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What is the Data Plane?

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

In networking, the words "plane", "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.

A data plane has a managing control plane that's responsible for holding configurations, provisioning users, and deciding where operations reside. The control plane also holds the logic used by the data plane. 

The data plane is often used in diagrams that visualize network traffic such as in the following example.


What Does The Data Plane Do?

While the control plane does the management and decision-making of network routing, the data plane does the work of forwarding data packets to their destinations.

The data plane is a 'worker' that sends data packets through routers but the routing decisions are made by the control plane 'manager'. For this reason, the data plane is often referred to as the 'forwarding' plane but it can also be known as the 'user' or 'carrier' plane. 

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 

How Does The Data Plane Work?

A data plane's functions use routing logic from in the control plane, along with routing and forwarding tables to send onward data packets to network interfaces. The data plane is responsible for processing communications from the control plane and moving data from one location to another.