Tomato: Adding Sauce to Entry-Level Routers - Part 2

Part 1 of this series covered a few of the nifty features open source enthusiasts have been adding to consumer grade Internet routers. Now it's time to see how tinkering with these modified firmwares can allow for advanced network configurations, not to mention save you time and money.

We left off learning about the Tomato router firmware that has managed to find its way into my home office network on a pair of inexpensive routers. The Linksys WRT54G (revision 3.0) handles the bulk of the grunt work on the network, offering up its Ethernet ports to a pair of PCs, an all-in-one printer/scanner/fax, a VoIP adapter with service provided by Vonage, and of course it manages the connection to the outside world through its WAN port connected to a cable modem.

Tomato's excellent Quality of Service controls has helped with a number of call quality issues that many VoIP users have experienced over the years. Limiting bandwidth usage for devices and services and giving priority to others can be a tedious balancing act but the "automatic" settings provided in basic router firmwares are, in a word, poor.

The WRT54G, in this case, also serves up the wireless access for all of the other devices on the network. A steady stream of notebooks and other portable devices make use of it as well as a second router specially dedicated to a few purposes which is also running the Tomato firmware.

Many Hands Make Light Work

Buffalo's WHR-G54S family was another popular model for the open source community due to its low price point but litigation has seen their wireless products somewhat scarce in the United States. A single model connects four wired devices to the rest of the network wirelessly, eliminating the need for extended Ethernet cable runs and some configuration headaches with so many wireless devices.

A home theater PC, a general usage PC, and a pair of gaming consoles take up residence on the $30 device. An impressive bit of work considering purchases of dedicated Ethernet to WiFi adapters or dedicated wireless dongles themselves would have reached the few hundred-dollar mark quite easily.

Tomato Bridge Setup
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It's as simple as plugging in the information for your primary router into a Tomato-powered router to get such a setup going. The wireless Ethernet bridge has been done before on other routers but it's unlikely that you're going to get great results. The upside to using this approach is saving yourself from getting that WPA security key onto each and every device you want to add and it will give those older Ethernet devices some more life in whatever corner you decide to throw them in.

And you're not just limited to the wireless bridge mode either; its Wireless Distribution System (WDS) feature allows you to extend your network's range by "chaining" together a number of routers wirelessly. The feature has been around on basic router firmware as well but it hasn't been a reliable choice up until recently.

Tomato Wireless Distribution System (WDS)
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Setting up WDS also requires a bit of information that you can gather from your Tomato-powered devices. However, it also requires some more detailed planning since a few false entries can result in an unresponsive piece of hardware and a visit with your router's reset function.

Another great feature that ties into the Ethernet bridge functionality is the wireless survey tool that might just come in handy when you're looking for a "quick fix" connection while on the road. Generally these routers sport more powerful radios than those found in portable devices and options to mount higher gain antennas for greater range.

The tool can automatically scan for networks and with a bit of effort on your part, and the Ethernet bridge mode, you might just find yourself some much needed (if highly suspect) access. A last ditch effort if there ever was one, but sometimes being prepared for such an eventuality does save the day.

The Little Engine That Could

These are just a few of the simple wireless features Tomato offers, with a bit of planning and lots of preparation you can construct a truly unique network that covers a large distance for fractions of what professional hardware and consulting services would cost. It requires some legwork but most things worth doing generally are.

Tomato Uptime
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It's rare that a piece of software can improve performance and stability to the degree that firmwares such as Tomato have. While consumer routers are slowly catching up, they're unlikely to match ingenuity demonstrated by the open source enthusiasts behind these firmwares.

That said, it'll be interesting to see what they come up with when the next generation of wireless routers begin to hit the mainstream price points.

Check back for Part 3 where we'll walk through some interesting configurations.

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