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OCaml-TLS: building the nocrypto library core

By David Kaloper - 2014-07-09

This is the second in a series of posts that introduce new libraries for a pure OCaml implementation of TLS. You might like to begin with the introduction.

What is nocrypto?

nocrypto is the small cryptographic library behind the ocaml-tls project. It is built to be straightforward to use, adhere to functional programming principles and able to run in a Xen-based unikernel. Its major use-case is ocaml-tls, which we announced yesterday, but we do intend to provide sufficient features for it to be more widely applicable.

"Wait, you mean you wrote your own crypto library?"

"Never write your own crypto"

Everybody seems to recognize that cryptography is horribly difficult. Building cryptography, it is all too easy to fall off the deep end and end up needing to make decisions only a few, select specialists can make. Worse, any mistake is difficult to uncover but completely compromises the security of the system. Or in Bruce Schneier's words:

Building a secure cryptographic system is easy to do badly, and very difficult to do well. Unfortunately, most people can't tell the difference. In other areas of computer science, functionality serves to differentiate the good from the bad: a good compression algorithm will work better than a bad one; a bad compression program will look worse in feature-comparison charts. Cryptography is different. Just because an encryption program works doesn't mean it is secure.

Obviously, it would be far wiser not to attempt to do this and instead reuse good, proven work done by others. And with the wealth of free cryptographic libraries around, one gets to take their pick.

So to begin with, we turned to cryptokit, the more-or-less standard cryptographic library in the OCaml world. It has a decent coverage of the basics: some stream ciphers (ARC4), some block ciphers (AES, 3DES and Blowfish) the core hashes (MD5, SHA, the SHA2 family and RIPEMD) and the public-key primitives (Diffie-Hellman and RSA). It is also designed with composability in mind, exposing various elements as stream-transforming objects that can be combined on top of one another.

Unfortunately, its API was a little difficult to use. Suppose you have a secret key, an IV and want to use AES-128 in CBC mode to encrypt a bit of data. You do it like this:

let key = "abcd1234abcd1234"
and iv  = "1234abcd1234abcd"
and msg = "fire the missile"

let aes     = new Cryptokit.Block.aes_encrypt key
let aes_cbc = new Cryptokit.Block.cbc_encrypt ~iv aes

let cip =
  let size =
    int_of_float (ceil (float String.(length msg) /. 16.) *. 16.) in
  String.create size

let () = aes_cbc#transform msg 0 cip 0

At this point, cip contains our secret message. This being CBC, both msg and the string the output will be written into (cip) need to have a size that is a multiple of the underlying block size. If they do not, bad things will happen -- silently.

There is also the curious case of hashing-object states:

let md5 = Cryptokit.Hash.md5 ()

let s1 = Cryptokit.hash_string md5 "bacon"
let s2 = Cryptokit.hash_string md5 "bacon"
let s3 = Cryptokit.hash_string md5 "bacon"

  s1 = "x\\019%\\142\\248\\198\\1822\\221\\232\\204\\128\\246\\189\\166/"
  s2 = "'\\\\F\\017\\234\\172\\196\\024\\142\\255\\161\\145o\\142\\128\\197"
  s3 = "'\\\\F\\017\\234\\172\\196\\024\\142\\255\\161\\145o\\142\\128\\197"

The error here is to try and carry a single instantiated hashing object around, while trying to get hashes of distinct strings. But with the convergence after the second step, the semantics of the hashing object still remains unclear to us.

One can fairly easily overcome the API style mismatches by making a few specialized wrappers, of course, except for two major problems:

  • Cryptokit is pervasively stateful. While this is almost certainly a result of performance considerations combined with its goals of ease of compositionality, it directly clashes with the fundamental design property of the TLS library we wanted to use it in: our ocaml-tls library is stateless. We need to be able to represent the state the encryption engine is in as a value.

  • Cryptokit operates on strings. As a primary target of ocaml-tls was Mirage, and Mirage uses separate, non-managed regions of memory to store network data in, we need to be able to handle foreign-allocated storage. This means Bigarray (as exposed by Cstruct), and it seems just plain wrong to negate all the careful zero-copy architecture of the stack below by copying everything into and out of strings.

There are further problems. For example, Cryptokit makes no attempts to combat well-known timing vulnerabilities. It has no support for elliptic curves. And it depends on the system-provided random number generator, which does not exist when running in the context of a unikernel.

At this point, with the de facto choice off the table, it's probably worth thinking about writing OCaml bindings to a rock-solid cryptographic library written in C.

