What is DD-WRT?

Dazzling array of fIbre optic cables
(Image credit: Unsplash / John Adams)

To understand DD-WRT, we have to take a quick look at firmware first. If you use a home or business router to get online, it will almost certainly use firmware, which is software written to control a specific device’s hardware. 

This is usually done by the manufacturer so you can set up and configure your device, like creating a Wi-Fi network. And most users are happy to leave it there, running the stock firmware - but this has drawbacks. 

Manufacturers don’t always put a huge amount of effort into designing efficient firmware. In the worst cases, features may be dropped or updates stopped, forcing you to upgrade to a new router. 

DD-WRT: How it started 

Problems like these were on the mind of German developer Sebastian Gottschall - who went by the handle ‘BrainSlayer’, and helped found the DD-WRT project. Brainslayer and his development team originally chose “DD” to reflect the license plates for Dresden, where he and others were based. “WRT” comes from the Linksys WRT54G router, which was popular at the time..The idea was simple: create a flexible and powerful open-source alternative firmware for routers.

Since launching on January 22nd 2005, DD-WRT is now supported on a number of routers. Whilst it’s not the only Linux-based, open-source router firmware available (rivals include Tomato and OpenWrt) it remains one of the most popular given its wide support, extensive features and easy-to-use web interface. 

DD-WRT: Advantages 

For those with a compatible router and some technical knowledge, switching to DD-WRT firmware offers big advantages. Chief amongst these is reviving older routers that are no longer supported by the manufacturer. As open-source firmware, it’s maintained by the DD-WRT community. So, at least no one person or company can unilaterally decide that your router will now be obsolete.

DD-WRT also tends to have many more options typically offered by manufacturers. This includes supporting all WAN standards and enhanced router frequencies for more stable connections between your devices and provider.

A finer control of Quality of Service (QoS) lets you favor different types of traffic or traffic to a particular device. For instance, if you have a home media server streaming videos, you give it priority over other devices for a smoother steam.

DD-WRT is also fully compatible with IPv6 addresses. While most of the internet still uses IPVv4, you do at least have the option of futureproofing your device. 

DD-WRT also has excellent support for VPN services, unlike many routers that don’t do this by default. By connecting your router to a VPN, every device on the network will automatically route its connection through the VPN. DD-WRT supports most modern secure VPN protocols such as OpenVPN and WireGuard.

Another popular use for DD-WRT routers is to extend existing Wi-Fi networks. The easiest way to do this is to set the router up as a Wi-Fi extender, although the DD-WRT Wiki states that “mesh” networking is also supported. We’ve covered in our guide Wi-Fi extenders vs mesh routers: what’s best for your home or office network? 

DD-WRT: Disadvantages  

Arguably the biggest drawback isn’t technical at all, but one of additional cost. While DD-WRT is free and open-source for private use, if you’re a business, you’re going to need a commercial license to use it. This comes with add-ons like bandwidth management tools to help manage traffic within your own network.

According to the DD-WRT Wiki, around 200 types of router are currently supported. The website also maintains a database of compatible routers - although it’s pinch-of-salt territory, as there can be different builds of identical router models. Still, if you want to use DD-WRT you may need to invest in a new, compatible router.

Whilst installing (or flashing) new router firmware isn’t a complicated operation, you’ll need some technical skill. If you've recently bought your device, check that using third-party firmware doesn’t violate the warranty. 

Without some know-how, there’s a risk of ‘bricking’ your device, where a firmware installation fails but the router can’t be reset to its former state. The DD-WRT Wiki has some advice for this, as it’s usually possible to reset your router to factory settings, no matter what firmware it’s running.

‘Flash Routers’ at least offer one option for running DD-WRT without doing it yourself (or bringing in an expert). These third-party devices, like the Asus RT-AC5300 AC5300 DD-WRT FlashRouter, come with the firmware preinstalled.  

DD-WRT: Final thoughts 

It's a clever solution to a genuine problem - but DD-WRT may not be right for you if you don’t feel comfortable flashing firmware on a compatible device. Besides, for many users, the router’s stock firmware has most of the features needed.

But there’s no question that if you have the skills and a compatible router you should seriously consider benefiting from all that DD-WRT has to offer - especially home users, who can get it free. .

Nate Drake is a tech journalist specializing in cybersecurity and retro tech. He broke out from his cubicle at Apple 6 years ago and now spends his days sipping Earl Grey tea & writing elegant copy.