Embedded Systems: Exploring Open Source Firmware

21 Nov 2023

Open Source Firmware is great for re purposing embedded systems.
If you’ve been on the internet for any period of time, like many folk you probably have received an abundance of routers, hardware and other useful bits and pieces to get your home online and connected.

Usually, when these devices reach their end of life or are superseded by something newer and more efficient, they turn into E-waste, being disposed of in land fill or discarded with the rubbish.

But what if there was a better way? Today, we’ll be looking at another choice, by exploring options for firmware upgrades to allow us to re secure and re purpose our device without turning it into more waste. We’ll also dip in to some uses for these repurposed pieces. Let’s get started.

The Background

With many routers and commercial hardware, you’ll find that a most units around the house and office are Unix based. This means they’ll typically run a thinned down version of Linux that provides a command line and other features that are necessary to power our device and perform it’s role.

Given that these are embedded systems, they’ll often have limited flash memory and RAM however despite this they’ll often be able to be repurposed into useful devices. They are also great for learning purposes, being able to be picked up for free in a lot of instances and providing a cheap and easy way to get involved

Here’s a few ideas for re purposing an old router. However some systems may not have the specifications required for each of these projects so check your own device and act accordingly.

  1. Network Attached Storage
  2. Media Server
  3. Network Switch
  4. Guest Network
  5. Network Repeater.

It’s worth mentioning here that in the process of doing any of these projects, you’ll save e waste from landfill, learn how to select and install new firmware and pick up a whole bunch of experience with embedded systems. Depending on where your journey is at, the experience might be the best part of that.

Finding Firmware:

When it comes to finding options for firmware, we’re pretty spoiled for choice in today’s world. So we’ll leave you with a few options for re purposing your system of choice.
Probably the first, and most obvious choice would be the OpenWRT project. Compiled by volunteers, and costing absolutely nothing to download, Open WRT is a great choice for sorting some of these projects.

Providing probably the broadest assortment of firmware across devices, along with the smoothest interface for re flashing, OpenWRT provided reliable, open source firmware that will often be better than some of the factory options.

Device choice is relevant however. Given it’s large scale community focus, it means that often, less common devices will will be neglected. However there’s a broad database that provides an inventory of suitable devices, so DYOR and you’ll probably be able to find something that works.

Check out the OpenWRT project at this link

Like the OpenWRT project, DD-WRT provides expanded firmware options backed by a volunteer, open sourced community.

While it’s options aren’t as broad as the OpenWRT equivalent there are still plenty of firmware options for common devices.

You’ll also find an active user community and troubleshooting forum, meaning if you have any issues during your project, additional support is simply a few questions away.
Check out the DD-WRT project via this link

One last option worth mentioning, would be pfSense. Known the world over for providing quality firewalls, the pfSense project is based on the FreeBSD distribution.

Providing a customized kernel and a broad range of third party apps, the firmware comes with a GUI for easy configuration and can be expanded to include intrusion protection and content filtering as well as rules based configuration.

Find the pfSense project via this link

In Closing:

For many people, the Raspberry Pi or Beaglebone for their research or learning project is a natural choice. And while this is, and will continue to be a fine choice often we have to look at other solutions.

Firstly, any venture that’s able to be applied using open source software is a win in our book. Free, Open Source Software (FOSS) should be higher on other peoples radars, with many alternatives to payware services available in open source format.

Lastly, for some people, the cost of a board may be prohibitive or in some instances like we saw during Covid-19, there may be a shortfall of boards and no place to purchase them. And some people just might prefer to be a tinkerer, hacking and re purposing an old embedded system to perform a new role.

While the option of a single board computer will always be there, learning to re purpose surplus devices can be a great way of keeping that money in your pocket. You’ll also pick up some great experience along the way. Which in our opinion is what the maker mindset is all about.

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Exploring open source firmware for embedded systems provides a valuable opportunity to enhance customization, security, and community collaboration in developing reliable and efficient solutions.
I remember the time when I connected my first Raspberry and was astonished about the capabilities of that little "gadget". :-)
How to make money please
Open source firmware for embedded systems offers developers the flexibility to customize and optimize the software running on microcontrollers and other embedded devices. By leveraging open source firmware, developers can avoid vendor lock-in, collaborate with the community, and benefit from transparent code that can be adapted to specific application requirements.
The article provides a great overview of the benefits of using open source firmware to repurpose embedded systems. It's fantastic to see a focus on sustainability and reducing electronic waste, as well as promoting learning and experimentation with embedded systems.
One thing that would be interesting to see is a deeper dive into the process of repurposing an embedded system using open source firmware. For example, what are the steps involved in flashing a router with OpenWRT or DD-WRT? What kind of hardware and software knowledge is required? Providing this kind of information would help readers who are interested in repurposing their own embedded systems but may not know where to start.
Is it bad that I've pretty much thrown all my old routers out due to me thinking they were 'hunks of junk'? Reading this makes me think I've maybe miscalculated.
nice article! keep up the good work 👍
Open source programs are some of my favorite to use. Of course there are going to be programs that have subscriptions that are better but the idea of using open source is awesome and some of those programs are just as good if not better then paid programs. Thanks for sharing!
Open source systems to me help usher strong collaboration
great article
Interesting article thanks
A great write up and we'll put together
Excellently explained.
Thanks for the article, very interesting!