Replace my aging network router
June 25, 2009 1:36 PM   Subscribe

Help me replace my aging home OpenBSD desktop machine running mail, DNS, DHCP, apache and pf with something quieter and more power efficient.

For about 10 years now I've run a pretty similar setup on my home networks.
  1. I'll have some sort of not super-fast consumer broadband with static IPs (DSL, in my case).
  2. I'll plug the broadband into the first network interface of a really old desktop machine with OpenBSD and two network interfaces which I'll call the router. (This is running qmail, djbdns, dhcpd, apache serving only static content, some very minor packet filtering, and network address translation.)
  3. Then, I'll plug a generic switch into the second network interface of the router, and one of those unfortunate consumer wireless access points (WAP) into the switch. (Currently, this is a netgear wireless router that I restart all the time, previously, it was a series of Linksys wireless routers that didn't work at all.)
Right now an old Dell desktop (a 233 Mhz PII with 128M RAM and a 12G HDD) is acting as the router, and it's really loud and probably costing about $5-10/month to run in power. I'd like to replace it with one or more low power embedded type devices, but I have no idea which to consider.

On one hand, I've been looking at the Soekris 5501. It seems to have the same specifications as my current really old router, but I think it's passively cooled and takes virtually no power. However, I've never used one before, and I'm not sure whether I need to worry about constant writes to compact flash, and/or whether there are competitors I should be aware of. I would probably install OpenBSD on compact flash and have a similar setup to my current one.

On the other hand, I've been looking at the various consumer hack-able single purpose devices, like any of the wireless routers that run DD-WRT or Tomato. Likewise, people seem to hack random devices like the NSLU2 to have Linux on them, but I'm not sure whether this is actually usable in practice or more for fun. While these solutions seem like they wouldn't be as general, I wouldn't feel terrible outsourcing my DNS to the cloud (so long as I could do the same sorts of things, and possibly put up a SPF record), but I'd like to keep my e-mail (mostly forwarding and mailing lists) and apache in house, and I still need the network address translation and packet filtering.

So I guess this question boils down to: what sorts of embedded devices do you use at home to solve these problems, and do you use any third party services to complement your solution?
posted by pbh to Computers & Internet (20 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds like you do close to nothing 'real' with the OpenBSD box. DD-WRT or Tomato on my WRT54GS V4 with lighttpd or some other similar static content server would probably do it just fine.

Otherwise, some sort of system based on the Atom CPU would probably suit your needs just as well.
posted by Rendus at 1:40 PM on June 25, 2009

Oh. As an added bonus, you can just run OpenBSD on the Atom rig, while you're running whatever distribution of Linux happens to be available for the device you're running. No idea if you're using OpenBSD for a particular reason or not. There's something to be said for the flexibility of a real x86 system.
posted by Rendus at 1:41 PM on June 25, 2009

Yeah, the Atom CPU/board combo kit is cheap, cool-running, fits in a Cube-style case and you could easily run the OS from flash storage or just boot with flash and run it from RAM.

The hardware constraints of a router-based system -- and the ever-present worry of bricking it if you get a bit too experimental -- may not satisfy you, though OpenWRT or DD-WRT might be an option if you're comfortable with that.
posted by holgate at 1:59 PM on June 25, 2009

Response by poster: I'm really liking the Atom idea. (To answer Rendus' question, I'm not using OpenBSD for any reason other than laziness and greater familiarity with pf for filtering, I could probably learn Linux equivalents.) I probably should have clarified that I'm not really size limited (so embedded isn't strictly necessary), but I'm fairly concerned about noise and power. So the Atom solution solves the power problem, but are there any people who build/sell very quiet Atom systems? (Like 120mm fans or fanless, large CPU heatsinks.)
posted by pbh at 2:15 PM on June 25, 2009

Response by poster: holgate: "Yeah, the Atom CPU/board combo kit is cheap, cool-running, fits in a Cube-style case and you could easily run the OS from flash storage or just boot with flash and run it from RAM. "

I really like the specifics here, which helped clarify Rendus' response a lot. (I'm presuming that the second Ethernet NIC gets provided by the one open PCI slot since USB would probably be a bit slow.) That said, is there any way to make this setup more quiet? Presumably the 40mm fan is the biggest issue, though I'm not sure how to rectify it given the space constraints.
posted by pbh at 2:21 PM on June 25, 2009

Best answer: Heh, your question almost exactly describes me. (Except I run postfix and innd on my openbsd firewallbox.)

