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WebAssembly: Fast, Secure, and Portable Code for the Web

The world of web design doesn’t seem to slow down. New languages, libraries, and frameworks are popping up left and right. It’s almost becoming difficult to keep up. Well, guess what? Here’s another one: WebAssembly.  This binary instruction format has been around for a couple of years yet has somehow escaped the attention of a […]
Daniel Zacharias

Code Power Team

January 24, 2024

The world of web design doesn’t seem to slow down. New languages, libraries, and frameworks are popping up left and right. It’s almost becoming difficult to keep up. Well, guess what? Here’s another one: WebAssembly. 

This binary instruction format has been around for a couple of years yet has somehow escaped the attention of a large part of the public. Recently, it started gaining traction again, with developers finally realizing its full potential as a part of global digital transformation.

So what is WebAssembly and how can you make it work for you? We’ll try to answer this question and a few others along the way.

What is WebAssembly?

You might’ve already heard it referred to as Wasm. Either way, it’s a binary instruction format designed as a portable compilation target for web browsers, executable programs, and software interfaces. WebAssembly facilitates interactions between such apps and their host environment.

What sets it apart from comparable formats is its ability to run high-performance, low-level code directly in web browsers, along with JavaScript. Said code is an open standard, not limited to just one language. It encompasses languages as varied as C, C++, and Rust.

We’re talking about a versatile tech for cross-platform development on the web. It provides highly enhanced, near-native performance and allows the creation of complex apps and games.

The history behind it

First came asm.js, an extraordinarily optimizable, low-level subset of JavaScript. Most people see it as the precursor technology to wasm. The announcement for WebAssembly occurred in 2015. The first demonstration involved executing Unity’s Angry Bots in Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, and Mozilla Firefox. WebAssembly finally reached the general public in March 2017 as a minimum viable product (MVP). Several updates followed.

Safari 11 was the first to offer full support. February 2018 saw the publication of three working drafts for JavaScript Interface, Web API, and Core Specification. Chrome fully incorporated WebAssembly into its workings in June 2019. As of 2023, version 2.0 is still in draft status.

Why do we need it?

Now that we’ve learned what WebAssembly is and how it came about, it’s time to figure out its benefits. Two stand out.

  • The decoding process is up to 20x faster when compared to JavaScript. The parsing of the binary format thus enables an excellent cold-load user experience.
  • This new standard allows developers to easily add features required to reach native levels of performance.

What is it used for?

So we have fast, secure, and portable code for the web. Great. So how does all this work in real life? What are its practical uses? They include:

  • games and apps that run within web browsers.
  • audio, image, and video manipulation.
  • virtual and augmented reality.
  • platform emulation.
  • scientific simulations and other math-intensive tasks.
  • security and encryption.

How does it work?

Now it’s time to address the way it makes the magic happen. WebAssembly is the result of compiling traditional code into a highly specialized binary file. Said file gets imported into JavaScript. There, it serves as an executable. In order to achieve this, you need to follow four distinct steps.

1. Write

Developers start the process by writing code. Predictable, isn’t it? The good thing about WebAssembly is that you’re not limited to a specific language. There’s support for C/C++, Rust, AssemblyScript, Go (Golang), Kotlin, Swift, and quite a few others.

The same goes for different software development workflows and end goals. You can use it to create cross-platform mobile apps, game engines, server-side applications, edge devices, and blockchain development. Add to this your preferred code management standard and you’re ready to rock.

2. Compile

Now that you’ve written some executable machine code, it’s time to put it together. Since WebAssembly isn’t a language itself but a product of compiling and converting code, it’s time to do just that — compile source code into a binary file.

Remember that said file is quite different from a common EXE file. It needs a bit of translating, either through ahead-of-time (AOT) or just-in-time (JIT) compilation. Alternatively, you could also use an interpreter such as Emscripten. Once compiled, the code can run in the same sandbox as regular JavaScript code.

Compilation is a crucial step in leveraging the performance benefits of low-level languages. It helps maintain compatibility with web browsers and other environments that support WebAssembly execution.

3. Import

Despite the above, your binary file won’t be executable just yet. There are two more steps to make it work. Importing is the first one. 

So how do you do that? You need to load the code into a web browser, connecting the module with the external environment. Once the module becomes a part of the JavaScript engine, the browser can decode, compile, and translate the binary file. The client-side computer can then execute it the way it would any other type of code.

4. Instance

The final step is Instance, a runtime representation of a compiled module. It encapsulates the pertaining code, data, and runtime state. Once instantiated, the module produces an instance that can work within a designated environment (i.e. server).

Here’s where WebAssembly shines. Instances allow multiple independent copies of a module to run concurrently. This enables the isolation and encapsulation of code in a modular and perfectly scalable manner.

The cons to consider

Of course, we can’t discuss what WebAssembly is and how it works without shining a light on some notable drawbacks. Even if there are only a few, they’re still worth mentioning.

  1. Lack of garbage collection. It has no native memory management and needs to rely on underlying code for this. Fortunately, improvement is in the works.
  2. Slow performance (at times). Sure, speed is one of WebAssembly’s most notable benefits. Yet, the exchange between JavaScript and WebAssembly can show signs of lag since each uses a different memory model.
  3. Inherited JavaScript security vulnerabilities. These include somewhat difficult debugging, lack of integrity checks, and challenging malware detection.

Easier than figuring out a new language

We do hope this has helped you understand both what WebAssembly is and how it can allow you to achieve your web and app development goals. Remember that this relatively new tech is subject to ongoing development and evolution. Not a language in itself, it’s a valuable addition to your development toolbox due to its universal portability.

This makes WebAssembly a viable alternative to enterprise and cloud computing containers. It enables the developer to create augmentations and plugins for a wide variety of apps. All you have to do is learn these four steps by heart – write, compile, import, instance. It’s definitely easier than figuring out a whole new language!

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