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Date: Sat, 26 Sep 2015 20:34:53 +0300
From: Solar Designer <>
Subject: Re: [PHC] Specification of a modular crypt format

On Sun, Sep 13, 2015 at 08:26:50PM +0200, Thomas Pornin wrote:
> The SHA-256 crypt format (and other similar formats) use _optional_
> parameters. When the parameters are not specified, then a default value
> must be used; that default will either be hardcoded (FreeBSD uses 5000
> as default value), or configured through a system file (Solaris'
> crypt.conf). In my opinion, a configurable default can only lead to
> trouble: if you have an existing hash string that was computed with the
> default number of rounds, but without recording that value in the
> string, and the default is changed in the system configuration file,
> then the string is broken.


> Conceptually, a function could specify a hardcoded (non-configurable)
> default value for each parameter, and use that value if the parameter is
> omitted from the string. This may make strings shorter; however, this has
> two drawbacks:
>    -- Omitting the parameter decreases readability, because the human
>    reader must then know the default values instead of simply reading
>    them.

True, but this doesn't apply if we opt for a compact rather than a human
readable encoding for other reasons anyway.

>    -- If we want a deterministic output, then the encoder must
>    systematically omit the value when it matches the default, which
>    makes that code slightly more complex.

Here's a way around this: for parameters where our desired default value
is also the minimum valid value, omit them when the default would have
been used, and encode them as value-(minimum+1) otherwise.  This forces
encoders to provide deterministic output - there's simply no other way a
given value could be encoded.  Indeed, this is incompatible with human
friendly encodings, where it'd defeat the purpose of e.g. using decimal
(since the values encoded wouldn't be the actual parameter values), but
it appears OK for compact encodings.

In fact, encoding as value-minimum (if we have no defaults and never
omit anything) or as value-(minimum+1) (with the approach above) also
lets the decoder skip the check for "< minimum", because such invalid
values have no encodings corresponding to them.

For example, either of these approaches would work for scrypt's r=1,
p=1, and yescrypt's flags=0, t=0, g=0.  For r in particular, maybe we
don't actually want r=1 as the default (although IIRC Cisco uses that in
$9$), so maybe we simply encode it as r-1 (so that the invalid r=0 can't
be represented, if our encoding is such that only non-negative numbers
can be represented), but for the rest of these having the smallest valid
value as the default makes sense to me.  (It's a bit weird to encode the
flags bitmask as flags-1, yet in a compact encoding that's fine.)

The "- minimum" doesn't need to be explicit for every parameter;
instead, the "encode a number" and "decode a number" functions could
accept the minimum (and for decode, maybe also the maximum) valid value
(and would take care of subtracting/adding the minimum, and of checking
against the maximum).

> For these reasons, I declare that parameters are non-optional.

For my compact encoding experiments, I haven't decided on that yet.

A question is how to indicate that a parameter is (not) omitted in a
compact encoding.  My current idea is to prefix the optional parameters
with a "have" bitmask (a number encoded like any other), where each bit
would correspond to an optional parameter that does (not) follow.  The
parameters would then be encoded in the same order as the corresponding
bits in "have".

Further, when no optional parameters are specified at all, "have" itself
may(*) be omitted (saving one char), if we do include a '$' between
parameters and salt anyway.  And to ensure deterministic output, "have"
is to be encoded with a minimum of 1 (thus as have-1) when it is present
(this also lets us encode "have" up to 48 rather than up to 47 in 1 char).

(*) By "may", I mean we may choose to specify so, and it'd be a MUST if
we do choose so.

The description above might sound complex, but it's actually very simple
in code.

So for (ye)scrypt we could have:






where "N" is encoding of N-1, "r" is encoding of r-1, "h" is encoding of
have-1, and "p", "f", "t", or/and "g" are encodings of p-2, flags-1,
t-1, g-1 if those are non-default and indicated as present in "have".

This is also extensible for adding more optional parameters (up to 30
total optional parameters) without changing the prefix.  For example, we
could add a parameter for outlen, shown encoded as "o" here:


or e.g.:


Decoders MUST refuse to process encodings where any of the reserved bits
(not understood by a given decoder) in "have" are set.

BTW, I use single characters to show each parameter in the encodings
above - and they will in fact end up being single characters with my
proposed numeric encoding most of the time, yet it's also possible to
encode values of up to over 1 billion in each of them.

Also, we could easily make the '$' before the salt optional (and save 1
char) if "have" is present (since it indicates exactly how many optional
parameters are included, and each of them indicates how long it is), but
I think including it is good for some kinds of incomplete parsing
(extract just the salt or just the parameters without care for actual
parameter values), as well as for some very limited human friendliness
(being able to determine roughly how many parameters are included, and
the exact salt size).  It's also consistent with bcrypt, where a '$' is
included after the cost value.

> A system-wide configuration may still exist, that provides default
> values for parameters then the salt is generated -- application code
> does not have to manually provide such values. But once the salt has
> been generated, the parameters are always encoded with the salt string.



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