I have an application in which I need to create up to J randomly shuffled-copies of an array of length N. Then I will have millions or even billions of iterations such that, in each iteration, I will have to fetch the value of K << N entries of the J permuted copies of the original array. The K entries that need to be accessed are the same for all the J shuffled-copies but that set of K entries changes from one iteration to another.

To give an approximate idea of the dimensions of the problem, assume J = 25000, N = 500000 and K = 50 even if those numbers are not fixed a priori.

The naive approach, which I've been following so far, is to use the Fisher-Yates algorithm (also known as Knuth shuffle) to create the permuted versions of the array, storing them as a NxJ matrix in memory. However, that matrix tends to be too large in many cases, which is problematic. Also, recomputing the entire matrix in each iteration would be painfully slow.

As an alternative, I have started to consider using pseudo-random permutations instead. Using a block-cipher for which the enciphering process had complexity O(1), I could ideally fetch the K entries I need with an extra complexity O(KJ) per iteration. Which appears to be acceptable empirically.

My question, as someone with an extremely rudimentary understanding of cryptography, is which scheme would you recommend me to perform such a task. The key point is that I would rather have a scheme for which enciphering is really fast, even if the security is very poor for cryptographic standards. As long as the set of distinct permutations which can be generated (and look random enough) is in the order of 2^32, it's perfectly fine. AES-like security levels would be a clear overkill.

As a reference, I am currently using a "handmade" 4-round Feistel network with ceil(log2(N)) bits and very simple round functions (16-bit round keys, 8-bits are XORed with one half of the plaintext and the result is passed through a S-box, the other 8-bits are used as an index for a set of 256 random bit shifts). I am also using a cycle-walking scheme to deal with the (common) cases for which N is not a power of 2.

I guess the scheme is a bad joke for cryptographic standards but, for my application (statistical hypothesis testing) it appears to be random enough. It would be great if I could reduce the complexity of the encryption scheme a bit.

I would be really thankful is any of you could provide some advice!

TL;DR I am looking for the fastest possible way to generate pseudorandom permutations of a set of size N. I care much more about the speed than the security of the scheme (about 2^32 "truly" random permutations is more enough).

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    $\begingroup$ What you are looking for is still shuffling, which is different to a "pseudorandom permutation", from the cryptographic point of view. Assume S is a shuffling function, then S(000...0) = 000...0. However, if F is a pseudorandom permutation F(000...0) would not be 000...0, except with very low probability. F consistently "permuts" 000...0 with a random value of the set of inputs. F is actually a bijection. So, in short: "shuffling" != "pseudorandom permutation" $\endgroup$
    – cygnusv
    Nov 5, 2014 at 15:19
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your answer. I might not have explained myself clearly. I do want to generate up to J different permutations of the set of integers {0,...,N-1}. For instance, if J=2 and N=4, two possible such permutations of {0,1,2,3} would be {2,1,3,0} and {0,2,1,3}. I can then use those permutations to shuffle the N-dimensional array as b1 = [a[2],a[1],a[3],a[0]] and so on. I think I can generate such permutations in a pseudo-random way by using a block-cipher which, as you said, is essentially a bijective mapping of {0,...,N-1} to itself. A very efficient way to do that is what I'm looking for. $\endgroup$
    – user44353
    Nov 5, 2014 at 15:37
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    $\begingroup$ Given the maximum number of iterations and the (unspecified) distribution of the K entries queried at each iteration, what is a rough proportion of entries of each permutation that will be queried at least once? That matters to the quality of the technique you need to use. $\;$ Are you after speed to the point that you would consider use of AES-NI instructions or intrinsics? $\endgroup$
    – fgrieu
    Nov 6, 2014 at 9:46
  • $\begingroup$ The proportion of entries queried per iteration can be quite small, let's say K < 0.01N on average. However for a very small fraction of iterations, K might be larger. I took a look at the AES-NI instructions before and I would be willing to use them. However, I wonder if they will be faster than the super-simple scheme I am using right now (just 4-round Feistel network with S-boxes as round function). $\endgroup$
    – user44353
    Nov 6, 2014 at 13:15

3 Answers 3


Use format-preserving encryption. The current NIST standards-track mode FFX should be sufficiently fast for your purposes. For your domain size, you might also want to try the swap-or-not shuffle, a new construction that is also pretty fast and dead simple to implement. To get the absolute best speed form these schemes you should use a single AES call as your PRF, preferably with AES-NI instructions if you have them.

