Zack's Kernel News

Zack's Kernel News

Article from Issue 262/2022

Chronicler Zack Brown reports on the latest news, views, dilemmas, and developments within the Linux kernel community.

Random Number Sanity

Random numbers are important for security. Generally to make random numbers, you grab entropy from somewhere, like the frequency of fingers tapping a keyboard, and use that to generate as many unpredictable numbers as needed. But what if no one's typing on the keyboard? What if you run out of entropy? Should the system just sit and wait for more?

For a long time, the Linux kernel had to choose between locking up the system until it found enough entropy to make truly random numbers and providing numbers anyway, even if they weren't really random enough.

But in 2019, Linus Torvalds wrote a patch that addressed the problem "by actively generating entropy noise using the CPU cycle counter when waiting for the random number generator to initialize. This only works when you have a high-frequency time stamp counter available, but that's the case on all modern x86 CPUs, and on most other modern CPUs too."

Because of that patch, the random number generator would pretty much always have enough entropy to produce useful random numbers. Recently, Jason A. Donenfeld felt it was time for everyone to admit it was working, get over their mistrust of technology and new things, and allow the Linux random number generator to block while building up entropy.

This is inherently a controversial topic. If the system waits for a resource that never becomes available, it'll just wait forever, and then you've got a brick on your hands. There have been various attempts to introduce blocking into the random number generator, but they were taken out shortly after going into the source tree.

But Jason said, "given that the kernel has grown this mechanism for seeding itself from nothing, and that this procedure happens pretty fast, maybe there's no point any longer in having /dev/urandom give insecure bytes. In the past we didn't want the boot process to deadlock, which was understandable. But now, in the worst case, a second goes by, and the problem is resolved. It seems like maybe we're finally at a point when we can get rid of the infamous 'urandom read hole'."

He added, "This patch goes a long way toward eliminating a long overdue userspace crypto footgun. After several decades of endless user confusion, we will finally be able to say, 'use any single one of our random interfaces and you'll be fine. They're all the same. It doesn't matter'. And that, I think, is really something. Finally all of those blog posts and disagreeing forums and contradictory articles will all become correct about whatever they happened to recommend, and along with it, a whole class of vulnerabilities eliminated."

The "footgun" Jason mentioned is not some kind of obscure security-related attack vector; it's just slang for something that makes it easy to shoot yourself in the foot.

But Andy Lutomirski made just about the strongest possible objection that anyone can make against a Linux kernel patch – saying that it violated the application binary interface (ABI) – and while doing it he offered some historical perspective on this whole issue. He said:

"This patch is 100% about a historical mistake. Way back when (not actually that long ago), there were two usable interfaces to the random number generator: /dev/random and /dev/urandom. /dev/random was, at least in principle, secure, but it blocked unnecessarily and was, therefore, incredibly slow. It was totally unsuitable for repeated use by any sort of server. /dev/urandom didn't block but was insecure if called too early. *But* urandom was also the correct interface to get best-effort-i-need-them-right-now random bits. The actual semantics that general cryptography users wanted were not available.

"Fast forward to today. /dev/random has the correct semantics for cryptographic purposes. getrandom() also has the correct semantics for cryptographic purposes and is reliable as such – it is guaranteed to either not exist or to DTRT [do the right thing]. And best-effort users can use GRND_INSECURE or /dev/urandom.

"If we imagine that every user program we care about uses GRND_INSECURE for best-effort and /dev/random or getrandom() without GRND_INSECURE for cryptography, then we're in great shape and this patch is irrelevant.

"But we don't get to rely on that. New kernels are supposed to be compatible with old userspace. And with *old* userspace, we do not know whether /dev/urandom users want cryptographically secure output or whether they want insecure output. And there is this window during boot that lasts, supposedly, up to 1 second; there is a massive difference.

"So, sorry, this patch is an ABI break. You're reinterpreting any program that wanted best-effort randomness right after boot as wanting cryptographic randomness, this can delay boot by up to a second, and that's more than enough delay to be considered a break.

"So I don't like this without a stronger justification and a clearer compatibility story. I could *maybe* get on board if you had a urandom=insecure boot option to switch back to the old behavior and a very clear message like 'random: startup of %s is delayed. Set urandom=insecure for faster boot if you do not need cryptographically secure urandom during boot', but I don't think this patch is okay otherwise.

"Or we stick with the status quo and make the warning clearer. 'random: %s us using insecure urandom output. Fix it to use getrandom() or /dev/rando as appropriate'."

So Andy wasn't disputing that Jason's patch would work – he was pointing out that it would change the system behavior in ways that might break existing compiled userspace binaries. In other words, it would break the kernel ABI. If true, Jason's patch would have a giant hurdle to clear. In general, the only thing Linus hates worse than breaking the ABI is allowing a security hole to go unpatched. But if it can be shown that no users rely on a particular piece of the ABI, Linus has been known to allow a patch to change it.