A number of people I know use and like the Soekris boards for this application, though I don't know the exact details of their setups. I'm currently looking at using an old Mac Mini for the purpose, but I'd have to use a usb ethernet adapter for one of the ports (yuck). I've messed with putting other OSs on WRT54 and NSLU2 systems, but I wouldn't use them for mail services.

I'm pretty sure that, given the shape of the computer market, you're going to have a hard time beating the combination of a year-old power-efficient PC clone and a magnetic disk with 'atactl acousticset' cranked all the way down.

You could avoid writing to compact flash by using something like a union mount with a memory filesystem, though of course you'd need to figure out what to do about log files, mail spool, the dhcp lease database, and so on. You can avoid a lot of writes just by mounting with noatime though.
posted by hattifattener at 2:23 PM on June 25, 2009

(FWIW, I haven't bought from them (yet), but Logic Supply seems to have a decent selection. There's a small overlap between their fanless and firewall pages…)
posted by hattifattener at 2:28 PM on June 25, 2009

Best answer: Similar to the Soekris products and a little less expensive, I like the ALIX line of computers from PC Engines.
posted by jackmakrl at 2:32 PM on June 25, 2009

modern flash isn't that bad about read/writes - most newer devices do wear levelling automatically, and the limits on writes are a lot higher than they used to be - but the Soekris boards do also have the option to hook in a normal PATA or SATA laptop drive. in this case, you could use an SSD, which are good enough for general computer usage (and would probably live for a long time in a system that doesn't see much write activity), rather than a CF card. or, just use a normal SATA/PATA laptop hard drive and let power management shut it off when it's not being used.
posted by mrg at 2:32 PM on June 25, 2009

If you want small and low power, there's the SheevaPlug, though I see it lacks the multiple ethernet ports that you need.
posted by scruss at 2:34 PM on June 25, 2009

I used to do this sort of thing with DD-WRT (and later Tomato). I preferred to keep the content separate from the network stuff, so that was done by a NSLU2 (with Unslung). They (even together) have ridiculously low power requirements.

I still have the static IP, but have since outsourced all that stuff. When the WRT54G died I just picked up some random replacement (from Linksys also I believe) but didn't flash it to anything custom. It was tremendously fast not having to put another distro on it. Similarly my email is now handled by Google, and web on a VPS elsewhere. It's worked out much better for me, more time to do other stuff.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 3:25 PM on June 25, 2009

I have a DNS-323, based on recommendations from this AskMe. Its comparable in power to your current system, but you might want to hunt around for a unit with beefier RAM.

I'd be surprised if your box is truly costing you 5-10 dollars, but the power draw should be lower on an embedded box; this can be handy should you want a UPS.

The routers aren't going to get you as far. They're single purpose devices and the competition is such that they don't dick around. They can do routing but not much RAM for anything else. Web server and email? Forget it. I used tomato, and the firmwares are primarily for fancy network management than UNIX boxes. If I recall, it uses lighthttp and offers several monitoring and QoS features (and javascript), but nothing like what you want.

You might be able to split out the routing functions to a linksys DD-WRT and use a NAS for the rest of your desires. As long as you keep the router cool, it shouldn't be a problem...
posted by pwnguin at 3:36 PM on June 25, 2009

Best answer: supposedly, the Lenovo H200 is a fanless Atom-based desktop. it's in a mini-tower case but it's not clear whether it has an extra pci slot in there...
posted by geos at 3:58 PM on June 25, 2009

If you are used to a "real" system running OpenBSD, I don't think you'll be happy with OpenWRT.

