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What is routing, and how does it work?

Do all roads lead to Rome? To be fair, every road can lead wherever you want, but it doesn’t mean that’s the best path to where you want to go. The same applies to the internet. That’s why we have routers, switches, and gateways — devices designed to find the best path for data to travel from its source to its destination. Let’s see how the routing process works and why it’s so important.

What is routing, and how does it work?

What is routing?

Routing is the process of path selection between devices and networks. In other words, it’s the way devices, or nodes, pick the path for communication. Routing principles apply to all types of networks but you’ll likely be most familiar with packet-switching networks, such as the internet, that use routers to pick the best paths for data to travel through.

How does routing work?

Just like road traffic, internet traffic must be managed carefully to avoid congestion. And it’s no easy task considering the amount of nodes data has to travel through to reach its destination. To ensure your smooth browsing experience, a router must take into account the state of the network, consider all viable paths to the destination, and select the most efficient one. And it must do millions of these calculations every second. How do routers do it?

You can think about routers like your GPS app while you’re planning your route. Just like your app has to gather data from other drivers to choose the right path for you, routers analyze every data packet to know its destination and pick the best path from its routing table. To determine between one path or another, say the fastest or the shortest, routers use many metrics such as:

  • Hop count. The number of devices that the data has to pass through to reach the destination. The more routers and switches the data has to travel through, the higher the hop count value.
  • Delay. The time it takes for the data to travel from the source to the destination.
  • Load balancing. The way a router can distribute network traffic across multiple paths.

Router security

Router security is something that is often overlooked. Remember, it’s a device that handles all your internet traffic. A hacker could potentially break into your router, see your internet traffic, and even tinker with your routing protocols. So whether you represent a company or are more of a casual user, keep an eye out for strange network behavior. If you run a larger network, you might benefit from using tools for network monitoring to track potential signs of router hacking.

For example, some router hacking signs can be:

  • Unexpected spikes in traffic and data usage.
  • Unusual logins.
  • Different configuration.
  • Slow network performance.
  • Unfamiliar devices on the network.

Routing protocols

Routing protocols are mechanisms helping routers exchange the information securely. Common types of routing protocols include distance vector routing, link state routing, and path vector routing protocols. Distance-vector protocols maintain routing tables that list all the available paths to each destination, link-state protocols maintain a synchronized view of the entire network by exchanging link-state advertisements (LSAs) among routers, while path-vector protocols are designed to be used with autonomous systems (AS).

Different routing protocols can be used to improve network efficiency:


The Open Shortest Path First (OSPF) is a link state protocol that’s commonly used by network routers to dynamically identify the fastest and shortest available routes for sending packets to their destination.


Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) is a path vector protocol that uses AS Path, a path attribute to select the best path between two autonomous systems.


Routing Information Protocol (RIP) is a distance-vector protocol that allows routers to exchange routing updates periodically and determine the best way to reach network destinations using metrics such as hop count.


The Enhanced Interior Gateway Routing Protocol (EIGRP) is a Cisco-owned distance-vector protocol utilizing the advantages of both link-state and distance-vector protocols. They determine the best path for data by exchanging information about the entire network topology and evaluating the available paths in terms of bandwidth, delay, and reliability.


The Internet Protocol (IP) provides the foundation for the internet because, as a connectionless protocol, IP enables transferring of data packets across multiple networks.

Static routing

In static routing, all routes in a router are configured manually, defining the paths for data to take in advance. That’s why one of the biggest static routing disadvantages is having to check the paths regularly. Because if the path breaks down, it may prevent the data from reaching its destination.

However, static routing has its advantages, especially in small networks. Static routing is simple to configure, requires less CPU resources, and generates zero traffic. It’s also more secure because paths to the network are severely limited.

Dynamic routing

Dynamic routing counters some of the drawbacks of static routing such as the enormous effort needed to set it up on a large network. While it requires more computing power and maintenance, configuration is easy. Dynamic routing protocols also has fault tolerance. It can detect failure and reroute traffic using alternative paths automatically.

Dynamic routing protocols are capable of adapting to changes in the network topology as routers exchange routing updates regularly. It fits larger organizations with multiple networks and hundreds of devices because it can scale well with the growing network.

The difference between network routing, IP routing, and traffic routing

Network routing, IP routing, and traffic routing are similar concepts but they have different implications in networking. For example, network routing is everything we’ve been talking about so far, i.e. how network devices such as routers, switches, and gateways connect different networks and pick the most efficient path for data to travel.

IP routing is a type of network routing that involves the transmission of IP packets, basic data units of the IP protocol. IP routing can use OSPF, BGP, or RIP routing protocols to exchange routing information and find the optimal path for each IP packet.

Traffic routing, on the other hand, is the process of directing the traffic. It uses traffic management tools such as firewalls, balancers, and content delivery networks to optimize performance, improve availability, and ensure security. Traffic routing depends on the protocol used, port, the source and destination, and security policy.

What is VLAN routing?

VLAN (Virtual Local Area Network) routing allows communication between different VLANs on the same network. It is commonly used to segment a large enterprise network into different logical groups. This helps improve performance, boosts security, and provides an easier way to manage the entire network.

VPN and internet traffic over Meshnet

VPN users already know that VPN services use routing protocols to route your traffic via a remote server or, that due to security issues, you should use a VPN on a public Wifi network. But you’ve likely never thought about the security of your home network. Don’t worry, there’s no need to tinker with the router settings. But, if you do want to create a secure network, check out Meshnet. It’s free even without a NordVPN subscription.

One of Meshnet’s features is traffic routing. You can add up to 10 internal and 50 external devices to your Meshnet network and choose one to reroute all your traffic through, as if it was your personal VPN server. You can also use your Meshnet network to send files, play co-op games, access remote devices , and collaborate on projects securely.