In this case, Jason said to Andy:

"I think your analysis is a bit mismatched from the reality of the situation. That reality is that cryptographic users still find themselves using /dev/urandom, as that's been the 'standard good advice' for a very long time. And people are still encouraged to do that, either out of ignorance or out of 'compatibility'. The cryptographic problem is not going away.

"Fixing this issue means, yes, adding a 1 second delay to the small group of init system users who haven't switched to using getrandom(GRND_INSECURE) for that less common usage (who even are those users actually?). That's not breaking compatibility or breaking userspace or breaking anything; that's accepting the reality of _how_ /dev/urandom is mostly used – for crypto – and making that usage finally secure, at the expense of a 1 second delay for those other users who haven't switched to getrandom(GRND_INSECURE) yet. That seems like a _very_ small price to pay for eliminating a footgun.

"And in general, deemphasizing the rare performance of the less common usage in favor of fixing a commonly triggered footgun seems on par with how things morph and change over time. There's no actual breakage. There's no ABI change violation. What you're saying simply isn't so."

Theodore Ts'o joined the discussion on Jason's side of the argument. He said, "So long as we're only blocking for short amount of time, and only during early after the system was booted, people shouldn't care. The reason why we had to add the 'gee-I-hope-this-jitterentropy-like-hack-is-actually-secure on all architectures but it's better than the alternatives people were trying to get Linus to adopt' was because there were systems that were hanging for hours or days."

But the proof is in the pudding, and a week or so after Jason's patch went into the kernel tree, Guenter Roeck pointed out that it caused "a large number of qemu boot test failures for various architectures (arm, m68k, microblaze, sparc32, xtensa are the ones I observed). Common denominator is that boot hangs at 'Saving random seed:'. A sample bisect log is attached. Reverting this patch fixes the problem."

At this point Linus joined the conversation, saying, "Ok, it was worth trying, but yeah, it clearly causes problems for various platforms that can't do jitter entropy and have nothing else happening either."

And he reverted the patch.

Jason also commented on Guenter's post, saying, "As Linus said, it was worth a try, but I guess it just didn't work."

But the story didn't end there. Jason asked Guenter to share some of the virtual machines that seemed to break with the patch, and the two of them – and others – proceeded to track down the real reasons why Qemu had a problem with Jason's patch. As Jason put it, "if we do ever reattempt this sometime down the road, it seems like understanding everything about why the previous time failed might be a good idea."

In fact, it turned out to be a Qemu bug, rather than a problem with Jason's random number generator modifications. To Jason, this meant that "the rationale for reverting the /dev/random + /dev/urandom unification has now been fixed. That's some real tangible progress."

But he remained cautious. Jason went on to say, "I don't want to rush into trying the unification again too soon. I think if anything, the lesson from the first attempt wasn't simply, 'I should fix a few of Guenter's test cases,' but rather that the problem is fairly nuanced and will take a lot wider testing and research. However, the fact that the initial thing, across multiple platforms, that lead to the revert has been fixed gives me a decent amount of optimism that at /some point/ down the road, we'll be able to try this again. One step at a time."

Ultimately, it seems that Linus does not consider the issue in its entirety to be an unacceptable ABI violation. And he is willing, if not eager, to take something like Jason's patch if it works. So in theory, Jason may be bringing a little more sanity to random number generation in the near future.

Git Lesson from Linus

Borislav Petkov submitted a pull request to Linus Torvalds against the 5.18 kernel tree, but he noticed that his workflow had resulted in a strange diffstat. Diffstats are auto-generated summaries of which files were changed and by how much. It's one way the kernel developers can quickly see which parts of a patch might interest them. In this case, Borislav noticed Git complaining about "multiple merge bases," and he described what he thought he had done to produce that complaint:

"I needed to have prerequisite work from another tip branch: tip/locking/core which was fast-forwarded to v5.17-rc1 before it got that prerequisite work added ontop.

"So I merged tip/locking/core into tip/ras/core [...] and added the RAS stuff ontop.

"However, when creating the diffstat for the pull request, it would add additional files to it from tip/locking/core even if all the tip/locking/core changes are already in your master branch."

He didn't see exactly what he had done wrong, so he asked Linus for an explanation. Linus replied:

"What you are describing is a very fundamental thing – your branch has multiple separate starting points, since you had different branches that you merged into your tree.

"Sometimes having multiple branches doesn't actually cause that, because the different branches may all have the same base starting point.

"Git calls these things 'merge bases', because those starting points [are] what you have to take into account when merging, they are the 'base' for actually resolving the differences that come in through multiple branches.

