Thursday, June 12, 2014

Linux Shells Just Keep Bugging Me

A couple of months ago, Dan Farmer (who is definitely someone that technically-oriented security people should pay attention to) put up a one-liner to generate 128 bits of pseudo-randomness, via a shell.

Unfortunately, single quotes are showing up as back-ticks in that post, so cut-and-paste 'programmers' had a bit of debugging to do. Hopefully Blogger will do a bit better (update: yes it does):

dd if=/dev/urandom bs=16 count=1 2>/dev/null| hexdump |awk '{$1=""; printf("%s", $0)}' | sed 's/ //g'

My first reaction was horror; sed and awk are both Turing-complete programming languages, and a bit on the large size. However, large systems written in a shell will likely use both, in which case they will likely be resident in memory. Unless your system is swapping madly, in which case you have other problems. So, even running that code in a tight loop may not have as much effect as one might think.

There are things we might do to swap in lighter-weight utilities, and get more readable code as well:

dd if=/dev/urandom bs=16 count=1 2>/dev/null | hexdump | head -n 1 | cut -d ' ' -f 2- | tr -d ' '

In shells, each command executes in a sub-shell, and that is an expense. My version costs us two more sub-shells. So, is it a win? I have no clue, and getting a clue is not an easy thing to do in shells. Variants of this code fail to give valid results using either the bash builtin 'time', or /usr/bin/time. Putting it into a script, and timing that, does not really help.

It is complicated. Have a look at Note that there is no mention of taking an average of many tests, which is fundamental.

Shell code is pretty much the last thing you should use to write anything, if you have security in mind. I've had to do it because managers demanded it. Probably because they read an article about POSIX, from ten or fifteen years ago. But the security argument has seldom worked in the past, so let's mount that profiling argument. It is entirely valid.

Shells are tremendously useful for things like the initial exploration of log files, and setting up execution environments*. Which means that knowing the native shell is important. And there are things I still need to look at; I've just installed the dash shell. But so far, my take is that if you are using a famously slow and error-prone tool to write production (vice exploratory) code, and have no good means of profiling that code, You Are Doing It Wrong.

file $(which firefox)
/usr/bin/firefox: Bourne-Again shell script, ASCII text executable

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