Abstract We propose an information-theoretic framework for analyzing control systems based on the close relationship of controllers to communication channels. A communication channel takes an input state and transforms it into an output state. A controller, similarly, takes the initial state of a system to be controlled and transforms it into a target state. In this sense, a controller can be thought of as an actuation channel that acts on inputs to produce desired outputs. In this transformation process, two different control strategies can be adopted: (i) the controller applies an actuation dynamics that is independent of the state of the system to be controlled (open-loop control); or (ii) the controller enacts an actuation dynamics that is based on some information about the state of the controlled system (closed-loop control). Using this communication channel model of control, we provide necessary and sufficient conditions for a system to be perfectly controllable and perfectly observable in terms of information and entropy. In addition, we derive a quantitative trade-off between the amount of information gathered by a closed-loop controller and its relative performance advantage over an open-loop controller in stabilizing a system. This work supplements earlier results (Phys. Rev. Lett. 84 (2000) 1156) by providing new derivations of the advantage afforded by closed-loop control and by proposing an information-based optimality criterion for control systems. New applications of this approach pertaining to proportional controllers, and the control of chaotic maps are also presented.