Router Recovery

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So you've created yourself an expensive paperweight...

Not to worry! If you aren't breaking things, then chances are you aren't making hardcore progress. This page serves as a knowledge pool for methods to revive routers that are corrupted or otherwise considered non-functional. The information below is mostly specific to the WRT54GL as it is our most popular and well understood platform at this time. The process is somewhat similar for other models/platforms; however, some of the utilities are limited to specific platforms and commands vary slightly between bootloaders (ex. [U-Boot] vs CFE).

Sometimes the router won't boot because of a corrupted NVRAM variable and a simple factory reset will resolve the problem. Chances are if you've sought out this page you are in much deeper and probably need a more serious TFTP or JTAG recovery. We'll start with the simple solutions and work our way to the more intense recovery methods.

Contents

Before You Begin

If you haven't already, backup your router's configuration. Hopefully you did this earlier so you can restore to a "known good" working state. If you didn't, it is still a good idea to do that now; it can always get worse. You'll also want to grab yourself a copy of some reliable firmware. The default firmware that shipped with your router is a good place to start (generally available from the manufacturer's website). Otherwise, a stable release of your favorite embedded Linux distribution is a good alternative.

Factory Reset

Don't get your hopes up for this one, but sometimes [Occam's razor] applies to router recovery. To do a factory reset, hold down the reset switch for about 10 seconds while the unit is powered on, then unplug it. Let it rest for a little while then power it back up. If this isn't working for you, try the dd-wrt [30/30/30] reset method.

There's another option if you have access to a serial console, but your router isn't necessarily readily accessible (say locked in a rack somewhere with a pool of backends). Access the CFE as you normally would. Then, issue the command

CFE> nvram erase

and then reboot. Some models do not properly reinitialize their NVRAM variables automatically, so be careful with this method. The WRT54GL does recover them conveniently from a separate stored location in flash.

If you haven't caught on by now, these methods erase any custom settings that were stored in NVRAM. Don't forget to re-configure and commit your network settings, if applicable.

Serial Console

Now is a good time to check that your serial console is up and running. If you don't see any text coming across the serial link, then you should double check your transceiver is working properly. Swap with a working one or at least try the one in question on another working router, if you have one available. If you can access the web interface (assuming the OS in flash has one) at either the default IP address or the one you configured, then your flash image is probably fine--fix your serial console. It is important that you are confident your serial console if functional; henceforth we'll be looking for output on the serial port as a metric for whether each recovery method is successful or not.

If you can see text and access the CFE but your router won't boot, try re-flashing the firmware with TFTP.

If you are confident the serial interface hardware is working properly but your router appears dead, then proceed to the next section.

JTAG

In a nutshell, JTAG is an external interface that allows external control of an SoC and its memory. You can read more about this on our EJTAG page. JTAG allows us to recover routers that are completely unresponsive (aka debricking). Before continuing, you'll need a JTAG cable (active or passive will do) and a header soldered to the JTAG connector on your router. See the references below for some suggestions on this bit.

Software

For WRT54GL recovery, the popular programs are the original HairyDairyMaid utility and a port called TJTAG. If you purchase a commercial cable, it may come with a hardware specific recovery tool. This guide focuses on TJTAG. Download a copy of the source (linked below) and compile as usual.

If you built your own cable, chances are it uses a legacy printer style parallel port interface. You'll need adequate permissions to use this device in order to run the JTAG software. In *nix style systems usually means the user you execute TJTAG as must be a member of the lp group.

The result of the groups command should look something like this before you continue:

user@host:~$ groups
user lp dialout

Membership of the dialout group isn't strictly necessary; however, you will need this as well if you want to use a local serial console.

Establish a Connection

Now we must verify that TJTAG can properly connect to the JTAG interface on the router. Connect the JTAG cable to both your PC and the router but leave the power disconnected. On most routers you will be fighting the watchdog timer so it is a good idea to type out whatever command you want to execute (without hitting enter), then provide power, and finally quickly hit enter as soon as the router LEDs light up.

Active vs Passive

If you built the active buffered cable you need to add the /wiggler option to all of your TJTAG commands. The passive unbuffered cable does not require this option and you should leave it off when using this type of cable. If you anticipate needing to revive routers often, an active cable is surely worth the additional investment in time and parts so you aren't restricted to working within 6 inches of your parallel port. Otherwise, the unbuffered cable works great provided you can manage the logistics of the restricted cable length.

TJTAG Options

The next trick is to find the magical combination of optional TJTAG parameters which makes your router happy. Even within a single make/model this seems to vary greatly--most likely because of various flash chip manufacturers. For starters, we'll use the -probeonly option to guess and check which options will work before modifying the contents of flash. Usually something like

user@host:tjtag$ ./tjtag -probeonly /wiggler /noemw /noreset

will do the trick. If you are not getting the desired output (see below), try experimenting with the DMA, break, and reset switches. Once you've mastered the combinatorics game, you can move onto read/write operations.

