Cisco Router Repair Revives Piece Of Internet History

These days, it would be fair to say that the Internet as we know it runs on Cisco hardware. While you might never see them at work, there’s an excellent chance that every web-bound packet leaving your computer or smartphone will spend at least a few milliseconds of its life traveling through hardware built by the San Jose, California based company. But of course, even a telecommunications giant like Cisco had to start somewhere.

Cisco’s first commercial router, the Advanced Gateway Server (AGS), was released in 1986 and helped put the company (and the Internet) on the path towards unfathomable success. [Andreas Semmelmann] had wanted to add one of these microwave-sized machines to his collection for some time, so when an AGS+ popped up in the local classifieds he didn’t hesitate to make the hour drive to go pick it up. But like many pieces of vintage computing equipment, it needed a little help getting back on its feet.

What 4 MB of flash looked like in the late 1980s.

Since he had to take the router apart anyway to diagnose what ailed it, [Andreas] decided to take photographs along the way and document this piece of Internet history. He walks the reader through the massive processor, Ethernet, and serial cards that are housed in the unit’s rack-like enclosure. We appreciate him taking the scenic route, as it gives us a great look inside what would have been state-of-the-art telecommunications gear when this version of the AGS hit the market in 1989.

The walk-through is full of interesting details that make us appreciate just how far things have come in the last 32 years. Imagine yanking the EPROMs out of the board and firing up the UV eraser each time you needed to update your router’s firmware. Or needing a special adapter to convert the AUI-15 connectors on the back panel to the now ubiquitous RJ45 jack.

After this stroll down memory lane, [Andreas] gets to the actual repair work. It likely won’t surprise the regular Hackaday reader to find that the power supply wasn’t operating to spec, and that some aged capacitors and a shorted rectifier diode needed to be replaced to put it back on an even keel. But even with the PSU repaired, the router failed to start. The console output indicated the software was crashing, but hardware diagnostics showed no obvious faults.

Replacing these failed PSU components was just the beginning.

With some part swapping, firmware flashing, and even a bit of assistance from Cisco luminary [Phillip Remaker], the issue was eventually identified as a faulty environmental monitoring (ENVM) card installed in the AGS+. As luck would have it the ENVM capability isn’t required to boot the router, so [Andreas] was able to just disconnect the card and continue on with his exploration of the hardware that helped build the Internet as we know it.

Considering its age, this piece of 1980s Cisco gear ended up being in relatively good shape. But that’s not always the case. Over the years we’ve found ourselves in awe of the incredible amount of time, effort, and skill, it takes to restore some of these classic machines. We have great respect for the dedicated individuals who are willing to take on the challenge of keeping these pieces of history up and running for future generations to marvel at.

[Thanks to Bob for the tip.]

Hacking The Lidl Home Gateway

For years, Europeans have been browsing the central aisles of the German Aldi and Lidl supermarket chains, attracted by the surprising variety of transitory non-grocery bargains to be found there. There are plenty of temptations for hackers, and alongside the barbecues and Parkside tools at Lidl last year was a range of Zigbee home automation products. Every ZigBee network requires some form of hub, and for Lidl this comes in the form of a £20 (about $28) Silvercrest Home Gateway appliance. It’s a small embedded Linux computer at heart, and [Paul Banks] has published details of how it can be hacked and bent to the user’s will.

Under the hood is a Realtek RTL8196E MIPS SoC with 16Mb of Flash and 32 Mb of memory. Gaining control of it follows the well trodden path of finding the bootloader, dumping the firmware, and re-uploading it with a known password file. If you’ve done much hacking of routers and the like you’ll recognise that this quantity of memory and Flash isn’t the most powerful combination so perhaps you won’t be turning it into a supercomputer, but it’s still capable enough to be integrated with Home Assistant rather than the cloud-based services with which it shipped.

There was a time when repurposing routers as embedded Linux machines was extremely popular, but it’s something that has fallen from favour as boards such as the Raspberry Pi have provided an easier path. So it’s good to see a bit of old-fashioned fun can still be had with an inexpensive device.

