Randomness on Apple Platforms

In this post I’d like to lead you through my journey trying to discover the “best” way to obtain randomness on Apple platforms.1 The goal throughout will be to get as close to the underlying hardware random number generators as the system allows by stripping away layers of abstraction one by one. Once we have a comprehensive picture of the entire system, I’ll walk you through my opinions on which use-cases are best served by which APIs.

I’ve seen plenty of discussion on this topic across Stack Overflow, various GitHub repos and the Apple developer forums, so I thought it might be helpful to have a definitive post to point people towards.

Starting with rand(3)

Let’s begin with the most obvious choice: rand(3). A quick trip to the manual page, though, assures us that our journey will not come to an end so quickly:

rand(3)Library Functions Manual

rand, rand_r, srand, sranddev – bad random number generator

#include <stdlib.h>


rand_r(unsigned *seed);

srand(unsigned seed);


These interfaces are obsoleted by arc4random(3).

That’s fairly … decisive. What’s this arc4random(3), then?

arc4random(3)Library Functions Manual

arc4random, arc4random_buf, arc4random_uniform – random number generator

#include <stdlib.h>


arc4random_buf(void *buf, size_t nbytes);

arc4random_uniform(uint32_t upper_bound);

These functions use a cryptographic pseudo-random number generator to generate high quality random bytes very quickly. One data pool is used for all consumers in a process, so that consumption under program flow can act as additional stirring. The subsystem is re-seeded from the kernel random number subsystem on a regular basis, and also upon fork(2).

This family of functions provides higher quality random data than those described in rand(3), random(3), and rand48(3). They can be called in almost all environments, including chroot(2), and their use is encouraged over all other standard library functions for random numbers.

Sounds perfect! The positive wording – “high quality”, “very quickly” – almost makes me think that I’d be best served by calling it a day and just using this family of functions as-is.

You might notice that arc4random(3) includes a function for filling a buffer with random bytes. This sort of interface is the most fundamental – all other random number generation interfaces can be implemented on top of it – and it’ll appear again and again from now on.

Did you notice how the manpage mentioned random(3) and rand48(3)? Both families of functions are ancient in interface (dating all the way back to 1983!) and in implementation2 (last properly changed in 1995 and 2002 respectively). The style of this code is quite unfamiliar to me, as someone who’s read a fair bit of open source C code from Apple. This, along with the copious historical debris littered throughout the code, make me think these implementations have barely been touched since one of Apple’s imports of the FreeBSD libc many years ago.

Something to take note of is that rand(3), random(3) and rand48(3) don’t automatically seed themselves with random data from the OS, instead providing interfaces for explicit seeding (so if you call them before passing in a seed you always get the same result!), something we won’t see again from this point onward.

To really hammer the point home, rand48(3)’s manpage outright recommends random(3) as a replacement, which in turn advocates using arc4random(3).

So, how does arc4random(3) work, anyway? Let’s peek into Apple’s libc and find out!

static struct ccrng_state *rng;

static void
	int err;

	if (rng != NULL) return;

	rng = ccrng(&err);
	if (rng == NULL) {
		os_crash("arc4random: unable to get ccrng() handle (%d)", err);
		os_crash("arc4random: unable to get ccrng() handle");

// ...

	uint32_t rand;

	arc4random_buf(&rand, sizeof(rand));

	return rand;

arc4random_buf(void *buf, size_t buf_size)
	ccrng_generate(rng, buf_size, buf);

// ...

arc4random_uniform(uint32_t upper_bound)
	uint64_t rand;

	ccrng_uniform(rng, upper_bound, &rand);

	return (uint32_t)rand;

Hmm, so arc4random is a wrapper around arc4random_buf, and arc4random_buf and arc4random_uniform just wrap this ccrng thingy. Upon the first call to arc4random_buf or arc4random_uniform the rng global is initialized, crashing the process (?) if initialization fails.

A small diversion into corecrypto

I won’t include the code here, but those ccrng functions come from the private corecrypto/ccrng.h header, which is part of the mysterious corecrypto project:

Although corecrypto does not directly provide programming interfaces for developers and should not be used by iOS, iPadOS, or macOS apps, the source code is available to allow for verification of its security characteristics and correct functioning.

What’s interesting here is that corecrypto, along with libc, Grand Central Dispatch and other fundamental Darwin APIs, is included in libSystem, meaning every binary on the system (apart from the kernel) links to it and can access its functions. That’s how arc4random(3) can call out to it given only a header file. We can even do the same ourselves with just two declarations:

#include <stdio.h>

typedef void (*rng)(void *rng, size_t len, void *p);
extern rng *ccrng(void *err);

#define countof(a) (sizeof(a) / sizeof((a)[0]))

	int random[10] = {0};

	rng *r = ccrng(NULL);
	(*r)(r, sizeof(random), random);

	for (int i = 0; i < countof(random); i++) {
		printf("%11d\n", random[i]);
$ clang main.c
$ ./a.out

It goes without saying that you shouldn’t actually do this; corecrypto is private API, and its license forbids use for anything other than security research.

