondering if I should toss them but just today I used one to set up a WEP network for my daughter who picked up an old DS to play with and can only do WEP.

What is actually a good modern replacement - I’ve been running on a consumer grade Wifi for a few years but it’s a piece of crap. The devices I looked at last time around that could run openwrt or tomato all cost twice what I paid.

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GL.iNet make seemingly nice hardware that runs openwrt out of the box. Cheap too! I’ve used a few for things like a quick DHCP server.

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Only legal if you could justify actually needing that much power for whatever you’re trying to do, though, right? It’s been a while since I studied for my license test but I remember the rule being that you can use as much power as necessary (up to a hard limit of 1500W).

If you’re not hard set on fully open-source firmware and can deal with 802.11ac instead of ax or whatever the newest spec is, I love my Mikrotik routers and access points. Their small business products are basically enterprise router software running on consumer router hardware (for consumer router prices).

While it does have easy web-based config presets akin to consumer routers, they’re pretty limited, so I don’t recommend it unless you’re comfortable spending a weekend reading their wiki and configuring everything manually through the advanced interface. But once I got it set up I’ve never had to reboot it or anything, it just works.

That’s what the Part 97 rules say, but in practice it’s not usually a consideration. Most people run the limit of what their rig puts out. It’s very hard to judge what is ‘sufficient power’ and extremely hard to police. My signal might be blowing the doors off one receiving station while another can barely copy me. Then there’s the receiver’s local noise floor - I might have a solid 59 copy on a station, but they’re in a neighbourhood full of grow lights so I’m right at their noise floor even at full power. So while the rules say ‘as necessary’, it’s virtually impossible to know what that is and most people take ‘able to communicate’ as sufficient even if they could drop power by a factor of 10 and still be understood.

It’s also dependent on country. I’m in Canada, so my rules are quite different than the US rules. A quick glance at Canada’s RBR-4 regulations it just lists power limits per license class, so it looks like we have no equivalent to the US Part 97 ‘as necessary’ language unless that’s articulated elsewhere and I’m missing it.

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I was always amused, back in those days, by how many people left their networks wide open. I recall the joke back then was that “Linksys” was the nation’s biggest ISP.

ETA: At one point, a cafe opened up a few doors down from me, inexplicably without Wi-Fi. I set up a WRT54G at home with a cantenna, and hooked another cantenna to my laptop’s PC Card wireless adapter. I had no problems punching a signal from home to the cafe, through two buildings. The cafe eventually flopped, surprise surprise.

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I had a GS and can’t say it had any issues, but it was a lottery. Some HW revisions were better than others. I seem to recall there were different CPUs and RAM capacities that made a big difference.

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Ubiquiti.

Want seamless roaming for a single network name across multiple APs without needing a mesh (unless you want to)? No problem. Want a separate network for your IoT devices and crap gadgets that can be partitioned from everything else? Done.

Hardware isn’t cheap but it’s reasonable for what you get. It’s also very much geared towards SMB and prosumers, so it requires some knowledge to get going. Once it’s all set up it’s pretty hand’s off though, which is a nice change.

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I was clearing out a bunch of stuff at work and made this:


Although these are all DSL modems, not WRT’s

I’m using an Asus device. Most of their stuff has open source firmware, so you can either load your own, or used a lightly modified version like Asuswrt-Merlin.
(I’m using an RT-AC66U, but tbh it’s slightly underpowered for our connection, might upgrade it).

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