Random Data on Linux
(And Other UNIX-Family Operating Systems)
A number of scientific, engineering, and cybersecurity tasks need random data. We need them for scientific applications including Monte Carlo methods for simulating complex physical processes. We need to generate random noise signals in order to test digital signal processing techniques. Finally, several cryptographic tasks need unpredictable, thus unguessable, data. These include long-term RSA and ECC key pairs for SSH and PGP, one-use-only session keys for encrypting SSH and TLS/SSL connections and for encrypting stored data, and the initialization vectors used for the various chaining and feedback modes of symmetric block ciphers.
The problem is that a computer is a completely deterministic device. If you run the same program multiple times it should do the same thing each time. Otherwise it would have a serious problem. A computer program is instead a pseudorandom generator. John von Neumann said "Anyone who considers arithmetical methods of producing random digits is, of course, in a state of sin."
An older way of generating a pseudorandom sequence on a
Unix-family operating system
Apple OS X, Solaris, etc., is to first seed the
sequence generator with
srand() and then
rand() to obtain the sequence.
The problem is that the output is too regular.
The GNU manual page describes these library calls bluntly:
NAME rand, srand - bad random number generator SYNOPSIS #include <stdlib.h> void srand(unsigned int seed); int rand(void); int rand_r(unsigned int *seed); [...]
As the GNU manual page explains,
appeared in Version 3 AT&T UNIX and conform to
ANSI C89 (ANSI X3.159-1989).
The low dozen bits go through a cyclic pattern.
Things were different then.
The Solaris manual page is a little more kind but still makes the point that these old functions are not good:
USAGE The spectral properties of rand() are limited. The drand48(3C) function provides a better, more elaborate random-number generator.
seed and then generate a sequence with much better
The GNU manual page for
that it uses a non-linear additive feedback random
number generator with a period of approximately
16×(231-1) or 34,359,738,352.
For Monte Carlo simulations or digital signal processing, you just need pseudorandom data with the desired distribution. In fact, it may be preferred because you get the same sequence every time you start with the same seed.
However, security applications need truly unpredictable random numbers for purposes including the generation of cryptographic keys. This leads to the concept of a cryptographically strong pseudorandom number generator, something that makes it adequately difficult to predict the next values even after observing the sequence so far. These unpredicatable sequences could be used to generate long-term SSH keys for servers and users, SSL keys for servers, or the session keys used to encrypt sensitive files or e-mail messages.
A more mundane (and therefore frequently overlooked) need is for unpredictable TCP initial sequence numbers and DNS transaction ID numbers. The TCP risks were pointed out by Robert Morris in 1985 and Steven Bellovin in 1989, but we still had problems into the 2000s with operating systems implementing TCP in a way that allowed attackers to hijack connections. The DNS problems are more recent, with RFC 5452 suggesting some interesting extensions.
Linux was the first operating system to include a
pseudo-device producing pseudorandom data seeded by
sources of entropy or true randomness.
The Solaris manual page for the
"An implementation of the /dev/random and /dev/urandom
kernel-based random number generator first appeared
in Linux 1.3.30."
Other Unix-family operating systems have since added them.
random(4) manual page describes
these pseudo-devices as follows:
The random number generator gathers environmental noise from device drivers and other sources into an entropy pool. The generator also keeps an estimate of the number of bits of noise in the entropy pool. From this entropy pool random numbers are created.
When read, the /dev/random device will only return random bytes within the estimated number of bits of noise in the entropy pool. /dev/random should be suitable for uses that need very high quality randomness such as one-time pad or key generation. When the entropy pool is empty, reads from /dev/random will block until additional environmental noise is gathered.
A read from the /dev/urandom device will not block waiting for more entropy. As a result, if there is not sufficient entropy in the entropy pool, the returned values are theoretically vulnerable to a cryptographic attack on the algorithms used by the driver. Knowledge of how to do this is not available in the current unclassified literature, but it is theoretically possible that such an attack may exist. If this is a concern in your application, use /dev/random instead.
That same manual page continues with some guidelines for using these kernel features:
If you are unsure about whether you should use /dev/random or /dev/urandom, then probably you want to use the latter. As a general rule, /dev/urandom should be used for everything except long-lived GPG/SSL/SSH keys.