Sadly the rand(3) trail we’ve been following ends here. Before we decree that arc4random(3) is the “best” randomness API available, let’s try a different angle.

Another classic: /dev/random

Manpages have served us well so far, so why not start there?

random(4)Device Drivers Manual

random, urandom – random data source devices

The random device produces uniformly distributed random byte values of potentially high quality.

To obtain random bytes, open /dev/random for reading and read from it.

The same random data is also available from getentropy(2). Using the getentropy(2) system call interface will provide resiliency to file descriptor exhaustion, chroot, or sandboxing which can make /dev/random unavailable. Additionally, the arc4random(3) API provides a fast userspace random number generator built on the random data source and is preferred over directly accessing the system’s random device.

/dev/urandom is a compatibility nod to Linux. On Linux, /dev/urandom will produce lower quality output if the entropy pool drains, while /dev/random will prefer to block and wait for additional entropy to be collected. With Fortuna, this choice and distinction is not necessary, and the two devices behave identically. You may use either.

The random device implements the Fortuna pseudo random number generator algorithm and maintains its entropy pool. The kernel automatically seeds the algorithm with additional entropy during normal execution.

ahHA! Now we’re getting somewhere! So, on Apple platforms /dev/random and /dev/urandom are identical cryptographic random number generators (which makes things a little simpler for us), and are both implemented in XNU using the Fortuna RNG. An intriguing detail here is that getentropy(2) returns us the same data, but is resistant to the inherent downsides of accessing randomness through the filesystem. Continuing with our theme of following a thread until we reach the end, let’s move on to getentropy(2) since that’s a more direct interface to the same implementation as the randomness devices:

getentropy(2)System Calls Manual

getentropy – get entropy

#include <sys/random.h>

getentropy(void *buf, size_t buflen);

getentropy() fills a buffer with random data, which can be used as input for process-context pseudorandom generators like arc4random(3).

The maximum buffer size permitted is 256 bytes. If buflen exceeds this, an error of EIO will be indicated.

getentropy() should be used as a replacement for random(4) when random data derived directly from the kernel random byte generator is required. Unlike the random(4) pseudo-devices, it is not vulnerable to file descriptor exhaustion attacks and is available when sandboxed or in a chroot, making it more reliable for security-critical applications.

However, it should be noted that getentropy() is primarily intended for use in the construction and seeding of userspace PRNGs like arc4random(3) or CC_crypto(3). Clients who simply require random data should use arc4random(3), CCRandomGenerateBytes() from CC_crypto(3), or SecRandomCopyBytes() from the Security framework instead of getentropy() or random(4).

Oooooh, it’s getting even more interesting. Skipping past the paragraph where the getentropy(2) manpage reiterates what we just read about random(4), we see references to two randomness APIs we haven’t come across yet: CCRandomGenerateBytes and SecRandomCopyBytes. We’ll be sourcing our documentation from header files this time, since neither has a manpage.

Here’s SecRandomCopyBytes’s interface as listed in the Security framework’s SecRandom.h:


SecRandomCopyBytes(SecRandomRef rnd, size_t count, void *bytes);

Return count random bytes in *bytes, allocated by the caller. It is critical to check the return value for error.


Return 0 on success, any other value on failure.

If rnd is unrecognized or unsupported, kSecRandomDefault is used.

It’s weird how that SecRandomRef parameter only has one possible value – maybe the people who designed the API originally intended for there to be multiple random number generators? Either way, if we ignore that parameter then SecRandomCopyBytes’s interface is equivalent to getentropy’s and arc4random_buf’s.

We see something similar with CCRandomGenerateBytes, which comes from the Common Crypto library. Common Crypto, like corecrypto, is included in libSystem, meaning it is automatically accessible to all programs. This stands in contrast to SecRandomCopyBytes from Security.framework, which programs must explicitly link to if they wish to make use of its functionality. Unlike corecrypto, Common Crypto is public and available for us to use. CommonRandom.h has the docs:

CCRandomGenerateBytesCommon Crypto

CCRandomGenerateBytes(void *bytes, size_t count);

Return random bytes in a buffer allocated by the caller.


Return kCCSuccess on success.

The PRNG returns cryptographically strong random bits suitable for use as cryptographic keys, IVs, nonces etc.

