Daniel Duan

Hello World In WebAssembly

Every now and then, I check on the progress of Web Assembly. I did it again around the time of this post and finally found enough tutorials, examples, and working software to get myself started in this area. In doing so, I made a video to demo some progress. (this article includes all the same information and more, so just read on if you don’t have 15 minutes for YouTube).


Our goal:

  1. Use as much built-in tools on a Mac as possible. The web development toolchain scares me.
  2. Target the browser. That’s where the value of WebAssembly is. (Node supports it as well. BUT, WHY THO?)
  3. Build from scratch. In the video I started from mkdir a folder. We should strive to understand details on every level whenever possible. Boilerplates and dependencies should come later.

Things you’ll need:

  1. Safari 11+
  2. Xcode. More specifically, you should be able to run clang in a shell.

The Workflow

Having these things installed, get a copy of The WebAssembly Binary Toolkit (wabt). Build it. The README has detailed instructions. I just went into the folder and ran

make clang-release

This will generate a bunch of binary files in out/clang/Release and you need to make sure you can run them from wherever you want to work on WebAssembly project (so either copy them into a folder included in your PATH environment variable or add the absolute path to out/clang/Release to PATH).

Among the binaries “wabt” builds, wat2wasm takes a .wat file and compiles it to a WebAssembly binary. A .wat is a source file in the text format for WebAssembly, which is in the form of S-expressions. So

wat2wasm main.wat -o main.wasm

…will compile your WebAssembly module in main.wat to generate main.wasm, the binary file. For now, main.wat can be the simplest WebAssembly program:

(module)

Running the binary in a browser demands the bulk of the work. First, we’ll need a web page. It doesn’t need any content other than invoking some JavaScript code.

<!DOCTYPE html>
<html lang="en">
<head>
    <meta charset="UTF-8">
    <title></title>
</head>
<body>
    <!-- The only thing that matters is the following line,
    although having a valid HTML5 page is nice. -->
    <script src="play.js"></script>
</body>
</html>

First, the Javascript logic needs to fetch and instantiate the compiled WebAssembly module. Since this is not a JS or WebAssembly tutorial, I’ll point you to the docmuntation for Fetch API, Promises, and the WebAssembly object for details:

fetch("main.wasm").then(reponse =>
    reponse.arrayBuffer()
).then(bytes =>
    WebAssembly.instantiate(bytes, {})
).then(result =>
    result.instance
).then(main);

This snippet fetches main.wasm (adjust this URL according to your choosing), instantiate it, then pass it into a function named main, we can put a placeholder logic for it for now:

function main(wasm) {
    console.log(wasm);
}

Before we move on, you’ll find that simply opending your HTML file in browser and looking at developer console won’t work. Safari would complain about cross-domain request error for fetch. So we need to serve these resources locally. I usually use the built in server module from Python standard library for this kind of things:

# In your source folder, run
python -m SimpleHTTPServer

Now go to http://localhost:8000 and click on your HTML file. If everything went well, you should see a WebAssembly instance logged in the developer console.

Congratulations! You can start writing WebAssembly locally. Just remember to re-compile main.wat with wat2wasm whenever you want to test things out in browser.

An Actual “Hello, World!” Implementation

This is my implementation:

(module
  ;; Allocate a page of linear memory (64kb). Export it as "memory"
  (memory (export "memory") 1)

  ;; Write the string at the start of the linear memory.
  (data (i32.const 0) "Hello, world!") ;; write string at location 0

  ;; Export the position and length of the string.
  (global (export "length") i32 (i32.const 12))
  (global (export "position") i32 (i32.const 0)))

In other words, we expose information of the linear memory we manipulated to the JavaScript environment. Things that has been exported will show up as properties of exports of the WebAssembly instance. We can access them in the main JavaScript functions:

function main(wasm) {
    const memory   = wasm.exports.memory;
    const length   = wasm.exports.length;
    const position = wasm.exports.position;
    ...
}

Then it’s just plain-old Javascript (tho I had to steal it from tutorials). memory.buffer is of type ArrayBuffer. We need to convert it into a string and log it to the console:

function main(wasm) {
    const memory   = wasm.exports.memory;
    const length   = wasm.exports.length;
    const position = wasm.exports.position;

    const bytes = new Uint8Array(memory.buffer, position, length);
    const s = new TextDecoder('utf8').decode(bytes);

    console.log(s);
}

Et, voilà! Hello, World! hot off a Web Assembly module in your developer console. To conclude, I personally like to use a Makefile to streamline some of the typing. Here’s what I used for this demo:

compile:
	wat2wasm main.wat -o main.wasm

serve:
	python -m SimpleHTTPServer

Conclusion

No fancy schmancy Javascript build stack, no 3rd-party code dependency. Write code, compile, run on your (virtual, in browser) machine, repeat. That sounds like “assembly” to me!