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Unified Home Networks with the Fritzbox
Pages: 1, 2

Going Further

The Fritzbox web-based interface makes all this very easy to manage.

Even better--there is room for improvement. You can manage up to ten VOIP accounts with the Fritzbox (SIP only--no Skype, which is not a big loss due to its heavy bandwidth use). That means you can have up to ten different phone numbers in as many countries as you need. I chose the Panasonic cordless because it runs on the 5.8 GHz band, and would not potentially interfere with WiFi and Bluetooth operations.

However, you could replace it with an ISDN DECT base station to offer a dedicated phone number to each DECT phone, instead of having two buttons to decide which line to use. However, I have yet to find an ISDN DECT system capable of working like the Panasonic, with dedicated "line 1" and "line 2" buttons, forwarding, conference calls, and other features.

The network part is just as easy: you simply type your DSL login and password, check the option box to share your connection on your LAN, and voila. It simply works, with DHCP and all. The icing on the cake for me is graphs that show in real time the quality of your connection (PPPoE and PPPoA--you even get to decide which you want to use) with daily cumulative stats in your inbox.

Do you have a dyndns domain? If you do, simply give your login and password to the Fritzbox. Every time it connects to the Internet, it will renew the dyndns. Port forwarding and firewalling are also very easy to set up, with some safe defaults and easy overrides. The process is well documented, and the online help makes improvisation easy.

For example, if you want to have a local web server, open port number 80 and forward it to the IP of the machine on your LAN running Apache httpd. The drop-down menus will then suggest that you also open port number 443 for secure HTTP.

By default, the LAN ports, the USB client, and the WiFi port are all bridged (available on the same network), but you can configure each to have its own subnet and IPs. There is only one default: the Fritzbox does not run a standard GNU/Linux distribution but instead the Linux kernel with proprietary tools. Therefore it does not feature iptables, which make complex routing from the command line a pain. The best solution is to replace the default distribution with the ds-mod firmware free software solution with all the traditional tools.

The best part is that you create your own firmware, selecting which tools will be included and which will not, and cross-compiling everything on your PC.

Missing Software

The default firmware will be sufficient for most people. The first thing I regret is the lack of text access to the Fritzbox by default. Of course, you can always enable Telnet with a pseudo-firmware update (flashing only one file to start telnetd at boot), but it is not as good as SSH.

SSH is available thanks to dropbear, but key generation is unpractical; it should be present by default, along with basic utilities like wget to send and retrieve files from the Fritzbox.

Finally, the lack of a normal iptables utility means you either have to figure out the ar7.cfg syntax or reflash your Fritzbox with the custom ds-mod firmware. While it should be possible, this adds yet another delay for complex setups.

I strongly believe Avm.de should consider adding SSH and replace the routing scheme with iptables. If they do not, they should at least provide a good documentation of the command-line tool for complex routing situations.

Hardware Improvements

I opted for the Fritzbox 7050, the one without USB host, because it had a third FXS port for my fax machine. This means I cannot easily add hardware though USB (not that I wanted to in first place, since it would mean adding another piece of hardware--in this case, a USB hub). There are only two features I miss: storage and Bluetooth.

For storage purposes (such as BitTorrent or wget), I am considering purchasing a simple all-in-one NAS to mount via NFS. There are many models with an ATA hard drive connector and an Ethernet plug, running various GNU/Linux distributions.

For connectivity purposes (such as Palm synchronization), I would have enjoyed Bluetooth. There are free serial ports inside the 7050, so if I really need it, I will find a way to solder a Bluetooth module.

Some users may also resent the lack of a good old modem, if only to manage faxes with mgetty+sendfax. However, there are many FAXOIP offers, with flat rates and nice options. I currently receive my faxes as PDF attachments in my inbox with popfax.com; sending them is simply a matter of attaching the file I want to send. I pay 3.99 Eur per month for unlimited incoming faxes, and 5 cents per sheet for outgoing faxes. The convenience factor is great, as I do not need volume faxing.

Of course, the Fritzbox itself could manage this directly, yet converting from and to the various file-attachment formats would certainly require much additional software, along with the modem, thus raising the price tag. FAXOIP is good enough.

A cheap and easy addition would be an audio jack and microphone. I did maintain a customized Leaf Bering distribution for radio playback on my former hardware. I simply connected some cheap loudspeakers and remotely launched Mplayer. I also had some plans to use the microphone for audio streaming, such as podcasts.

Avm could certainly consider adding sound capabilities to the Fritzbox. It could also help debug your network problems--like when you have a typo on the IP, reboot the box, and can't manage to log in. What if the Fritzbox read out its configuration during boot?

Of course, there is a fixed IP for each port of the Fritzbox, which works even if you damage the configuration. You can also press a special button to boot in default mode where you can fix your changes, so there is no real need for this feature.

Yet I lament the lack of playback capabilities, which I often used on my old setup.

Conclusion

While I miss SSH and iptables on the software side and sound and Bluetooth on the hardware side, the Fritzbox is a great purchase overall. It eases the pains of home network setup and maintenance, making even complex situations--like my own setup--child's play.

While the initial Fritzboxes had problems with ADSL 2+ speeds, the latest firmware works like a charm.

The Fritzbox is the ideal present for any geek with a DSL connection who wants to get rid of the aging PC used for sharing this connection. If you are considering it as a gift, offer it along with some cordless phones capable of managing more than two phone lines, so that your geek friend or relative will enjoy VOIP without any hassle of the usual VOIP setups.

I recommend the 7050 version over the 7140 if you do not need to share a printer; this is the only real advantage of the 7140 USB host port. However, if you have ISDN-capable phones and do not mind spending a little more, the 7140 could be interesting, because two FXS ports will be enough.

In any case, if you want to share a storage space on your home network, you will be better off with a dedicated SAN connected to one of the two Ethernet ports of the Fritzbox, as neither version of the Fritzbox can directly receive an hard drive inside.

Links

Guylhem Aznar was the coordinator of The Linux Documentation Project from 1999 to 2006. He has a special interest in Linux embedded devices and health informatics, being a physician with a clinical experience but also a full traditional computer-science education.


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