If you're interested in how cryptographic hashes fit into how IPFS works with files in general, check out this video from IPFS Camp 2019! Core Course: How IPFS Deals With Files (opens new window)
Cryptographic hashes are functions that take some arbitrary input and return a fixed-length value. The particular value depends on the given hash algorithm in use, such as SHA-1 (opens new window) (used by git), SHA-256 (opens new window), or BLAKE2 (opens new window), but a given hash algorithm always returns the same value for a given input. Have a look at Wikipedia's full list of hash functions (opens new window) for more.
As an example, the input:
would be represented by SHA-1 as:
However, the exact same input generates the following output using SHA-256:
Notice that the second hash is longer than the first one. This is because SHA-1 creates a 160 bit hash, while SHA-256 creates a 256 bit hash. Also, the prepended
0x is just an indicator that tells us that the following hash is represented as a base 16 (or hexadecimal) number.
Hashes can be represented in different bases (
base32, etc.). In fact, IPFS makes use of that as part of its content identifiers and supports multiple base representations at the same time, using the Multibase (opens new window) protocol.
For example, the SHA-256 hash of "Hello world" from above can be represented as base 32 as:
# Hashes are important
Cryptographic hashes come with a couple of very important characteristics:
- deterministic - the same input message always returns exactly the same output hash
- uncorrelated - a small change in the message should generate a completely different hash
- unique - it's infeasible to generate the same hash from two different messages
- one-way - it's infeasible to guess or calculate the input message from its hash
It turns out these features also mean we can use a cryptographic hash to identify any piece of data: the hash is unique to the data we calculated it from and it’s not too long (a hash is a fixed length, so the SHA-256 hash of a one-gigabyte video file is still only 32 bytes), so sending it around the network doesn't take up a lot of resources.
That's critical for a distributed system like IPFS, where we want to be able to store and retrieve data from many places. A computer running IPFS can ask all the peers it's connected to whether they have a file with a particular hash and, if one of them does, they send back the whole file. Without a short, unique identifier like a cryptographic hash, that wouldn't be possible. This technique is called content addressing — because the content itself is used to form an address, rather than information about the computer and disk location it's stored at.