December 18, 2023
min read

What is the data plane?

Team ngrok

The data plane, a crucial component in modern cloud architectures, is like the engine of a distributed system. It is responsible for the actual processing of data, doing work that is farmed out to it by the control plane to accomplish some task for the distributed system. There are several areas in cloud computing where these control and data planes are referred to. Whether it's networking, Kubernetes, databases, analytics, or overall software as a service architecture.

The role of the data plane

A distributed system's job is to move data around and process it to accomplish some task or goal. What this means is context-dependent for the system itself. Some examples:

In a cloud networking system

In cloud networking, the data plane's primary function is to handle the movement of data packets within and between cloud environments. It operates at a lower level compared to the control plane, dealing directly with the packet forwarding performed by network devices like switches and routers. The data plane is tasked with executing the routing decisions provided by the control plane and managing the data flow across the network's physical and virtual infrastructure.

One of the key features of the data plane in cloud networking is its ability to process a vast amount of data with high efficiency and speed. As cloud applications often require the transfer of large volumes of data, the data plane is designed to handle these demands with minimal latency. This is achieved through advanced packet processing techniques and hardware acceleration technologies that ensure rapid data throughput and reduced processing time.

In addition to packet forwarding, the data plane in cloud networks also encompasses various other functions critical to network performance. These include traffic filtering, load balancing at the packet level, and quality of service (QoS) management. By performing these functions, the data plane contributes to the overall reliability and efficiency of the cloud network, ensuring that data packets are delivered accurately and efficiently to their intended destinations.

The evolution of cloud technology has also influenced the development of the data plane, particularly with the adoption of software-defined networking (SDN). In an SDN architecture, while the control plane is responsible for making routing decisions, the data plane remains focused on executing these decisions. The separation of control and data planes in SDN allows for greater flexibility and programmability in network management, enabling cloud administrators to optimize data flows and adapt to changing network conditions more effectively.

In a database as a service system

With cloud DBaaS platforms, the role of the data plane is to run the actual database engine software that stores and processes the underlying data. Regardless of whether the engine is SQL, NoSQL, In-Memory, Vector or something else entirely there will always be one or more components whose job is to ingest data, store it on disk or in RAM (or both), and accept user queries to Create, Read, Update, and Delete those records. 

In analytics as a service system

Analytics systems have similar properties to Database Systems in that the role of the data plane is to process information. However, unlike databases their job is not to store and provide for CRUD operations on records, they are usually simply processing vast amounts of operational data stored across a variety of OLAP or Data Warehouse systems. Processing huge amounts of data necessitates breaking large jobs down into smaller jobs and farming those jobs out to worker instances that talk to the underlying data sources to analyze and answer specific user questions. The system might have one or more data planes deployed, for example different data planes in different on-premise datacenters or cloud vendors to run where the underlying data sources actually live. These data planes will take job instructions from the control plane, execute their portion of the analytics task, and ship the results back to the control plane for viewing or reporting to the end user.

Data plane security

Security is another crucial aspect of the data plane in cloud networking. As the data plane handles the actual transfer of data, implementing security measures at this level is essential to protect against data breaches and unauthorized access. Techniques such as encryption, intrusion detection systems, authentication, and authorization are employed within the data plane to ensure the secure transmission of data across the cloud network.

Learn more about secure ingress to external networks

In conclusion, the data plane is an integral part of modern cloud architecture, responsible for the actual transmission and processing of data based on the strategic decisions of the control plane, making it essential for the smooth operation and reliability of cloud distributed systems. As cloud computing continues to advance, the data plane's role in supporting high-performance and secure cloud services remains fundamental, driving the ongoing evolution of network technologies and architectures. 

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