Successful Output

When you've got the right combinations of parameters, you should see an output like this:

==============================================
 EJTAG Debrick Utility v3.0.1 Tornado-MOD 
==============================================

Probing bus ... Done

Instruction Length set to 8

CPU Chip ID: 00000101001101010010000101111111 (0535217F)
*** Found a Broadcom BCM5352 Rev 1 CPU chip ***

    - EJTAG IMPCODE ....... : 00000000100000000000100100000100 (00800904)
    - EJTAG Version ....... : 1 or 2.0
    - EJTAG DMA Support ... : Yes
    - EJTAG Implementation flags: R4k MIPS32

Issuing Processor / Peripheral Reset ... Skipped
Enabling Memory Writes ... Skipped
Halting Processor ... <Processor Entered Debug Mode!> ... Done
Clearing Watchdog ... Done

Probing Flash at (Flash Window: 0x1fc00000) ... 
Done

Flash Vendor ID: 00000000000000000000000011101100 (000000EC)
Flash Device ID: 00000000000000000010001010100010 (000022A2)
*** Found a K8D3216UBC  2Mx16 BotB     (4MB) Flash Chip ***

    - Flash Chip Window Start .... : 1fc00000
    - Flash Chip Window Length ... : 00400000
    - Selected Area Start ........ : 00000000
    - Selected Area Length ....... : 00000000



 *** REQUESTED OPERATION IS COMPLETE ***

The last line is important. Don't move on until you get this response.

Troubleshooting

If you see something like this:

==============================================
 EJTAG Debrick Utility v3.0.1 Tornado-MOD 
==============================================

Probing bus ... Done

Instruction Length set to 8

CPU Chip ID: 00000101001101010010000101111111 (0535217F)
*** Found a Broadcom BCM5352 Rev 1 CPU chip ***

    - EJTAG IMPCODE ....... : 00000000100000000000100100000100 (00800904)
    - EJTAG Version ....... : 1 or 2.0
    - EJTAG DMA Support ... : Yes
    - EJTAG Implementation flags: R4k MIPS32

Issuing Processor / Peripheral Reset ... Done

You probably don't have the correct combination of options for your router. Play with the different switches available before attempting to read/write from flash.


If you see something like this:

==============================================
 EJTAG Debrick Utility v3.0.1 Tornado-MOD 
==============================================

Probing bus ... Done

Instruction Length set to 5

CPU Chip ID: 11111111111111111111111111111111 (FFFFFFFF)
*** Unknown or NO CPU Chip ID Detected ***

*** Possible Causes:
    1) Device is not Connected.
    2) Device is not Powered On.
    3) Improper JTAG Cable.
    4) Unrecognized CPU Chip ID.

Aside from what the output mentions already check that

  • the header is soldered properly
  • tjtag has permission to use the parallel port
  • you didn't forget the /wiggler switch (active cable only).

General Advice for Read/Write Operations

In the next few steps you'll attempt to correct some issues in flash memory that might prevent the router from booting correctly. Ideally when you deal with flash, it is best not to interrupt the process before it finishes on its own. That is why it is important to get the TJTAG options correct with the -probeonly option. If an operation hangs while attempting to read/write, don't panic. It is probably in your best interests not to buy any lottery tickets tonight, but most likely all is not lost. Be patient--be sure you've given it ample time to complete. If it doesn't seem to be making any progress then you probably need to reset the router. Various sources on the Internet have different opinions on the best way to reset. Nevertheless, we've found that disconnecting the power first and then canceling the operation (via CTRL+C) works the best. Lastly, try the operation again (double check your parameters).

Erase NVRAM

Step 1. As before, it's a good idea to ensure NVRAM has been wiped out and isn't harboring corrupt variables. Use the same TJTAG options that got you a successful completion when trying to probe the device.

Example:

user@host:tjtag$ ./tjtag -erase:nvram /wiggler /noemw /noreset

When the device reboots, it should reinitialize the correct NVRAM settings from the backup location within the CFE. If you now have a serial console, success, you're good to go. Don't forget to reconfigure any custom NVRAM settings. If that didn't work, read on.

Erase the Kernel

Step 2. For whatever reason, it is possible for a corrupted kernel to prevent the bootloader from producing any output. Again, use the same options you figured out during the -probeonly phase.

Example:

user@host:tjtag$ ./tjtag -erase:kernel /wiggler /noemw /noreset

After rebooting your router, you should get console output that indicates the CFE was upset to find there's no kernel to load from flash. This is normal; you did just erase this region of flash (hopefully). Now you can proceed to flashing a new kernel or maybe you just want to load an elf image over the network.

