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MikroTik RB750GL: Linux goes into the closet
Once in awhile, a product comes along that makes me smack my forehead and exclaim “I’ve been doing it wrong!” After a week of mulling my latest solution – an OSPFv3-powered IPv6 OpenVPN network between my house, a remote server, and my netbook, so that I can print over the household wireless LAN without tromboning the print job through New Jersey – I remembered an advertisement I’d seen in Linux Journal from a company called MikroTik, pitching a $39.95 MPLS router. Having cut my teeth on hardware priced with commas instead of decimal points, I was convinced there must be a catch.
I finally looked into it, and was pleasantly surprised by the specifications of their SOHO gigabit product, the RouterBOARD 750 GL. In short, the router will do everything I’m currently doing (and more!) with my trusty Linksys BEFSR41 and an old PC running Linux, but in one $60 box. With five 10/100/1000 Mb/sec auto-everything Ethernet ports, respectable throughput, and flexible power (8 to 30 volts DC, barrel plug or PoE), it was going to be a slight improvement over the existing router, at the very least. I went for it.
MikroTik’s RouterBOARD includes a variety of different hardware form factors, network interfaces, and enclosures, centered around a common embedded platform and a Linux-based operating system, RouterOS. The operating system will run on other hardware, including x86. RouterOS isn’t free, but as router operating systems go, the licenses are both generous and affordable. Of course, RouterBOARD hardware is licensed and ready-to-run. My device arrived with RouterOS v5.2 and the starter Level 4 (WISP) license, a $45 value.
(At this point, you might notice that the $39.95 router mentioned above costs less than $45. Also, the RB750GL’s nominal power consumption is a miserly 2.4 watts, with 3.6 watts maximum. If you’re one of those people, measure how much power your old router-computer draws, then recycle it in an environmentally-friendly fashion.)
I have yet to put it through its paces with OSPF or OpenVPN (perhaps because the router obviated my present need for them), but here’s how my experience has gone so far:
Purchasing: Being a Latvia-based manufacturer of specialty equipment, MikroTik doesn’t sell directly to consumers, nor can you buy their products on Amazon. This means you’re going to get to work the ol’ distributor/reseller network. They have a respectable number of distributors, although none of the 29 North American distributors were names I’d heard of. I picked the six or seven closest, eliminated any that did not have online ordering, pricing, or stock of the RB750GL, and ended up with Illinois-based rOc-nOc. The unit was priced as expected, and UPS Ground shipping to upstate New York was reasonable. My Monday evening order shipped Tuesday and arrived on Thursday.
Packaging: A cardboard box, sized perfectly for the router and its obligatory wall wart. It made me happy, with everything recyclable but a twist-tie and the operating instructions printed entirely on the bottom of the box, but I’m weird like that. It quickly cleared household customs inspection.
Turning it on: Well, I followed the instructions. I plugged port 1 into the household LAN, my netbook into port 2, and plugged it in. After some frustration with the network stack on my netbook – not the router’s fault at all – there I was. The Internet was reachable, I had an IP address, and it was effectively doing everything my existing router was doing. This is perhaps the best possible default for the SOHO environment. While I’m quite familiar with configuring NAT with Linux, I wouldn’t exactly say I was looking forward to having to do so. Nevertheless, I went to the router’s IP address to look under the hood, and received a choice of options for configuring my router.
Configuration: As any network technician will tell you, the user interface makes the router. Having seen a lot of dubious clones of Cisco’s IOS, I’m happy to report that MikroTik did not attempt to make it look like IOS. Actually, I don’t know that first-hand because I have not had to use the CLI; I am, however, basing it on the copious online documentation, most of which is targetted to the CLI. The great news is that Webfig configuration interface matches the CLI in an intuitive fashion, although it sometimes isn’t obvious what the menu-specific actions do (e.g. “DHCP Config” vs. “DHCP Setup” on the DHCP Server menu), and it was by accident that I realized you could double-click on menu items. Some tooltips to suggest actions might be nice to have. There’s also a mature Windows-based software client, Winbox, and the aforementioned CLI.
Documentation: MikroTik has dispensed with the traditional Canonical Manual of Ultimate Truth, having apparently realized that such things are obsolete the moment they click “Export to PDF” and cannot anticipate the wonderfully crazy things customers want to do. The MikroTik Wiki might just be the culmination of the printed manual set’s long decline. The affordability of the RouterOS platform seems to bring out the grassroots innovation, and the community likes to share. Pretty much every feature is documented in detail, often with examples, although some of the more “advanced” features assume prior experience. It’s unlikely you’d find an illustrated example of OSPFv3 interoperability with Quagga or a practical discussion of grounding in a traditional manual.
IPv6: Even though my ISP does not yet support IPv6, I maintain IPv6 connectivity through the free Hurricane Electric tunnel broker service. Previously, I was using a PC as an IPv6 router, with an OpenVPN tunnel through the IPv4 NAT to a Linode VPS, which itself tunneled to the nearby tunnel broker. This worked quite nicely, but it is somewhat complex to operate alongside Linode’s native IPv6: source-based policy routing isn’t rocket science, but it’s not something normal people do. Fortunately, RouterOS supports IPv6 nicely, and works nicely with tunnel brokers. Not too much to say here, aside from this being a good time to mention the scripting capability, and its usefulness for updating the IPv4 address of your tunnel, should it change.
Still in the pipeline: I’ve only had this router for about 24 hours, and it has only been in production since last night. So, I haven’t had a chance to play with everything. The next things on my list include bandwidth shaping, VLANs (to isolate VoIP phones), DHCP-triggered DNS updating, and – yes – taking a look at the CLI.
OVERALL: My biggest disappointment with the MikroTik RB750GL is that I didn’t buy one sooner. It’s the sort of router I love to support – solid, featureful, and competitively-priced. It’s a performant Linux router for the serious network closet, without flashing firmware, pounding out shell scripts, or voiding warranties. Your wallet might think you’re getting DD-WRT, but your wife knows the telephones will still work.
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