"And git handles that perfectly fine when merging by doing all the appropriate magic. And 'git log' has no problem with it either – you can list all the commits that are in your head but are *not* in some arbitrary number of merge bases just fine.

"But when you do a 'git diff', things are different (and 'git request-pull' basically just does a diff to show what the thing was about).

"A 'diff' is fundamentally something you do on two end-points. You have a beginning, you have an end, and you ask 'what changed between these two end-points'.

"But that fundamentally means that when you have multiple different merge bases, and you ask 'what changed since the beginning and the current state', your question is fundamentally ambiguous. There is not a 'the beginning'. There are *multiple* beginnings.

"So what git will do it to pick _one_ beginning, and just use that.

"And that means that yes, the diff will show the changes since that beginning, but since the end result depends on the _other_ beginning too, it will show the changes that came from that other beginning as well.

"Sometimes those changes end up being empty, because the 'first beginning' might already have had all of that. So sometimes you might not even notice that what 'git diff' gave you was ambiguous.

"So 'git request-pull' does both a log (for the shortlog of commits) and a diff (for the diffstat), and the log should always be correct, but the diffstat will have this ambiguity problem if you have multiple merge bases."

Linus went on:

"In the general case, you aren't doing anything wrong: if you merge multiple real branches, it's just that 'git diff' cannot find a single unique point to use as the base, and you'll get some odd random diff.

"But if you are a developer who merges multiple real branches, you obviously know how to merge things, and one way to sort it out is to basically do a test-merge just for yourself:

# WWLS? ("What would Linus See?")
git branch -b test-merge linus
git merge my-branch
git diff -C --stat --summary ORIG_HEAD..
.. save that away ..
# go back to your real work,
# and remove that test-merge
git checkout <normal-branch>
git branch -D test-merge

"will generate a diffstat of what a merge (which fundamentally knows how to resolve multiple merge bases) would generate.

"(Obviously you can just do the above in a completely separate git tree too, if you don't like doing those temporary branches that might mess up your working tree).

"The other alternative is to just send me the bogus diffstat – I'm sadly quite used to it, since a number of people just do 'git request-pull', see that it's odd, don't understand why, and just let me sort it out.

"Now the good news is that people who are afraid of merges and the above kind of complexity will never actually see this situation. You can't get multiple merge bases if you don't do any merges yourself.

"So this kind of git complexity only happens to people who are supposed to be able to handle it. You clearly figured out what was going on; you didn't perhaps just realize the full story."

Borislav thanked him for the explanation and offered to write up some documentation on the topic to include in the kernel tree. But Jonathan Corbet offered a link to his own effort in March 2022 to document this situation, at Documentation/maintainer/messy-diffstat.rst in the kernel tree.

Borislav said he liked Jonathan's version of the documentation a lot better than whatever he himself might have scratched together, and the discussion came to an end.

When Word Has Not Yet Gone Round

Andy Shevchenko recently inadvertently put his head in the lion's mouth, pointing out that since -Werror had been added to the kernel build systems, all warnings at build time were now errors. And for anyone using W=1 at build time, this would cause the GNU C Compiler (GCC) to be very finicky about identifying as many warnings as possible. The result was that Andy's kernel builds were failing left and right. He posted a patch to remove the whole -Werror thing in the kernel build system.

The lion's jaws did not immediately snap closed around Andy's head. Instead, Masahiro Yamada said that -Werror should not be enabled for any regular user who is simply building the kernel for their own use.

Andy agreed with this. However, he did start to feel the lion's hot breath all around him and offered a link to an earlier discussion, at, in which Linus Torvalds had said that kernel build warnings were unacceptable, and that everyone should enable -Werror.

At this point, the lion did indeed chomp down upon the head of Andy.

Linus said:

"If you enabled CONFIG_WERROR, then you get CONFIG_WERROR.

"If you enabled W=1, then you get extra warnings.

"If you enabled both, then you get extra warnings and they are errors.

"This patch is just stupid."

He went on to say:

"WERROR should be on for regular builds.

"It's W=1 that is questionable. It enables warnings that are often false positives, and if you use W=1 (and particularly W=2) then that's _your_ problem.

"W=1 is most definitely not 'regular builds'. It's only for people who want to deal with crazy compiler warnings.

"I want WERROR on as widely as possible, because I'm really sick and tired of developers not noticing when they add warnings because they did a 'regular build'.

"Stop this idiocy where you think warnings are acceptable."

Andy replied, "fair enough." Then he picked up his masticated head from the ground, reattached it, and proceeded to the next thing.

The Author

The Linux kernel mailing list comprises the core of Linux development activities. Traffic volumes are immense, often reaching 10,000 messages in a week, and keeping up to date with the entire scope of development is a virtually impossible task for one person. One of the few brave souls to take on this task is Zack Brown.

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