Still got a blank serial console? Read on.

CFE Recovery

Step 3. Your last ditch effort is to replace the bootloader. If your CFE is corrupted then there's no hope of booting. Luckily, we can flash new one using TJTAG. The CFE contains a few settings unique to each router. If you made a backup of your CFE before things went South, you can use that to restore the router to working order. If you don't have a backup, you can borrow a copy from another identical router. In the latter case you must customize the CFE binary a bit before using it on a different router. In the event you don't have access to a working router of the same make and model, try searching around on the Internet for a pristine CFE. There have been a few "CFE collection" projects out there; you might get lucky.

Transplant Another Router's CFE

If you have the original CFE for this exact router, skip ahead to the next section. Otherwise, start by cloning the CFE of your good router using the usual methods.

There are a few CFE variables unique to each router. For the WRT54GL, see our flash memory page for specific locations. There should be a unique identifier and a pair of cryptography keys as well as the device MAC addresses. We're primarily concerned with the MAC address of the first physical Ethernet interface, but feel free to update the others as well. For the WRT54GL, 0x1E00 contains the MAC address used by the CFE at boot time. While you can override this setting later for your kernel in your local network configuration or NVRAM, you can't fool the bootloader (well you can, but not persistently). Especially, if you are running a pseudo-static DHCP configuration for a pool of backends, you'll get lots of network conflicts during the boot process unless this is set correctly. For the WRT54GL, this MAC address should match the one on the bottom sticker. Other routers have various schemes/offsets for what the address should be relative to the one printed on the case depending on how many physical interfaces the unit has and how the manufacturer chose to allocate the addresses. If you are feeling ambitious, you can update the default NVRAM settings in the CFE backup location so they are correct when you do a factory reset. Alternatively, these can always be corrected later using the NVRAM utilities.

To edit the CFE, fire up your favorite hex editor and tweak each location as necessary. We happen to like shed, which has a nice nano like interface. Note that with shed your changes are affecting the file directly as you make them. There is no "quit without saving" option. It is always a good idea to make a copy of the CFE.BIN file you are planning to edit so you can revert to the original without having to grab it off the good router again.

Example:

offset    asc hex dec oct bin
00001DFE:     00  000 000 00000000
00001DFF:     00  000 000 00000000
00001E00:  C  43  067 103 01000011
00001E01:  0  30  048 060 00110000
00001E02:  :  3A  058 072 00111010
00001E03:  F  46  070 106 01000110
00001E04:  F  46  070 106 01000110
00001E05:  :  3A  058 072 00111010
00001E06:  E  45  069 105 01000101
00001E07:  E  45  069 105 01000101
00001E08:  :  3A  058 072 00111010
00001E09:  C  43  067 103 01000011
00001E0A:  0  30  048 060 00110000
00001E0B:  :  3A  058 072 00111010
00001E0C:  F  46  070 106 01000110
00001E0D:  F  46  070 106 01000110
00001E0E:  :  3A  058 072 00111010
00001E0F:  E  45  069 105 01000101
00001E10:  E  45  069 105 01000101
00001E11:     00  000 000 00000000
00001E12:     FF  255 377 11111111
00001E13:     FF  255 377 11111111
00001E14:     FF  255 377 11111111
                                                             1E00/40000 (hex) 
SPACE|E edit  S|W|F search  J jump to   T dec/hex   D dump     1|2|4 cursor
X       exit  R|N   repeat  B bin edit  A ext. asc  P preview  `     endian

You should now have a CFE.BIN file with the correct MAC address(es) ready for flashing! Proceed to the instructions below as if you had a correct backup all along.

Using the Same Router's Backup

Copy your CFE binary to a file called CFE.BIN in the same directory as the TJTAG executable. You don't have a choice for what file TJTAG reads in. When you are ready to write it to the router, once again make sure you know which TJTAG switches keep your particular router happy.

Example:

user@host:tjtag$ ./tjtag -flash:cfe /wiggler /noemw /noreset

Now, go get a cup of coffee or take a power nap. Bit-banging a few hundred kilobytes with a parallel interface can take awhile. You should see exactly what TJTAG is writing to flash whirring by as well as the percentage written slowly increasing. Sometimes the watchdog timer doesn't disable correctly and you have to try this a few times before it will keep going. If it going to fail usually this happens within the first few seconds.

A fresh CFE should fix most stubborn routers that aren't physically damaged, but we make no guarantees. Your mileage may vary. Hopefully you have your serial console back and you can proceed to restoring a new kernel. If your router is still unresponsive, unfortunately we have no more advice for you. It is probably time to invest in a new one.

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