Diffie-Hellman key exchange, also called exponential key exchange, is a method of digital encryption that uses numbers raised to specific powers to produce decryption keys on the basis of components that are never directly transmitted, making the task of a would-be code breaker mathematically overwhelming.
To implement Diffie-Hellman, the two end users Alice and Bob, while communicating over a channel they know to be private, mutually agree on positive whole numbers p and q, such that p is a prime number and q is a generator of p. The generator q is a number that, when raised to positive whole-number powers less than p, never produces the same result for any two such whole numbers. The value of p may be large but the value of q is usually small.
Once Alice and Bob have agreed on p and q in private, they choose positive whole-number personal keys a and b, both less than the prime-number modulus p. Neither user divulges their personal key to anyone; ideally they memorize these numbers and do not write them down or store them anywhere. Next, Alice and Bob compute public keys a* and b* based on their personal keys according to the formulas
a* = qa mod p
b* = qb mod p
The two users can share their public keys a* and b* over a communications medium assumed to be insecure, such as the Internet or a corporate wide area network (WAN). From these public keys, a number x can be generated by either user on the basis of their own personal keys. Alice computes x using the formula
x = (b*)a mod p
Bob computes x using the formula
x = (a*)b mod p
The value of x turns out to be the same according to either of the above two formulas. However, the personal keys a and b, which are critical in the calculation of x, have not been transmitted over a public medium. Because it is a large and apparently random number, a potential hacker has almost no chance of correctly guessing x, even with the help of a powerful computer to conduct millions of trials. The two users can therefore, in theory, communicate privately over a public medium with an encryption method of their choice using the decryption key x.
The most serious limitation of Diffie-Hellman in its basic or "pure" form is the lack of authentication. Communications using Diffie-Hellman all by itself are vulnerable to man in the middle attacks. Ideally, Diffie-Hellman should be used in conjunction with a recognized authentication method such as digital signatures to verify the identities of the users over the public communications medium. Diffie-Hellman is well suited for use in data communication but is less often used for data stored or archived over long periods of time.