1. The Turris Omnia router: help for the IoT mess?
    1. A short introduction to the Omnia project
    2. Hands on
    3. A nice device to help fight off the IoT apocalypse

The Turris Omnia router is not the first FLOSS router out there, but it could well be one of the first open hardware routers to be available. As the crowdfunding campaign is coming to a close, it is worth reflecting on the place of the project in the ecosystem. Beyond that, I got my hardware recently, so I was able to give it a try.

A short introduction to the Omnia project

The Turris Omnia Router

The Omnia router is a followup project on CZ.NIC's original research project, the Turris. The goal of the project was to identify hostile traffic on end-user networks and develop global responses to those attacks across every monitored device. The Omnia is an extension of the original project: more features were added and data collection is now opt-in. Whereas the original Turris was simply a home router, the new Omnia router includes:

Some models sold had a larger case to accommodate extra hard drives, turning the Omnia router into a NAS device that could actually serve as a multi-purpose home server. Indeed, it is one of the objectives of the project to make "more than just a router". The NAS model is not currently on sale anymore, but there are plans to bring it back along with LTE modem options and new accessories "to expand Omnia towards home automation".

Omnia runs a fork of the OpenWRT distribution called TurrisOS that has been customized to support automated live updates, a simpler web interface, and other extra features. The fork also has patches to the Linux kernel, which is based on Linux 4.4.13 (according to uname -a). It is unclear why those patches are necessary since the ARMv7 Armada 385 CPU has been supported in Linux since at least 4.2-rc1, but it is common for OpenWRT ports to ship patches to the kernel, either to backport missing functionality or perform some optimization.

There has been some pressure from backers to petition Turris to "speedup the process of upstreaming Omnia support to OpenWrt". It could be that the team is too busy with delivering the devices already ordered to complete that process at this point. The software is available on the CZ-NIC GitHub repository and the actual Linux patches can be found here and here. CZ.NIC also operates a private GitLab instance where more software is available. There is technically no reason why you wouldn't be able to run your own distribution on the Omnia router: OpenWRT development snapshots should be able to run on the Omnia hardware and some people have installed Debian on Omnia. It may require some customization (e.g. the kernel) to make sure the Omnia hardware is correctly supported. Most people seem to prefer to run TurrisOS because of the extra features.

The hardware itself is also free and open for the most part. There is a binary blob needed for the 5GHz wireless card, which seems to be the only proprietary component on the board. The schematics of the device are available through the Omnia wiki, but oddly not in the GitHub repository like the rest of the software.

Hands on

I received my own router last week, which is about six months late from the original April 2016 delivery date; it allowed me to do some hands-on testing of the device. The first thing I noticed was a known problem with the antenna connectors: I had to open up the case to screw the fittings tight, otherwise the antennas wouldn't screw in correctly.

Once that was done, I simply had to go through the usual process of setting up the router, which consisted of connecting the Omnia to my laptop with an Ethernet cable, connecting the Omnia to an uplink (I hooked it into my existing network), and go through a web wizard. I was pleasantly surprised with the interface: it was smooth and easy to use, but at the same time imposed good security practices on the user.

Install wizard performing automatic updates

For example, the wizard, once connected to the network, goes through a full system upgrade and will, by default, automatically upgrade itself (including reboots) when new updates become available. Users have to opt-in to the automatic updates, and can chose to automate only the downloading and installation of the updates without having the device reboot on its own. Reboots are also performed during user-specified time frames (by default, Omnia applies kernel updates during the night). I also liked the "skip" button that allowed me to completely bypass the wizard and configure the device myself, through the regular OpenWRT systems (like LuCI or SSH) if I needed to.

The Omnia router about to rollback to latest snapshot

Notwithstanding the antenna connectors themselves, the hardware is nice. I ordered the black metal case, and I must admit I love the many LED lights in the front. It is especially useful to have color changes in the reset procedure: no more guessing what state the device is in or if I pressed the reset button long enough. The LEDs can also be dimmed to reduce the glare that our electronic devices produce.