The amount of seed material required to generate a cryptographic key equals the effective key size of the key. For example, a 3072-bit RSA or Diffie-Hellman private key has an effective key size of 128 bits (it requires about 2^128 operations to break) so a key generator only needs 128 bits (16 bytes) of seed material from /dev/random.
While some safety margin above that minimum is reasonable, as a guard against flaws in the CPRNG algorithm, no cryptographic primitive available today can hope to promise more than 256 bits of security, so if any program reads more than 256 bits (32 bytes) from the kernel random pool per invocation, or per reasonable reseed interval (not less than one minute), that should be taken as a sign that its cryptography is not skillfully implemented.
Devices and Kernel Data Structures
The Linux kernel data structures in
/proc/sys/kernel/random/* provide an additional
interface to the
The read and write wakeup thresholds can be changed by
writing to those files, the other values are read-only.
All can be read by
||Random string generated at boot time.|
||The number of bits of available entropy.|
The size of the entropy pool, the maximum
The number of bits of entropy required for
waking up processes that sleep waiting for
||Random UUID string generated afresh at each read.|
The number of bits of entropy below which we
wake up processes that do a
Below we check on the random devices available in various UNIX-family operating systems.
% uname -a ; ls -l /dev/*random* Linux linux.example.org 3.12.0 #1 SMP Sun Nov 3 19:58:07 EST 2013 x86_64 x86_64 x86_64 GNU/Linux crw-rw-rw- 1 root root 1, 8 Nov 3 20:14 /dev/random crw-rw-rw- 1 root root 1, 9 Nov 3 20:14 /dev/urandom % ssh raspberrypi 'uname -a ; ls -l /dev/*random*' Linux raspberrypi 3.6.11+ #538 PREEMPT Fri Aug 30 20:42:08 BST 2013 armv6l GNU/Linux crw-rw-rw- 1 root root 1, 8 Dec 31 1969 /dev/random crw-rw-rw- 1 root root 1, 9 Dec 31 1969 /dev/urandom % ssh openbsd 'uname -a ; ls -l /dev/*random*' OpenBSD openbsd.example.org 5.4 GENERIC#0 amd64 crw-r--r-- 1 root wheel 45, 3 Nov 8 09:05 /dev/arandom crw-r--r-- 1 root wheel 45, 0 Nov 2 08:27 /dev/random crw-r--r-- 1 root wheel 45, 1 Nov 2 08:27 /dev/srandom crw-r--r-- 1 root wheel 45, 2 Nov 2 08:27 /dev/urandom % ssh solaris 'uname -a ; ls -l /dev/*random* ; ls -lL /dev/*random*' SunOS solaris.example.org 5.10 Generic_148888-01 sun4u sparc SUNW,Sun-Fire-V440 lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 33 May 3 2012 /dev/random -> ../devices/pseudo/random@0:random lrwxrwxrwx 1 root root 34 May 3 2012 /dev/urandom -> ../devices/pseudo/random@0:urandom crw-r--r-- 1 root sys 190, 0 Mar 13 2013 /dev/random crw-r--r-- 1 root sys 190, 1 Nov 8 15:07 /dev/urandom
OpenBSD is the odd one with its additional
All of the OpenBSD devices have unique minor device numbers,
but I think that they all use the same underlying arc4random
All four on OpenBSD are very fast and highly random.
Hardware Random-Number Generators
If your CPU or motherboard has a hardware random number generator, the corresponding Linux kernel module can create a random device.
The screenshot shows the graphical configuration tool used to define a kernel build. See my kernel building page for details on configuring, building, and installing a custom kernel.
The build configuration process is hardware specific. Here you see a kernel build being configured on AMD64 hardware, where these five hardware RNG devices may be found.
The result is one or more kernel modules in
including the following on IA64/AMD64 platforms:
% ls -l /lib/modules/`uname -r`/kernel/drivers/char/hw_random total 88 drwxr-xr-x 2 root root 4096 Nov 3 20:02 ./ drwxr-xr-x 7 root root 4096 Nov 3 20:02 ../ -rw-r--r-- 1 root root 8080 Nov 3 20:02 amd-rng.ko -rw-r--r-- 1 root root 13432 Nov 3 20:02 intel-rng.ko -rw-r--r-- 1 root root 13512 Nov 3 20:02 rng-core.ko -rw-r--r-- 1 root root 10952 Nov 3 20:02 timeriomem-rng.ko -rw-r--r-- 1 root root 4560 Nov 3 20:02 tpm-rng.ko -rw-r--r-- 1 root root 7424 Nov 3 20:02 via-rng.ko -rw-r--r-- 1 root root 9000 Nov 3 20:02 virtio-rng.ko
platform is based on the
system-on-a-chip with a low-power ARM1176JZ-F processor
and a hardware random number generator.
