pfSense Home Router – Part 3

torchAfter several months of running pfSense as my home router solution, I now feel that my current Squid Proxy configuration is stable enough to recommend. I have been running the current Squid 3 package that is available in pfSense without many issues. The configuration is pretty simple. Primarily I found that running proxies, including Squid, in transparent mode is just too much trouble for home networks. Transparent mode never quite works right with iOS devices and other media devices, that in the end is not worth the hassle. Instead I manually specify a web proxy in my preferred browsers: Firefox, Safari, and IE. for the iPhone, you can specify a proxy for the wireless connection you are using. It is kind of a pain to have to remember to input a proxy, but you only do it one time and it is easier to troubleshoot one application or device at a time then trying to troubleshoot transparent mode and bring down all usage while you work things out.

I have a small home user network with around 20 different devices all communicating to the router. There are about six computers, and the rest of the devices are your typical smart phones, iPods, game consoles, and media players. The Squid setup is there to speed up web browsing and downloads for the computers and web browsers on the phones and iPods.

There are some basic configuration recommendations on the pfSense Wiki, but once you get past that, there is not much out there as to what settings to use. In general Squid uses two resources: disk space and memory. For my configuration I have settled on a 32 disk cache setting, meaning I have set aside 32GB of disk space to cache to disk. For memory, Squid utilizes memory in two different ways. The first to hold an index of the disk cache and the rest for the rest of Squid functions. To calculate the memory usage, the rule is that you need 10 MB for each Gigabyte of space you are caching.

  • cache_mem 640 MB
  • maximum_object_size_in_memory 4096 KB
  • minimum_object_size 0 KB
  • maximum_object_size 4194304 KB
  • cache_dir ufs /var/squid/cache 32768 16 256

Using the parameters above, I have decided to utilize 640 MB for cache memory, which is twice the rule. The largest cached object in memory is 4 MB, meaning anything larger than 4 MB will not be cached in memory and will have to rely on disk cache. Lastly the largest file on disk that can be cached is equal to 4 GB.

With this configuration and typically 3 to 8 devices connecting to the proxy, at the most the disk cache grows by a couple of GB a week. More importantly, RAM for the router peaks at 58% in use, which leaves plenty of room for other pfSense functions. The current router has 4GB of RAM and is an Intel Atom CPU based system.

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.

pfSense Home Router – Part 1

torchOver the years, my home office has become a museum of sorts for wireless routers. There on a shelf sits my old reliable Linksys WRT54GS with upgraded antennas, next to it is a Linksys WRT350N, and lastly a Netgear WNR3500L. My current router sits in the office as well, that is a Netgear WNDR3800. The WNDR3800 is less than a year old and performs quite well, but then Western Digital announced they were getting into the wireless router business and announced the My Net N900, which is interesting since it includes 7 Gigabit Ethernet ports! But alas, I could not justify upgrading to a new wireless router in less than a year. With each router upgrade I have looked at three features: speed of actual CPU, internal memory, and DD-WRT compatibility. Home routers are essentially computers that route network traffic. The faster their CPU and more memory they have the faster they can operate. On slower ISP connections, you do not notice it as much, but once you upgrade your internet connection and add more devices to your home network, the more your router’s performance becomes impacted. Hence the WNDR3800 works better than the slower WNR3500L it replaced. I am mostly talking about the wired connections, since wireless speeds can vary and I tend to prefer wired connections. The more I thought about it, the more I came to the conclusion that I was really trying to upgrade the CPU and memory in my router; the wireless radio was adequate and the built-in 4-port switch was already being supplanted by a dedicated 8-port switch. In general wireless routers are a good value. They combine a wireless radio, a network switch, and routing capabilities for around $150 or less. The WD N900 looks like an even better value, given the 7-ports, but in my case, I wanted to separate the three main functions. Hence my search for the perfect home router began. (more…)

Flash Streaming Video Fix

Flash Player LogoLike most technical people, I find myself watching less and less television. There are simply not enough hours in the day to do my regular work, spend time with the kids, walk the dog, and watch TV. However, I still like to watch the occasional South Park episode on SouthParkStudios or turn on Hulu to watch a few episodes of Parks And Recreation and 30 Rock. For a time, I encountered a lot of issues with SouthParkStudios not streaming right. After doing some research, I found that Flash streaming is problematic if you have multiple computers at home. The solution is to modify your router settings. In DD-WRT routers go to NAT/QOS: Port Triggering and add port 1935. This will allow SouthParkStudios videos to work on all computers in your home network.

