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Asus EeePC as a Router

It seems to me that the Asus EeePC (a $AU499 ultra-light laptop with only flash storage) would make a decent router.

Often full desktop PCs are used as routers because they run the most common software and have standard interfaces. There have been dedicated router devices with flash for a long time, but without the ability to connect a standard monitor and keyboard they were always more difficult to manage than general purpose PCs. Also dedicated routers have limited RAM and storage which often does not permit running a standard OS.

According to the best review I could find [1] EeePC has a minimum of 256M of RAM, a Celeron-M CPU (32bit Intel), and a minimum of 2G of flash storage. This hardware is more than adequate to run most server software that you might want to run (my current router/firewall/server has 192M of RAM). It could run a web server, a mail server, or any other general server stuff. It comes pre-loaded with a modified version of Debian so you get all the Debian software (which incidentally means more pre-packaged software than is available for any other distribution). Bigger versions are common, I believe that the $AU499 version has 512M of RAM and 4G of flash – I’m not sure that I could even obtain a lesser EeePC in Australia.

The up-side of flash is that it doesn’t take much power as having a low power device in whatever confined space ends up housing your router is a good thing (the EeePC is listed as using less than 20W no matter what the load and idling at as little as 14W) and that it doesn’t tend to break when dropped or have any moving parts to wear out. The down-side of flash is that a sufficient number of writes will destroy it.

Obviously swap is not a suitable use for a flash storage device. But a small mail server (suitable for the needs of a home or a small office) should be fine with it. Squid is commonly run on router devices, to run it on an EeePC I would be inclined to buy 1G USB flash device for the cache, then if Squid’s use destroyed the flash storage it would be easy to spend $20 and buy another.

The EeePC has three USB ports and a built-in Ethernet port. I believe that the minimum number of Ethernet ports for a firewall is three, this means either one for the uplink, one for the DMZ, and one for your LAN, or two for uplinks (with a redundant uplink) and one for the LAN. The three USB ports allow using two USB Ethernet devices to provide the minimum three Ethernet ports and one for USB flash storage.

One notable advantage of using a laptop as a server is the built-in UPS (the laptop battery). Many people have put old laptops into service as servers for this reason, but usually an old battery gives no more than about 30 minutes of power, while a new EeePC should be able to last for more than 3 hours without mains power. Using a second-hand laptop as a server is usually not viable in a corporate environment as laptops are all different. Repairing an old desktop PC is easy, repairing an old laptop is unreasonably difficult and often more expensive than replacing it. The low price of the EeePC makes it easily affordable (cheaper than some of the desktop machines that might be used for such a purpose) and the fact that it is purchased new at such a price means that you get warranty support etc.

It seems to me that a significant disadvantage of using an EeePC (or anything other than a real server) for a server task is that it lacks ECC RAM [2], but as I’m not aware of any device sold for the purpose of running as a low-end router or sold at a price-point such that it could be used as a low-end router which has ECC RAM I guess that’s not a big disadvantage for that purpose. But the lack of ECC RAM and the lack of useful support for RAID does make it a little less suitable for use as a mail server.

Finally if you are going to run a VPN then it would be handy to be able to secure the hardware against malicious activity when the office is closed. An EeePC will fit nicely in most safes…

Please let me know what you think about this idea. I’ll probably start installing some such machines for clients in the near future if ASUS can keep up with the demand.

14 comments to Asus EeePC as a Router

  • Hi. IMO a eeepc is overprized compared to a linksys, the usb ethernet hacks are less reliable and look more ugly (the cable mess) than a proper system with some ethernet ports and well, the UPS functionality can be easily achieved with a real UPS, which you will need in a company anyway. And I’m not sure you can operate the wlan card reliably in AP mode – though maybe you can. But all in all, I would rather go for a dedicated router solution, like linksyses or ASUS 500 deluxe APs, those have an USB port too, in case you want a harddisc for squid or for files. And the power drain is also less on typical AP hardware.

    regards, Holger

  • I’m looking at a similar use for second hand laptops. I hadn’t considered the eeepc, though.

    One use would be as a vpn for remote administration/support. One interface is enough.

    The other as a firewall.

    But my biggest thought is when 2 or more interfaces are needed, what’s going to be the delay between interfaces? I’ve never used usb nics before…

    I have other thoughts about heat, having the screen closed, and having the battery on charge constantly.

  • I’d still prefer a device designed for the job, like those made by soekris. You can even get hardware encryption acceleration for a vpn or whatnot.

  • alt

    Why not just pay a lot less and go OpenWRT (http://www.openwrt.org/) on the Linksys WRT54GL, Asus WL-500G Premium ?

    Also these boxes are more hardware Eeepc-like, for a lot less, and with more ethernet ports: http://www.soekris.com/

    USB Ethernet ports aren’t the way to go, believe me.

    /alt

  • etbe

    Yes the EeePC is bigger and uses more power than a dedicated embedded router. But it has more compute power and can be operated in the normal manner (keyboard and display). Routers that have to be administered by serial console or similar are very limiting in terms of who can administer them. I could talk my mother through fixing a problem on a EeePC router, but not a OpenWRT box.

    When you compare the speed of USB 2.0 to 10baseT networking (which is used for the uplinks of all ADSL and Cable devices I’ve used) it seems unlikely that USB will cause performance problems. I’ve had USB Ethernet devices work well enough in the past (but not tried running one 24*7). Of course even Ethernet ports on the motherboard can have problems running 24*7, my Cobalt Qube needs to be rebooted if I transfer more than a few gigs of data through one of it’s on-board ports in a small amount of time.

  • [...] a GPG keycstamas on Storing a GPG keyetbe on Storing a GPG keycstamas on Storing a GPG keyetbe on Asus EeePC as a Routeretbe on Storing a GPG keycstamas on Storing a GPG keyalt on Asus EeePC as a RouterKarl O. Pinc on [...]

  • And what about a soekris board, less espensive, and the best for what you want to do :)

  • etbe

    MV: There is of course the issue that any board which lacks a PS/2 keyboard and screen can’t be managed by the vast majority of people. So if I want to deploy a machine where I can talk someone else through configuration changes if necessary then most embedded devices won’t work.

  • mabybe this intel board[1]? here in .ar it costs USD85, in .us or .eu should be cheaper. of course, then you have to add ram, a PSU and a small case. and, for routing purposes, another nic. total cost should be about USD 250-300.


    [1] http://www.intel.com/products/motherboard/D201GLY/index.htm

  • etbe

    Marcos: That looks like a nice board, but $US300 is not much less than $AU500 and the difference would surely be eaten by the time taken to assemble and test it.

  • The ‘EEC RAM [2]‘ link is broken. The href attribute starts with a ‘ and ends with a “. It is confusing my web browser.

  • etbe

    Edward: Thanks, I fixed that.

  • watanabe

    Karl is on the money. I got my WRAP from yawarra.com.au, they are a very professional mob in Melbourne specializing in small form factor stuff. They sell soekris, WRAP, alix, etc. They will install the OS too, and there are a range of choices (pfsense, openbsd and others).

  • Hi,
    this is the same idea I had.
    I tried, just for fun, to build a web server changing the OS.
    I used eeexubuntu then installed lighttpd+mysql+php and this is the result: http://www.onlnemunus.it (sorry in italian but I’ll mantain also in english)
    Let see how long it will last! :-)