Raaz: A cryptographic network library for Haskell

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This is my first post on Raaz, a cryptographic network library for Haskell. Raaz broadly aims at developing into:

  1. A platform to experiment with various cryptographic primitives.

  2. A library to write high performance servers and clients to some common cryptographic network protocols.

I believe that Haskell as a language has a lot of features that allow writing fast (as fast or better than any C library available) as well as secure cryptographic code. In this post, I attempt to explain some of the features of Haskell that we make use of.


Let me first dispose of the one myth that seems to persist in the mind of people who have never seen a modern functional language. No one wants their software to be slow. Cryptographic protocols should be especially well implemented otherwise folks would simply avoid using the secure options. Clearly when it comes to performance Haskell can beat any of the interpreted languages Python, Ruby or Java. But what about C?

The tight loops in the library which implements the primitives will anyway be written in C/Assembly. If one wants speed then one needs to do this whether one likes it or not. So for primitives it really does not matter which language one chooses. It then boils down to how easy it is to integrate C/Assembly code with Haskell. Having a low overhead foreign function Interface (FFI) is really critical here and Haskell fortunately has it.

Having fast primitives helps but a network library is not just a set of fast cryptographic primitives. Here are some of the features that one would.

  1. High performance concurrency primitives for server applications. Haskell really has no competition in this department. Here are some of the features that GHC (and libraries) supports: Green threads STMs, MVars etc. Using these features, servers written in Haskell have been competitive (often outperforming) servers written is C. See for example mighttpd.

  2. Efficient data serialisation and parsing libraries: Implementing the wire protocol efficiently is critical in improving the efficiency of the network application. Haskell is especially rich in this department as well: attoparsec, binary, blaze-builder etc. There are libraries that supports high performance (close to hand written C performance) at the same time achieving these feats at a much higher level of abstraction (which translates to less bugs and high maintainability).

While having fast libraries is great, languages like C achieve this at the cost of abstraction. It often appears to the programmer that one needs to sacrifice elegance for speed. Not so with Haskell. Many of the libraries I mentioned above achieve C speed with no compromise on the level of abstraction. This greatly enhances the maintainability and leads us to the next important feature that we want in our libraries, safety.


Cryptographic implementations are full of corner cases and the bugs in them can be particularly lethal. A cryptographic library is usually broken, not by a direct attack on the underlying algorithm, RSA although quite dated is still secure, but through other means like buffer overflows, cache timing attacks and other side channel attacks. How can one minimise this? Let me give an example of a code which, while correct in normal circumstances, is bad in a crypto setting. Suppose you grant privileged access to a user by comparing a secret that you posses with the user supplied password. A naive string comparison will be prone to timing attacks: The time taken to reject a password is proportional to length of the longest common prefix of the secret and the password. The attacker then can guess the password one character at a time by looking at the time it takes for you to reject the password. One would usually not compare the secrets directly but hash them together with a salt and compare the hashes. However, any comparisons that take time dependent on the user input is prone to lead to future attacks when deployed without much thought.

We could avoid this problem by asking users of our library to always use string comparisons that take constant time irrespective of the input. However, it is very likely that a user of our library, most of them will not be cryptographers, might miss this instruction. Won’t it be nice if such incidents are caught at compile time?

We avoid this problem in Haskell by leveraging its type safety. Instead of representing cryptographically significant data types like hashes, macs etc. as mere byte string, we define Haskell data types for them. For example sha1 hashes are represented (in a simplified form) as follows:

module Raaz.Hash.Sha1 ( Sha1 )

data Sha1 = Sha1 Word32 Word32 Word32 Word32 Word32

instance Eq Sha1 where
	(==) (Sha1 h0 h1 h2 h3 h4) (Sha1 g0 g1 g2 g3 g4)
             =   xor h0 g0
             .|. xor h1 g1
             .|. xor h2 g2
             .|. xor h3 g3
             .|. xor h4 g4
             == 0

The Eq instance for Sha1 has comparison operator defined in such a way that it will take time independent on the number of positions they match. A user is then forced by the compiler to use this equality as we will not be exposing the constructor to her.

Status of the project and how to contribute

Currently we have just began. We have made no releases yet and we are still experimenting with the API. All code is available under BSD3 license from http://github.com/raaz-crypto/raaz).

I look forward to your contributions. Even if you are not comfortable with haskell, you can contribute. For example, if computer architecture is your bread and butter and you are the Chuck Norris of assembly language programming, do join us for some fun coding: A lot of primitives require fast implementation often exploiting the platform specific features like SIMD instruction set.