bcm2708_rng kernel module detects
and handles the hardware random number generator,
creating device node
# ls -l /lib/modules/`uname -r`/kernel/drivers/char/hw_random -rw-r--r-- 1 root root 4752 Jun 1 12:02 bcm-2708-rng.ko # ls -l /dev/*rng* ls: cannot access /dev/*rng*: No such file or directory # modprobe bcm2708_rng # dmesg | tail [....] [ 8035.084620] bcm2708_rng_init=dc8d6000 # ls -l /dev/*rng* crw------- 1 root root 10, 183 Nov 8 16:05 /dev/hwrng
rng-tools package to fully take
advantage of the hardware random number generator.
You will also need to add the kernel module
bcm2708_rng to the list of automatically
loaded modules in
# apt-get install rng-tools # echo bcm2708_rng >> /etc/modules
On the Pidora distribution, Fedora ported to the Raspberry Pi, the driver is built into the monolithic kernel so there is no separate loadable module.
You could edit
/etc/default/rng-tools to specify
the hardware device, but as a comment in that file warns,
you should just leave that commented out so the boot
script will know to auto-detect the device.
The daemon will be automatically started after the next boot,
although of course you can manually start it right away.
On Pidora, this would be a matter of
enabling and starting the
raspbian:# modprobe bcm2708_rng raspbian:# /etc/init.d/rng-tools restart pidora:# systemctl enable rngd pidora:# systemctl start rngd
rngd daemon running, it reads from
the hardware RNG
/dev/hwrng and feeds that
# lsof -p $(pgrep rngd) COMMAND PID USER FD TYPE DEVICE SIZE/OFF NODE NAME rngd 2578 root cwd DIR 179,2 4096 2 / rngd 2578 root rtd DIR 179,2 4096 2 / rngd 2578 root txt REG 179,2 35536 1594 /usr/sbin/rngd rngd 2578 root mem REG 179,2 1196144 9107 /lib/arm-linux-gnueabihf/libc-2.13.so rngd 2578 root mem REG 179,2 116462 9093 /lib/arm-linux-gnueabihf/libpthread-2.13.so rngd 2578 root mem REG 179,2 10170 1777 /usr/lib/arm-linux-gnueabihf/libcofi_rpi.so rngd 2578 root mem REG 179,2 126236 9095 /lib/arm-linux-gnueabihf/ld-2.13.so rngd 2578 root 0u CHR 1,3 0t0 18 /dev/null rngd 2578 root 1u CHR 1,3 0t0 18 /dev/null rngd 2578 root 2u CHR 1,3 0t0 18 /dev/null rngd 2578 root 3r CHR 10,183 0t0 1474 /dev/hwrng rngd 2578 root 4u CHR 1,8 0t0 21 /dev/random rngd 2578 root 5u REG 0,12 5 2947 /run/rngd.pid rngd 2578 root 6u unix 0xd9fb4780 0t0 3479 socket
Broadcom has not released any detailed documentation on their hardware random number generator, but this is better than nothing. It shouldn't make things any worse, because it is just being used as another source of entropy by the Linux kernel, and it should make things better. The Raspberry Pi does not have any traditional disk controllers, leaving it without the typical good sources of entropy.
It would make sense that the Broadcom hardware devices works
somewhat like the
urandom device, generating
output even when it has run low on entropy and the result
becomes less random.
Broadcom designed the device for use in telephone handsets,
generating GSM and 3G/4G session keys.
Users would not find it acceptable to have to wait through
mysterious math-based delays before placing calls.
rngd daemon sends its collected statistics
to syslog every ten minutes and when it shuts down.