How could Apple possibly have implemented two more random number generators on top of all the ones we’ve seen so far?! Well, they haven’t. SecRandomCopyBytes just calls out to CCRandomGenerateBytes:

const SecRandomRef kSecRandomDefault = NULL;

int SecRandomCopyBytes(__unused SecRandomRef rnd, size_t count, void *bytes) {
	return CCRandomCopyBytes(kCCRandomDefault, bytes, count);

Hold on, that’s CCRandomCopyBytes, not CCRandomGenerateBytes … Running a search in Common Crypto yields a result in lib/CommonRandom.c, which sounds promising.

  We don't use /dev/random anymore, use the corecrypto rng instead.
struct ccrng_state *
	int status;
	struct ccrng_state *rng = ccrng(&status);
	CC_DEBUG_LOG("ccrng returned %d\n", status);
	return rng;

// ...

int CCRandomCopyBytes(CCRandomRef rnd, void *bytes, size_t count)
	(void) rnd;

	return CCRandomGenerateBytes(bytes, count);

CCRNGStatus CCRandomGenerateBytes(void *bytes, size_t count)
	int err;
	struct ccrng_state *rng;

	if (0 == count) {
		return kCCSuccess;

	if (NULL == bytes) {
		return kCCParamError;

	rng = ccDRBGGetRngState();
	err = ccrng_generate(rng, count, bytes);
	if (err == CCERR_OK) {
		return kCCSuccess;

	return kCCRNGFailure;

CCRNGStatus CCRandomUniform(uint64_t bound, uint64_t *rand)
	int err;
	struct ccrng_state *rng;

	rng = ccDRBGGetRngState();
	err = ccrng_uniform(rng, bound, rand);
	if (err == CCERR_OK) {
		return kCCSuccess;

	return kCCRNGFailure;

Lo and behold! It turns out that the hitherto-unseen CCRandomCopyBytes used by SecRandomCopyBytes actually just forwards to CCRandomGenerateBytes. Again, same as SecRandomCopyBytes, the rnd parameter is ignored. Curiously, CCRandomCopyBytes is a deprecated, private API.

In another bit of intriguing similarity, Common Crypto makes the same trio of corecryto calls as arc4random(3):

purposecorecryptoarc4random(3)Common Crypto
random bytesccrng_generatearc4random_bufCCRandomGenerateBytes
random int between zero and a boundccrng_uniformarc4random_uniformCCRandomUniform

However, Common Crypto’s “random integer between 0 and a bound” API is private, while arc4random(3)’s is public. A strange difference here is that the underlying ccrng_uniform function returns a uint64_t (and as such its bound parameter is also a uint64_t) – CCRandomUniform mirrors this, while arc4random_uniform casts back and forth to a uint32_t.

I could continue listing all the little odd things about these APIs, but I’ll leave it there in the interest of brevity.

Let’s review

I’ve summarized everything we know so far in the diagram below. Parts we haven’t examined yet are identified by question marks.

So, rand(3), rand48(3) and random(3) are out of the picture because they are bad. /dev/random and /dev/urandom are worse than getentropy(2) in every way, so we’ll ignore those too. SecRandomCopyBytes just forwards to CCRandomGenerateBytes (and requires linking to Security.framework), so we won’t consider it either. Applications aren’t allowed to use corecrypto, so ccrng isn’t an option.

This leaves us with getentropy(2), arc4random(3) and CCRandomGenerateBytes. Two of these are more similar than the other, so I’ll cover how to pick between those two first.

Should I use arc4random(3) or CCRandomGenerateBytes?

One thing I neglected to mention earlier is that arc4random(3) actually only delegates to corecrypto under certain circumstances. Namely, the entire corecrypto-based implementation is gated under

#if defined(__APPLE__) && !defined(VARIANT_STATIC)

whose #else clause contains an alternative implementation with a custom random number generation algorithm which seeds itself with entropy from getentropy(2).

I can’t imagine under what circumstances Apple’s libc implementation would be compiled for non-Apple devices, so let’s ignore that part. From what I can tell VARIANT_STATIC is used for statically-linked builds of libc, so I’d guess this implementation is only used for the kernel’s libc? Either way, this minor uncertainty kind of bothers me – maybe in future someone will accidentally change that preprocessor directive and inadvertently use the non-corecrypto implementation. Common Crypto’s CCRandomGenerateBytes uses corecrypto exclusively, so it feels “purer” to me. (I realize this all amounts to splitting hairs and isn’t a meaningful difference. But hey, if you’re asking me to choose …)

You might point out that arc4random(3) gives us access to ccrng_uniform (albeit reduced from 64-bit to 32-bit), which Common Crypto only provides as a private API. I had a look into corecrypto to see if there’s any magic going on in ccrng_uniform, but it’s just yet another variation on the classic “generate a random number below a bound without introducing bias” problem you’ll find a million variations of on StackOverflow, so there’s no benefit to using ccrng_uniform over rolling your own. The non-corecrypto arc4random_uniform implementation is almost identical, so you can take a look at that if you like. Besides, in your own code you’ll most likely want extra APIs like

so saving the effort to write a singular convenience function isn’t of any significance when you’ll inevitably take on the burden of writing and maintaining several others anyway. Plus, if you write it yourself there’s a chance it’ll be inlined into your code, which isn’t possible if you’re going through a function from a system library.

