Lava lamps loving Cloudflare is a major player in content delivery networks (CDNs) and internet security.

Founded in 2009, the company has since rapidly grown to become a crucial component of the internet’s infrastructure. At first glance, the company’s portfolio has over 50,000 clients. However, its encryption technique might just blow your socks off.

Typical cybersecurity companies encrypt data by using (often predictable) computer-made algorithms and codes to design an encryption seed. Cloudflare on the other hand, uses (completely unpredictable) 90’s décor to create its seeds. This process relies heavily on random numbers, as they form the foundation for the complex algorithms that create encryption keys. The more unpredictable these random numbers are, the stronger the encryption becomes.

Kitsch is king

Among the usual office trappings of its San Francisco office, one will encounter a spectacle that seems oddly out of place: a mesmerizing wall of lava lamps, their waxy innards bubbling and churning. But this isn’t just an aesthetic choice. These lamps play a vital role in the unseen world of internet security.

Cloudflare utilises a system affectionately nicknamed “Lavarand”, where a camera continuously captures images of the ever-shifting lava flow within the lamps. These images, with their unique patterns and colour variations, translate into a stream of random data. Computers can then convert this data into numbers that contribute to the generation of encryption keys.

The beauty of lava lamps lies in their inherent randomness—the constantly changing flow ensures a virtually inexhaustible source of unpredictable data. Visitors are encouraged to gaze at the lamps—the more heat generated, the more randomized the lava lamp patterns will be.

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But lava lamps aren’t the only office residents contributing to internet security. Cloudflare’s London office boasts another intriguing sight: a set of double pendulums swinging gracefully. The movement of these pendulums is meticulously tracked, and just like the lava lamps, their motion translates into additional random data for the encryption pool. The unpredictable nature of the pendulums’ swings, influenced by even the slightest air currents, adds another layer of randomness to the mix.

Lava lamps versus the predictability of machines

The question arises: why not simply rely on computers to generate random numbers? The truth is, that computers are quite predictable when it comes to randomness. They generate numbers based on algorithms, which, while complex, are ultimately deterministic—meaning they always produce the same output given the same input. This predictability can be exploited by attackers who might be able to guess the random numbers used in encryption.

By incorporating physical phenomena like lava lamps and pendulums, Cloudflare injects true randomness into the system. The unpredictable flow of the lava and the subtle variations in the pendulums’ swings create a level of randomness that is much harder for attackers to crack. It’s a beautiful example of harnessing the chaos of the physical world to bolster the security of the digital one.

It’s important to remember that lava lamps and pendulums are just one piece of the puzzle. Cloudflare combines this data with other sources of randomness, such as variations in system temperature or user activity on their servers. This multi-pronged approach ensures that the randomness used in encryption keys is truly unpredictable, making it extremely difficult for anyone to decipher the encrypted data.

The story of Cloudflare’s lava lamps and pendulums highlights the ingenuity and creativity involved in cybersecurity. It demonstrates how seemingly ordinary objects can be cleverly repurposed to serve a vital function in the complex world of online security—and how in some cases, gold is gold. So, the next time you browse the internet securely, remember that there might just be a lava lamp or a pendulum silently contributing to your online safety.