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The data plane is a part of a network through which user packets are transmitted. It is a theoretical term used to conceptualize the flow of data packets through a network infrastructure. It is often included in diagrams and illustrations to give a visual representation of user traffic.
The data plane is also known as the user plane, the forwarding plane or the carrier plane.
In networking architecture, it is standard practice to separate the information that users send from the information required to process the data. The data plane is commonly contrasted to the control plane, which carries information about the network itself. In the context of telecommunications, the word “plane” means an area of operations, and it is used to distinguish between the traffic flows.
In traditional implementations, what has been called the user plane, the control plane and the management plane have all been integrated into the firmware of routers. The use of packets to identify and delineate digital information requires some form of data lookup in order to determine packet destination.
Routing and forwarding tables provide the answer, and these are an integral part of the routing protocols that manage network traffic. The data plane forwards traffic to the next hop along the path based on information gleaned from data plane packets. These packets travel through routers to create digital conversations in a way that is transparent to internet users.
In software-defined networking (SDN), the data plane is found in the software rather than the firmware. The decoupling of the user plane and the control plane allow for greater flexibility and dynamic control in state-of-the-art network architectures.