Understand the significance of administrative distance and metrics when working with routers

When it comes to routing protocols and routes, administrative distance and metrics are two important factors. What exactly do these numbers mean? David Davis introduces you to these two factors and explains why administrators working with Cisco routers need to understand their significance.

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Administrative distance and metrics are two important factors when it comes to which routing protocols and which routes a router uses. Being knowledgeable about these two aspects can make all the difference in network performance, reliability, and circuit selection.

If you're not familiar with administrative distance and metrics, you've probably seen them before and just not paid any attention to them. If you enter a show ip route command, you'll notice two numbers in brackets, listed directly after the route in the table. Here's an example:

O [110/791] via, 00:39:44, Serial1/0:0.21

In this case, 110 represents the administrative distance, and 791 signifies the metric. You can get more details by using the same show ip route command and specifying a single route. Here's an example:

Router# show ip route
Routing entry for
  Known via "ospf 100", distance 110, metric 791, type intra area
  Last update from on Serial1/0:0.21, 01:09:25 ago
  Routing Descriptor Blocks:
  *, from, 01:09:25 ago, via Serial1/0:0.21
      Route metric is 791, traffic share count is 1

But what exactly do these numbers mean? Let's take a closer look at each one.

Administrative distance

Administrative distance (AD) is how a router determines which source of routes it should use if it has two identical routes from different sources. In other words, the router needs to be able to determine which routes to trust if it's receiving the same information from two different sources. For a better idea, consider trying to decide which local news program, all of which more or less cover the same events, is most trustworthy.

If you only have one router with one routing protocol and one WAN circuit, or if you're only using static routes, administrative distance doesn't affect your situation. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't be familiar with its purpose.

But if you have a slightly more complex network—say you have two WAN circuits or you're using two routing protocols (even if one of them is static routing)—administrative distance takes on more importance.

The sources of the routes aren't only routing protocols, such as RIP, OSPF, or BGP. Possible sources can also be connected routes (i.e., the interfaces on the router) and static routes (which you entered as network administrator).

The router determines which source is the most trustworthy (i.e., reliable) according to the administrative distance. The lower the administrative distance, the more trustworthy the routing source.

To help make this decision, routers contain a preprogrammed table that lists all of the possible sources and their default administrative distances. Listing A offers an example of what this table looks like. (While administrators can change default administrative distances by using the distance command in Router Configuration Mode, this is usually not advisable.)

For example, if the router receives a route from OSPF and a route from RIP, it chooses the OSPF route. OSPF's administrative distance is 110, as compared to RIP's 120.

Here's another example: Let's say your router received a route from EIGRP Internal, whose administrative distance is 90, but you mistakenly entered a static route to an IP address, which has an administrative distance of 1. The router would use the static route and not the EIGRP route.

One last thought: Administrative distance is an important topic on the CCNA test. If you're preparing for this exam, make sure you know the administrative distances for the common routing protocols.


A routing protocol uses a metric to determine which route to include in the routing table when it has two available routes to the same destination. The router will include the route with the smallest metric because it considers this route to be the shortest—and therefore best.

As opposed to administrative distance, metrics involve a single routing protocol. They have nothing to do with multiple sources for routes.

For example, here's a look at the truncated output of a show ip eigrp topology command:

P, 1 successors, FD is 6049536
        via (6049536/5537536), Serial3/0
        via (52825600/281600), Tunnel55

Notice that this routing protocol, EIGRP, has two routes to this network. However, the router will only include one of these routes—the one with the best metric—in the routing table. Here's an example of what the entry in the routing table looks like:

Router# show ip route
Routing entry for
  Known via "eigrp 100", distance 120, metric 6049536, type internal
  Redistributing via eigrp 100
  Last update from on Serial3/0, 00:56:12 ago
  Routing Descriptor Blocks:
  *, from, 00:56:12 ago, via Serial3/0
      Route metric is 6049536, traffic share count is 1
      Total delay is 41000 microseconds, minimum bandwidth is 512 Kbit
      Reliability 226/255, minimum MTU 1500 bytes
      Loading 1/255, Hops 2

Different routing protocols calculate their metric in different ways. RIP uses hops, OSPF uses bandwidth, and EIGRP uses a combination of bandwidth, delay, load, and reliability.

For more information on what different routing protocols use as their metrics, check out "Select the right routing protocol for your network."

David Davis has worked in the IT industry for 12 years and holds several certifications, including CCIE, MCSE+I, CISSP, CCNA, CCDA, and CCNP. He currently manages a group of systems/network administrators for a privately owned retail company and performs networking/systems consulting on a part-time basis.