A Linux router from an old PC and extra parts. Then and now

Short description

The best router for a home office depends on factors such as support for Wi-Fi 6, high-quality antennas and reliability. However, for users who prioritize routing as a software function, any router that works on free firmware, or even a computer set up as a server/router with specialized Linux distribution, is ideal. Specialized single-board devices or assembly of a router from an old computer using extra components are also options. These methods were popular in previous years, where an ordinary Linux computer is used as a router and is supplemented correctly.

A Linux router from an old PC and extra parts. Then and now

Which router is best for a home office? The answer depends on many factors. For some, the most important thing is support for Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax), for others, a high-quality case and antennas, power consumption, someone chooses based on reliability and reviews of colleagues. But there is a special category of users who are annoyed by all this. Because they look at the router from a different angle. For them, routing is

software

function. And the “iron” itself can be assembled from anything. The main thing is that it works on free firmware, and even better – on full-fledged Linux for the convenience of managing the device.

And if you think about it, the best router is an ordinary computer. Only lightly sanded to condition.

In this sense, the story develops in a spiral, reminiscent of fancy Wi-Fi adapters of the early 2000s – practically the only way to connect mobile Internet to any laptop or PDA. And now we do about the same thing with a personal computer to turn it into a server/router.

The first version of the Wi-Fi protocol (802.11) was introduced in 1997. And everyone immediately understood that this was a revolution. Even the first versions provided speeds an order of magnitude higher than GPRS (mobile Internet at the time), which, moreover, was billed by kilobytes and required absolutely crazy costs. For example, just looking at mail in text form cost about a dollar. And only millionaires could open some sites with graphics on their PDAs.

Therefore, Wi-Fi immediately went to the people. At the end of the 90s, special Wi-Fi adapters appeared on the market, which could be inserted into a laptop and get real large Internet practically for free, through some Wi-Fi access point, which gradually began to appear in cities (at first in restaurants and internet cafe). Hotspot password protection at the time (WEP) was cracked in seconds.

▍ Wi-Fi access point from a laptop

Previously, we upgraded a laptop to get mobile Internet, and now to make a router or Wi-Fi access point. In principle, any old computer can be used in such a role, even an 80486. A laptop looks more conceptual due to its portability. Let’s remember

as it was done twenty years ago

.

The kit is simple:

  • old laptop;
  • wireless map;
  • pigtail type connector (pigtail);
  • antenna.

In the early 2000s, PCMCIA-type cards were used for this purpose

ORiNOCO Gold

with a pigtail under the antenna. Cheap and angry.

ORiNOCO Gold with external antenna connection via a pigtail connector

ORiNOCO Gold cards have been a popular choice for Wi-Fi hacking experiments in public places, such as setting up fake hotspots or scanning/brute-forcing surrounding hotspots.

Corporations used more expensive and prestigious Cisco PCMCIA cards. Back then, there was a zoo of different form factors for Wi-Fi adapters, including Compact Flash (CF), Secure Digital (SD), ExpressCard, and USB. There were cards in ISA and PCI formats to natively connect desktops to Wi-Fi.

A laptop with such an adapter could be configured to work as a normal public access point. For example, in some cafe.

Now it seems that there is not much left of this variety. The zoo has become much rarer. In most smartphones, laptops and tablets, the Wi-Fi chipset is originally built into the motherboard, so there is no need for additional accessories. Wireless USB Wi-Fi adapters for connecting desktop PCs remained a wide niche.

▍ Single-payer routers

Now, among advanced users, it is customary to buy a router with a free firmware type

OpenWRT

,

DD-WRT

,

Tomato

(with interface

AdvancedTomato

) or to configure a Raspberry Pi-type single-board device yourself. Even specialized single-payer devices are sold, which are designed to be used as routers. They seem to be the main target. Here are some from the list:

  • Orange Pi (the latest version of the Orange Pi 5 with an 8-core Rockchip RK3588S SoC and 32 GB of RAM is much more productive than the Raspberry Pi 4 – you can even build a budget Linux desktop on it);

    Orange Pi 5

  • Banana Pi;
  • Odroid;
  • BeagleBone;
  • Cubieboard.

The choice of a specific model, of course, depends on the specific use case, i.e. network and power requirements. Most modern single-card devices support Wi-Fi and Ethernet, among other network interfaces, out of the box.