NaCl is a modern, well-regarded crypto implementation, created by a group of pretty famous and equally well-regarded cryptographers, and was the first choice. Or at least its more approachable and packageable fork was, which already had OCaml bindings. Unfortunately, NaCl provides a narrow selection of implementations of various cryptographic primitives, the ones its authors thought were best-of-breed (for example, the only symmetric ciphers it implements are (X-)Salsa and AES in CTR mode). And they are probably right (in some aspects they are certainly right), but NaCl is best used for implementations of newly-designed security protocols. It is simply too opinionated to support an old, standardized behemoth like TLS.

Then there is crypto, the library OpenSSL is built on top of. It is quite famous and provides optimized implementations of a wide range of cryptographic algorithms. It also contains upwards of 200,000 lines of C and a very large API footprint, and it's unclear whether it would be possible to run it in the unikernel context. Recently, the parent project it is embedded in has become highly suspect, with one high-profile vulnerability piling on top of another and at least two forks so far attempting to clean the code base. It just didn't feel like a healthy code base to build a new project on.

There are other free cryptographic libraries in C one could try to bind, but at a certain point we faced the question: is the work required to become intimately familiar with the nuances and the API of an existing code base, and create bindings for it in OCaml, really that much smaller than writing one from scratch? When using a full library one commits to its security decisions and starts depending on its authors' time to keep it up to date -- maybe this effort is better spent in writing one in the first place.

Tantalizingly, the length of the single OCaml source file in Cryptokit is 2260 lines.

Maybe if we made zero decisions ourselves, informed all our work by published literature and research, and wrote the bare minimum of code needed, it might not even be dead-wrong to do it ourselves?

And that is the basic design principle. Do nothing fancy. Do only documented things. Don't write too much code. Keep up to date with security research. Open up and ask people.

The anatomy of a simple crypto library

nocrypto uses bits of C, similarly to other cryptographic libraries written in high-level languages.

This was actually less of a performance concern, and more of a security one: for the low-level primitives which are tricky to implement and for which known, compact and widely used code already exists, the implementation is probably better reused. The major pitfall we hoped to avoid that way are side-channel attacks.

We use public domain (or BSD licenced) C sources for the simple cores of AES, 3DES, MD5, SHA and SHA2. The impact of errors in this code is constrained: they contain no recursion, and they perform no allocation, simply filling in caller-supplied fixed-size buffer by appropriate bytes.

The block implementations in C have a simple API that requires us to provide the input and output buffers and a key, writing the single encrypted (or decrypted) block of data into the buffer. Like this:

void rijndaelEncrypt(const unsigned long *rk, int nrounds,
  const unsigned char plaintext[16], unsigned char ciphertext[16]);

void rijndaelDecrypt(const unsigned long *rk, int nrounds,
  const unsigned char ciphertext[16], unsigned char plaintext[16]);

The hashes can initialize a provided buffer to serve as an empty accumulator, hash a single chunk of data into that buffer and convert its contents into a digest, which is written into a provided fixed buffer.

In other words, all the memory management happens exclusively in OCaml and all the buffers passed into the C layer are tracked by the garbage collector (GC).

Symmetric ciphers

So far, the only provided ciphers are AES, 3DES and ARC4, with ARC4 implemented purely in OCaml (and provided only for TLS compatibility and for testing).

AES and 3DES are based on core C code, on top of which we built some standard modes of operation in OCaml. At the moment we support ECB, CBC and CTR. There is also a nascent GCM implementation which is, at the time of writing, known not to be optimal and possibly prone to timing attacks, and which we are still working on.

The exposed API strives to be simple and value-oriented. Each mode of each cipher is packaged up as a module with a similar signature, with a pair of functions for encryption and decryption. Each of those essentially takes a key and a byte buffer and yields the resulting byte buffer, minimising hassle.

This is how you encrypt a message:

open Nocrypto.Block

let key = AES.CBC.of_secret Cstruct.(of_string "abcd1234abcd1234")
and iv  = Cstruct.of_string "1234abcd1234abcd"
and msg = Cstruct.of_string "fire the missile"

let { AES.CBC.message ; iv } = AES.CBC.encrypt ~key ~iv msg

The hashes implemented are just MD5, SHA and the SHA2 family. Mirroring the block ciphers, they are based on C cores, with the HMAC construction provided in OCaml. The API is similarly simple: each hash is a separate module with the same signature, providing a function that takes a byte buffer to its digest, together with several stateful operations for incremental computation of digests.

Of special note is that our current set of C sources will probably soon be replaced. AES uses code that is vulnerable to a timing attack, stemming from the fact that substitution tables are loaded into the CPU cache as-needed. The code does not take advantage of the AES-NI instructions present in modern CPUs that allow AES to be hardware-assisted. SHA and SHA2 cores turned out to be (comparatively) ill-performing, and static analysis already uncovered some potential memory issues, so we are looking for better implementations.

