Posted on Sun 23 February 2014

Stripe CTF 2014, Level 0

I participated in a week-long CTF hosted by Stripe in Jan 2014. This series of blog posts will cover some of the problems and their solutions.

Level 0

The first level was a breeze, and mainly served as an introduction/tutorial for participating in the CTF. We were given the following code, and asked to improve its running time:

This looks like a simple spellchecker. Given an input of size m and a dictionary of size n, the above implementation has a running time of O(mn). The easiest way to get past this level is to use a hash set, instead of an array, to hold the dictionary. This reduces the running time to O(m).

Next, I tried rewriting the code in Java, and tuning the JVM to squeeze more performance out of it. I eventually settled on the following flags, which brought the running time from ~0.3 seconds to ~0.2 seconds.

Most of the gains came from setting the initial heap size with Xms (to avoid increasing the heap size at runtime) and setting the initial capacity for the hashmap to some reasonably large number (to avoid expanding and copying the set's contents at runtime.) The latter worked because the same dictionary was used every time, and we knew the exact number of elements that would be added to the set.

To get on the leader board, we needed to put in more work. It quickly became clear (through profiling) that most of the time was spent reading and initializing the dictionary. This can be dramatically reduced by pre-processing the hash set and then using mmap to load it into memory. (You could also get fancier and use objcopy to create a compiled object that could be linked into the executable.) For this, I implemented my own hashset that uses contiguous memory and can be loaded using mmap.

Strategy Time
Ruby Array 7.15 s
Ruby Hash Map 0.386 s
Java with Flags 0.253 s
C with mmap 0.008 s

Other things I tried but didn't work:

  • serializing the set beforehand and deserializing it (using Marshal#load, or Java's equivalent) at runtime
  • using nio's MappedByteBuffer to load the hash set (didn't expect this to make a huge difference anyway, since I still had to copy the bytes into user space to re-construct the set.)

I also tried using gperf to try finding a reasonable perfect hash function for the dictionary, but it took too many hours to generate and compile, and I gave up. At this point I decided to move on to the next level. However, here are some ideas that might have worked:

  • implementing a bloom filter in C, then using mmap to load the filter at runtime

Note that using a bloom filter is probabilistic - it could get you on the leader board if you pushed enough times.

I uploaded some of my work to GitHub. Take a shot.

Category: Software

Tags: ruby, stripe

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