EDIT: Any PRP generator based on an oblivious card shuffle should work for your purposes. Here's another reference explaining what that is.

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    $\begingroup$ If security is not a major concern , vanilla feistel network with AES-NI as PRF , with 6 rounds would be good enough thank FFX modes $\endgroup$
    – sashank
    Nov 6, 2014 at 4:16
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks a lot for your answer and the links, it was really insightful. As you very correctly pointed out, an oblivious card shuffle is exactly what I'm after (thanks for letting me know the terminology). Regarding the swap-or-not shuffle reference, I am a bit confused on how to build the round functions. To implemented the FPE version, I need r keyed functions Fi: {0,..,N-1} -> {0,1}. However, if I use AES for that (maybe encrypting the input and keeping one bit?) wouldn't that be more expensive than my current scheme? $\endgroup$
    – user44353
    Nov 6, 2014 at 14:15
  • $\begingroup$ In terms of the number of AES calls needed to encrypt a value, it would be more expensive. For your purposes the speed difference would probably not be significant, especially if you use AES-NI. $\endgroup$
    – pg1989
    Nov 6, 2014 at 17:56
  • $\begingroup$ I read the FFX mode of AES and I don't fully understand how to use it for my problem. In my case, I definitely want to do FPE, but the length of my string is always 1 and I have a fairly large radix (equal to N). Is there any way to apply AES-FFX in that setup? Or would you say it's better to use an oblivious card shuffle like the ones proposed (Thorp or swap-or-not-suffle) and use AES as round function? $\endgroup$
    – user44353
    Nov 10, 2014 at 13:07
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    $\begingroup$ FFX and the oblivious card shuffles have identical use cases. They are both used in the same way to efficiently generate PRPs for arbitrary sets. $\endgroup$
    – pg1989
    Nov 10, 2014 at 21:00

I explain, criticize and try to improve the technique in the question (which asks for speed by using cryptographic techniques for arguably satisfactory functionality in a statistical simulation). Shuffling, and full-blown Format-Preserving Encryption aim at perfect or demonstrable cryptographic security, a different goal.

Under the assumption that the (unstated) distribution of the entries to compute is rather arbitrary, and storing $J\cdot N\cdot\lceil\log_2(N)\rceil$ bits is not a viable option, the general technique in the question seems best: build an efficient keyed pseudo-random permutation $P$ of the set $\{0\dots N-1\}$, with the key (noted $y$ to prevent a clash in notation) random, or obtained from the permutation index $j\in\{0\dots J-1\}$ (e.g. as $y=y_0\oplus j$ with $y_0$ a random constant fixed at the beginning of the many iterations); then evaluate $P_y(x)$ as needed.

The question builds $P$ from a block cipher $E$ of $n=\lceil\log_2(N)\rceil$-bit block size, with $P_y(x)$ computed by the cycle-walking technique:

  • repeat
    • $x\gets E_y(x)$
  • until $x<N$
  • output $x$

Any $P_y$ demonstrably is a permutation of the set $\{0\dots N-1\}$. $P$ is demonstrably at least as secure as $E$ is (ignoring side-channel issues, e.g. by timing or power analysis). Computing $P_y(x)$ uses on average $2^n/N<2$ evaluations of $E$, and at most $2^n-N+1<N$.

