Skein is a new family of cryptographic hash functions. Its design combines speed, security, simplicity, and a great deal of flexibility in a modular package that is easy to analyze.
Skein is fast. Skein-512—our primary proposal—hashes data at 6.1 clock cycles per byte on a 64-bit CPU. This means that on a 3.1 GHz x64 Core 2 Duo CPU, Skein hashes data at 500 MBytes/second per core—almost twice as fast as SHA-512 and three times faster than SHA-256. An optional hash-tree mode speeds up parallelizable implementations even more. Skein is fast for short messages, too; Skein-512 hashes short messages in about 1000 clock cycles.
Skein is secure. Its conservative design is based on the Threefish block cipher. Our current best attack on Threefish-512 is on 25 of 72 rounds, for a safety factor of 2.9. For comparison, at a similar stage in the standardization process, the AES encryption algorithm had an attack on 6 of 10 rounds, for a safety factor of only 1.7. Additionally, Skein has a number of provably secure properties, greatly increasing confidence in the algorithm.
Skein is simple. Using only three primitive operations, the Skein compression function can be easily understood and remembered. The rest of the algorithm is a straightforward iteration of this function.
Skein is flexible. Skein is defined for three different internal state sizes—256 bits, 512 bits, and 1024 bits—and any output size. This allows Skein to be a drop-in replacement for the entire SHA family of hash functions. A completely optional and extendable argument system makes Skein an efficient tool to use for a very large number of functions: a PRNG, a stream cipher, a key derivation function, authentication without the overhead of HMAC, and a personalization capability. All these features can be implemented with very low overhead. Together with the Threefish large-block cipher at Skein core, this design provides a full set of symmetric cryptographic primitives suitable for most modern applications.
Skein is efficient on a variety of platforms, both hardware and software. Skein-512 can be implemented in about 200 bytes of state. Small devices, such as 8-bit smart cards, can implement Skein-256 using about 100 bytes of memory. Larger devices can implement the larger versions of Skein to achieve faster speeds.
Skein was designed by a team of highly experienced cryptographic experts from academia and industry, with expertise in cryptography, security analysis, software, chip design, and implementation of real-world cryptographic systems. This breadth of knowledge allowed them to create a balanced design that works well in all environments.
NIST’s deadline is Friday. It seems as if everyone—including many amateurs—is working on a hash function, and I predict that NIST will receive at least 80 submissions. (Compare this to the sixteen NIST submissions received for the AES competition in 1998.) I expect people to start posting their submissions over the weekend. (Ron Rivest already presented MD6 at Crypto in August.) Probably the best place to watch for new hash functions is here; I’ll try to keep a listing of the submissions myself.
The selection process will take around four years. I’ve previously called this sort of thing a cryptographic demolition derby—last one left standing wins—but that’s only half true. Certainly all the groups will spend the next couple of years trying to cryptanalyze each other, but in the end there will be a bunch of unbroken algorithms; NIST will select one based on performance and features.
NIST has stated that the goal of this process is not to choose the best standard but to choose a good standard. I think that’s smart of them; in this process, “best” is the enemy of “good.” My advice is this: immediately sort them based on performance and features. Ask the cryptographic community to focus its attention on the top dozen, rather than spread its attention across all 80—although I also expect that most of the amateur submissions will be rejected by NIST for not being “complete and proper.” Otherwise, people will break the easy ones and the better ones will go unanalyzed.
EDITED TO ADD (10/30): Here is a single website for all information, including cryptanalysis, of all the SHA-3 submissions. A spoke to a reporter who told me that, as of yesterday, NIST had received 30 submissions. And three news articles about Skein.