Here is an example:
Nov 8 17:03:38 raspberrypi rngd: stats: bits received from HRNG source: 9140064 Nov 8 17:03:38 raspberrypi rngd: stats: bits sent to kernel pool: 9099968 Nov 8 17:03:38 raspberrypi rngd: stats: entropy added to kernel pool: 9099968 Nov 8 17:03:38 raspberrypi rngd: stats: FIPS 140-2 successes: 457 Nov 8 17:03:38 raspberrypi rngd: stats: FIPS 140-2 failures: 0 Nov 8 17:03:38 raspberrypi rngd: stats: FIPS 140-2(2001-10-10) Monobit: 0 Nov 8 17:03:38 raspberrypi rngd: stats: FIPS 140-2(2001-10-10) Poker: 0 Nov 8 17:03:38 raspberrypi rngd: stats: FIPS 140-2(2001-10-10) Runs: 0 Nov 8 17:03:38 raspberrypi rngd: stats: FIPS 140-2(2001-10-10) Long run: 0 Nov 8 17:03:38 raspberrypi rngd: stats: FIPS 140-2(2001-10-10) Continuous run: 0 Nov 8 17:03:38 raspberrypi rngd: stats: HRNG source speed: (min=300.573; avg=517.059; max=796.154)Kibits/s Nov 8 17:03:38 raspberrypi rngd: stats: FIPS tests speed: (min=638.109; avg=5811.021; max=6359.899)Kibits/s Nov 8 17:03:38 raspberrypi rngd: stats: Lowest ready-buffers level: 0 Nov 8 17:03:38 raspberrypi rngd: stats: Entropy starvations: 438 Nov 8 17:03:38 raspberrypi rngd: stats: Time spent starving for entropy: (min=4195; avg=15914.203; max=32138)us
How Random is the Result?
Analyze your random data with the
from John Walker,
the founder of Autodesk and co-author of AutoCAD.
This table shows the results for a 1-megabyte file from each source, collected this way:
# dd if=/dev/name bs=1024 count=1024
On Linux add the option
and on Linux on x86_64 be ready to wait for a long
time for the
It took several hours to collect one megabyte.
However, see the above discussion of how much random data is really needed. A one-time pad is the only perfectly secure cipher, but it is an enormous bother to use one. If you really care enough to use a one-time pad, then it makes little sense to use a program (including kernel modules) to generate it. To really do randomness correctly, use physics. The Australian National University has built a quantum optics random number generator and you can even download a unique live random number stream from their system.
| Linux x86_64
| Linux x86_64
| Linux ARM
| Linux ARM
| OpenBSD amd64
| OpenBSD amd64
| OpenBSD amd64
| OpenBSD amd64
| Solaris sun4u sparc
| Solaris sun4u sparc
For deeper details, the October 2013 paper
"Security Analysis of Pseudo-Random Number Generators
/dev/random is not Robust",
by Yevgeniy Dodis, David Pointcheval, Sylvain Ruhault,
Damien Vergnaud, and Daniel Wichs.
Its abstract reads:
A pseudo-random number generator (PRNG) is a deterministic algorithm that produces numbers whose distribution is indistinguishable from uniform. A formal security model for PRNGs with input was proposed in 2005 by Barak and Halevi (BH). This model involves an internal state that is refreshed with a (potentially biased) external random source, and a cryptographic function that outputs random numbers from the continually internal state. In this work we extend the BH model to also include a new security property capturing how it should accumulate the entropy of the input data into the internal state after state compromise. This property states that a good PRNG should be able to eventually recover from compromise even if the entropy is injected into the system at a very slow pace, and expresses the real-life expected behavior of existing PRNG designs. Unfortunately, we show that neither the model nor the specific PRNG construction proposed by Barak and Halevi meet this new property, despite meeting a weaker robustness notion introduced by BH. From a practical side, we also give a precise assessment of the security of the two Linux PRNGs, /dev/random and /dev/urandom. In particular, we show several attacks proving that these PRNGs are not robust according to our definition, and do not accumulate entropy properly. These attacks are due to the vulnerabilities of the entropy estimator and the internal mixing function of the Linux PRNGs. These attacks against the Linux PRNG show that it does not satisfy the "robustness" notion of security, but it remains unclear if these attacks lead to actual exploitable vulnerabilities in practice. Finally, we propose a simple and very efficient PRNG construction that is provably robust in our new and stronger adversarial model. We present benchmarks between this construction and the Linux PRNG that show that this construction is on average more efficient when recovering from a compromised internal state and when generating cryptographic keys. We therefore recommend to use this construction whenever a PRNG with input is used for cryptography.
Read the wonderful reader comments about the RAND book, the best content on all of Amazon.com.
Changes were made in the Linux kernel in July 2012 in response to issues pointed out in this paper