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Linux spawns Brazilian Wi-Fi firmware for Realtek devices

Inexpensive APs gain higher TX power, traffic shaping, iptables
Wed Jun 28 2006, 13:08
LINKSYS REVOLUTIONISED the Wi-Fi world with its open, Linux-based hardware, which sparked several alternative firmware versions.

One, from a Brazilian company dubbed Italbrasnet, brings enhanced firmware to low-cost wireless routers using the inexpensive Realtek chipsets.

Realtek 8186 devices get Enhanced firmware from a Brazilian company that mimics Sveasoft's offering for Linksys kit

How Linksys created the 'open firmware' marketplace

A story on Wi-Fi planet describes the procedure on how to turn a $60 wireless router into a "$600 router" by installing a modified firmware as an example of "how the open source movement can produce a win-win scenario for both consumers and commercial vendors". While I agree, I think the main credit should go to the company and its decision to use an open license like the GPL. The open source community only arrives after the fact, and it was just able to download the original open source firmware and, after understanding how the hardware works internally, develop derivative and alternative firmware that enhanced or totally revamped a device's features.

This scribbler totally agrees with the idea that "open hardware" - that is, hardware featuring open firmware, which allows developers and enthusiasts to understand how it works and modify it or create replacements - is a "win-win scenario" for the hardware maker, the third party hackers, and the consumers.

For the hardware company, its product suddenly has a differentiating feature and is thus more attractive for consumers. For third-party firmware hackers, some of which might want to resell their work for profit, it allows them to create a "marketplace" around such device. Finally, it's also a win to consumers, who have the option of turning their purchase into several different routers with different capabilities, depending on the firmware version installed.

Users not pleased by Cisco's move from open Linux to Vxworks

The web page detailing how to run Linux on the Linksys WRT54G has been warning its visitors since last December about Linksys´ stealth move from Linux to Vxworks on its latest WRT54G Wi-Fi routers, the same ones once famous for the Linux based firmware released under the GPL. It seems that in order to lower the price even more, they decided to switch to the Vxworks proprietary unix realtime OS from Wind River Systems of Alameda, California. According to reports, this allowed Linksys to cut the flash memory and RAM amount in half on each unit, for further cost reductions in the bill of materials.

However, the backlash and outcry from the linux community made the company offers the linux firmware version once again at an extra price. This time, the units are dubbed "WRT54GL". The "Linux on the WRT54G" web page reads "If you are interesting in hacking this device, make sure you buy the WRT54GL model. Linksys has moved away from Linux in its standard WRT54G version". The web page hosting alternative eWRT firmware for the Linksys routers goes even further and suggest people do not buy the "v5" router: "not supported are the WRT54G/GS version 5 routers, which contain half the RAM and Flash, and are shipped running vxWorks OS. These devices can be identified with serial numbers starting with CDFB or CGN7", ending with "Please do not buy these models if you are a strong supporter of Open Source". The new Linksys WRT54G running Vxworks is described as "a lousy router" in a recent review.

Realtek hardware with open firmware has a price advantage

The Edimax EW-7209APg is one Realtek RTL8186 based 802.11g Wi-Fi access point that is really affordable

Until now the term "alternative firmware" in the realm of wireless networking usually meant "a Linksys WRT54G". That is, a Linksys wireless router loaded with any of the numerous alternative firmware versions available... from totally free -as in no cost- builds like OpenWRT, HyperWRT or ewrt among others, to commercial vendors like Sveasoft, which give the user a firmware upgrade and support for a yearly $20 USD subscription fee. The company also supports ASUS, Belkin, and Buffalo Technologies' Wi-Fi routers, it should be noted.

But lately, a new generation of low-cost Wi-Fi routers and access points from brands like Edimax, Ovislink or Zinwell have started to flood the market, specially down here in South America. These routers, like the popular Edimax EW-7209APg achieve such low prices due to the use of Realtek's RTL818x "system on a chip", which combines a 180Mhz 32-bit RISC CPU, two Ethernet MACs, and a WLAN controller, all embedded onto a single chip.