In the end, it really doesn’t matter which you pick – personally I prefer CCRandomGenerateBytes for its assured simplicity, and since I don’t mind writing a CCRandomUniform equivalent myself.

Should I use CCRandomGenerateBytes or getentropy(2)?

I’ve taken the liberty of tracing random number generation through the kernel and through corecrypto, which fleshes out the picture from before a little:3

With this extra context, we’re better equipped to answer the question. The two APIs are very different: one calls directly into the kernel, limits you to a buffer size of 256 bytes, and gets us as close as we can get4 to the random number generation hardware; the other uses the former to periodically5 seed a (presumably highly-optimized) AES-based random number generator which runs in-process.

Non-security-critical use-cases

Let’s begin by considering non-security-critical use-cases. Maybe you’re making a game, doing some stochastic path tracing, or making a hashmap with random iteration order. For all these cases, the generator’s output doesn’t have to be perfectly random; it just has to look “random enough”. For these cases something like a PCG-based generator or wyrand is sufficient, and CCRandomGenerateBytes (let alone getentropy(2)) would be overkill (and far slower, for sure).

If I’m suggesting a custom RNG for these scenarios, where does that RNG get its seed from? Given that these non-cryptographically-secure random number generators have periods that reach easily into the quintillions, you’ll only have to seed the generator once during startup. Thus, the time taken to generate a seed is immaterial. Since uniformly-distributed random data doesn’t magically get “more random” by passing it through successive random number generators (no matter how cryptographically-secure they may be), you might as well just generate seeds using getentropy(2) directly and avoid the indirection introduced by CCRandomGenerateBytes. We’re only generating a seed once, so the performance gains from layering AES on top of the kernel’s random number generator in userspace aren’t important to us.

However, there’s a problem: out of all the Darwin-based operating systems, macOS is the only one that supports getentropy(2) as a public API. Although, yes, using getentropy(2) to generate seeds may technically be more optimal, we have to remember the use-case – it just doesn’t matter. So, for simplicity, I’d suggest using CCRandomGenerateBytes on all platforms to seed random number generators which don’t have to be cryptographically secure.

Security-critical use-cases

Moving on to security-critical workloads like generating encryption keys: please just call CCRandomGenerateBytes. getentropy(2) is too slow and is too limited in output size to be used directly for generating random data. Instead, as the manpage suggests, it should be used to seed other, faster userspace generators (which is what ccrng does!). Writing your own cryptographically-secure random number generator is risky: bugs in your hand-rolled RNG won’t be detected as quickly as those in an extremely-widely-deployed RNG like ccrng, and I doubt you have the time to optimize it like Apple does.

  1. For the pedants among you, I’m only including Apple operating systems based on Darwin here, i.e. macOS, iOS, watchOS, tvOS & visionOS. (Go look up RTKit!) ↩︎

  2. random(3) source, rand48(3) source↩︎

  3. I sunk way more time into this than I’m willing to admit, and at one point I decided to cut my losses and leave the diagram unfinished. I got super confused by cckprng calling, seemingly recursively, back into getentropy(2)??? No idea what’s going on there. Never did I manage to trace where the randomness truly comes from. ↩︎

  4. The kernel seeds its random number generator from, among other sources, the Secure Enclave’s hardware random number generator. So, it might be possible to get closer to “true randomness” by generating key pairs on the Secure Enclave and using the bytes of the CPU-accessible half of the key pair.

    This doesn’t get us all the way though, since the Secure Enclave’s TRNG actually layers AES on top of the ring oscillators (?) it uses. There’s probably a very good reason for this, but I mean come onccrng_generate is an AES layer on top of cckprng, which (I think) is a Fortuna layer on top of the Secure Enclave’s TRNG, which is another AES layer on top of whatever these ring oscillator thingies are!! I have absolutely no idea about any of this stuff, and I’m sure the people working on this know what they’re doing, so it’s probably all very reasonable. It is quite amusing to me, though. ↩︎

  5. I briefly saw something in the corecrypto source which mentioned a reseed period of five seconds, though it could be that was for something else. Given what I saw about different ways a reseed can be triggered, I imagine there’s things which could cause a getentropy(2) call outside of the every-five-seconds schedule. ↩︎

Luna Razzaghipour
8 April 2024