Experiments with RDRAND and EntropyKey

Entropy, when the shannons are gone and you can’t go on ^

The new release of Debian 10 (buster) brings with it some significant things related to entropy:

  1. systemd doesn’t trust entropy saved at last boot
  2. Many system daemons now use getrandom() which requires the CRNG be primed with good entropy
  3. The kernel by default trusts the CPU’s RDRAND instruction if it’s available

A lot of machines — especially virtual machines — don’t have access to a lot of entropy when they start up, and now that systemd isn’t accrediting stored entropy from the previous boot some essential services like ssh may take minutes to start up.

Back in 2011 or so, Intel added a CPU instruction called RDRAND which provides entropy, but there was some concern that it was an unauditable feature that could easily have been compromised, so it never did get used as the sole source of entropy on capable CPUs.

Later on, an option to trust the CPU for providing boot-time entropy was added, and this option was enabled by default in Debian kernels from 10.0 onwards.

I am okay with using RDRAND for boot-time entropy, but some people got very upset about it.

Out of interest I had a look at what effect the various kernel options related to RDRAND would have, and also what about when I use BitFolk’s entropy service.

(As of July 2019 this wiki article is in dire need of rewrite since I believe it states some untrue things about urandom, but the details of what the entropy service is and how to use it are correct)

Experiments ^

These experiments were carried out on a virtual machine which is a default install of Debian 10 (buster) on BitFolk. At package selection only “Standard system utilities” and “SSH server” were selected.

Default boot ^

SSH is available just over 1 second after boot.

[    1.072760] random: get_random_bytes called from start_kernel+0x93/0x52c with crng_init=0
[    1.138541] random: crng done (trusting CPU's manufacturer)

Don’t trust RDRAND for early entropy ^

If I tell the kernel not to trust RDRAND for early entropy by using random.trust_cpu=off on the kernel command line then SSH is available after about 4.5 seconds.

[    1.115416] random: get_random_bytes called from start_kernel+0x93/0x52c with crng_init=0
[    1.231606] random: fast init done
[    4.260130] random: systemd-random-: uninitialized urandom read (512 bytes read)
[    4.484274] random: crng init done

Don’t use RDRAND at all ^

If I completely disable the kernel’s use of RDRAND by using nordrand on the kernel command line then SSH is available after just under 49 seconds.

[    1.110475] random: get_random_bytes called from start_kernel+0x93/0x52c with crng_init=0
[    1.225991] random: fast init done
[    4.298185] random: systemd-random-: uninitialized urandom read (512 bytes read)
[    4.674676] random: dbus-daemon: uninitialized urandom read (12 bytes read)
[    4.682873] random: dbus-daemon: uninitialized urandom read (12 bytes read)
[   48.876084] random: crng init done

Use entropy service but not RDRAND ^

If I disable RDRAND but use BitFolk’s entropy service then SSH is available in just over 10 seconds. I suppose this is slower than with random.trust_cpu=off because in that case RDRAND is still allowed after initial seeding, and we must wait for a userland daemon to start.

Using the entropy service requires the network to be up so I’m not sure how easy it would be to decrease this delay, but 10 seconds is still a lot better than 49 seconds.

[    1.075910] random: get_random_bytes called from start_kernel+0x93/0x52c with crng_init=0
[    1.186650] random: fast init done
[    4.207010] random: systemd-random-: uninitialized urandom read (512 bytes read)
[    4.606789] random: dbus-daemon: uninitialized urandom read (12 bytes read)
[    4.613975] random: dbus-daemon: uninitialized urandom read (12 bytes read)
[   10.257513] random: crng init done

Use entropy service but don’t trust CPU for early seeding ^

This was no different to just random.trust_cpu=off (about 4.5s). I suspect because early seeding completed and then RDRAND supplied more entropy before the network came up and the entropy service daemon could start.

Thoughts ^

I’m glad that my CPUs have RDRAND and I’m prepared to use it for boot-time seeding of the CSPRNG, but not as the machines’ sole entropy source.

With RDRAND available, using the BitFolk entropy service probably doesn’t make that much sense as RDRAND will always be able to supply.

More paranoid customers may want to use random.trust_cpu=off but even then probably don’t need the entropy service since once the CSPRNG is seeded, RDRAND can be mixed in and away they go.

The truly paranoid may want to disable RDRAND in which case using the entropy service would be recommended since otherwise long delays at boot will happen and severe delays during times of high entropy demand could be seen.

For those who aren’t BitFolk customers and don’t have access to hardware entropy sources and don’t have a CPU with RDRAND support there are some tough choices. Every other option listed on Debian’s relevant wiki article has at least one expert who says it’s a bad choice.

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