# Hashing


If you're interested in how cryptographic hashes fit into how IPFS works with files in general, check out this video from IPFS Camp 2019! Core Course: How IPFS Deals With Files (opens new window)

Cryptographic hashes are functions that take some arbitrary input and return a fixed-length value. The particular value depends on the given hash algorithm in use, such as SHA-1 (opens new window) (used by git), SHA-256 (opens new window), or BLAKE2 (opens new window), but a given hash algorithm always returns the same value for a given input. Have a look at Wikipedia's full list of hash functions (opens new window) for more.

As an example, the input:

Hello world

would be represented by SHA-1 as:


However, the exact same input generates the following output using SHA-256:


Notice that the second hash is longer than the first one. This is because SHA-1 creates a 160-bit hash, while SHA-256 creates a 256-bit hash. The prepended 0x indicates that the following hash is represented as a hexadecimal number.

Hashes can be represented in different bases (base2, base16, base32, etc.). In fact, IPFS makes use of that as part of its content identifiers and supports multiple base representations at the same time, using the Multibase (opens new window) protocol.

For example, the SHA-256 hash of "Hello world" from above can be represented as base 32 as:


# Hashes are important

Cryptographic hashes come with a couple of very important characteristics:

  • deterministic - the same input message always returns exactly the same output hash
  • uncorrelated - a small change in the message should generate a completely different hash
  • unique - it's infeasible to generate the same hash from two different messages
  • one-way - it's infeasible to guess or calculate the input message from its hash

These features also mean we can use a cryptographic hash to identify any piece of data: the hash is unique to the data we calculated it from and it's not too long so sending it around the network doesn't take up a lot of resource. A hash is a fixed length, so the SHA-256 hash of a one-gigabyte video file is still only 32 bytes.

That's critical for a distributed system like IPFS, where we want to be able to store and retrieve data from many places. A computer running IPFS can ask all the peers it's connected to whether they have a file with a particular hash and, if one of them does, they send back the whole file. Without a short, unique identifier like a cryptographic hash, that wouldn't be possible. This technique is called content addressing — because the content itself is used to form an address, rather than information about the computer and disk location it's stored at.

# Content identifiers are not file hashes

Hash functions are widely used as to check for file integrity. A download provider may publish the output of a hash function for a file, often called a checksum. The checksum enables users to verify that a file has not been altered since it was published. This check is done by performing the same hash function against the downloaded file that was used to generate the checksum. If that checksum that the user receives from the downloaded file exactly matches the checksum on the website, then the user knows that the file was not altered and can be trusted.

Let us look at a concrete example. When you download an image file for Ubuntu Linux (opens new window) you might see the following SHA-256 checksum on the Ubuntu website listed for verification purposes:

0xB45165ED3CD437B9FFAD02A2AAD22A4DDC69162470E2622982889CE5826F6E3D ubuntu-20.04.1-desktop-amd64.iso

After downloading the Ubuntu image, you can verify the integrity of the file by hashing the file to make sure the checksums match:

echo "b45165ed3cd437b9ffad02a2aad22a4ddc69162470e2622982889ce5826f6e3d *ubuntu-20.04.1-desktop-amd64.iso" | shasum -a 256 --check

ubuntu-20.04.1-desktop-amd64.iso: OK

If we add the ubuntu-20.04.1-desktop-amd64.iso file to IPFS we receive a hash as an output:

ipfs add ubuntu-20.04.1-desktop-amd64.iso

added QmPK1s3pNYLi9ERiq3BDxKa4XosgWwFRQUydHUtz4YgpqB ubuntu-20.04.1-desktop-amd64.iso
 2.59 GiB / 2.59 GiB [==========================================================================================] 100.00%

The string QmPK1s3pNYLi9ERiq3BDxKa4XosgWwFRQUydHUtz4YgpqB returned by the ipfs add command is the content identifier (CID) of the file ubuntu-20.04.1-desktop-amd64.iso. We can utilize the CID Inspector (opens new window) to see what the CID includes. The actual hash is listed under DIGEST (HEX):

NAME: sha2-256
BITS: 256
DIGEST (HEX): 0E7071C59DF3B9454D1D18A15270AA36D54F89606A576DC621757AFD44AD1D2E


The names of hash functions are not used consistently.SHA-2, SHA-256 or SHA-256 bit all refer to the same hash function.

We can now check if the hash contained in the CID equals the checksum for the file:

echo "0E7071C59DF3B9454D1D18A15270AA36D54F89606A576DC621757AFD44AD1D2E *ubuntu-20.04.1-desktop-amd64.iso" | shasum -a 256 --check

ubuntu-20.04.1-desktop-amd64.iso: FAILED
shasum: WARNING: 1 computed checksum did NOT match

As we can see, the hash included in the CID does NOT match the hash of the input file ubuntu-20.04.1-desktop-amd64.iso. To understand what the hash contained in the CID is, we must understand how IPFS stores files. IPFS uses a directed acyclic graph (DAG) to keep track of all the data stored in IPFS. A CID identifies one specific node in this graph. This identifier is the result of hashing the node's contents using a cryptographic hash function like SHA256.