If you fancy a bit more German budget supermarket goodness, feast your eyes on an Aldi stick welder!

Can You Hot-Swap Flash Chips In A Consumer Router?

Sometimes, you mess up when toying with the firmware of an embedded device and end up “bricking” what you were working on. [Chris Bellows] had done just that with a consumer router, corrupting the onboard NAND flash to the point where recovery via normal means was impossible. Armed with a working duplicate of the router, he wondered if the corrupted NAND flash could be substituted into the working router while it was running, and reflashed in place – and decided to find out.

Key to achieving the hack was finding a way to remove the existing NAND flash in the working router without crashing the system while doing so. This required careful disconnection of the chip’s power lines once the router had booted up, as well as tying the “Ready/Busy” and “Read Enable” pins to ground. With this done, the chip could carefully be removed with a hot air tool without disrupting the router’s operation. The new chip could then be soldered in place, and flashed with factory firmware via the router’s web interface. At this point, it could be powered down and the chips swapped normally back into their own respective routers, restoring both to full functionality.

It’s a neat hack, and one that shows that it’s sometimes worth taking a punt on your crazy ideas just to see what you can pull off. It also pays to know the deeper secrets of the hardware you run on your own home network.

Enormous CNC Router Uses Clever Tricks To Improve Performance

CNC machines made from wood and 3D-printed parts may be popular, but they aren’t always practical from a precision and repeatability standpoint. This is especially true as the machines are scaled up in size, where the compliance of their components starts to really add up. But can those issues be resolved? [jamie clarke] thinks so, and he’s in the process of building a CNC router that can handle a full sheet of plywood. (Video, embedded below.)

This is very much a work in progress, and the videos below are only the very beginning of the process. But we found [jamie]’s build interesting even at this early point because he has included a few clever tricks to control the normal sources of slop that plague larger CNC machines. To provide stiffness on a budget, [jamie] went with a wooden torsion-box design for the bed of his machine. It’s the approach taken by the Root CNC project, which is the inspiration for this build. The bed is formed from shallow boxes that achieve their stiffness through stressed skins applied to rigid, lightweight frames.

Upon the torsion-box bed are guide rails made from commodity lengths of square steel tubing. Stiff these may be over short lengths, but over the three meters needed to access a full sheet of plywood, even steel will bend. [jamie]’s solution is a support that moves along with the carriage, which halves the unsupported length of the beam at all points of travel. He’s using a similar approach to fight whip in the ball screw, with a clever flip-down cradle at the midpoint of the screw.

So far, we’re impressed by the quality of this build. We’re looking forward to seeing where this goes and how well the machine performs, so we’re paying close attention to the playlist for updates. At an estimated build cost of £1,500, this might be just the CNC build you’ve been looking for.

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Plastic Strips Protect Ball Screws On This Homebrew CNC Router

It’s a fact of life for CNC router owners — swarf. Whether it’s the fine dust from a sheet of MDF or nice fat chips from a piece of aluminum, the debris your tool creates gets everywhere. You can try to control it at its source, but swarf always finds a way to escape and cause problems.

Unwilling to deal with the accumulation of chips in the expensive ball screws of his homemade CNC router, [Nikodem Bartnik] took matters into his own hands and created these DIY telescopic ball screw covers. Yes, commercial ball screw covers are available, but they are targeted at professional machines, and so are not only too large for a homebrew machine like his but also priced for pro budgets. So [Nikodem] recreated their basic design: strips of thin material wound into a tight spring that forms a tube that can extend and retract. The first prototypes were from paper, which worked but proved to have too much friction. Version 2 was made from sheets of polyester film, slippery enough to get the job done and as a bonus, transparent. They look pretty sharp, and as you can see in the video below, seem to perform well.

It’s nice to see a build progress to the point where details like this can be addressed. We’ve been following [Nikodem]’s CNC build for years now, and it really has come a long way.

Continue reading “Plastic Strips Protect Ball Screws On This Homebrew CNC Router”

Up Your Home Network Performance – Build Your Own Router!