Public-key cryptography

Bignum arithmetic is provided by the excellent zarith library, which in turn uses GMP. This might create some portability problems later on, but as GMP is widely used and well rounded code base which also includes some of the needed auxiliary number-theoretical functions (its slightly extended Miller-Rabin probabilistic primality test and the fast next-prime-scanning function), it seemed like a much saner choice than redoing it from scratch.

The RSA module provides the basics: raw encryption and decryption, PKCS1-padded versions of the same operations, and PKCS1 signing and signature verification. It can generate RSA keys, which it does simply by finding two large primes, in line with Rivest's own recommendation.

Notably, RSA implements the standard blinding technique which can mitigate some side-channel attacks, such as timing or acoustic cryptanalysis. It seems to foil even stronger, cache eviction based attacks, but as of now, we are not yet completely sure.

The Diffie-Hellman module is also relatively basic. We implement some widely recommended checks on the incoming public key to mitigate some possible MITM attacks, the module can generate strong DH groups (using safe primes) with guaranteed large prime-order subgroup, and we provide a catalogue of published DH groups ready for use.


Random number generation used to be a chronically overlooked part of cryptographic libraries, so much so that nowadays one of the first questions about a crypto library is, indeed, "Where does it get randomness from?"

It's an important question. A cryptographic system needs unpredictability in many places, and violating this causes catastrophic failures.

nocrypto contains its own implementation of Fortuna. Like Yarrow, Fortuna uses a strong block cipher in CTR mode (AES in our case) to produce the pseudo-random stream, a technique that is considered as unbreakable as the underlying cipher.

The stream is both self-rekeyed, and rekeyed with the entropy gathered into its accumulator pool. Unlike the earlier designs, however, Fortuna is built without entropy estimators, which usually help the PRNG decide when to actually convert the contents of an entropy pool into the new internal state. Instead, Fortuna uses a design where the pools are fed round-robin, but activated with an exponential backoff. There is recent research showing this design is essentially sound: after a state compromise, Fortuna wastes no more than a constant factor of incoming entropy -- whatever the amount of entropy is -- before coming back to an unpredictable state. The resulting design is both simple, and robust in terms of its usage of environmental entropy.

The above paper also suggests a slight improvement to the accumulator regime, yielding a factor-of-2 improvement in entropy usage over the original. We still haven't implemented this, but certainly intend to.

A PRNG needs to be fed with some actual entropy to be able to produce unpredictable streams. The library itself contains no provisions for doing this and its PRNG needs to be fed by the user before any output can be produced. We are working with the Mirage team on exposing environmental entropy sources and connecting them to our implementation of Fortuna.

Above & beyond

nocrypto is still very small, providing the bare minimum cryptographic services to support TLS and related X.509 certificate operations. One of the goals is to flesh it out a bit, adding some more widely deployed algorithms, in hopes of making it more broadly usable.

There are several specific problems with the library at this stage:

C code - As mentioned, we are seeking to replace some of the C code we use. The hash cores are underperforming by about a factor of 2 compared to some other implementations. AES implementation is on one hand vulnerable to a timing attack and, on the other hand, we'd like to make use of hardware acceleration for this workhorse primitive -- without it we lose about an order of magnitude of performance.

Several options were explored, ranging from looking into the murky waters of OpenSSL and trying to exploit their heavily optimized primitives, to bringing AES-NI into OCaml and redoing AES in OCaml. At this point, it is not clear which path we'll take.

ECC - Looking further, the library still lacks support for elliptic curve cryptography and we have several options for solving this. Since it is used by TLS, ECC is probably the missing feature we will concentrate on first.

Entropy on Xen - The entropy gathering on Xen is incomplete. The current prototype uses current time as the random seed and the effort to expose noisier sources like interrupt timings and the RNG from dom0's kernel is still ongoing. Dave Scott, for example, has submitted patches to upstream Xen to make it easier to establish low-bandwidth channels to supplies guest VMs with strong entropy from a privileged domain that has access to physical devices and hence high-quality entropy sources.

GC timing attacks? - There is the question of GC and timing attacks: whether doing cryptography in a high-level language opens up a completely new surface for timing attacks, given that GC runs are very visible in the timing profile. The basic approach is to leave the core routines which we know are potentially timing-sensitive (like AES) and for which we don't have explicit timing mitigations (like RSA) to C, and invoke them atomically from the perspective of the GC. So far, it's an open question whether the constructions built on top of them expose further side-channels.

Still, we believe that the whole package is a pleasant library to work with. Its simplicity contributes to the comparative simplicity of the entire TLS library, and we are actively seeking input on areas that need further improvement. Although we are obviously biased, we believe it is the best cryptographic base library available for this project, and it might be equally suited for your next project too!

We are striving to be open about the current security status of our code. You are free to check out our issue tracker and invited to contribute comments, ideas, and especially audits and code.

Posts in this TLS series: