How these lava lamps are securing the internet

"Something like ten percent of the web flows through Cloudflare's network," states Nick Sullivan, Head of Cryptography for internet "gatekeeping" service Cloudflare.

So, in order to keep their client's protected, they need to generate a lot of unpredictable, completely random numbers. That's where this wall of lava lamps comes in.

Cloudflare's "Wall of Entropy" sits in the lobby of their headquarters in San Francisco. It uses the unpredictability of its flowing "lava" to assist in randomly generating numbers.

On their blog, they explain how it works, for people both with technical and non-technical backgrounds. This is an excerpt from their non-technical explanation:

At Cloudflare, we have thousands of computers in data centers all around the world, and each one of these computers needs cryptographic randomness. Historically, they got that randomness using the default mechanism made available by the operating system that we run on them, Linux.

But being good cryptographers, we’re always trying to hedge our bets. We wanted a system to ensure that even if the default mechanism for acquiring randomness was flawed, we’d still be secure. That’s how we came up with LavaRand.

LavaRand is a system that uses lava lamps as a secondary source of randomness for our production servers. A wall of lava lamps in the lobby of our San Francisco office provides an unpredictable input to a camera aimed at the wall. A video feed from the camera is fed into a CSPRNG, and that CSPRNG provides a stream of random values that can be used as an extra source of randomness by our production servers. Since the flow of the “lava” in a lava lamp is very unpredictable,1 “measuring” the lamps by taking footage of them is a good way to obtain unpredictable randomness. Computers store images as very large numbers, so we can use them as the input to a CSPRNG just like any other number...

Hopefully we’ll never need it. Hopefully, the primary sources of randomness used by our production servers will remain secure, and LavaRand will serve little purpose beyond adding some flair to our office. But if it turns out that we’re wrong, and that our randomness sources in production are actually flawed, then LavaRand will be our hedge, making it just a little bit harder to hack Cloudflare.

photo by @mahtin via Cloudflare

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