PBKDF2 password hashing as in ASP.NET Core

Yves Goergen nospam.list at unclassified.de
Sat Aug 29 23:49:33 EEST 2020


I'm setting up a new server and, again, seek for a decently secure (from 
a security specialist's POV) way to store and verify user passwords in a 
database. Additionally now, GDPR requires me to use a solid 
state-of-the-art solution.

My OS is Ubuntu 20.04, Dovecot version 2.3.7, database backend with 
PostgreSQL 12.

Obviously, storing the plaintext password is a terrible idea. SHA-based 
methods aren't suitable either. bcrypt has been recommended often [1]. 
PBKDF2 was preferred over bcrypt even more [2]. I'm managing all 
database contents with an ASP.NET Core application that implements the 
management user frontend. It's a bit hard to find bcrypt support for 
.NET (there are a few NuGet packages of unknown quality [3]).

.NET does however implement, use and recommend PBKDF2 for its own user 
management. If this is by far the best way to go, I'm already covered on 
that side. Now the problem is, once again*, how I can use this in 
applications to make them as secure.

I need a solution for Dovecot and Exim. Exim seems to be able to ask 
Dovecot (IMAP) for user authentication, so I might try that and only 
need to solve the problem in Dovecot alone.

Dovecot documentation says that PBKDF2 is somewhat possible [4]. It 
requires the hash in the format "$1$salt$rounds$hash". I guess that 
"salt", "rounds" and "hash" are the parameters here. But what is their 

The .NET implementation [5] describes its format as "{ 0x01, prf 
(UInt32), iter count (UInt32), salt length (UInt32), salt, subkey }" 
with big-edian integers. The result is base64-encoded. Prf is an enum 
value, describing the HMAC SHA-256. Subkey is the hash value part.

I might find a way to convert .NET's format into what Dovecot 
understands. The hmac is SHA-256, the rounds is 10000. But I wasn't able 
to get it working.

My test password is: simplepassword
The .NET hash: 
The converted hash for Dovecot: 

I've also found the source code in Dovecot that should verify the hash 
[6]. It gives some more hints about the expected format that are sadly 
missing from the documentation, making it almost useless. I also tried 
with the "{PBKDF2}" prefix, with the base64 padding "=" removed and with 
the hash part converted from base64 to hex. Nothing works. The source 
mentions "SHA1" somewhere. Is that all it can accept? No up-to-date SHA-256?

So what have I done wrong here? Why can't I authenticate? The Dovecot 
log isn't helpful, it doesn't even mention the user name I tried to log 
in with from Thunderbird, most of the time (it's unpredictable).

What is the correct usage of Dovecot's PBKDF2 feature? Is it functional 
at all? There's a test case for it [7] but that's not helpful to me.

If Dovecot's PBKDF2 support is not functional or not compatible with 
ASP.NET Core's parameters, what options do I have? Can I build my own 
authentication service that Dovecot can communicate with, to fill the 
gap of missing crypto support?


*) During my research today, I find myself finding my own questions from 
6 years ago when I did this the last time. The situation hasn't changed 
much since then. Secure password hashing is still impossible or 
complicated in server applications like Exim or Dovecot.

[1] https://codahale.com/how-to-safely-store-a-password/ (linked from 
the Dovecot documentation)
[3] https://nugetmusthaves.com/Tag/bcrypt

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