Using dnsmasq under OpenWRT as a TFTP boot server

Lots of routers now offer a nice little web interface you can use to upload firmware. However, there are still a lot of routers that are easiest to flash using netboot methods like tftp. There are plenty of tutorials on doing this, but most focus on using a server installed on your computer. If this is a second router and you already have a working OpenWRT main router, it’s often actually much easier to just use your main router to TFTP boot, which is something dnsmasq (the default DHCP and DNS server) can do out of the box.

In my case, I already have a primary router with external USB storage up and running. This brief tutorial gives the bare bones steps on what you need to do to use this to flash a second router that supports netboot. I’ll be flashing a Mikrotik hEX RB750Gr3 in this example, since I had one I needed to do anyway. If you don’t already have some external storage set up on your main router, take care of that first – the existing tutorials for that are pretty good, so I won’t duplicate that here.

First, boot up your new router at least once and get its MAC address. For some reason things will go more smoothly if you assign it a static IP when it first boots up as a DHCP client.

Configure /etc/config/dhcp (which controls dnsmasq) on your main router. First, turn on the tftp server, and point it to your USB storage:

config dnsmasq
     option enable_tftp '1'
     option tftp_root '/mnt/stor/tftp'

Make sure that second line you added points to the correct folder on your USB storage.

Add a static IP for the box you’ll flash:

config host
      option mac 'B8:27:EB:2B:08:85'
      option name 'somehost'
      option ip ''

Change that MAC to your new router, and give it whatever name and address on its WAN you can remember. You won’t actually need it once it boots up, and you can delete this section once your new router is flashed.

Now, drop the file in the appropriate folder. For TFTP booted routers, you usually need two firmware images: one it can netboot off of from TFTP (which usually has “factory” in the name), and the real copy that gets flashed to the flash memory (usually has “upgrade”). This is a two step process – the netbooted image will not actually be saved to the router, and this is actually a great way to test an OpenWRT build before you flash. You then use the netbooted “factory” image to flash the router using the permanent “upgrade” image. If you don’t do that second step, when you reboot the router, it’ll go straight back to its original OS and settings from memory.

Now, the critical part – take that netboot image in your folder (mine is “openwrt-RB750gr3-GO2021-02-03-factory.bin” for the OpenWRT ROOter fork), and rename it “vmlinux”.

Some router manufacturers also need to find your TFTP server at a specific address, as well. Mikrotik apparently expects If your LAN is already at and the .10 address is free, it is trivial to add .10 as a second address for your main router (this will not affect anything else of significance). From your main router’s command line, simply run:

ip addr add dev eth0.5

Change the bit after “dev” to match whichever interface or port connects to your LAN. In my case, my LAN is on a VLAN port of my router, hence eth0.5.

Now, it’s time to netboot. Shut down your new router if it isn’t already, and plug is WAN port into your existing network.

For the Mikrotik hEX, to trigger a netboot, you plug in the power jack with the reset button already held down. The button does several things depending on how long you hold it down; it comes on lit steady, then starts flashing, then goes off completely. Once it’s off completely you can release the button, as it will be looking for a netboot. If you’re watching your log on your main DHCP router, it’ll post up a log line when it sends the boot image to a DHCP client.

Give it time to boot up, and then try connecting from a client plugged into the LAN side of the new router. One advantage of doing it this way is that you don’t tie up your main computer as both the boot tftp server and the tool you need to log into the new router with. If your OpenWRT image netbooted successfully, you should find your new router at from your test computer.

Now, for the last important part – flash the permanent image! You need to go to System -> Backup / Flash Firmware on the new router and flash that upgrade image, or what you’ve just done won’t stay permanent.

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