Flash Port Triggering in DD-WRT

This fix should also work for Hulu Plus videos as well. However, the other problem that Hulu Plus has is that it defaults to 720 HD most of the time. If your internet connection cannot handle this speed, it is best to log into Hulu, go to your Account: Settings and under Player Settings change the Playback Quality. For me 480p works fine.

Netgear WNR3500L Wireless Router

Netgear WNR3500LRecently, my home network has managed to grow significantly. Between a couple of file servers, three client machines, and a printer, I thought my Linksys WRT350N was handling the load fine, but then it was all the other non-computing devices that are starting to eat away at the network. There are smart phones, the Playstation 3, Nintendo DS and Wii, a new Blu-ray Player that I got that has network capabilities, and the home theater receiver now too has a wired network connection. When you add up all these network devices, the typical wireless router is no longer a good fit.

Expanding The Network

The first problem I ran into is that the network must support both wireless G and N devices. Putting devices on the same radio signal causes slowdowns for N devices. Separate radio signals can be had by purchasing the latest dual radio routers, but these are usually expensive. If only some company would make an 8 port Gigabit Ethernet wireless router that would also help me out a bit, but there is not at this time a perfect router. The best solution that I could come up with is to have a main wireless N router manage the network, with a switch and another access point connected to the router. Adding the switch and access point brings up another problem. Namely that you want to maintain Gigabit Ethernet connections between the router, switch and access point. Most wireless routers and cheap switches are 100 Fast Ethernet and since the purpose of building out the home network is to deliver HD video and other multimedia services, it is best to go with Gigabit Ethernet as much as possible.

What Works?

What I ended up with right now is using the Netgear WNR3500L as my main router. This is a moderately priced router that can be had for around $70 or less. You can find the specifications on Newegg. Other than the price, the 480MHz CPU and 64MB of memory are good selling points, add open firmware support and you have a great bargain. I ended up purchasing two WNR3500L units from the local BestBuy; utilizing BestBuy’s rewardzone coupons, I was able to save 12% off the regular price.

Once at home, I went through the process of upgrading the WNR3500L to use DD-WRT instead of the default Netgear firmware. Netgear considers the WNR3500L an open router, so you can upgrade to opensource firmware packages; Netgear even has a website for you to reference: MyOpenRouter.com. For upgrading specifically to DD-WRT reference: Upgrading to DD-WRT: Demystified first, then go to the DD-WRT Router Database to download the .chk firmware file: Netgear WNR3500L Firmware: Special File for initial flashing. You will need to flash to this firmware first in order to install a full DD-WRT firmware. Next download the actual firmware you will want to use from MyOpenRouter.com. I went with a version of the King Mod DD-WRT that does not have miniDLNA. At this point you should be ready to start flashing, just follow the specific instructions for the WNR3500L, that DD-WRT provides.

Add A Switch & Access Point

Next comes adding the switch and access point to the network. At this time the main router does the Wireless N radio only. I hooked up my old Linksys WRT350N as a Wireless G access point. The second WNR3500L is being used only as a switch at this time. In the future I may switch the Wireless G signal to the second WNR3500L and replace the WRT350N with an actual 8 port Gigabit Ethernet switch. To turn any DD-WRT router into an access point or switch follow these instructions. The hard part is figuring out which port to plug into on the access point or switch. For the WNR3500L all ports are Gigabit Ethernet, so you can use the Uplink port, but for an older router like the WRT350N, I used one of the regular ports, since the Uplink port on that router is not Gigabit.

Conclusion

As usual, once it is all setup, I had some problems with my Blu-ray Player, but after a couple of resets, everything worked as designed. The Playstation 3 likes having a wired connection and it plays media files from my Windows Server now without problems. Of course having more boxes, is more complicated and the electric bill will definitely be higher after all, but the speed is well worth it and it cost me less than buying an expensive cutting edge router.

EveryDNS Setup for DD-WRT

It is possible to setup dynamic DNS with your router. DD-WRT, a free Linux-based firmware for several wireless routers, offers multiple dynamic DNS setups. In this example I have chosen to use DD-WRT with the free dynamic DNS service EveryDNS. Although DD-WRT does not specifically list EveryDNS as an option under the Setup – DDNS section, you can easily add it in the following manner:

DD-WRT DDNS EveryDNS Setup

  1. Login into the DD-WRT control panel for your router and choose Setup – DDNS.
  2. Fill in the following values:
    • DDNS Service = Custom
    • DYNDNS Server = dyn.everydns.net
    • User name = your username
    • Password = password for you account
    • Host Name = your domain name
    • URL = /index.php?ver=0.1&domain=your_domain_name
  3. Save and Apply your settings.

If you are not using EveryDNS, you can find instructions for other dynamic DNS providers on the DD-WRT Wiki.