Simple Introduction to using OpenSSL on Command Line

OpenSSL is a program and library that supports many different cryptographic operations, including:

Each of the operations supported by OpenSSL have a variety of options, such as input/output files, algorithms, algorithm parameters and formats. This article aims to give a demonstration of some simple and common operations.

To start learning the details of OpenSSL, read the man page, i.e. man openssl. You'll soon learn that each of the operations (or commands) have their own man pages. For example, the operation of symmetric key encryption is enc, which is described in man enc. Although it is good to read the man pages, in my (and others) experience, the man pages of OpenSSL can be very detailed, hard to follow, confusing and out of date. So hopefully this article will make life easier for those getting started.

There are other websites that give an overview of OpenSSL operations, as well as programming with the API. I used some of them to write the following notes. Check them out for more details.

Initial Steps

Lets first determine the current versions of Ubuntu, Linux and OpenSSL I am using:

$ lsb_release -a
No LSB modules are available.
Distributor ID:	Ubuntu
Description:	Ubuntu 12.04.2 LTS
Release:	12.04
Codename:	precise
$ uname -a
Linux lime 3.2.0-51-generic #77-Ubuntu SMP Wed Jul 24 20:18:19 UTC 2013 x86_64 x86_64 x86_64 GNU/Linux
$ openssl version
OpenSSL 1.0.1 14 Mar 2012

If you are using different versions, then it is still a very good chance that all the following commands will work. In the past I have had problems with different versions of OpenSSL but for only for very specific operations.

Update (2013-08-02): I just tested on a Apple iMac using OS X 10.8.4 and OpenSSL version 0.9.8x 10 May 2012. Most operations worked. See my additional comments at the end of this article if you are using a similar version of OpenSSL.

As input plaintext I will copy some files on Ubuntu Linux into my home directory. You don't need to do this if you already have some files to encrypt. It doesn't matter what files you use. I have chosen the following three, and will rename them simply to,,

  1. /usr/share/dict/words - a large text file containing a list of words, i.e. a dictionary
  2. /usr/bin/openssl - the binary for the program OpenSSL
  3. /etc/legal - a short text file containing the Ubuntu legal notice

$ cp /usr/share/dict/words
$ cp /usr/bin/openssl
$ cp /etc/legal
$ ls -l plaintext*
-rw-r--r-- 1 sgordon sgordon 938848 Jul 31 13:32
-rwxr-xr-x 1 sgordon sgordon 513208 Jul 31 13:32
-rw-r--r-- 1 sgordon sgordon    267 Jul 31 13:32

Symmetric Key Encryption

The most common cryptographic operation is encryption. Lets encrypt some files using selected symmetric key (conventional) ciphers such as DES, 3DES and AES.

Symmetric key encryption is performed using the enc operation of OpenSSL. To encrypt we need to choose a cipher. A list of supported ciphers can be found using:

$ openssl list-cipher-algorithms
seed => SEED-CBC

The lowercase seed is an alias for the actual cipher SEED-CBC, i.e. SEED using CBC mode of operation. You can use the cipher names in either lowercase or uppercase.

Now lets encrypt using DES and ECB, creating an output file ciphertext1.bin. Enter a password when prompted - OpenSSL will automatically convert it to a key appropriate for DES:

$ openssl enc -des-ecb -in -out ciphertext1.bin
enter des-ecb encryption password: password
Verifying - enter des-ecb encryption password: password
$ ls -l ciphertext1.bin
-rw-rw-r-- 1 sgordon sgordon 938872 Jul 31 14:15 ciphertext1.bin
-rw-r--r-- 1 sgordon sgordon 938848 Jul 31 13:32

To decrypt, include the -d option:

$ openssl enc -d -des-ecb -in ciphertext1.bin -out plaintext1.out
enter des-ecb decryption password: password
$ ls -l plaintext1.out
-rw-r--r-- 1 sgordon sgordon 938848 Jul 31 13:32
-rw-rw-r-- 1 sgordon sgordon 938848 Jul 31 14:18 plaintext1.out
$ diff plaintext1.out
$ xxd -l 96 ciphertext1.bin 
0000000: 5361 6c74 6564 5f5f f253 8361 b87d 1a3e  Salted__.S.a.}.>
0000010: 30ed be95 5b38 ebf9 a013 ca64 bbf4 03ea  0...[8.....d....
0000020: 3ebb cdf8 483d 5a12 acd8 bc75 140c 920b  >...H=Z....u....
0000030: da41 7376 edc3 b9bd 59c4 a5ce 0a67 408a  .Asv....Y....g@.
0000040: d23e 10ee 7ac3 f5b6 4f09 4aaf 88e4 1f96  .>..z...O.J.....
0000050: 3171 7277 91a7 100c ac04 7871 dd39 cf4c  1qrw......xq.9.L

