A declarative approach to Linux networking with Netplan

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Linux networking can be confusing due to the wide range of technology stacks and tools in use, in addition to the complexity of the surrounding network environment. The configuration of bridges, bonds, VRFs or routes can be done programmatically, declaratively, manually or with automated with tools like ifupdown, ifupdown2, ifupdown-ng, iproute2, NetworkManager, systemd-networkd and others. Each  of these tools use different formats and locations to store their configuration files. Netplan, a utility for easily configuring networking on a Linux system, is designed to unify and standardise how administrators interact with these underlying technologies. Starting from a YAML description of the required network interfaces and what each should be configured to do, Netplan will generate all the necessary configuration for your chosen tool.

In this article, we will provide an overview of how Ubuntu uses Netplan to manage Linux networking in a unified way. By creating a common interface across two disparate technology stacks, IT administrators benefit from a unified experience across both desktops and servers whilst retaining the unique advantages of the underlying tech.

But first, let’s start with a bit of history and show where we are today.

The history of Netplan in Ubuntu

Starting with Ubuntu 16.10 and driven by the need to express network configuration in a common way across cloud metadata and other installer systems, we had the opportunity to switch to a network stack that integrates better with our dependency-based boot model. We chose systemd-networkd on server installations for its active upstream community and because it was already part of Systemd and therefore included in any Ubuntu base installation. It has a much better outlook for the future, using modern development techniques, good test coverage and CI integration, compared to the ifupdown tool we used previously. On desktop installations, we kept using NetworkManager due to its very good integration with the user interface.

Having to manage and configure two separate network stacks, depending on the Ubuntu variant in use, can be confusing, and we wanted to provide a streamlined user experience across any flavour of Ubuntu. Therefore, we introduced Netplan.io as a control layer above systemd-networkd and NetworkManager. Netplan takes declarative YAML files from /etc/netplan/ as an input and generates corresponding network configuration for the relevant network stack backend in /run/systemd/network/ or /run/NetworkManager/ depending on the system configuration. All while keeping full flexibility to control the underlying network stack in its native way if need be.

Design overview (netplan.io)

Who is using Netplan?

Recent versions of Netplan are available and ready to be installed on many distributions, such as Ubuntu, Fedora, RedHat Enterprise Linux, Debian and Arch Linux.

Ubuntu

As stated above, Netplan has been installed by default on Ubuntu systems since 2016 and is therefore being used by millions of users across multiple long-term support versions of Ubuntu (18.04, 20.04, 22.04) on a day-to-day basis. This covers Ubuntu server scenarios primarily, such as bridges, bonding, VLANs, VXLANs, VRFs, IP tunnels or WireGuard tunnels, using systemd-networkd as the backend renderer.

On Ubuntu desktop systems, Netplan can be used manually through its declarative YAML configuration files, and it will handle those to configure the NetworkManager stack. Keep reading to get a glimpse of how this will be improved through automation and integration with the desktop stack in the future.

Cloud

It might not be as obvious, but many people have been using Netplan without knowing about it when configuring a public cloud instance on AWS, Google Cloud or elsewhere through cloud-init. This is because cloud-init’s “Networking Config Version 2” is a passthrough configuration to Netplan, which will then set up the underlying network stack on the given cloud instance. This is why Netplan is also a key package on the Debian distribution, for example, as it’s being used by default on Debian cloud images, too.

Our vision for Linux networking

We know that Linux networking can be a beast, and we want to keep simple things simple. But also allow for custom setups of any complexity. With Netplan, the day-to-day networking needs are covered through easily comprehensible and nicely documented YAML files, that describe the desired state of the local network interfaces, which will be rendered into corresponding configuration files for the relevant network stack and applied at (re-)boot or at runtime, using the “netplan apply” CLI. For example /etc/netplan/lan.yaml:

network:
  version: 2
  renderer: networkd
  ethernets:
    enp3s0:
      dhcp4: true

Having a single source of truth for network configuration is also important for administrators, so they do not need to understand multiple network stacks, but can rely on the declarative data given in /etc/netplan/ to configure a system, independent of the underlying network configuration backend. This is also very helpful to seed the initial network configuration for new Linux installations, for example through installation systems such as Subiquity, Ubuntu’s desktop installer or cloud-init across the public and private clouds.

In addition to describing and applying network configuration, the “netplan status” CLI can be used to query relevant data from the underlying network stack(s), such as systemd-networkd, NetworkManager or iproute2, and present them in a unified way.

Netplan status (Debian)

At the Netplan project we strive for very high test automation and coverage with plenty of unit tests, integration tests and linting steps, across multiple Linux distros, which gives high confidence in also supporting more advanced networking use cases, such as Open vSwitch or SR-IOV network virtualization, in addition to normal wired (static IP, DHCP, routing), wireless (e.g. wwan modems, WPA2/3 connections, WiFi hotspot, controlling the regulatory domain, …) and common server scenarios.

Should there ever be a scenario that is not covered by Netplan natively, it allows for full flexibility to control the underlying network stack directly through systemd override configurations or NetworkManager passthrough settings in addition to having manual configuration side-by-side with interfaces controlled through Netplan.

The future of Netplan desktop integration

On workstations, the most common scenario is for end users to configure NetworkManager through its user interface tools, instead of driving it through Netplan’s declarative YAML files, which makes use of NetworkManager’s native configuration files. To avoid Netplan just handing over control to NetworkManager on such systems, we’re working on a bidirectional integration between NetworkManager and Netplan to further improve the “single source of truth” use case on Ubuntu desktop installations.

Netplan is shipping a “libnetplan” library that provides an API to access Netplan’s parser and validation internals, that can be used by NetworkManager to write back a network interface configuration. For instance, configuration given through NetworkManager’s UI tools or D-Bus API can be exported to Netplan’s native YAML format in the common location at /etc/netplan/. This way, administrators just need to care about Netplan when managing a fleet of Desktop installations. This solution is currently being used in more confined environments, like Ubuntu Core, when using the NetworkManager snap, and we will deliver it to generic Ubuntu desktop systems in 24.04 LTS.

In addition to NetworkManager, libnetplan can also be used to integrate with other tools in the networking space, such as cloud-init for improved validation of user data or installation systems when seeding new Linux images.

Conclusion

Overall, Netplan can be considered to be a good citizen within a network environment that plays hand-in-hand with other networking tools and makes it easy to control modern network stacks, such as systemd-networkd or NetworkManager in a common, streamlined and declarative way. It provides a “single source of truth” to network administrators about the network state, while keeping simple things simple, but allowing for arbitrarily complex custom setups.
If you want to learn more, feel free to follow our activities on Netplan.io, GitHub, Launchpad, IRC or our Netplan Developer Diaries blog on discourse.

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