The question builds $E$ as a Feistel cipher, symmetric if $n$ is even, or mostly so if $n$ is not. It has 4 rounds of an ad-hoc round function, based on truncated AES S-boxes (see details in comments to the present questions), without gapping flaw that I could spot for $n\approx13$.

Even with a good design per the description given, there are potential issues: the Luby-Rackoff result (How to Construct Pseudo-random Permutations from Pseudo-random Functions, in proceedings of Crypto 1985) ensuring security for a Feistel cipher after 3 rounds (4 if we consider adaptive chosen ciphertext attacks) is only valid for independent and random round functions; asymptotically when $n$ grows; and when the number of distinct inputs evaluated is much less than $2^{n/2}$ (here, $\sqrt N$), something which is not warranted in the application. More rounds are needed as more space is explored (see Jacques Patarin's Luby-Rackoff: 7 Rounds Are Enough for $2^{n(1−\epsilon)}$ Security, in proceedings of Crypto 2003).

      4-round Feistel

Expanded: I'll show why with small width of $E$, we need more than 4 rounds for something even approaching cryptographic soundness. In a 4-rounds symmetric Feistel cipher as illustrated above, if two keyings use identical $F_2$ within XOR of a constant at input, and identical $F_3$, then for any $I_a$, the function $I_b\to O_b$ is identical within XOR of a constant (dependent on $I_a$) at input. This characteristic is improbable to the utmost for two sizable random permutations (odds about $2^{n(2^{n/2-1}-2^{n-1})}$, that is $2^{-24192}$ for $n=12$), and should it occur is easily detectable and conceivably could have an impact on a practical application. In the construction considered (detailed in comments to this question) for $n=12$, each round function is XOR with a 6-bit constant followed by one in $2^8$ S-boxes of 6x6 bits, thus any two random keyings have $F_2$ and $F_3$ causing that characteristic with odds $2^{-22}$, and this is expected to occur over a hundred times among $J=25000$ permutations constructed as proposed. For a practical attack, we choose an arbitrary fixed $I_a$, and partially map $I_b\to O_b$ for random $I_b$ (a little more than $2^{n/4}$ evaluations for each of the $J$ permutations will do); when we find a collision $E_b(I_a\|I_b)=E_b'(I_a\|I_b')$, we check if $\forall x,E_b(I_a\|(I_b\oplus x))=E_b'(I_a\|(I_b'\oplus x))$ (in the affirmative, we can then confirm that a similar property holds for any other $I_a$, and it is practically certain that $E$ and $E'$ share the same S-boxes in $F_2$, and in $F_3$, and the same XOR constant on entry of $F_3$). It is overwhelmingly likely that we will find a pair $(E,E')$ with such property when using the construction proposed in the question, and practically impossible for random permutations. The attack can be adapted to work for $P$ built using cycle-walking.

Corrected: Also, we can imagine applications where parity of permutation $P$ could have an impact, such as distribution of the number of swaps in sorting. Any Feistel cipher yields an even permutation, thus $E$ is even. While $N<2^n$ allows $P$ to be either even or odd, its parity will we strongly biased for many values of $N$ (argument: when $2^n-N$ is small compared to $\sqrt N$, for most $E$, the cycle-walking repeat loop is executed exactly twice for $2^n-N$ inputs, and once for all the others, so that the resulting parity of $P$ is $N\bmod 2$). So we need an ample amount of cycle-walking (this other question asks how much), or making the permutation even or odd under control of a key bit (a simple technique uses XOR of any ciphertext that is all-zero except its rightmost bit, with a key bit controlling parity), or deviating from straight Feistel (like, using modular addition instead of XOR to combine the round function's result with the half state).

More generally: A recommendable way to inject entropy in a Feistel construct of small width is to use modular addition of a round key over the whole state width (rather than XOR over half the state as in the question's Feistel construct): that injects nearly twice as much entropy, which is very desirable; and balances the permutation's parity.