I have both an OpenWRT router and a Linux server (a giant old Dell beast with Raid-5 SCSI disks, the works; it's probably environmentally equivalent to shooting a manatee or something every time it starts up). The reason I keep the server around is because I don't think that the router is really a server replacement. It's a fine router, and far better than the factory firmware, but it's not ever going to be a satisfactory replacement for all the things I have going on the big server.

However, there are plenty of low-power servers that would replace your "aging desktop" (and would replace my server, and probably will soon). I found this AskMeFi thread informative. I thought the suggestion of a Mac Mini pretty interesting; it's built with all laptop components, but it's still a desktop machine, so you don't have to worry with some of the problems inherent in using a laptop as a server (like turning the screen off, or cooling with the top down). You can run OpenBSD, NetBSD, or any one of many Linux flavors on the Mini, too.

Alternately, if you want to go the DIY route, there are a lot of people using low-power VIA PCs as servers, in SFF cases. I think the Slimserver, which is now called the SqueezeCenter (really, Logitech, really?), is based on a Via proc and mobo. It's well-regarded and might be something to consider.

There also seem to be a lot of people using low-power SFF machines based on the Intel Atom, which I don't really know very much about. However I have seen some tempting barebones machines at NewEgg that are Atom based, for only a couple hundred bucks (less HD).

If you didn't want to go SFF (because you want multiple NICs — although if you have Gigabit you could just bond several virtual interfaces to one physical NIC without hurting performance), you could just get a low-power motherboard and put it in your existing case, with a high-efficiency power supply. The key to high efficiency seems to be minimal graphics (irrelevant for a server), low power CPU, and properly sized PSU operating at 85%+. Your choice of disks also seems to figure into it, but much less so.

Anyway, if you're used to having root on a real machine, with real disks and running whatever applications you feel like running, I don't think that a uber-minimalist machine like you'd get from a Linux firmware on a router is going to make you happy. (Not to say that they don't make fine routers ... DD-WRT makes a WRT54GL into a very nice router and AP, but it doesn't make it into a server.) Get a small, efficient sever that meets your needs, and keep the components separate.
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:59 PM on June 25, 2009

this link at TigerDirect has a bit more information on the H200. it has an extra pci slot and the motherboard is fan probably isn't 120mm though...
posted by geos at 4:06 PM on June 25, 2009

Response by poster: geos: "supposedly, the Lenovo H200 is a fanless Atom-based desktop. it's in a mini-tower case but it's not clear whether it has an extra pci slot in there..."

This seems really promising, especially because I could be pretty lazy and it's still pretty cheap. I'm sort of sad I can't find any real information on it, and "fanless" does seem a little deceptive if there's a case fan, but I'm presuming that Linux support is assumed because all the Atom boards seem to be almost exactly the same.

I'm sort of surprised that nobody like Silent PC Review has reviewed any Atom desktops, but maybe they cater more to hobbyists?
posted by pbh at 4:34 PM on June 25, 2009

I was really just picking out what NewEgg had as the combos, which aren't necessarily the best cases -- there are certainly fanless or 120mm fan-based MiniITX cases to be had. The cheap Shuttle barebones systems also come to mind, and they usually have a spare slot for an additional network card. That might be more hardware than you need -- those things can feasibly run multiple guest OSes on VMWare ESXi -- but one of those OSes can be your router/server.
posted by holgate at 4:47 PM on June 25, 2009

I've got an Asus WL500G router—these come with a 266Mhz processor and a couple of USB slots enabling you to plug in an external storage device. Set up like this you can get it to run a full Debian System, and it would take care of your wireless network as well. It's noiseless, small and comes with four ethernet ports.
posted by tallus at 5:58 PM on June 25, 2009

Does a non-x86 system interest you? Might consider an ARM system such as these:

gumstix Overo Fire

posted by at at 7:18 AM on June 26, 2009

Best answer: on further consideration, this looks almost perfect: OpenRD-Client. Fanless, tons of ports, $250.
posted by scruss at 6:50 AM on July 3, 2009

« Older What takes good photos that takes good photos?   |   Cheap access to University resources in the NYC... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.