Secure key derivation performance

I'm primarily interested in Clojure and Python.

Please note that I'm examining high-entropy key derivation functions: I'm attempting to produce key material from an existing high-entropy key. I am not trying to produce key material from a low-entropy password; therefore PBKDF2, bcrypt, scrypt... are all poor choices.


  • The function takes two bytestrings with at least 128 bits of entropy each, and produces a bytestring of length 64 (bytes).
  • The key derivation function must be secure.
  • The key derivation must support HKDF-style info parameter.
  • The key derivation must be fast.
  • Wide support is preferred, but not a blocker.


The obvious thing to use here is HKDF. HKDF takes a hash function; the most obvious one to use is SHA-256.

HKDF consists of two phases: an extract phase, which condenses the entropy in some source material, and an expand phase, which turns that entropy into a bunch of keying material. Since our keys are high-quality keying material, we could omit the extraction phase. Unfortunately, that also means we can't use a salt, so this is not tested.

As an alternative, BLAKE2 is examined. BLAKE2 is an improvement upon BLAKE, a SHA-3 finalist. Like other SHA-3 finalists, no weaknesses have been discovered in BLAKE, nor BLAKE2. However, BLAKE2 is particularly interesting because it outperforms MD5, SHA-1, SHA-2, and SHA-3 on modern Intel CPUs, despite being significantly more secure than both SHA-1 and MD5.

Due to some of the differences between SHA-2-era hashes like SHA-256 and (post-)SHA-3-era hashes like BLAKE2, BLAKE2 does not necessarily require the padding provided by HMAC (and by extension HKDF) in order to be a secure MAC. BLAKE2 comes with a highly efficient MAC mode built-in.

Furthermore, BLAKE2 directly provides a "personalization" parameter similar to the "info" parameter of HKDF. While this is more limited in BLAKE2 (a 16 byte bytestring) than it is in HKDF (an arbitrary bytestring), this is arguably a non-limitation since it's quite easy to hash an arbitrary length info parameter to a fixed-length 16 byte string, particularly if you already have a BLAKE2 implementation lying around.

There are two BLAKE2 implementations for Python, python-blake2 and pyblake2. I used the latter, because the former failed to document how to use the salt and personalization parameters. pyblake2, on the other hand, had awesome docs with lots of examples.


All implementations are on Github at lvh/kdfperf. It'd be nice if these were easier to run. In particular, if anyone feels inclined to add a few Dockerfiles, that would be much appreciated.

Both the HKDF implementation and the BLAKE2 implementation come in "one pass" and "multipass" varieties:

  • in "one pass" mode, the total amount of key material is generated once and then chopped up into separate Python strings.
  • in "multipass" mode, the key material is generated separately.


Here be dragons! Horribly unscientific, only run once, on my laptop, with a bunch of other things open, code not peer reviewed yet! No error bars! This might as well be total nonsense!


Results are available here:


  • BLAKE2 outperforms the HMAC-SHA256 setup by ~80x (multipass) to ~100x (one-pass).
  • Multipass is only about 7% slower than one-pass for BLAKE2, but the difference is almost 20% for HMAC-SHA256.

This is somewhat to be expected; keep in mind that the HKDF implementation is pure Python, whereas the BLAKE2 implementation is a tiny C wrapper around some Python.

I'd run them on PyPy to get the difference down, but it appears pyblake2 doesn't work on PyPy.