Internet connections continue to increase in speed, and for a lucky few, it’s possible to get a Gigabit fibre connection at home. However, if you’re intending to use this connection to its fullest, you might find that your off-the-shelf router has become a bit of a bottleneck. [Wes Fenlon] of PC Gamer had this very problem, and found the perfect workaround – building a custom router instead!

The main problem with commodity routers is a lack of processing power. With networks growing ever faster, the hardware in routers hasn’t kept up with the needs of demanding power users. To solve this, [Wes] grabbed an old PC he had lying around, packing a quad-core i5 CPU and 16 GB of RAM. Fitted with an enterprise-grade 4-port Gigabit LAN card, and running Netgear’s  (Sorry commenteers!) Netgate’s pfSense routing software, the old machine has enough power to be complete overkill for the application.

The side benefit of this method is configurability. pfSense has a far more powerful set of options than most common routers. It’s config page also runs far more smoothly, too. There’s also the possibility to run all sorts of useful plugins, like router-level ad blockers and traffic monitoring utilities.

Overall, it’s a great way to repurpose a surplus machine and improve your network performance on the cheap. Others have tried similar builds, too. It has us contemplating the possibilities for our own networks at home!

New Part Day: An Open Source Ethernet Switch In The Palm Of Your Hand

When you can get a WiFi-enabled microcontroller for $3, it’s little surprise that many of the projects we see these days have ditched Ethernet. But the days of wired networking are far from over, and there’s still plenty of hardware out there that can benefit from being plugged in. But putting an Ethernet network into your project requires a switch, and that means yet another piece of hardware that needs to get crammed into the build.

Seeing the need for a small and lightweight Ethernet switch, BotBlox has developed the SwitchBlox. This 45 mm square board has everything you need to build a five device wired network, and nothing you don’t. Gone are the bulky RJ45 jacks and rows of blinkenlights, they won’t do you any good on the inside of a robot’s chassis. But that’s not to say it’s a bare bones experience, either. The diminutive switch features automatic crossover, support for input voltages from 7 V all the way up to 40 V, and management functions accessible over SPI.

If you want to get up and running as quickly as possible, a fully assembled SwitchBlox is available to purchase directly from BotBlox for £149.00. But if you’re not in any particular rush and interested in saving on cost, you can spin up your own version of the Creative Commons licensed board. The C++ management firmware and Python management GUI isn’t ready for prime time just yet, but you’ll be able to build a “dumb” version of the switch with the provided KiCad design files.

The published schematic in their repo uses a Microchip KSZ8895MQXCA as the Ethernet controller, with a Pulse HX1344NL supplying the magnetics for all the ports in a single surface mount package. Interestingly, the two images that BotBlox shows on their product page include different part numbers like H1102FNL and PT61017PEL for the magnetics, and the Pulse H1164NL for the Ethernet controller.

Make Networks Wired Again

There’s no question that WiFi has dramatically changed the way we connect devices. In fact, there’s an excellent chance you’re currently reading these words from a device that doesn’t even have the capability to connect to a wired network. If you’re looking to connect a device to the Internet quickly, it’s tough to beat.

But WiFi certainly isn’t perfect. For one, you have to contend with issues that are inherent to wireless communications such as high latency and susceptibility to interference. There’s also the logistical issues involved in making that initial connection since you need to specify an Access Point and (hopefully) an encryption key. In comparison, Ethernet will give you consistent performance in more or less any environment, and configuration is usually as simple as plugging in the cable and letting DHCP sort the rest out.

Unfortunately, that whole “plugging in” part can get tricky. Given their size, putting an Ethernet switch into your project to act as an internal bus only works if you’ve got space to burn and weight is of little concern. So as appealing as it might be to build a network into your robot to connect the Raspberry Pi, motor controllers, cameras, etc, it’s rarely been practical.

This little switch could change that, and the fact it’s released under an open source license means hackers and makers will be free to integrate it into their designs. With the addition of an open source management firmware, this device has some truly fascinating potential. When combined with a single board computer or suitably powerful microcontroller, you have the makings of a fully open source home router; something that the privacy and security minded among us have been dreaming of for years.