Free OpenWRT Security: Taking Down One of the Valid Concerns in Router/IoT Firmware Replacement

OpenWRT is an open-source project created for embedded Linux-based operating systems. It provides a writable filesystem complete with package management to enable application selection and configuration that is not pre-set by a device vendor. In other words, it allows the customization of devices and provides developers with a framework with which they can build apps without the need to develop complete firmware around it.

OpenWRT is also known as a good alternative firmware for home routers, allowing virtually anyone to replace the oversimplified web-based interfaces of their devices with a feature-rich alternative. These added features include Wi-Fi access point and client functionality, DNS server, PPP protocol, and greater configurability.

However, there are those who hesitate to switch to OpenWRT because of various concerns, security in particular. IT experts will most likely advise against changing device firmware since the process can be quite risky. One misstep can irreversibly damage a device, void device warranties, and unwittingly create security vulnerabilities that significantly impact attack surfaces.

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Addressing the security risk

Arguably, the risk of unsecured alternatives to manufacturer-installed firmware has ceased to be a significant problem, as far as OpenWRT is concerned. This is because of the availability of free OpenWRT security. At least one major cybersecurity provider announced this year that it is offering its security solution free to OpenWRT users, with plans of expanding the free license to other Linux and RTOS distributions including Zephyr, VxWorks, FreeRTOS, and Micrium.

OpenWRT is a popular open-source distribution of the Linux OS installed in millions of routers, with a good number of them used in critical infrastructure hubs. It is also shaping up to be an attractive option for IoT devices because of its versatility and powerful set of features. However, just like most other systems, it has security vulnerabilities that present serious adoption obstacles.

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There is a need for an intuitive or easy-to-use security solution to address the security weaknesses of OpenWRT. This announcement of an unprecedented free security solution for OpenWRT is most certainly a welcome development. A first of its kind in the field of IoT security, it changes the way threats are addressed in devices running OpenWRT.

Conventionally, the security of IoT and embedded devices has largely relied on patching. If there are new threats discovered, security patches are developed and transmitted to the affected devices to update their ability to resist emerging threats. This system has worked to some extent, but it is clearly a reactive approach that is notably slow, costly, and tedious to implement.

A preferred free OpenWRT security is one that proactively deals with threats and is capable of providing protection against zero-day vulnerabilities. It also helps enhance security posture by serving as a tool for increasing security visibility for IoT and other similar devices. It facilitates effective observability or the accounting of all connected devices in an organization to keep track of growing cyber-attack surfaces and put in place the necessary security controls to prevent attacks.

Establishing trust among users

Some will probably criticize the characterization of free OpenWRT security here as an exaggeration, a hyped-up minor advantage for those who plan to replace their router or IoT device firmware. It would also be understandable if there are skeptics who are not convinced by the significant benefits of having a free security solution for OpenWRT devices.

To explain the impact of having a pioneering free OpenWRT security solution, it is important to emphasize two realities about IoT security. First, there aren’t that many IoT-targeted security solutions being massively deployed at present. Secondly, IoT security products are relatively new and have yet to attain a level of maturity that would satisfy the requirements or criteria set by IT departments or cybersecurity teams.

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The existence of a free OpenWRT security platform provides organizations an opportunity to thoroughly examine an actual security solution without restrictions. This allows them to test and verify the effectiveness of the product while providing valuable feedback to the provider. In a way, it enables collaborative growth and the gradual establishment of trust, which is crucial for the nurturing of a genuinely effective platform for securing IoT and embedded devices.

It is unlikely for organizations to readily accept a solution that claims to provide reliable security without actually tinkering with it or having actual user experiences. Test-driving security solutions are not as straightforward as some may expect. It is a complex and lengthy process, especially when it comes to new solutions intended for new software and hardware ecosystems.

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The benefits of OpenWRT

What advantages does OpenWRT provide that make it worth taking the risk of replacing the original firmware of a router, IoT, or embedded devices? For one, it has a writeable filesystem, which is the complete opposite of the typically read-only nature of stock firmware. This means that it is possible to install packages to enhance device functionality. It comes with a package manager that makes it possible to install additional services such as FTP, DLNA, OpenVPN, telephony control, and file sharing. It also expands configurability to use devices in ways that maximize the available hardware.

Stephan Avenwedde of OpenSource.com shares compelling reasons to consider switching to OpenWRT, saying that it is appropriate even for beginners. Avenwedde points out how OpenWRT can be configured or controlled remotely through the SSH command line or through the LuCi web interface. The latter is a lightweight GUI configuration interface written in Lua designed to enable exact device configuration and display useful details such as system logs, real-time graphs, and network diagnostics.

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Just like most other IT experts, though, Avenwedde agrees that changing or replacing device firmware from stock to OpenWRT is a matter of necessity. Changes are unnecessary if a device adequately provides all the functions a user needs with its stock firmware. However, there are palpable benefits in switching to OpenWRT and the process of replacing stock firmware is not too complex that only experts can do it.

Security should no longer be an obstacle that prevents organizations or home users from replacing their devices’ stock firmware with OpenWRT. This open-source stock firmware alternative can be secured with a free autonomous security and observability platform capable of delivering real-time self-protection and self-monitoring.