SHA512 and its implementation in Noir

2022-12-14 by Ahmad Afuni

The SHA-2 family of hash functions, of which SHA256 and SHA512 are particular instances, are ubiquitous in cryptographic applications due to their ease of computation on modern computers. In this blog post, we discuss the SHA512 hash function and its implementation in Aztec’s Noir, a domain-specific language for constructing and verifying zero-knowledge (ZK) proofs.


What is Noir?

In a nutshell, Noir is a programming language with Rust-like syntax that allows you to compile programs to an intermediate language that may then be further compiled to an arithmetic circuit or rank-1 constraint system, thereby facilitating the construction and verification of zero-knowledge proofs. Its main draws are its ease of use, its familiar syntax and its abstracting away of the underlying arithmetic circuit required to construct a proof. In other words, a background in ZK proofs is not necessary for using Noir. It supports different proving systems as backends, and, by analogy with Rust’s cargo, it comes with the nargo package manager. It also generates smart contracts that verify its proofs.


To illustrate the simplicity of Noir, here is a screencast where we

using nargo, Noir’s package manager:

Installation instructions for various platforms may be found in the official documentation.

Language features

Analogously to Rust, Noir has the usual unsigned integer data types (e.g. u8, u32 and u64), but it also has a backend-dependent Field data type, which is modeled on a finite field; with the primary backend, it is none other than \(\mathbb{F}_{p}\), where p=0x30644e72e131a029b85045b68181585d2833e84879b9709143e1f593f0000001, i.e. the order of the BN254 (alt_bn128) curve or, alternatively, the order of the base field of the Baby Jubjub curve. Noir also has tuples, record types and fixed-length array types. At the time of writing, it has no vector or slice support, but there is some support for function signatures including arrays of unspecified length, which we made use of in our implementation of SHA512.

Hash functions in a nutshell

The idea

In brief, a hash function \(h\) is a mapping taking a message of any length as input and returning a number, called a message digest (or hash) as output. A hash function \(h\) should be

Hash functions are ubiquitous in the digital world, where they are used for data integrity checks and data hiding. A hash function should be relatively fast to compute, and its output should be seemingly random, despite its deterministic nature.


There are many different hash functions in current use, the choice depending on a compromise between security and computation speed. That being said, many of them are constructed by means of an iterative process typically consisting of the following steps:

The result of the above steps is that we obtain a mapping \(h:\bigcup_{i=1}^{\infty}X^{i}\rightarrow H\). \(X\) is typically taken to be \(\{0,1\}\) (i.e. the set of bits) or a prime field, and \(H\) is usually the integers modulo \(N\) for some \(N\in\mathbb{N}\).

Two constructions that are variations on the above theme are the Merkle-Damgård and sponge constructions. The SHA-1 and SHA-2 families of hash functions are based on the former construction and the SHA-3 family on the latter. We now turn our attention to a particular member of the SHA-2 family.

SHA512 and its implementation

The algorithm in short

The SHA512 hash function takes a sequence of bits, i.e. an element of \(\bigcup_{i=1}^{\infty}\{0,1\}^{i}\), as its input and returns a 512-bit message digest as its output. Its official specification may be found here, and we shall refer back to this specification in the following discussion.

As remarked earlier, SHA512 is constructed along the lines of the iterative process outlined earlier, processing a message 1024 bits at a time. Concretely:

To illustrate the padding process, in ASCII, the string “kebab” has binary representation 01101011 01100101 01100010 01100001 01100010 (0x6b65626162 in hex), which is of bit-length 40. After padding, we obtain the following number:

01101011 01100101 01100010 01100001 01100010 10000000 00000000 ... 00000000 (\(1\) followed by \(1024-40-1-128 = 855\) zero bits) 00000000 ... 00000000 00101000 (128-bit representation of the bit-length of the string, i.e. 40).

In general, a message \(m\) of bit-length \(l\) admits a unique decomposition of the form \(m_{1}|| \dots || m_{N-1} || m_{N}\) for some \(N\in\mathbb{N}\) such that \(m_{i}\) is of bit-length \(1024\) for \(i\in\{1,\dots, N-1\}\) and \(m_{N}\) is of bit-length \(n= l\mod 1024\in\{0, \dots, 1023\}\), where a message of bit-length \(0\) is interpreted as the empty string. In the case above, \(N=1\) and \(n=40\) so that we have \(1024-40 = 984\) bits in the current block to apply the padding rule. In the case where \(n\) is so large (i.e. greater than \(1024-1-128 = 895\)) that we cannot simply apply the padding rule to complete \(m_{N}\) to a block \(m_{N}'\) of bit-length \(1024\), we would append a 1 bit followed by \(1024-n-1\) zero bits to make \(m_{N}\) a \(1024\)-bit block, then append an additional 1024-bit block consisting of \(1024-128 = 896\) zero bits followed by the 128-bit representation of the bit-length of the message. An example of this may be found here.