Not only are the Realtek 8186 based devices smaller than the Linksys ones but often, also less expensive. For instance an Edimax 7209APg 802.11g access point can be had for around £35.49 in Blighty. This is a great deal considering that you can now install replacement firmware adding high-end features to these devices, as you will see below. On the other hand if you want to run Linux on a Linksys device, a WRT54g"L" will cost you around £54.

Brazilians do a Sveasoft for Realtek devices

Taiwanese vendor Edimax is among the companies that use Realtek's RTL8186 chip, and it offers the Linux source code for such firmware on the company's web site. The linux hackers have been hacking linux support for the Realtek 818x family of chipsets for quite some time.

Lately, I became aware of a Brazilian company, which is apparently doing quite well on the region, selling its own replacement firmware -like Sveasoft, with technical support- for almost all Realtek 8186 based Wi-Fi routers and access points. The company is dubbed "Italbrasnet", and based in the city of Florianopolis, with its web site found over here. The company's enhanced firmware supports almost every RTL8186 chipset based equipment which must feature "at least 16 Mbytes of RAM and 2 Mbytes Flash". Specifically mentioned are the Ovislink WL5460, Kodama KOD-770, Zinwell G-120 and G-120 plus, Realsat 5209Apg, Edimax 7209Apg, and GI-Link b/g.

Its software, dubbed "AP Router NG" is available in two versions: version five includes less features for a lower price, and version six includes everything you can dream of: Telnet client, ssh2 server, clone WAN MAC option, MESH ( OLSR) support, TX power control increasing transmission power up to 400mw, Iptraf, Tcpdump, Cron daemon, bandwidth control via traffic shaping-, PPPoE Relay, DHCP Relay, 802.1x, WPA and Radius, PPTP Protocol, signal meter, Spanning Tree protocol, the ability to function in AP, Client, WDS+AP, WDS and Ad Hoc modes, iptables based firewall, and a web based administration interface.

Version 6.0 of "AP Router NG" sells for 60 R$ -reais- which translates to $26 or £14.75 at time of this writing. The previous version sells for R$30,00 ($13.44, £7.38). These prices are for quantities one to five. For quantity purchases, prices go as low as one third, for instance 50 licenses of the AP Router NG 6.0 firmware bought at once have a per license price of less than £5 per copy. It should be noted that this firmware requires a licence file to use, which is tied to the hardware device's mac address. Without this licence file in place, the company says you will not be able to save your configuration and that the wireless port will be disabled.

The legendary football rivalry between our countries and the current World Cup doesn't seem to be affecting the sales or popularity of this product. It seems to me after watching local auctions of Edimax Wi-Fi kit in Argentina that this firmware from Brazil is very popular down here, as it's currently being offered pre-loaded with Edimax units by vendors and plenty of users can be seen asking for this option in the online auctions.

I got in touch in the nice folks at Italbrasnet and they sent me a copy of this firmware. I just wish they had the time to translate the release notes to English -or Spanish for that matter-, as I don't read much Portuguese. Finally, while this might be likely a derivative of the original open source firmware, I haven't seen any mention on its web page of the company offering the modified source code as well -as they should under the GPL-, although I haven't looked that hard, so I'm sure there must be a reference somewhere.

In any case, expect my review of this interesting piece of code -running on the Edimax EW-7209APg- soon. Who said Brazil is only about football and the Rio carnival?. µ

Related reading:
Brazil's AP Router (English web page)
RTL8186 Info Wiki
Linux on the Realtek RTL818x devices
Realtek RTL8186 datasheet (PDF)
Edimax open source code (GPL), and here

See also:
INQ - Sveasoft and OpenWrt: hacking the Linksys WRT54G
INQ - Earthlink releases hacked IPv6 firmware for Linksys routers
The Open Source WRT54G story
Consolidated Hacking Guide for the Linksys WRT54G
Linksys courts Linux hackers with WRT54G"L"
Yes, the Linksys WRT54G V5 really is a lousy router
Alvarion grabs WiMAX market in South America
Intel to create software development centre in Argentina


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