Wanted: cheap but cheerful small Linux device

I changed ISP recently for my broadband at home and switched from ADSL2+ to FTTC, so that’s required a new broadband router.

Initially I got things working with the Technicolor TG582N as supplied by the ISP, but it appears quite horrible in most of its functionality. I find most cheap domestic broadband routers are, to be honest. Little plastic blobs with the absolute minimum spec of hardware, configured via web interfaces that can politely be described as clunky, and packing many unwanted features.

With FTTC here in the UK you have a separate NTE box supplied by British Telecom and then you supply (or your ISP supplies) a router that connects to that by Ethernet and talks PPP-over-Ethernet to your ISP. So, anything that can do PPPoE works as the router, no special hardware required. Any Linux box will do.

I had this Soekris net4801 box that I purchased in 2005, been running it constantly ever since, and it still works fine. It’s a nice little thing; 266MHz fanless CPU, 128MiB RAM, three 10/100 Ethernet ports and CompactFlash for storage. Draws under 10W when idle and not a lot more at full tilt.

Really quite expensive though. After delivery charges, purchase of compatible PSU and CF card and currency conversions are done you’re probably talking £200 now and I seem to recall it was similar back in 2005 too.

I upgraded that from Debian etch to lenny to squeeze to wheezy — which went remarkably without incident by the way, a testament to Debian’s excellent upgrade procedure — and set it to work as the router. Since it’s just a relatively conventional Debian install it’s really easy to configure PPPoE, IPv4, NAT, IPv6, firewalling and anything else.

There’s a couple of things I’m not too happy about though.

What if it dies? ^

If you have a Soekris last several years then it’s going to be pretty reliable. There’s no moving parts, the most likely faults are going to be the CF card or the power supply. Even so, this one’s been in service about 8 years and that’s a really good innings. It could go any time and then what will I replace it with?

Of course I still have the Technicolor and that will work well enough to get connectivity until I put something better in its place again, but what would be that better thing?

Back in 2005 I had a bit more disposable income than I do now and £200 was okay to spend on something I was interested in playing with. I’m done playing with it now though and spending £200 to end up with a Linux box that runs at 266MHz and has 128M RAM is going to hurt. Also the net4801 is end of life so will get harder and harder to purchase new, and any replacement will cost a little more.

Is the Soekris really beefy enough? ^

Right now I only have 40M down, 10M up FTTC and the Soekris doesn’t appear to be limiting that any more than the Technicolor limited it.

Conceivably though I may one day upgrade it to 80/20 or more and that is starting to push the limits of a 100M Ethernet port, let alone a 266MHz CPU.

As you would expect from a 266MHz CPU with 128M RAM it’s dog slow at doing anything much in user land. This is a pretty minor gripe as the use case here is that of an appliance, like the broadband router it replaced. You shouldn’t really need to touch it much. Something slightly less puny would be a nice bonus though.

Options ^

HP Microserver ^

HP have been doing cash back deals on their Microserver range for a few years now. I already have one here at home being a file server and a few other bits and pieces. If they were still doing the cash back then I’d strongly consider buying another one to use for this.

It would draw a fair bit more power than the Soekris does, but they are still quite efficient machines and I would probably find it more things to do since it would be a lot more capable.

Without the cash back though I don’t think it can be justified. Retail price of a Microserver at the moment is around £265+VAT.

Update: It appears the cash back offer has returned, at least for September 2013!


Some Linksys WRT device with OpenWrt ^

It’s a contender, but it will leave me with some cheap nasty hardware running a non-standard Linux distribution on an ARM CPU. I’m sure OpenWrt is great but I don’t know it, I’d have to learn it just for this, and it’s not likely to be useful knowledge for anything else.

If possible I want to remain running Debian.

More enterprisey router hardware from Cisco or Mikrotik ^

This would certainly work; a Cisco off of ebay may be cheap enough, otherwise a new Mikrotik Routerboard would be within budget. Say an RB450G.

The main issue again would be it’s not Linux. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just that it wouldn’t feel familiar to me. I know how to configure everything in Linux.

Something from Fabiatech ^

I stumbled across a blog post by Richard Kettlewell entitled Linux In A Small box. In it he considers much the same issue as I have been, and ends up going for a Fabiatech FX5624

Looks good. £289+VAT though.

omg!! Raspberry Pi everywareeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!! ^

Yeah, Raspberry Pis are nice pieces of kit for what they are designed for. Which is not passing large amounts of network traffic. They only have one 100M Ethernet, and it’s driven by USB 2.0 so it’s going to suck. It will suck even more when you attach a USB hub and more USB Ethernets.