With careful specification of the Feistel cipher using somewhat more rounds, more key material injected, and dealing with the parity issue (except when clearly immaterial, which includes any case where at least 2 inputs are never used), the method has merit. The idea in another answer of using AES-NI instructions to build the round function would give something very fast, but at the expense of portability, and I will not venture into this.

Here is a revised tentative, christened fastperm2, to use cryptographic techniques in order to build efficient random permutations over a small domain. I stress that I give no insurance of cryptographic security; still, I challenge one to find an attack in the random key setup much better than $2^{64-i}$ steps for odds $2^{-i}$ of success, even restricted to a particular $N$.


  • easy to code in C;
  • limited amount of cycle-walking, for the extra effort is better spent on more rounds;
  • minimally simple round function, without S-boxes, using:
    • diffusion (to the left, and to some limited degree to the right) by modular multiplication with a public multiplier;
    • right diffusion and non-linearity by XOR with right-shifted state;
    • combination with round keys using addition over the full state, to maximize key material and deal with permutation parity;
  • at least 16 rounds in hope to compensate for that simplicity (I wish I could justify that value other than by analogy with serious ciphers).
  • enough rounds that at least 64 bits of entropy are injected in each half of the cipher discarding one round (for hoped 64-bit security against a generic meet-in-the-middle attack);
  • restrict domain so that $N!$ is comfortably above $2^{128}$, and state fits a 32-bit word.

Parameter selection according to $N$:

  • ensure $40\le N\le 2^{32}-2^{20}$ (for lower $N$, nothing beats Fisher-Yates anyway);
  • find the lowest $M$ with $N\le M$ such that $M\equiv2^k\pmod{2^{k+1}}$ with $k$ the integer closest to $n(\sqrt5-1)/2)$ where $n=\lceil\log_2(M)\rceil$ (thus: $6\le n\le32$, $k=\lfloor(13n+10)/21\rfloor$, and $M=(2\big\lfloor\lceil N/{2^k}\rceil/2\big\rfloor+1)2^k$);
  • $r\gets2\max(\lceil64/(n-1)\rceil+1,8)$, the number of rounds.
  • $C\gets\lfloor(28657M+23184)/46368/2^k\rfloor2^k+(\text{7D8B5}_{16}\bmod 2^k)$ (so that $C\approx M(\sqrt5-1)/2$, and the low $k$ bits of $C$ are per the constant $F_{29}\equiv5\bmod 8$);
  • while $\gcd(C,M)\ne1$
    • $C\gets C-2^k$
  • $s\gets n-k$, the shift count;

Note: parameters are such that $x\to C\cdot x\bmod M$ and $x\to x\oplus\lfloor x/2^s\rfloor$ are permutations of the set $\{0\dots M-1\}$. The first transformation achieves good left diffusion in the state bits; both transformations give some right diffusion (though limited to the leftmost $s$ bits for the first transformation).

Sub-keys setup:

  • for each $j$ with $0\le j<r$
    • set $y_j$ to a uniformly random value in $\{0\dots M-1\}$ (or using an unspecified pseudo-random function of $y$ and $j$)

Encryption of $x$ with $0\le x<N$:

  • repeat
    • for each $j$ with $0\le j<r$ in ascending order
      • $x\gets(C(x\oplus\lfloor x/2^s\rfloor)+y_j)\bmod M$
  • while $x\ge N$
  • output $x$

It is critical that multiplication and modular reduction is implemented exactly. In C99 and assuming all variables are of type uint32_t, a round is: x = ((x ^ x>>s)*(uint64_t)C + y[j]) % M;

Plan: give a reference C implementation.

For a statistical application, the number of rounds $r$ can be lowered; I conjecture that $r\gets2\max(\lceil40/(n-1)\rceil+1,5)$ would pass any randomness test not constructed with knowledge of the cipher's structure, including any pre-existing test.

Revisions: Two awful typos in the round function have been fixed. I am back to considering that $n-1$ bits of entropy are injected per round (rather than $k$ in the short-lived fastperm3). Upped the entropy injected in the reduced version for statistical use, in order to lower the odds of near-identical permutations..

