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Alvise Susmel
Alvise Susmel

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Hashing Files in Elixir

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A hash function is a function that converts a variable size sequence of bytes (a string, a file content etc.) to a fixed size sequence of bytes, called digest. This means that hashing a file of any length, the hash function will always return the same unique sequence of bytes for that file. It's a sort of digital fingerprint, usually represented by an hexadecimal string of length between 32 and 128 characters.

The hash of a file is useful, for example, to understand if the content of two files is identical, or if the content was corrupted during a download.

There are different hash functions, MD5, SHA-1, SHA-2, SHA-3 etc. , many of them available in Elixir.

Update 👨‍💻: I had initially written the examples below using MD5 algorithm (which is the weakest in the list), just because I thought to be the fastest one. @Hauleth pointed out that SHA-1 and SHA-256 should be faster on new CPUs due to Intel SHA Extensions, so I rewrote the examples using SHA-256

Hashing a string

Let's start hashing a string using the SHA-256 algorithm.

iex> :crypto.hash(:sha256,"I love Elixir")
<<164, 35, 167, 235, 69, 224, 253, 77, 180, 92, 77, 172, 37,...>>
iex> :crypto.hash(:sha256,"I love Elixir!")
<<209, 119, 188, 230, 168, 124, 98, 212, 119, ...>>

We use the hash/2 function in the :crypto Erlang module.

The first argument is the name of the hash algorithm we want to use, in this case :sha256, the second argument is the sequence of bytes we want to hash, in this case a string. It returns a sequence of bytes.

We see how the output changes just by appending a "!" character.

We can use Base.encode16/1 to get the hexadecimal string representation

iex> :crypto.hash(:sha256,"I love Elixir!") \
...> |> Base.encode16() \
...> |> String.downcase()

If you are on a Linux or Mac machine, you can use a command line tool like sha256sum to see that the digest corresponds

$ echo -n 'I love Elixir!' |  sha256sum
d177bce6a87c62d4772f404fcad2f8c2d9606c04f99942b71d7c521eb79c4c3b -

Hashing a file

Calculating the hash of a file is conceptually the same as calculating the hash of a string. A file is a sequence of bytes and we could use the same :crypto.hash(:sha256, file_content_binary) function. But we saw that most of the time is not a good idea to load the whole file into memory!

We can use! and a different set of functions available in :crypto to read and process a file in chunks.
Let's see first a simple example using the same string we've used before, divided into chunks

iex> [chunk_1, chunk_2] = ["I love ", "Elixir!"]
iex> hash_ref = :crypto.hash_init(:sha256)
iex> hash_ref = :crypto.hash_update(hash_ref, chunk_1)
iex> hash_ref = :crypto.hash_update(hash_ref, chunk_2)
iex> digest = :crypto.hash_final(hash_ref)
<<209, 119, 188, 230, 168, 124, 98, 212, 119, ...>>
iex> digest |> Base.encode16() |> String.downcase()

We process the sequence in chunks getting the same result we've gotten previously.

hash_ref = :crypto.hash_init(:sha256)!(file_path)
|> Enum.reduce(hash_ref, fn chunk, prev_ref-> 
    new_ref = :crypto.hash_update(prev_ref, chunk)
|> :crypto.hash_final()
|> Base.encode16()
|> String.downcase()
  • We get a hash reference from :crypto.hash_init(:sha256), which is passed to Enum.reduce as the first accumulator.
  • We use Enum.reduce to read each chunk from the file and add it to the calculation. The :crypto.hash_update/2 returns a new reference which is then set as the new accumulator.
  • Once processed all the chunks the final reference is then piped into the :crypto.hash_final/1 function which returns the SHA-256 digest of the file.

We can write the reduce function in a nicer and more compact way!(file_path)
|> Enum.reduce(:crypto.hash_init(:sha256),&(:crypto.hash_update(&2, &1)))
|> :crypto.hash_final()
|> Base.encode16()
|> String.downcase()! chunks vs lines

By default! emits lines instead of just chunks. Emitting lines is slower than emitting chunks, I think because the stream needs to look for newlines while splitting the chunk in strings.

To force the stream to emit chunks we use!/3

iex>!(file_path, [], 2_048)
    line_or_bytes: 2048,
    modes: [:raw, :read_ahead, :binary],
    path: file_path,
    raw: true

setting a chunk size of 2048 bytes.

I made a quick benchmark (you can find on this gist) where we see that streaming chunks is faster and also better memory wise.

Name             ips        average  deviation         median         99th %
chunks       23.29 K       42.93 μs    ±63.44%       41.98 μs       83.98 μs
lines         9.21 K      108.54 μs    ±42.52%       93.98 μs      275.98 μs

chunks       23.29 K
lines         9.21 K - 2.53x slower +65.61 μs

Memory usage statistics:

Name      Memory usage
chunks         2.11 KB
lines         20.84 KB - 9.88x memory usage +18.73 KB

Wrap up

We've seen what a hash function is and how to easily calculate the hash of a file using Elixir.

In the past (unfortunately I think still in the present 😅), hash functions were used to store passwords in the database. If you need to securely handle and store passwords, please use the bcrypt_elixir library!

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