The lack of output from the diff indicates the files and plaintext1.out are identical. We've retrieved the original plaintext.

xxd was used to view the first 96 bytes, in hexadecimal, of the ciphertext. The first 8 bytes contain the special string Salted__ meaning the DES key was generated using a password and a salt. The salt is stored in the next 8 bytes of ciphertext, i.e. the value f2538361b87d1a3e in hexadecimal. So when decrypting, the user supplies the password and OpenSSL combines with the salt to determine the DES 64 bit key.

Lets try an example where we select a key. I will use AES with a 128 bit key and Counter (CTR) mode of operation. In addition to the key, an initialisation vector (IV) is needed.

$ openssl enc -aes-128-ctr -in -out ciphertext2.bin -K 0123456789abcdef0123456789abcdef -iv 00000000000000000000000000000000
$ openssl enc -d -aes-128-ctr -in ciphertext2.bin -out plaintext2.out -K 0123456789abcdef0123456789abcdef -iv 00000000000000000000000000000000
$ ls -l *2*
-rw-rw-r-- 1 sgordon sgordon 513208 Jul 31 14:29 ciphertext2.bin
-rwxr-xr-x 1 sgordon sgordon 513208 Jul 31 13:32
-rw-rw-r-- 1 sgordon sgordon 513208 Jul 31 14:30 plaintext2.out
$ diff plaintext2.out 
$ xxd -l 96 ciphertext2.bin 
0000000: 06ee 8984 3a69 ac84 d388 ce61 110a 6274
0000010: c1ed f9ed f193 f2d2 bf8d 29e2 1577 5d32  ..........)..w]2
0000020: 1e25 cc36 bb37 baa7 eb65 402b a8ef 421b  .%.6.7...e@+..B.
0000030: a6f7 073c a08a e698 747d 5153 8df1 ed88  ...<....t}QS....
0000040: 1131 f4e0 2014 1392 ee36 2b54 27eb ca72  .1.. ....6+T'..r
0000050: 4b88 e623 ed28 2da7 87cd 0c1a 5441 5d7c  K..#.(-.....TA]|

Both the Key (not uppercase -K) and IV were specified on the command line as a hexadecimal string. With AES-128, they must be 32 hex digits (128 bits). You may choose any value you wish.

Public Key Encryption, Certificates and Digital Signatures

I have written several guides that introduce topics related to public key cryptography, including:

Hash Functions

Hash functions (like MD5 and SHA) as well as MAC functions (e.g. using HMAC) are available via the message digest (dgst) operating of OpenSSL. To list the available algorithms:

$ openssl list-message-digest-algorithms
DSA-SHA1-old => DSA-SHA1
ssl3-md5 => MD5
ssl3-sha1 => SHA1

Calculate the MD5 hash of a file:

$ openssl dgst -md5 
MD5( 0110925f6e068836ef2e09356e3651d9

Now create a new file, slightly different from the previous and see that the MD5 hash is significantly different:

$ cat 

The programs included with the Ubuntu system are free software;
the exact distribution terms for each program are described in the
individual files in /usr/share/doc/*/copyright.

Ubuntu comes with ABSOLUTELY NO WARRANTY, to the extent permitted by
applicable law.

$ sed 's/U/X/g' >
$ cat 

The programs included with the Xbuntu system are free software;
the exact distribution terms for each program are described in the
individual files in /usr/share/doc/*/copyright.

Xbuntu comes with ABSOLXTELY NO WARRANTY, to the extent permitted by
applicable law.

