Cloudflare’s Encryption with Lava Lamps


Cloudflare is a web security company. Their conviction is to enhance security and performance for anything connected via the internet. One of their encryption technologies includes a wall filled with lava lamps. Sounds so cool! In 1996, Silicon Graphics devised a similar system called LavaRand. But their patent expired and innovative ideas find new homes; so did this one. Let’s dive deeper and understand encryption and also why lava lamps.

What is cryptography?

Cryptography is a way of storing and transferring information safely. We use encryption and decryption to deliver high-profile information using cryptography. Encryption is the process of converting the original message into an alternative form using ciphers. This alternative form is unrecognizable and meaningless to others outside the conversation. Hence the cipher acts as a secure virtual lock. Decryption decodes the encrypted information revealing the original message and making it accessible.

Why is randomness a significant part of cryptography?

We humans have come a long way from the days of using Caesar Cipher. We went from using Alphabetic shifts to the One time pad and then the record-breaking Enigma. With cryptography, one of the main challenges we have faced since day one is the lack of randomness. You might be wondering how the Germans lost World War II even though they had Enigma at their disposal. They trusted the operators to decide initial rotor positions but the weary individuals repeated the settings. This blunder allowed the allied forces to reverse engineer the rotor wirings. Then they designed a code-breaking machine: The Bombe. There were other factors involved but this one proved to be significant.

A CCTV camera’s view of the wall of lava lamps at Cloudflare.

Why lava lamps?

Lava lamps are a chic and hip trend from the ’60s. Now, they are used for cloud security; a lot must have gone right in the past six decades. The liquid wax blobs in the lamps keep changing shape in the secret fluid. These shapes are very arbitrary, so much so that they encrypt 10% of the internet because they act as an incredible source of random data.

The actual process

There are around 100 lava lamps of varying colours on the wall; in one of the busiest hallways of the Cloudflare headquarters. There is a camera set-up right in front of the wall capturing images at precise intervals. The servers use the series of numbers used by the computer to store these images to create secure encryption keys. People are coming and going through the hall but, this isn’t a hindrance; it just adds to the randomness. Thus lava lamps help provide SSL certification to web programs. Secure Sockets Layer(SSL) certificate is what allows authentication, encryption and decryption for a website offering data security and verified ownership.

This technique isn’t the only one used to encrypt data. There are other sources of randomization. But lava lamps sure add an intriguing aspect to it.


About the Author: Ishwari Garge is a Second Year Computer Engineering student at RAIT.