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What is the Control Plane?

by Iwan Price-Evans on • June 6, 2022

The control plane is the part of networking, routing, and cloud infrastructure that is responsible for controlling and managing the environment and logic. For example, it manages routing algorithms and routing tables in routers, load balancing algorithms and configuration and load balancers, and locations and traffic in a cloud environment. Every component with a control plane also has a data plane that is responsible for packet forwarding and switching.

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What Does The Control Plane Do?

The control plane:

  • Holds configurations
  • Stores the logic for the data plane
  • Provisions user and role access 
  • Exposes a user interface
  • Decides application locations
  • Ensures services are available

The control plane is often referred to in diagrams visually representing network infrastructure.

How Does A Control Plane Work?

The control plane is responsible for routing network traffic that's needed to control that network. It's a framework for understanding the flow of control information between network interfaces. You can think of it as similar to an underground railway control system that manages train traffic and routes them to their destination. 

When referring to routing, the control plane manages functions and processes that decide where data packets get delivered. It works with routing protocols and manages the routing tables needed in the environment. Within the control plane, decisions can be made on network packets, such as whether to discard them or give them priority based on their service use. 

The control plane is an optimized framework that enables policy management, exception handling, customization, and data forwarding.

With organizations adopting more cloud services, the use of the control plane becomes critical to ensuring data packets are controlled and delivered within distributed networks.

How Does The Control Plane Work in SDN?

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.

control-plane-data-plane-diagram-integrated-vs-decoupledDo I Need A Centralized Control Plane?

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.

A centralized control plane is a must-have platform when you're managing apps that are massively scalable and distributed, with many teams involved in the application lifecycle.

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There are a few key scenarios where you might want to use a centralized control plane:

  • You have a hybrid and microservices architecture and need an easy way to manage your application delivery across both environments.
  • You have a multi-cloud strategy and want to reap the benefits of cost optimization but want to unify tooling and observability across platforms.
  • You have applications distributed on edge compute and need an easy way to manage the high volume of edge nodes in a consistent manner.
  • You want to speed up app deployment and empower application developers without compromising security.
  • You have accumulated a lot of tools and perhaps several control plane solutions to managing subsets of tools.
  • You want the flexibility of an on-premises or SaaS solution to help with the scenarios above.