In this paper, we design, implement, and realize a cryptographic unit (CU) that can easily be integrated to any reduced instruction set computing (RISC)-type processor for the safe and efficient execution of cryptographic algorithms. Design of the CU takes a novel approach in the execution of cryptographic algorithms when compared with cryptographic accelerators and architectural enhancements. Although it is integrated to a pipeline of an embedded RISC processor, it is partially an autonomous unit with its own resources, which is analogous to the floating point unit in this sense. It provides new instructions to accelerate cryptographic algorithms, and its associated cost in terms of area is acceptable and justified by the improvement in the performance and efficiency. The CU can also be instrumental in protecting the cryptographic computation against active and passive attacks and other malicious processes running simultaneously. We demonstrate that the execution of Advanced Encryption Standart (AES) encryption can be performed inside the CU, which prevents secret and/or sensitive information from leaving the CU during the cryptographic computation. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.