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks a lot for the feedback. As I said, my knowledge of cryptography is really scarce, so I appreciate you pointing out the potential mistakes. Right now, I have been testing on a somewhat smaller problem than the one I described in the question. Actual numbers are N=7319 and J=1000,10000 and 25000. The code for a single Feistel round is: f_aux = sbox[key_aux[0]][(((char)n_cipher)&0x7f)^key_aux[1]]; n_cipher = ((n_cipher&0x007f)<<6) | (f_aux^((n_cipher&0x1f80)>>7));. $\endgroup$
    – user44353
    Nov 6, 2014 at 14:22
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @user44353: So currently $n=13=6+7$, and in effect the S-boxes have 7-bit of data-dependent input, and 6-bit output. Provided implementation details are correct (all 256 S-box entries are populated or key_aux[1] is 7-bit; unused high 2 bits in S-box outputs are zero..), to me it looks like this implements a permutation, and would be a fine asymmetric Feistel Cipher IF there was significantly more rounds. With 4 rounds, unless I err, the lowest bit of input gets only one chance to change, at the third round, which is a serious cryptographic gap (but may be quite bearable in the context). $\endgroup$
    – fgrieu
    Nov 6, 2014 at 15:36
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @user44353: I was only pointing the trivial: you must avoid that (((char)n_cipher)&0x7f)^key_aux[1] gets out of the range where the SBox entries are defined. That's either by filling all 256 entries or by limiting key_aux[1] to 7-bit. Which method is used is immaterial to the quality of each permutation, but the first option (your current one) widens the number of possible permutations (which is desirable) compared to 7-bit key_aux[1]. $\endgroup$
    – fgrieu
    Nov 6, 2014 at 17:11
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @user44353: I concur with this comment, that 6 rounds of Feistel each one round of AES (implementable using AES-NI) in the round function, can be next to cryptographically secure (except for parity) for $18\le n\le 32$ as in the original question (but the devil lies in the details). Lower $n$ requires more rounds, (will think about how many). I don't know when cryptographic insecurity becomes a problem in your application, or what $n$ you need with your current round function (fair, but significantly lesser than an AES round). $\endgroup$
    – fgrieu
    Nov 6, 2014 at 17:37
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks a lot for all your help and, again, sorry for the delay in replying. I have been preparing scripts to test on larger datasets, so I will hopefully have some preliminary results in about a week. Regarding your last proposal, it does indeed sound very interesting and I will try it out as soon as possible (right now I had been still using the weaker Feistel-based scheme). However, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think there might be a typo in the round functions. Shouldn't it be x = ((x ^ x>>s)*(uint64_t)C + y[j]) % M; ? $\endgroup$
    – user44353
    Nov 16, 2014 at 12:45

The theoretically correct random permutation algorithem is IMHO uniquely that of Fisher and Yates [1], which needs for performing a permutation of a sequence of n items n-1 PRNs. I perviously found that a practically fairly passable result could also be achieved with 2 PRNs [2].

[1] D. E. Knuth, The Art of Computer Programming, Vol. 2, 3rd ed. p.145. [2] http://s13.zetaboards.com/Crypto/topic/7071388/1/

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for your answer! I agree with you that F&Y algorithm is the theoretically correct choice but, according to my experiments, the simple scheme based on a 4-round Feistel network achieves statistically indistinguishable results from F&Y when the number of permutations J is in the order of 10000 or 100000 (which suffices for my application). The algorithm you proposed based on 2 PRNs is very cool and seems to produce high-quality permutations. However (correct me if I'm wrong) there is no way to compute newcards[k] without computing the whole newcards. Is that correct? $\endgroup$
    – user44353
    Nov 5, 2014 at 16:07
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @user44353: You are right. (Anyway I don't know how.) $\endgroup$ Nov 5, 2014 at 21:16

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