Created: 2008-07-15 09:46
Updated: 2018-12-28 11:05
License: other



A Ruby implementation of the Password-Based Key-Derivation Function, uh, 2.

Using PBKDF2

The basic steps are:

  1. Instantiate a PBKDF2 object
  2. Call #bin_string (or #hex_string) on it to recover the binary (hex) form of the key

To instantiate, you can either pass the required arguments as options in a hash, like so:

PBKDF2.new(:password=>"s33krit", :salt=>"nacl", :iterations=>10000)

or use the (easier and prettier, in my view) builder idiom:

PBKDF2.new do |p| 
  p.password = "s33krit"
  p.salt = "nacl"
  p.iterations = 10000

You can also mix-and-match ways of passing arguments, but I don't know why you'd want to do that.

Required options

A PBKDF2 object cannot be instantiated without setting the following options:

  • password: The passphrase used for the key, passed as a (possibly binary) string.

    This should be kept secret, preferably nowhere but the end-user's memory.

  • salt: A salt for this passphrase, passed as a (possibly binary) string.

    This does not need to be kept secret, but should be made as long as is reasonable (64-128 bits) to avoid precomputed image ("rainbow table") attacks.

  • iterations: The number of iterated hashes to calculate, expressed as an integer.

    This does not need to be kept secret, but should be made as large as is reasonable. See below for guidance on choosing a good number for this.

PBKDF2 objects can also be configured with the following options:

  • hash_function: The hashing algorithm to be used.

    This option may be expressed in a number of ways:

    • As a Class object, such as OpenSSL::Digest::SHA512. Only OpenSSL digest classes are supported at the moment.
    • As an already-instantiated OpenSSL digest object, such as the result of OpenSSL::Digest::SHA512.new. If you use this method, take care that the hash object is in its just-initialized state (or that the same hash object with the same state is used whenever keys are generated/checked).
    • As a string which is understood by OpenSSL::Digest::Digest.new().
      Things like "sha1", "md5", "RIPEMD160", etc. all work fine. If the string begins with the text "hmacWith" it will be stripped before passing it to the underlying OpenSSL library, making it possible to use arguments that at least look more like the ASN.1 identifiers in the spec.
    • A symbol, like :sha256, that, when converted to a string, meets the rules for strings above.

    If not specified, SHA-256 will be used. (Note that other implementations may default to SHA-1.)

  • key_length: The length, in bytes, of the key you wish to generate.

    By default, the key generated will be equal in length to the hash output size. This can be adjusted to any size required, up to ((2**32 - 1) * (hash length).

If a required parameter is missing, or if an invalid parameter is passed to one of these options, an ArgumentError exception will be raised.

Setting the Number of Iterations

The iterations option exposed by PBKDF2 provides a way of controlling the amount of work required to check a candidate passphrase. It can be thought of as a work factor governing the amount of work an attacker must do in order to perform a dictionary or brute-force attack on passwords. Unfortunately, it also governs the amount of work that must be performed on behalf of legitimate users must when checking credentials.

Choosing the correct value for this parameter is thus a balancing act: it should be set as high as possible, to make attacks as difficult as possible, without making legitimate applications unusably slow. One method for choosing a value is based on estimating an upper bound on the resources an attacker is likely to have available, and then finding an iteration count that makes such attacks unprofitable. A useful example of this sort of reasoning can be found in the Security Considerations section of RFC 3962.

The other approach for choosing the iterations count is to decide the maximum performance penalty that can be tolerated in the context of the application, and to set the iteration count so that it remains within these bounds. The PBKDF2 module contains a benchmark method for this purpose: to use it, instantiate a PBKDF2 object as normal, using the hash_function and key_length you intend to use in the final application. Then, call the benchmark method on the object: the result will be the time, in seconds, required to complete one iteration. Divide the maximum performance penalty by this number to find the number of iterations you should choose.

The first method requires implementors to estimate a number of important variables, including the resources available to attackers, which may be difficult or impossible to do well. The second method is also prone to error, as it can be difficult to predict load characteristics in production conditions, or the impact of a few milliseconds' delay on end-user perceptions. The best approach will necessarily involve trying both approaches and balancing the competing concerns against one-another.

Note that no default for this option is provided, as a way of forcing implementors to consider this issue in their own contexts. Anyone who, having read and understood the above, is still unsure what the value to choose should just use 5,000 and move on.

Relevant Standards

PBKDF2 was originally defined as part of RSA Laboratories' PKCS #5, part of their Public-Key Cryptography Standards series. It has since been republished as RFC 2898.

Standards Conformance

This implementation conforms to RFC 2898, and has been tested using the test vectors in Appendix B of RFC 3962. Note, however, that while those specifications use HMAC-SHA-1, this implementation defaults to HMAC-SHA-256. (SHA-256 provides a longer bit length. In addition, NIST has stated that SHA-1 should be phased out due to concerns over recent cryptanalytic attacks.)


This version is essentially complete. If ASN.1 weren't such a nightmare, it might be useful to be able to initialize PBKDF2 objects based on standard OIDs for parameters. It would also be nice to have a standard envelope for serializing sets of {key, salt, options}. Both of these are probably tasks for other modules, however. (YAML fits the bill pretty well already.)


This software is ©2008 Sam Quigley quigley@emerose.com. See the LICENSE.TXT file accompanying this document for the terms under which it may be used and distributed.

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