Today’s high-speed internet has become a utility that needs to be distributed throughout your home to countless devices. Not so long ago, this was relatively easy to accomplish. More or less, you only needed to connect the combo modem / router / firewall from your Internet provider to your computer(s) and the rest of the setup was automatic.
For many, this default installation still serves well. If you have a handful of mostly wireless systems that need basic Internet service, there’s not much reason to invest your time and money in to a customized solution. Those of us that have multiple gaming consoles, tablets, laptops, phones, robot vacuum cleaners, smart refrigerators, smart TVs, and smart cars could probably use a network with more performance, tuning, and features than the default method allows for.
So you’ve decided it’s time to upgrade to a more advanced network. Where do you start? Believe it or not, your ISP did not send you cutting edge equipment. Like most for-profit corporations, the bottom line matters. They gave you the most cost-effective solution. High end providers like Google Fiber and Verizon FIOS tend to use better equipment; if you have this type of service consider leaving it alone. The rest of us poor souls are going to dive in to our network hardware to see what can be improved. A future post in this series will focus on Wi-Fi; we are looking at the cabled equipment in this one. Nothing makes wireless slower than having a lethargic cabled network feeding it.
Computers talk to each other by exchanging digital letters we call packets. Each packet has address info, a body, and timing information. There are essentially two types of packets flying around on your network. One type we call Layer 2 are like letters that are destined for a neighbor; you don’t need the post office because their house is just across the street. The other kind are called Layer 3 packets, they are intended for systems on other networks (like the Internet). These Layer 3 packets need help to get where they are going, they ask your router for directions. The speed at which your router is able to direct the packets has an impact on network performance. The more devices you have connected to your network, the faster you router needs to be.
One way to tell if your router is suffering from poor performance is to run a speed test form a system connected to it via cable. A slower than expected test result can be a symptom of congestion. Congestion, in this case, means that your router isn’t keeping up. There are of course other causes of poor performance. If you suspect something else is causing the slow down; try disconnecting everything connected to your network and then reconnect each item one at a time running a speed test after each. If a drastic slow down occurs after a particular device is tested, it may be the bottleneck.
You’ve decided to upgrade your router but how do you figure out what to get? Like all technical hardware, routers have specifications to help you understand their performance. Unfortunately, marketing guru’s know we’re looking for specs and jumble the pot with all kinds of jargon and made up specs that simply don’t matter. What does matter? It comes down to CPU speed, RAM, Storage, and the type of software they are utilizing. Most of the other specifications are either meaningless or equal across all routers.
The ASUS RT-AC66U’s is a relatively high performance residential unit that you can get at most brick and mortar electronics stores. It has a Broadcom BCM4706 CPU that runs at 600MHz, 128 megabytes of storage, 256 megabytes of RAM, and runs a Linux-based operating system. The fastest home router ASUS sells (RT-AC5300) uses a BMC4709 running at 1.4 GHz, has 128MB of storage, and 512MB of RAM. Nearly twice as powerful but also double the cost.
Routers don’t calculate your finances or play games and can get away with a slower CPU, but 600MHz is paltry ; the first Iphone was faster. 1.4 GHz is better but still slow compared to a decent smart phone. Don’t get me wrong, either of theses units are an improvement over the router your ISP gave you but I prefer another option.
I run router software on an old PC. Why? Currently I’ve got an Intel Dual Core 2.4 Ghz CPU, 4 gigabytes of RAM, and 256 gigabytes of storage. I bought the refurbished PC from my local electronics store for $99.00 which is less than a third of the cost you’ll pay for the RT-AC5300. The software I use is pfsence. It is a commercial class Router and Firewall package that is open source (aka free). Pfsence is just one of many choices; this wikipedia page has a list of the most popular options with links to the downloads and instructions.
What’s the catch? Why doesn’t everyone run a router this way if it is both less expensive and faster? The perception is that the combo units (WiFi and router in one) are easier to set up and use. This is true but high performance is rarely easy. If you’re willing to spend some time and effort you can set up a stand-alone router capable of crushing anything you could purchase at an electronics store. Every device connected to my home network reaches it’s max speed; there’s no congestion. My whole family is often on different devices watching video, playing on-line games, and surfing Facebook simultaneously. None of them lag.
If you’re not interested in setting up a PC router from scratch or purchasing new hardware you can still give your network a speed boost by replacing the software on your current device. The software your router shipped with can be replaced with something custom that takes full advantage of the hardware you have available. Two of the most popular firemware replacements are DD-WRT and Tomato. This wikipedia page lists most of the options and has links to their downloads and instructions.
I’m working on a guide for custom configuring pfsence but their web site has execellent documentation. DD-WRT and Tomato are very popular and have lots of bloggers that have covered their setup procedures. In the next article in this series we’ll take a look at how to speed up your WiFi.