The data plane is a part of the telecommunications infrastructure that carries user traffic. It is a critical network layer that enables data transmission. Because of its core function, the data plane is also called the “forwarding plane,” “user plane,” or “carrier plane.”

The data plane works the same way as a mail or postal carrier whose job is to carry parcels from one place to another. Postal workers don’t have to know what the packages contain. Similarly, the data plane forwards traffic from one device to another without caring about what the traffic is all about.

Other interesting terms…

Read More about a “Data Plane”

Understanding what a data plane is requires basic networking knowledge. A network device is often three-dimensional and comprises three planes tasked with different but equally essential functions. A network device refers to the hardware that connects different devices, such as routers and switches. Aside from the data plane, the other two planes are the control and management planes. The three planes work together to enable the seamless and secure flow of data traffic.

The following section discusses the differences between the data, control, and management planes.

Data Plane versus Control Plane versus Management Plane

We summed up the primary differences between the data, control, and management planes in the following table:

Data PlaneControl PlaneManagement Plane
FunctionForwards network trafficDictates the data plane’s actionsConfigures and monitors a network device

We explained these differences in greater detail below.


The data plane carries traffic like a postal carrier delivers mail from the post office to the recipient. The postal carrier might need to deliver 50–100 parcels per day, so his/her delivery speed is important. The same is true with the data plane. It needs to carry data from one port to another at a certain speed. Data planes are often configured to send traffic at wire speed, such as 10 Gigabytes per second (Gbps).

On the other hand, the control plane contains the program that describes the data plane’s job. It tells the data plane which port number to get the traffic from and what port number to send it to. That is also where traffic prioritization and blocking take place. In our mail carrier analogy, you can think of the control plane as the postmaster or postmistress. He/She oversees the post office, manages mail distribution, and assigns routes to mail carriers.

Finally, the management plane allows administrators to configure the network device. Gaining access to the management plane gives the user power over all the other data planes and network traffic. As such, it has to be secured heavily. The management plane can be compared to a post office’s computer system where all relevant details about letters and parcels are encoded. As the administrator, the postmaster or postmistress can monitor all the parcels’ status and reroute or reassign them to other carriers. If an unauthorized person accesses the computer, he/she can also do all these functions.


In the past, the data and control planes were implemented in a device’s firmware. But the control plane is now implemented in the software. This separation makes network administration more flexible and granular. It also helped ease the process of packet switching, the method of dividing data into packets to make networks more efficient.

Now that you understand what a data plane is, you know that it is the network component that makes it possible for you to receive and transmit data every time you use the Internet. Of course, it goes hand in hand with the control and management planes, all of them making network devices work the way they do.