AdvancedTomato interface

But when you buy a new batch of single-payer for home products, the thought creeps involuntarily: why not use the old iron that gathers dust in the basement? Sometimes an old 80486 can handle the work of the same router.

▍ Linux router from an old PC

Back in the late 1990s, the idea appeared that an ordinary Linux computer could be used as a router. It is only necessary to supplement it properly. If we recall what parts we used earlier for these purposes, many of them are no longer available for sale. But in principle, they can be found at flea markets, if there is such an interest.

At that time, routers were often installed in the organization of shared access to the Internet, for example, via ADSL. The Internet was an expensive pleasure, so it made sense to connect to all users of the local network (for example, from one or several apartment buildings).

Bridges between houses were laid with cable or Wi-Fi (adapters in a PC + antennas). Aironet devices were popular as adapters (this company was later bought by Cisco):

On both sides, the role of the router was performed by ordinary “Pentiums”. Building your own Linux router made economic sense because commercial models with such functionality cost thousands of dollars. And the average salaries of engineers (and programmers) at that time were around $150, what to say about student scholarships, so we had to save.

In general, a typical kit in 1998 looked something like this, with those prices:

A couple of tips on cables:

  • Do not skimp on the quality of the cable.
  • Do not squeeze, bend or otherwise subject the cable to torture.
  • Use short cables (the shorter the better, because the signal actually fades with every meter).

Nowadays, you can take almost any computer, put a good network card with Wi-Fi support and a specialized Linux distribution – the router is ready. Experts recommend taking a server card with an Intel i350 chipset.

In the last century, the Linux Router distribution was used, and today there are a dozen specialized alternatives to choose from. Some

listed above

in the single-payer section. You can add to them

OPNsense

,

pfSense

and

IPFire

, with the first two being the best choice (along with OpenWRT). Just to note that pfSense is based on the BSD kernel, not Linux, and OPNsense is a fork of pfSense.

OPNsense

Alternatively, you can run the linux-router script, which will configure any Linux system to distribute traffic according to one of the following scenarios:

Internet----(eth0/wlan0)-Linux-(wlanX)AP
|--client
|--client"><pre class="notranslate">Internet----(eth0/wlan0)-Linux-(wlanX)AP
|--client
|--client
 Internet
WiFi AP(no DHCP) |
|----(wlan1)-Linux-(eth0/wlan0)------
| (DHCP)
|--client
|--client
 Internet
WiFi AP(no DHCP) |
|----(wlan1)-Linux-(eth0/wlan0)------
| (DHCP)
|--client
|--client
 Internet
Switch |
|---(eth1)-Linux-(eth0/wlan0)--------
|--client
|--client
 Internet
Switch |
|---(eth1)-Linux-(eth0/wlan0)--------
|--client
|--client

Having your own router computer fully programmed and under your control is a great idea. There are specialized mini PCs on the market, for example

on the Pentium N6005 chipset

.

Intel Pentium N6005

But the same and even better can be assembled with your own hands from an old PC and extra components. The advantage of a mini PC is low power consumption (about 10 W) in standby mode, in which the device spends 99% of the time. The indicator is almost like that of a regular router (3-5 W).

In the early 2000s, routers with large antennas “mined” the Internet in remote areas, transferred it to a traffic distribution point for distribution to Internet-hungry local users. In principle, today most of the typical situations in the home and office are approximately the same. The router must “get” the Internet – and distribute it to local users, although the role of users is not so much people, but all kinds of devices: TVs, speakers, refrigerators. What can I say here, even the office kettle of the latest model knocks on the Internet, and you can control it through the program to boil water before coming to the office.

In general, old computers can be reused, in particular as a router. Probably, residents of Germany or Spain can find a lot of interesting gadgets from the 2000s at flea markets, and the same PCMCIA Wi-Fi cards and Aironet cards. If you’re lucky, you might be able to find a PCI or even ISA desktop Wi-Fi adapter. Probably, thousands of such adapters lie idle somewhere in the attics and closets of computer enthusiasts.

Why not take them for a good cause? Let them work for a few more years until they burn out. Although old equipment often turns out to be more reliable than the latest models, so the wait can be long… 😏

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