Simplified AES (S-AES) Cipher Explained: Understanding Cryptographic Essentials

In the world of cryptography, security and simplicity are often at odds. But what if there was a way to bridge the gap between understanding cryptography and actually doing robust encryption? A few months ago, I found out that there is a simplified version of AES, called Simplified AES (S-AES). It is a very intriguing cipher intended as a teaching tool, analogous to Simplified DES (S-DES) for DES (which I had already implemented in CrypTool 2 many years ago). I implemented S-AES as a new CrypTool 2 component and also created a YouTube video about the cipher (see end of blog article). Also, my blog article here explains the main components of S-AES, breaks down the two rounds, and demonstrates the basic operations. I also suggest that if you really want to know how the cipher works, in addition to reading the article and watching my YouTube video, you implement the cipher yourself. As for me, I don’t understand a cipher 100% until I implement it myself :-).

We’ll start with an overview of the cipher. The following figure therefore shows the complete algorithm:

Overview of the complete simplified AES algorithm
Simplified AES Algorithm taken &
modified from [1]

S-AES is a block cipher and it has a keysize of 16 bit and a blocksize of 16 bit. It consists of two rounds and a key expansion, which generates two additional round keys based on the provided 16-bit key. The first round consists of four building blocks, while the last round only uses three of these. In the following, we first shortly discuss the history of the S-AES cipher and after that each of the building blocks. Finally, we have a look at the key scheduling.

1. The S-AES Cipher

Simplified AES, or S-AES, made its debut in 2003 thanks to the work of Musa et al. [2]. Just like its more complex counterpart, the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), S-AES is a block cipher. However, it is designed primarily for educational purposes, making it a learning tool for the classroom. While AES operates on 128-bit blocks and employs 128, 192, or 256-bit keys, S-AES works with 16-bit blocks and 16-bit keys. Furthermore, S-AES comprises only two rounds, as opposed to AES, which has 10, 12, or 14 rounds depending on the key length [1]. This design allows cryptography enthusiasts to grasp the core concepts without the overwhelming complexity of AES.

[1] Holden Joshua, Rose Hulman Institute of Technology ” A Simplified AES Algorithm “. 2010 (Figures by Holden)
[2] Musa, Mohammad A., Edward F. Schaefer, and Stephen Wedig. “A Simplified AES Algorithm and its Linear and Differential Cryptanalyses“. Cryptologia 27.2 (2003): 148 177.

2. AddRoundKey Operation

The first step in an S-AES round is AddRoundKey. This operation involves XORing a 16-bit round key onto the 16-bit state. The state is shown here always as 4×4-table, each cell contains a nibble and the first column is the first byte and the second column is the second byte. XORing is a bitwise operation that combines the bits of two inputs, returning a new value based on their differences. Consider the following example:

AddRoundKey operation

In this case, each corresponding bit of the state and the round key is XORed together, producing the result 4E 52. Example XORing of a single state nibble:

Example XORing of a single state nibble

3. SubstituteNibbles Operation

Next up is SubstituteNibbles, which applies a 4-bit S-box to the 16-bit state. The S-box is a lookup table that replaces each 4-bit input with a corresponding 4-bit output. For instance:

SubstituteNibbles operation

The S-AES 4-bit S-box is a key element of this operation, performing a specific substitution for each possible 4-bit input value. An example S-box lookup for a specific value looks like:

Example S-box lookup for a specific value

The corresponding S-box table is defined as follows:

S-AES s-box table

4. ShiftRows Operation

ShiftRows involves exchanging the last two nibbles of the 16-bit state. It’s important to note that this operation is self-inverse, meaning it can be reversed to decrypt the data. For example:

ShiftRows operation

An example computation of ShiftRows looks like:

Example computation of ShiftRows

This is the only primitive, which is self inverse. All other primitives have an inverse which is used for decryption instead of the encryption primitive.

5. MixColumns Operation

MixColumns applies a matrix operation on the 16-bit state within the Galois field GF(16). This operation can be quite complex, but it’s essential for ensuring strong encryption. For example:

MixColumns operation

It uses the reducible polynomial 𝑥^4+𝑥+1 for GF(16).

The matrix to mix the columns is is:

MixColumns matrix

An example computation of both state bytes looks like:

Example computation of a single byte

The matrix multiplication is performed within GF(16). Best is to use a precomputed lookup table for the multiplication. To see how computing in finite fields works, have a look at

6. KeyExpansion

Inspired by the AES key expansion algorithm, S-AES’s ExpandKey operation computes round keys for each round. It employs a round constant array (Rcon) to generate the necessary keys. For instance, roundKey1 and roundKey2 can be computed using this scheme:

KeyExpansion scheme

And the g function is defined as follows:

KeyExpansion g function

7. YouTube Video

If you want some more explanations and details, please have a look at my YouTube video about S-AES, where I explain each step in more detail:

The Simplified Advanced Encryption Standard (S-AES) Explained

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