All this comes at a price, however: at \$250 USD, it is a much higher price tag than common home routers, which typically go for around \$50. Furthermore, it may be difficult to actually get the device, because no orders are being accepted on the Indiegogo site after October 31. The Turris team doesn't actually want to deal with retail sales and has now delegated retail sales to other stores, which are currently limited to European deliveries.

A nice device to help fight off the IoT apocalypse

It seems there isn't a week that goes by these days without a record-breaking distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack. Those attacks are more and more caused by home routers, webcams, and "Internet of Things" (IoT) devices. In that context, the Omnia sets a high bar for how devices should be built but also how they should be operated. Omnia routers are automatically upgraded on a nightly basis and, by default, do not provide telnet or SSH ports to run arbitrary code. There is the password-less wizard that starts up on install, but it forces the user to chose a password in order to complete the configuration.

Both the hardware and software of the Omnia are free and open. The automatic update's EULA explicitly states that the software provided by CZ.NIC "will be released under a free software licence" (and it has been, as mentioned earlier). This makes the machine much easier to audit by someone looking for possible flaws, say for example a customs official looking to approve the import in the eventual case where IoT devices end up being regulated. But it also makes the device itself more secure. One of the problems with these kinds of devices is "bit rot": they have known vulnerabilities that are not fixed in a timely manner, if at all. While it would be trivial for an attacker to disable the Omnia's auto-update mechanisms, the point is not to counterattack, but to prevent attacks on known vulnerabilities.

The CZ.NIC folks take it a step further and encourage users to actively participate in a monitoring effort to document such attacks. For example, the Omnia can run a honeypot to lure attackers into divulging their presence. The Omnia also runs an elaborate data collection program, where routers report malicious activity to a central server that collects information about traffic flows, blocked packets, bandwidth usage, and activity from a predefined list of malicious addresses. The exact data collected is specified in another EULA that is currently only available to users logged in at the Turris web site. That data can then be turned into tweaked firewall rules to protect the overall network, which the Turris project calls a distributed adaptive firewall. Users need to explicitly opt-in to the monitoring system by registering on a portal using their email address.

Turris devices also feature the Majordomo software (not to be confused with the venerable mailing list software) that can also monitor devices in your home and identify hostile traffic, potentially leading users to take responsibility over the actions of their own devices. This, in turn, could lead users to trickle complaints back up to the manufacturers that could change their behavior. It turns out that some companies do care about their reputations and will issue recalls if their devices have significant enough issues.

It remains to be seen how effective the latter approach will be, however. In the meantime, the Omnia seems to be an excellent all-around server and router for even the most demanding home or small-office environments that is a great example for future competitors.

Note: this article first appeared in the Linux Weekly News.

a few more details

Here are a few more details that didn't seem relevant for the original article but that were relevant on a more personal level.

I had to pay a 50$CAD customs fee when I received the device, which brought the price up to around 350$, since I got the more expensive version with 2GB of RAM.

Also, my first attempt at configuring the device led to a complete crash with KeyError('ppp_ipv6',) due to a bug in the install wizard. The workaround was simply to connect to a DHCP network and let the device update itself, fixing the bug.

Unfortunately, the DHCP connection seems to have timed out as well, and there was no clear indication of what to do when the Checking internet connectivity. One moment, please... message would just get stuck there forever. I ended up reseting the machine and re-running the install wizard.

The install wizard is nice, but it forces you to setup encryption over the wifi links. What if you want an open access point? No luck there, that's not allowed at all, unless you go in the "advanced" administration in the classic LuCI interface of OpenWRT of course.

Like many devices, it doesn't show my city (Montreal) in the lists of timezones, and I am forced to chose the next competing city instead (Toronto, usually).

Finally, the errata should mention the problem with the antennas: it is really important people don't go around fixing the problem themselves because they can easily de-solder the small board that holds the antenna connector. I am afraid I did so myself: I knew I had to screw the antennas in by hand, but I didn't know how fragile the board was. I read the errata, but it didn't mention how to fix it.

Comment by anarcat
Just received mine

From Montreal too. Just set up my Omnia, went smoothly. I am looking forward to playing around with it.

Comment by Nathan
Created . Edited .