pfSense Home Router – Part 2

torchAt this time, I have installed pfSense a few times and have been running pfSense for about three months. The experience has been very trying at times and so hopefully my personal notes will help others in deciding if pfSense is right for you. Note that I am trying to use pfSense as a home router and caching proxy, and not as a typical business class network firewall, which is what its actual intent.

With the hardware setup, I had to now install the pfSense software and configure it. The SuperMicro MBD-X7SPA-HF-O has an internal USB port that you can use if you want to install pfSense or any operating system to, but in my case, I was going to use a 60GB SSD drive instead as my main operating system drive. There are multiple ways to do the installation, 1) Make a bootable USB drive and boot from that, 2) CD-ROM installation, or 3) Use IPMI to control the system remotely and install from an ISO image. Since my box has no actual CD-ROM drive, I ended up using IPMI, which works quite well, once you get some experience with it. Once I booted via the ISO image (through IPMI), the installer formatted the SSD drive and copied the necessary files. The rest of the configuration could be done through IPMI, or you can simply hookup a keyboard and monitor to the box, like I did.

Rather than cover the installation process in more depth, I will refer you instead to Overclockers, whose guide covers the installation in more depth than I could ever hope to. It was actually the Overclockers guide and this SmallNetBuilder article that inspired me to build my own pfSense box in the first place.

Helpful Setup Tips

The first thing of note is that you should specify “em0” as the LAN connection. This is contrary to the Overclockers guide. The reason is that the IPMI only works through the first Network Port and I would like to be able to access IPMI internally on my LAN only. You will specify “em1” as the WAN connection. (In the BIOS you can specify a specific IP address for the IPMI setup and take note of the MAC Address; you can then setup a DHCP reservation for the IPMI address.)

For DHCP reservations, it is helpful to have a list of MAC addresses and the IP numbers that you are going to give those devices. This way you can add them all at once during the setup and be done with it. Most of the devices in my home now have reserved IP addresses.

You will want to configure the Admin Web Interface to HTTPS and to a different port number. Basement PC Tech has an excellent guide on how to add a certificate to the Admin interface.

You can add FreeIPMI to pfSense. Reference this post on the pfSense Forum on how to install it.

Since this setup will be used as a home router, UPnP is essential for devices such as the PS3 and XBox 360. The best walk through for setting this up is found on Cqrite.com.

Lastly you will want to install your packages. In my case, Squid 2.79, RRD Summary, Sarg, and Cron were the only packages I needed.

Unexpected Problems

My home setup is pretty straight forward, but for unknown reasons, I had major issues with my Sony Blu-ray Player, Apple TV 2.0, and Playon (software for media streaming from a Windows box). I could not quite figure out exactly why all of these devices broke. Essentially media streaming failed to work period on the Blu-Ray Player. What was strange was that the PS3 was fine. It did not quite make sense why NetFlix worked fine on the PS3, but not on the Apple TV or Blu-ray Player. For a while I thought it was some combination of Squid in transparent mode, however after setting up Traffic Shaping in pfSense, it just decided to work one day. I even did a clean install and started from scratch, and I could never get it to work again. I ended up restoring my original configuration to fix it again. I narrowed down the problem to port 443, in which I could not authenticate with the streaming services.

One package that I wanted to try out was HAVP, which acts as an HTTP Proxy with an Anti-Virus scanner. This proved to be problematic for me. With HAVP my internet downloads were slower and unpredictable. HAVP requires lots of CPU speed, and in the end I found that it was not worth it for me. Plus, I could never get NetFlix streaming to work!

pfSense, The Home Router

pfSense was my Summer project this year and it was very interesting. The hardware I put together makes for a very fast home router and you certainly do notice the difference between pfSense and say your typical $200 router. The Squid proxy works well, in fact it is the best proxy solution that I can think of. However, Squid is still a proxy and proxies in general are difficult and can cause minor issues. The firewall aspect of pfSense is superb, I feel that this is the most secure system you can have for the price. The problem I ran into with pfSense is that it is not really meant for home networking. In a sense pfSense is not your typical plug-n-play device, so this makes it really hard for a non-networking person to work with. I find myself conflicted, because I really like everything that pfSense delivers, but feel that third party firmware such as DD-WRT is a better solution for home networking. The firewall is easier to work with on third party firmwares. The other area where pfSense proves too hard is Traffic Shaping. The QOS interfaces of Linux based routers (DD-WRT, NetGear, Tomato, etc) are much easier to work with and while pfSense actually has more options for managing traffic the setup requires more tweaking.

Up until now, my criticisms of pfSense are based on difficulties due to complexity, but one area where pfSense does come up lacking I think, is documentation. The pfSense.org website has a wiki and a forum, but some of the documentation on the wiki is incomplete and so the better resource ends up being the forum. There is an official book: pfSense: The Definitive Guide. The book is definitely a must if you are serious about working with pfSense. There is also a pfSense Cookbook, but that book is rather worthless as it basically covers screenshots of pfSense 2.0, but without any real context as to how the system actually works, so I would not recommend that book. What would work for pfSense is if there was a guide for home networking, that put together screenshots and recommendations for a typical home network router configuration.

Overall, pfSense can work as a home network router, but it does take time to become proficient with it and it is not as simple as your typical home router. After working with it for a few months, I find it to be a great solution for content filtering in schools. It is very affordable and if you are willing to spend the time, it can be a great solution for your security needs.

Filed under: Networking

1 Comment

  1. Avatar

    What about _just_ using pfSense just as a firewall? Did you test that all? Am just curious. Are there products that are cheaper/simpler that I should be looking at rather than pfSense?

    I’m putting together a file server out of old parts and I presume it’s best practice to have your firewall as a totally separate appliance from your servers. Am wondering if now that you’ve built this you might have thoughts on the cheapest method (obviously yours and my usage scenarios differ). Thanks.


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