Something from Jetway ^

Alex suggested looking at these devices. They look quite fun.

A bare bones system that on paper should do the job (1.6GHz Intel Cedar Trail CPU, two Realtek gigabit Ethernet, one SO-DIMM slot for up to 4GB RAM) seems to be £149+VAT.

There seems to be a good selection of other main boards and daughter boards if that config wasn’t suitable.

Anyone got any personal experience of this hardware?

This Is Not An Exit ^

I still don’t know what I will do. I might put off the decision until the Soekris releases its magic blue smoke. I would be interested to hear any suggestions that I haven’t thought of.

Here are the requirements:

  • Capable of running a mainstream Linux distribution in a supportable fashion without much hacking around.
  • Has at least two gigabit Ethernet ports.
  • Is beefier than a 266MHz Geode CPU with 128M RAM
  • Easy to run its storage from an inexpensive yet reasonably reliable medium like CompactFlash or SD/microSD. Write endurance doesn’t really matter. I will mount it read-only if necessary.

Some nice-to-haves:

  • At least one serial port so I can manage it from another computer when its network is down, without having to attach a VGA monitor and keyboard. The Soekris manages this perfectly, because it’s what it’s designed for. It doesn’t even have a VGA port.
  • Total configuration of the BIOS from the serial port, so a VGA monitor and keyboard are never necessary. Again, that’s how Soekris products work.
  • Ethernet chipsets that are actually any good, i.e. not Realtek or Broadcom.
  • Capable of being PXE booted so that I don’t have to put the storage into another machine to write the operating system onto it.

7 thoughts on “Wanted: cheap but cheerful small Linux device

    1. That looks almost ideal actually as long as two Ethernets are enough — at that price I think they would be for me. <lazyweb>Does Debian install easily on one of these?</lazyweb>

  1. Hi,

    I’ve had good experiences with the Mikrotik stuff. I use the stock firmware and that’s great for what it does: in particular I’ve never played with IPv6 on it because it seem(s/ed) badly supported. However, AIUI, it’s a Linux kernel with a custom userland so maybe you can put Debian on that? I haven’t tried tho’…

    The Firebrick seems like a good little embedded box but it’s expensive and proprietary (i.e. not Debian either). …so probably a non-starter and I can’t recommend it because I’ve never actually tried it.

    ISTR there were a few other Sokeris-like brands but they all seemed to be equally expensive apart from the Mikrotik stuff. However, if you amortise the cost of the Sokeris over the 8 (10?) years you have (will?) get out of it then it’s not so expensive after all: if you can find one with a sufficiently modern spec then it would not be an entirely unwise capital expenditure.

    If you decide to go down the OpenWRT route then take a look at the TP-Link stuff. IMHO, any OpenWRT-on-ARM-with-cheap-hardware is going to be just as memory bandwidth limited as the Sokeris box you currently have. At least the Mikrotik stuff is designed to be a routing platform so (just) might have better performance?? …and it can probably be “hacked” in a similar way.

    If I was in your position I’d probably think about things a lot but ultimately do nothing until the existing solution gave out. Then I’d look around for alternatives and be more sensitive to replacing it with an inferior product than I was when it was all speculation.

    Good luck!

  2. Not sure if you’re still reading these but a few things you might be interested

    1) PC engines Alix board, probably about the same sort of price as the Sokeris but uses newer more modern hardware, they just released one based on an AMD APU.

    I’ve used a couple of the 2D3’s for pfSense boxes and they work nicely but the older 2D3 might struggle with 80/20 FTTC

    2) UBNT edgerouter lite, Uses EdgeOS which is forked from Vyatta and uses Debian as a base, they allow full root access to the box and you can install 3rd party packages if you wish.

    Cpu is a Cavium octeon @500mhz (I think) dual core Mips, 512MB ram and has hardware acceleration for various things. Flash is a 4GB usb drive mounted internally and can be replaced if needed.

  3. Did you ever found something to fit your needs? Personally I am looking for a device that cand handle gigabit pppoe throughput. Dreamplug looks good but I am not sure if it can get near gigabit.

  4. @Vali, I am still using Soekris. When it dies I would probably go with an Alix board. I seriously doubt that a Dreamplug will handle gigabit speeds.

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