Article from Issue 198/2017

Ben Everard investigates the future of Linux-based routers.

Q Unless this is about the municipality in the East Flanders region of Belgium, I don't know what we're talking about here.

A Nope. This is the Linux Embedded Development Environment (LEDE), which describes itself as a Linux operating system based on OpenWrt. LEDE [1] is a complete replacement for the vendor-supplied firmware of a wide range of wireless routers and non-network devices.

Q Hang on, isn't OpenWrt itself a complete replacement for the vendor-supplied firmware of a wide range of wireless routers and non-network devices?

A Erm, yes.

Q So, what exactly does LEDE bring to the table?

A The difference isn't so much technical as organizational at the moment. The LEDE project was launched publicly on May 3, 2016 with an announcement on the OpenWrt mailing list where they describe it as a "spin-off" from OpenWrt. They're developing off the OpenWrt codebase but building a new project.

Q It sounds a bit like a fork to me.

A It does seem that way.

Q So, why exactly did these developers spin off from OpenWrt?

A They gave five issues that they were unable to fix from within the OpenWrt community. These (quoted from the announcement) are:

  1. Number of active core developers at an all time low, no process for getting more new people involved.
  2. Unreliable infrastructure, fixes prevented by internal disagreements and single points of failure.
  3. Lack of communication, transparency, and coordination in the OpenWrt project, both inside the core team and between the core team and the rest of the community.
  4. Not enough people with commit access to handle the incoming flow of patches, too little attention to testing and regular builds.
  5. Lack of focus on stability and documentation.

Q Those all seem like important things to fix, but were they really problems?

A Well, to quote now from the official response from OpenWrt: "While we recognize the current OpenWrt project suffers from a number of issues outlined by Jo-Philip, in each of the 5 bullet points, we do not agree with the conclusions withdrawn, and even less so in deciding to spin off the OpenWrt project in the first place as a way to fix the project and its community."

So, yes, those are real problems. It's always hard to know when, if ever, problems are severe enough to mean forking… ahem, I mean spinning off, is necessary. Ultimately, in the open source world, every developer has the right to choose which projects to spend their own time working on, and if that's a fork, sorry, I mean, spin-off, then that's their choice.

Q The LEDE project announcement talked quite a bit about community and contributions. How has that gone since the split?

A Well, thanks to the magic of the Git source code management system, we can see in detail what code has changed in both projects going all the way back to 2005. It's obvious from even a quick glance that in the six months following the fork (sorry, spin-off), the LEDE project was busier than OpenWrt ever had been (Figure 1). In the OpenWrt project, barring a spike in June 2016, the same period was the quietest it has ever been. In that time period, 38 people made 10 or more changes to the LEDE project, whereas only 11 people made that many changes to OpenWrt. Comparing this with same length of time before the split, only 9 people made 10 or more changes to the pre-forked (sorry, spun-off) project.

Figure 1: The LEDE GitHub project contribution graphs show that there is momentum behind the young project.

There are some caveats in that. For example, many of those changes will have been things like changing the project name and website in source code files. However, these are quick changes that have probably been automated. What we see if we look at the commits is sustained activity over the time period, and this points to new vigor in the development community.

Q So, should we expect LEDE to rapidly outpace OpenWrt as the open source router OS of choice?

A Probably. Extrapolation is always risky, and it's possible that what we're seeing with LEDE is nothing more than the honeymoon phase of a project that will quickly die back; however, we suspect that what we're seeing is the start of a more active community.

Q If it's obvious that the LEDE project's approach to community management is working, won't the rest of the OpenWrt project merge back with them to reform as a single, but more active, community?

A That's certainly possible. There have been peace talks between the two projects, and in December 2016 they published the minutes of the discussions on the OpenWrt mailing list. It looked like the two sides were close to an agreement on merging; you can read the full details online [2]. However, since then, the talks of reconciliation appear to have fallen silent. In February 2017, LEDE published the first version of their OS (17.01). An act that some might see as hostile to the potential peace between the projects.

Q Hang on. Aren't you over-dramatizing this a bit? Is publishing a version of software really 'hostile to the potential peace'?

A As Thomas Mann said: "Everything is politics." Pushing a release out is getting the LEDE name known in the wider community and further empowering the fledgling community.

Q I think you're straying a bit too far into gossip magazine territory there. What about the technology?

A Ah yes. Before we got sidetracked by the soap opera drama that is project mailing lists, we mentioned that LEDE is "a complete replacement for the vendor-supplied firmware of a wide range of wireless routers and non-network devices." In other words, many routers for home Internet run operating systems based on Linux, and in some cases it's possible to change the software they're running to a different OS. LEDE (and OpenWrt) are Linux distributions designed to be run on home routers in place of the software they come with.

Q I've always found that my home routers "just work." Why would I want to change them for anything else?

A While home routers can be reliable and easy to use, they often lack a lot of features. For example, with LEDE or OpenWrt you can change the DNS and other network settings, share files directly from the router or even block web adverts. Basically, your router will become a little Linux computer that you can do what you want with, whether that's controlling your network, or hosting some network service.

Q Ah, I'd never even thought of doing that on my router. What hardware does it work on?

A There's a list of hardware known to work on LEDE on the project website [3]. If you're the sort of person who likes to do things from scratch, you can start with a Raspberry Pi and build up from there (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Find out how to build your own open source router with LEDE.

Q Right, I'm off to the shops to buy myself a new router. See you next month.

A Bye.

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