Freifunk Gluon – My experiments so far…

This will be a post about what I have been doing with respect to Mesh Networks for the past couple of weeks and also my post after a long time.

Am I new to Mesh Networks?

No, and I am not an expert either. I was introduced to Mesh Networks on the month of April’2016 from my friends at Chennai and Pondicherry. Though I have been part of Mesh Networks for the past 10 months, I have not been very active in the last very few months due to personal reasons and its on me. So, that’s it and I am not going to give lecture about the sequence of events.

Alright, I am not new. What then?

Though I have been inactive, I was a silent observer in the community groups watching over what was going on. Many times I would be so eager to jump in, but the fear of going inactive (which I do a lot) again held me back. Recently, there was a sudden spike among the peers about Mesh and how to bring it back up. That’s when in one our Matrix groups we got into conversation with guys from Freifunk and they were talking about the the Gluon firmware that’s being widely used in the Freifunk communities. That’s when there was sudden spike inside me as well and brought my lazy ass back up.

What happened?

Here, our idea was to setup nodes that were running OpenWrt firmware and a routing protocol called B.A.T.M.A.N at our houses using the cheaply available router TP-Link WR841N. It went fine and people even hosted services on the node like wiki’s, social platform and so on.

But, over time there was a disturbance in the force and we found issues that the routing protocol wouldn’t scale, cheaper hardware doesn’t have enough range, memory footprint and other xyz issues.

What different happened now?

In the current scenario, if there aren’t enough nodes at a given location, all we would be having are lonely island of nodes waiting to call/to be called. In Freifunk, they try to create Mesh Network over VPN. I have looked into technical details of this in depth so I will say what I understood.

The idea is that, the island nodes connect to the gateway nodes via VPN tunnel and they are fully meshed. It might sound like a client (island nodes) – server (gateway node) connection, but its not. The prerequisite of this setup and don’t start bashing me already,  is having an Internet connection. This might be counter-intuitive, but in the current scenario its one of the better ways to connect much spread nodes IMHO.

The routers are flashed with Gluon Firmware (fork of OpenWrt) image developed by the respective communities, which has all the configurations ready and just had to be plugged in to your ADSL modem and all is set. One can even access the internet offered through the gateway and you can also choose to share your internet connection with the public.

Stories aside, what was I doing?

Since, I learned of the above stuffs I started looking around wiki’s of those communities and tried to understand how its being done. One thing that was unique among the communities were that they were continuously updating, since there is no one silver bullet to the issue. I gathered the links (useful or not) and noted them down in a Mozilla Etherpad. Then I wanted to setup a node (not my initial intention) to learn and since the Freifunk guys who were talking with us were from Denmark and Ireland, I decided to flash the Gluon Firmware from Freemesh Denmark community.

The setup was fairly straight forward as I said above and I was able to see my node in the Node map. Though its not a big deal it felt good. Then I started to look into setting up ones own gateway to which nodes can connect to. I spun up a Debian droplet on Digital Ocean and started with the setup. I even bought a domain similar to ones used by Freifunk communities.

We learn from making mistakes and mine was jumping right in without at least contemplating the architecture of the setup. It took time as well, because I was doing it like in trial and error. That is when I took a pause and looked back. The gateway wiki’s I looked had the common steps,

  • Having a server with a reasonable capacity and bandwidth with installing necessary software and users
  • Setting up network interface and bridges
  • Setting up a VPN and its configurations
  • Setting up a routing protocol and its configurations
  • Setting up DHCP, DNS and their configurations
  • Setting up network statistics

I tried experimenting with the above configurations (divide and conquer) one at a time. Only when diving into the above concepts, I came to know how I suck at networking and its high time I get to know it better. At the least, I got to know some basic definition of the networking stuff. Nevertheless, I became comfortable with the setup than I was earlier and yet I am not master of it now.

Where I am now?

I have configured many of the steps and to see if they are working I checked the following,

  • Added my gateway’s IP as one of the VPN (fastd) peers in my router
  • Observed the logs on server, could see my router and gateway in handshake
  • The firmware I have uses BATMAN and so tried to see a list of originators using batctl o and could see my gateways MAC listed and vice versa. I was able to ping either side using batctl ping . Also, the result showed that the VPN was the interface through which the data was going through
  • Then I checked if my router got an IP from the DHCP server and yes it was getting it s well
  • Then, I saw my gateway listed as one of the nameservers on my router by checking file on it
  • I connected my laptop to the mesh router’s hotspot and tried to see which was the DNS server that was used. I issued dig and could see my gateway’s IP in the command’s result.

The above gave me some incentive to proceed with the setup and learn along the way.

So, what’s the point of all this?

Whatever I have been doing is to try and explore the different possibilities and see if it could fit our needs. Will people show in interest this? honestly, I have no idea and this post is not some campaigning for Freifunk. But, I feel that this can be one of the ways we can unite people even though it is using the existing internet. As the technology is improving day by day, one day we might see full fledged implementation of mesh or at least better than what it is now.

Some links

Most of the links that I was looking at is recorded in this etherpad.

Note: Most of the sites are in German and suggest you have some translator plugin or Chromium to convert the page. That’s how I read it.