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PHP Pseudo Random String

When writing a random string generator in PHP, you must first consider whether or not you need a generator for a throwaway string ( e.g. placeholder or sample username) or a sensitive data (like a default password, application token, or salt). If you are generating for the latter, this article is for you.

Arbitrary length strings

Generating a random string in PHP involves two main steps:

  1. First is generating a cryptographically secure set of random bytes
  2. and second is encoding the bytes into a string of printable characters

For generating random bytes, there are two main approaches depending on PHP version. The pre-PHP7 approach uses openssl_random_pseudo_bytes while the PHP7 approach prefers random_bytes. An advantage of the latter is that it is native and does not need additional modules installed. If needed, openssl_random_pseudo_bytes is still available in PHP7 as an extension. But as both functions are considered cryptographically secure generators anyway, random_bytes is the recommended function.

For encoding the bytes into printable characters, there are also a couple of viable approaches. Most popular of these are base64_encode and bin2hex. You generally can't go wrong with either of these although bin2hex does have the advantage of being more predictable in length while base64_encode produces a shorter string with more variety in characters used.

Concretely, here is how you can generate a cryptographically secure random string :

// Pre PHP7
$numOfBytes = 10;
$randomBytes = openssl_random_pseudo_bytes($numOfBytes);
$randomString = base64_encode($randomBytes);

/// PHP7+
$numOfBytes = 10;
$randomBytes = random_bytes($numOfBytes);
$randomString = base64_encode($randomBytes);

If you need some predictability such as generating string with a specific length, encoding bytes using bin2hex will be more suitable despite being limited to even length strings only.

// Need to generate string with length 20!

// First generate 10 random bytes
$randomBytes = random_bytes(10);

// Now encode to get a 20 character string
$randomString = bin2hex($randomBytes);

Exact length strings

If you want complete control on the length of the random string generated, it would be more suitable to use PHP7's random_int function. And if your system is on PHP5, you can use a polyfill library called random_compat.

// Generate a 20 character string
$randomStr = '';
$allowedCharacters='0123456789abcdef';
for (
    $i = 0, $allowedMaxIdx = mb_strlen($allowedCharacters) - 1;
    $i < 20;
    $i ++
) {
    $randomStr .= $allowedCharacters[random_int(0, $allowedMaxIdx)];
}

And that's how you generate secure random strings in PHP. Happy coding!

Originally published at https://plog.czarpino.com/php-pseudorandom-string/

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