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Date: Thu, 5 Mar 2015 13:36:39 +0300
From: Solar Designer <>
Subject: Re: [PHC] PHC output specifics

On Wed, Mar 04, 2015 at 07:12:43PM +0000, Marsh Ray wrote:
> I posted this to the panel list, but we'd like to move the discussion here.

Thank you for re-posting this in here.  Here's my reply:

> Obviously the most important thing is the selection of the algorithm. But in practice there are lots of other ways users of password hashing algorithms can get pwned too.
> So I'd like to reiterate my desire for the PHC to produce:

With few (important) exceptions, I agree.

> ·         One winning function.

I don't see this happening, unless we throw away some use cases.

> ·         A standard C language API definition. Could be separate ???create??? and ???verify??? functions.


> ·         A recommendation for string encoding (e.g., UTF-8 code points)

As a "recommendation" it's fine, but it will also be ignored by some.
As a requirement, it's probably too limiting.  There are use cases where
an application receives an opaque string without reliably knowing the
encoding (so can't reliably convert to UTF-8 even if it were OK with
this extra complexity).
So I am not sure about this one.

> ·         A standalone credential (hash value, salt, metadata, etc) format. Probably this would be binary with a standard Base64 encoding.

As to concatenating everything in binary, then base64'ing vs. base64'ing
the components first, then concatenating, there are pros and cons to
either approach.  Also, it is unclear whether the standard base64
encoding or crypt(3)'s historical encoding is preferable.  The latter is
more compact, especially if we encode before concatenating, which in
turn is (sometimes a lot) more compact on its own and is more

> ·         A minimal number of knobs to turn for the defender to a) fit the algorithm to their hardware, and to b) fit it to their work factor budget.

I think for complex schemes (if any are selected as winners) two APIs
are needed: low-level with all the knobs, and higher-level where the
low-level knobs would be set according to the (few) high-level knobs and
maybe even the defender system's hardware.  The low-level knob settings
would then be encoded along with the hash, so verification works
seamlessly even if the translation from high-level to low-level e.g.
varies between systems (this will only affect newly set passwords then).

> ·         Conservative recommended default values for these parameters and advice on other reasonable choices.
> I see two or three knobs here, max.
> ·         Total memory consumption
> ·         Total CPU consumption
> ·         Total memory bus operations.

I think we can do without "Total memory bus operations" as a high-level
knob.  The presumed impact of memory bus saturation is overrated, at
least for current general-purpose server hardware.  I explained why in a
relevant discussion on the public list.

Update: Oh, maybe that's not what Marsh wanted this knob for.  Maybe Marsh
wanted it to control CPU usage vs. memory bandwidth usage as defensive
measures, for reasons unrelated to their impact on overall system
performance.  This makes more sense to me.  However, a typical user of
this API would not be qualified to make an informed decision on this.
This is difficult even for us.  For example, Bill advocates for
maximizing the memory filling speed, whereas I also see much value in 
maximizing the expected attacker's computation latency and memory usage
product.  I'd like to make this a low-level knob where possible, and in
an advanced implementation the auto-tuning function could set it
according to the current defender's system (or implementation authors
could adjust the default later based on actual attacks, such as when
there are ASICs).

Instead, as Tony suggested, the thread-level parallelism knob should be
exposed in the high-level API.

Instruction-level and SIMD parallelism, if tunable, should be low-level
knobs, in the more advanced implementations to be auto-detected given
the current defender system's hardware.  Not explicitly exported in the
high-level API, but encoded with the hash.

[ Fundamentally, there's no difference between thread-level and
instruction-level parallelism, since parallelism can be moved between
levels (and attack-optimized implementations often do just that, moving
the parallelism coming from having multiple candidate passwords down to
instruction level).  However, there is a difference in efficiency on
specific platforms and implementation complexity.  Specialized support
for tunable instruction-level parallelism can be far more efficient and
cleaner to implement for a given defender than moving excessive
thread-level parallelism down to instruction-level would be. ]

> The first two parameters are probably best expressed logarithmically. The third, I'm not so sure.

I think for parameters that span a wide range or/and are unsuitable for
fine-tuning anyway, we should use base2 logarithm where possible.

For parameters that are typically small (or fall into a narrow range and
thus can be expressed via small integers), I think variable-length
little-endian encoding works best.  This is a reason why we might prefer
to encode before concatenating.  For example, "E6....9...." could be
shortened to "E6$9$".  Alternatively, decimal numbers could be used,
e.g. "14$8$1$" (representing scrypt's recommended N=2^14, r=8, p=1).

> If we don't define these things, other people will. Lots of other people, incompatibly, and hilarity will ensue.

Right.  We need a standardization phase.  And maybe we should combine it
with winner selection.  And maybe we should make some tweaks to the
finalists themselves (in coordination with the submitters, of course) as
we standardize them as winners - e.g., Bill sort of suggested that we
make Catena a lot faster.  We should discuss this (separately from this


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