$ openssl dgst -md5 
MD5( 0b4974e95714c429e40cfad510286827

Use SHA-256, first outputing to the terminal and then in binary to a file:

$ openssl dgst -sha256 
SHA256( 9fa4ad4d7c2a346540c64c4c3619e389db894116f99a0fbbcc75a58bf2851262
$ openssl dgst -sha256 -binary -out dgst3.bin 
$ xxd dgst3.bin 
0000000: 9fa4 ad4d 7c2a 3465 40c6 4c4c 3619 e389  ...M|*4e@.LL6...
0000010: db89 4116 f99a 0fbb cc75 a58b f285 1262  ..A......u.....b

Create a MAC using HMAC and MD5. First generate a random 128 bit key (see Random Number below for further explanation), then pass the key as an option when using HMAC:

$ openssl rand 32 -hex
$ openssl dgst -md5 -mac hmac -macopt hexkey:36463a4eb02b5ab9776aa8ed51f4e8a34f4bd785597fd74d4277652fd9f743d5 
HMAC-MD5( 85e0bbf0a14559699c4b8e04bd1c1665

A much simpler alternative to calculate hash values is to use the Linux programs md5sum and sha1sum (and its variants sha224sum, sha256sum and so on). For example:

$ sha256sum 

Random Numbers

The rand operation of OpenSSL can be used to produce random numbers, either printed on the screen or stored in a file. Some quick examples:

Write 8 random bytes to a file (then view that file with xxd in both hexadecimal and binary):

$ openssl rand 8 -out rand1.bin
$ ls -l rand1.bin 
-rw-rw-r-- 1 sgordon sgordon 8 Jul 31 15:14 rand1.bin
$ xxd rand1.bin 
0000000: 7d12 162f 1a18 c331                      }../...1
$ xxd -b -g 8 -c 8 rand1.bin  | cut -d " " -f 2

Generate a 128 bit (16 byte) random value, shown in hexadecimal:

$ openssl rand 16 -hex

Another way to generate random values on Linux (without using OpenSSL) is using urandom:

$ cat /dev/urandom | xxd -l 32
0000000: 4b69 76ca f6ee 4663 e467 f767 d560 07cd  Kiv...Fc.g.g.`..
0000010: dac6 5020 62ac 02db ea2e 6f0a 60ba 5031  ..P b.....o.`.P1

Read man rand and man urandom for further details.

Performance Benchmarking

OpenSSL has a built-in operation for performance testing. It encrypts random data over short period, measuring how many bytes can be encrypted per second. It can be used to compare the performance of different algorithms, and compare the performance of different computers.

To run performance tests across a large set of algorithms, simple use the speed operation. Note that it may take a few minutes:

$ openssl speed

You can select the algorithms to test, e.g. AES, DES and MD5:

$ openssl speed aes-128-cbc des md5
The 'numbers' are in 1000s of bytes per second processed.
type             16 bytes     64 bytes    256 bytes   1024 bytes   8192 bytes
md5              68101.86k   199387.83k   444829.62k   639419.85k   734323.76k
des cbc          76810.00k    78472.53k    78442.77k    79241.85k    78440.45k
des ede3         28883.98k    29585.17k    29640.69k    29499.08k    29740.52k
aes-128 cbc     138894.09k   150561.30k   154512.15k   155203.81k   155590.46k

The output shows the progress, the versions and options used for OpenSSL and then a summary table at the end. Focus on the summary table, and the last line (for aes-128-cbc) in the example above. The speed test encrypts as many b Byte input plaintexts as possible in a period of 3 seconds. Different size inputs are used, i.e. b = 16, 64, 256, 1024 and 8192 Bytes. The summary table reports the encryption speed in Bytes per second. So if 25955833 16-Byte plaintext values are encrypted in 3 seconds, then the speed reported in the summary table is 25955833 × 16 ÷ 3 ≈ 138 million Bytes per second. You can see that value (138,894.09kB/s) in the table above. So AES using 128 bit key and CBC can encrypt about 138 MB/sec when small plaintext values are used and 155 MB/sec when plaintext values are 8192 Bytes.

Normally OpenSSL implements all algorithms in software. However recent Intel CPUs include instructions specifically for AES encryption, a feature referred to as AES-NI. If an application such as OpenSSL uses this special instruction, then part of the AES encryption is performed directly by the CPU. This is usually must faster (compared to using general instructions). To run a speed test that uses the Intel AES-NI, use the evp option:

$ openssl speed -evp aes-128-cbc
type             16 bytes     64 bytes    256 bytes   1024 bytes   8192 bytes
aes-128-cbc     689927.75k   729841.81k   745383.38k   747226.84k   747784.87k

Compare the values to the original results. In the original test we achieved 138 MB/sec. Using the Intel AES hardware encryption we get a speed of 689 MB/sec, about 5 times faster.

OpenSSL 0.9.8x on Mac OS X

Running the above commands on Mac OS X 10.8.4 which uses OpenSSL 0.9.8x produces correct results, except for the following:

If you have an older version of OpenSSL (pre 1.0) - no matter what operating system - then you may try the above commands instead.