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Date: Tue, 26 Aug 2014 11:01:37 -0400
From: Bill Cox <>
Subject: Quick analysis of Argon

Argon has been on my list as a well written, well thought out PHC
entry, and the author even invited me a while back to benchmark it,
which I will do a bit here.

First, it was developed with modern SIMD architectures in mind.  To
me, this differentiates a lot of the candidates from the others.  It
is simply not possible to make a great high performance password
hashing function without understanding the impact of SIMD
instructions.  The Argon author not only took SIMD into account, but
also used the AES-NI instructions to good effect.  Because of the
attention paid to efficiency, Argon is relatively fast compared to
many submissions.  It is possible to use it for 1GiB hashes on modern
PCs without a totally unreasonable delay (closer to 1 second rather
than 1 minute is basically my threshold).  One of the best parts of
Argon is it's simplicity.  Even the optimized code is easy to read,
and I found no bugs.

When run with t_cost = 1, as I would generally prefer, I would call
this a "hybrid" design.  The first loop, SubGroups, does no password
dependent addressing, and is cache-timing attack resistant during this
pass.  In the second loop, ShuffleSlices, data derived from the
password is used to pick pseudo-random locations for swapping.  This
provides much stronger password defense against off-line brute-force
attacks than a purely cache-timing resistant algorithm, while
providing good defense against brute-force password guessing even if
the attacker has cache-timing data.

Minor nit picks:
- Calling memset to clear the Input array does not work.  Check out
Black2b's secure_zero function
- Unindent the #ifdef on line 394 of the optimized linux code.
- To compile on Ubuntu 14.04, I had to change -lpthread to -pthread

The code does a clean job hashing all input parameters.  It was a bit
tricky convincing myself that he did not leave any room for collisions
with different input parameters, but I believe it now.

Bigger concerns:

- Fixed parallelism benefits attackers

The built-in 32-way parallelism can rarely be fully used by users, but
attackers can always use it.  This issue can be fixed by adding the
number of threads to the Input array, and using only that number of
"groups", rather than hard-coding it to 32.  The thread count *has* to
be an input parameter that effects the output unless we want to give
the attacker a free max parallelism bonus.

- Lack of initial key derivation forces compute intensive memory
operations, and leaves sensitive data scattered through memory for too

The Input array is properly built.  However, the right thing to do at
that point is to create a cryptographic hash summary of it, and zero
it out.  This intermediate derived key should then be used to
initialize memory.

As it is, Argon copies sensitive data from the Input array to various
places in state memory, making it far more likely to be written to
disk on a hibernate, or if swapped.  The Input array is not cleared
until memory is fully initialized.  The clear text Input data in state
memory is not scrambled until the SubGroups operations in the next
memory pass.  The entire memory is first zeroed by Linux, then written
in the initialization, then read during SubGroups while doing compute
intensive AES rounds, and finally memory is over-written.

The right place to clear the input data is after deriving the
intermediate key, and before allocating state memory.

Because there is highly sensitive data in memory, Argon *must*
scramble all of memory with cryptographically strong hashing or risk
revealing the password.  This excessive hashing is primarily what
makes Argon run slow.

- Memory access pattern benefits attackers with custom cache memories

An attacker with a custom cache architecture could benefit from the
32x parallelism in ShuffleSlices.  Because of the memory interleaved
access pattern, users will see these operations running mostly
sequentially, regardless of the number of threads.

The ShuffleSlices algorithm defines a "slice" as memory locations
separated by 32.  There are 32 such slices in the "state".  First,
multi-threading performance for is terrible when the threads access
the same memory in an interleaved pattern.  Second, these accesses
will be done mostly sequentially, even though there is room for 32X
parallelism.  An attacker with a custom cache architecture can add an
extra read/write port to the cache and organize memory into 32 smaller
caches containing only data at multiples of 32 apart.  The attacker
with a custom cache will make full use of the 32x parallelism.  This
parallelism can be applied to password hashing whether doing a 16MiB
cache-bound hash, or a 1GiB hash of external memory.

- The memory hashing is too slow

Every even memory location has it's data scrambled with the next
higher location.  A clever scheme reduces the latency to 5 AES rounds
rather than 10, likely without sacrificing security.  However, what
exactly is the point of securely hashing memory?  In Argon's case,
sensitive data was stored there such as the password in plain text, so
memory has to be cryptographically hashed.  Had only data created from
the derived key been written to memory, a much faster 1-round of AES
could have been used.

- Intel specific AES-NI instructions are used

These instructions are awesome, but limit the applicability of Argon.
 For large password server based authentication, the server can be
required to support AES-NI.  However, for an application such as
full-disk-encryption, there are lots of users who will not have access
to these instructions.  As a result, Argon would be far slower than
Script for these users.


I ran this on my 3.4GiH quad-core Ivy Bridge Core i7 processor, with
8GiB CORSAIR Vengence 1600MHz DDR3 memory.  I tweaked the number of
threads to minimize delay.

16MiB run:

Linux-AES-NI> time Argon-Optimized -taglength 32 -logmcost 14 -tcost 1
-pwdlen 64 -saltlen 16 -threads 5
Memory allocated: 16 MBytes, 5 threads
Argon:  5.57 cpb 86.99 Mcycles 0.0614 seconds

real	0m0.028s
user	0m0.059s
sys	0m0.003s

1GiB run:

Linux-AES-NI> time Argon-Optimized -taglength 32 -logmcost 20 -tcost 1
-pwdlen 64 -saltlen 16 -threads 6
Memory allocated: 1024 MBytes, 6 threads
Argon:  6.58 cpb 6580.35 Mcycles 7.4787 seconds

real	0m2.035s
user	0m7.383s
sys	0m0.097s

This isn't too bad.  The 1GiB runtime is a bit slower than Script with
1 thread, though, so I do not consider this an improvement over Script
performance.  The 32X built-in parallelism I believe will make Argon
more susceptible to GPU attacks than Script as well, at least for the
SubGroup portion.  The pseudo-random 16-byte accesses in ShuffleSlices
should provide some GPU defense, but because they are over the whole
memory, users will also be slowed down considerably by these accesses.

While the code is well written, I do not feel Argon currently provides
better security than Script.

For comparison, here's TwoCat's benchmarks run in the same way:

16MiB run:

twocats> time ./twocats -m 14 -P1
hash:blake2s memCost:14 timeCost:0 multiplies:2 lanes:8 parallelism:1
algorithm:twocats-extended password:password salt:salt blockSize:16384

97 95 79 57 81 2d 77 40
a5 b5 db 98 b7 ea 26 f9
ad fc 7f ea 14 c4 40 8e
66 7f 34 ff 0e 3c 39 69      32 (octets)

real	0m0.007s
user	0m0.005s
sys	0m0.003s

1GiB run:

twocats> time ./twocats -m 20 -P2
hash:blake2s memCost:20 timeCost:0 multiplies:2 lanes:8 parallelism:2
algorithm:twocats-extended password:password salt:salt blockSize:16384

3b f7 f6 60 e2 44 96 9c
4c a9 b2 ed 87 27 0b 58
23 0c 5f 58 35 07 2b 82
24 c8 9f dc f9 d5 c2 b8      32 (octets)

real	0m0.171s
user	0m0.252s
sys	0m0.084s

Every factor of 10 counts :-)


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