If you have an old PC collecting dust, turning it into a gateway and router for your home or small office network is one way to put it to good use. It’s a frugal way to get advanced features over what’s provided in consumer-level routers.
By converting your old gear, you can spice up your home network, run the network services for a small-to-medium sized business, or deploy a public hotspot. You can add features such as virtual LANs, multiple SSIDs, hotspot and captive portal, and VPN server and client capabilities. Some even provide network-wide antivirus, spam, and Web filtering.
We’ll take a look at four different router solutions you can use with your old PC. Most require very minimal resources–any old working PC should do. You can also consider running them inside Windows, using Windows Virtual PC or VMware Player.
DD-WRT is Linux-based and is most popular for a firmware replacement you can flash onto wireless routers. But the project also offers an X86 version that you can install onto PCs. This is great if you don’t have or want to track down a compatible router. It also lets you exceed the usual 8 to 64 MBs of RAM and slow CPU in the consumer-level routers.
It includes virtual LAN (VLAN) support, hotspot features, a VPN server and client, quality of service (QoS) settings, and more. It gives you root access to the OS, a customizable iptables firewall, and customizable startup scripts. Most settings are configurable via the Web-based interface.
DD-WRT also includes many Wi-Fi features if you purchase the Professional Activation, such as wireless client, bridge, and repeater modes, and multiple SSIDs.
DD-WRT X86 looks and acts similarly to the firmware version with a few exceptions. It doesn’t support the Itsy Package Management System or the Journaling Flash File System. Unless you purchase the Professional Activation, it only supports wired connections and lacks USB support. For Wi-Fi access you can plug in another router to act as an access point.
ZeroShell is Linux-based and offered as a Live CD or Compact Flash image. It can run on normal PCs, servers, and embedded devices. It’s actually still in beta, but should be stable enough for a small, non-crucial network.
It includes many enterprise-type features, including virtual LAN (VLAN) support, a RADIUS server for 802.1X, VPN server/client, captive portal, proxy-based virus filtering, and UMTS/HSDPA support using 3G modems. It also offers load balancing and failover of multiple Internet connections. It has a wireless access point mode that works with Atheros-based wireless adapters and supports multiple SSIDs and VLAN. You can configure the settings through the Web-based control panel.
RouterOS is the operating system of RouterBOARD from Mikrotik, which can also be run from Live CDs or installed onto PCs. Though Linux-based, it is not without cost. You can use all the features for 24 hours. Then you can continue with limited features or purchase a license starting at $45.
It includes enterprise-type features similar to ZeroShell, such as VLAN support, VPN server/client, RADIUS authentication, and wireless AP functionality. It also includes more advanced features, including multiple routing protocols. You can configure RouterOS via Telnet, a graphical application called Winbox, or via a Web-based interface.
Mikrotik also offers The Dude, a program to help you map, monitor, and manage your network environment. The company also offers a graphing utility (see demo here) for visuals on your router’s interfaces and the passing traffic.
To get a better feel for RouterOS you can access a demo server via the WinBox utility.
Untangle is a more basic solution compared to ZeroShell and Untangle, and can either replace or complement your existing router. It’s installable onto PCs or can be run as a virtual machine using VMware. It includes some interesting features but is targeted more for simpler network environments, so it lacks some advanced enterprise functionality.
The main functionality and several features are free and open source, called the Lite Package. Untangle also offers additional features and services, starting at $40 a month for up to 10 PCs.
The Lite package offers the basic router functions, such as NAT, firewall, and DHCP. It also includes Web filtering, spam blocking, anti-virus and spyware protection, ad blocking, and a VPN server. The settings can be configured via a Web-based interface.