Implementation in Noir

Our implementation of SHA512, which is now part of the Noir standard library, may be found here. Rather than processing messages one bit at a time, we process them one byte at a time and return the message digest as a byte array, which is typical of implementations of the SHA-2 family. We now do a rundown of the code.

Lines 6-39 define the relevant auxiliary bit manipulation functions from the spec (cf. §4.1.3 on p. 11 of the spec), lines 41-57 define the so-called expanded message block function which applies some of the aforementioned bit manipulation functions to the message block being processed to prepare it for further processing in the compression function, whose definition is on lines 60-82. These functions operate on u64 numbers rather than bytes, since they rely on 64-bit operations; a helper function for this conversion is defined on lines 85-98, and appropriate conversions are made throughout the hash function (here called digest), which may be found on lines 101-192.

A quick comparison of the code with the specification shows an almost direct translation with the exception of the function digest. Instead of padding the message at the start, we allocate a message block array (of type [u8; 128]) and fill it up as we move along the bytes of the message until we have a 128-byte (1024-bit) block to absorb, at which point we absorb it, obtaining the intermediate hash \(h_{1}\), then fill the message block array with the next 128-byte block, which is then absorbed to yield an intermediate hash \(h_{2}\), and continue this process until the end of the message is reached; in other words, given an input message \(m\), we make use of the decomposition \(m = m_{1}||\dots || m_{N}\) outlined in the preceding section and absorb message blocks \(m_{1},\dots, m_{N-1}\). The relevant code is on lines 109-124. Lines 128-179 then append the 1 bit to the final (incomplete) message block \(m_{N}\) and check the resulting message block, \(m_{N}||1\), which consists of \(l + 1 \mod 128\) bytes, where \(l\) is the length of \(m\), to determine whether it is possible to simply complete it (see discussion of padding in the preceding section).

Note that the alternative of pre-allocating a padded message array is not available to us at the time of writing, as there is no mechanism for dynamically allocating arrays. Despite this, it is possible to define functions whose signatures contain arrays of unspecified lengths. Also, in the aforementioned code, there are a couple of instances of for loops with somewhat arbitrary-looking bounds with an unused loop variable (lines 138 and 156); these were dictated by the constraint that only certain expressions involving compile-time constants (including array lengths) are allowed in for loop bounds, and there is no alternative loop construction.

Illustration of implementation

It may be checked using any implementation of SHA-512 that the ASCII string "kebab" has message digest 0xf5f5bd14be042c2568709b6f5a2cd77840eec1209f9ce8ede4679a7be631228dc33880f43e582a3e41cfb5221af89567c1ba893d96a1412f37ea7dcbeaebfa6b. We may construct a ZK proof that a prover knows a 5-byte string with this message digest and verify it using our implementation of SHA512 as follows: First create a new project by running

nargo new sha512_test

and populate sha512_test/src/ with the following code:

use dep::std;

fn main(x: [u8; 5]) -> pub [u8; 64] {

Running nargo build builds the constraint system. Now populate sha512_test/Prover.toml with

x = [0x6b, 0x65, 0x62, 0x61, 0x62]
return = [0xf5, 0xf5, 0xbd, 0x14, 0xbe, 0x04, 0x2c, 0x25, 0x68, 0x70, 0x9b, 0x6f, 0x5a, 0x2c, 0xd7, 0x78, 0x40, 0xee, 0xc1, 0x20, 0x9f, 0x9c, 0xe8, 0xed, 0xe4, 0x67, 0x9a, 0x7b, 0xe6, 0x31, 0x22, 0x8d, 0xc3, 0x38, 0x80, 0xf4, 0x3e, 0x58, 0x2a, 0x3e, 0x41, 0xcf, 0xb5, 0x22, 0x1a, 0xf8, 0x95, 0x67, 0xc1, 0xba, 0x89, 0x3d, 0x96, 0xa1, 0x41, 0x2f, 0x37, 0xea, 0x7d, 0xcb, 0xea, 0xeb, 0xfa, 0x6b]

Running nargo prove proof and nargo verify proof will construct and verify the proof.

Concluding remarks

We detailed the implementation of SHA512 in Noir above and went through an example making use of it in a ZK proof. If you followed the example closely, you may have noticed the somewhat long proof generation and verification times; on my 5-year-old laptop for example, these processes take several minutes and consume quite a bit of memory. Digging deeper reveals why: Bitwise operations are expensive in arithmetic circuits!

While SHA512 is nice to have, there are hash functions that are better suited to this setting, such as Poseidon, which relies on natural field operations, viz. addition and multiplication, rather than bit manipulations. It is for this reason that the concentration of our current efforts is on the implementation of such hash functions, as well as cryptographic primitives necessary for their construction.

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