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Control Plane vs Data Plane

by Iwan Price-Evans on Networking • June 9, 2022

In networking, the terms 'data plane', and 'control plane' are frequently used to describe network topology. In this context, a plane is an abstract representation of where certain operations take place within the network. You can think of it as referring to the 'plane of existence' of those operations. 

Any system that performs data traffic routing or filtering has a control plane and a data plane.

Both the control plane and the data plane are often used in diagrams that visualize network traffic.

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Control plane

The control plane is the part of networking, routing, and cloud infrastructure responsible for controlling and managing the environment and logic. 

The control plane manages: 

Control plane functions include:

  • Holding configurations
  • Storing data plane logic
  • Provisioning users and roles
  • Exposing user interfaces
  • Application location decisions
  • Ensuring service availability

Every component with a control plane also has a data plane that is responsible for data packet forwarding and switching.

Data plane

The data plane is often referred to as the 'forwarding' plane but it can also be known as the 'user' or 'carrier' plane.  

A data plane has a managing control plane that holds the logic it needs to perform processing. 

The data plane does the work of forwarding traffic to its destination. You can think of the data plane as a 'worker' that sends data packets through routers but the routing decisions are made by the control plane 'manager'.  

Data plane functions: 

  • Use routing logic from in the control plane 
  • Use routing and forwarding tables 
  • Send data packets to network interfaces

The data plane is responsible for: 

  • Processing communications from the control plane 
  • Moving data packets from one location to another 

Centralized Control Planes

In traditional networking, the control plane manages the flow of packets through the network while the data plane handles packet forwarding. With software-defined networking (SDN), the two planes are separated so that the control plane can manage the entire network, rather than just individual devices.

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Control planes that are centralized and decoupled from the data plane have become essential to organizations that deploy scalable infrastructure. They are critical to effectively managing distributed environments.

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