Design Rationale

This document describes rationales for WebAssembly’s design decisions, acting as footnotes to the main design text, keeping the main specification easier to read, and making it easier to revisit decisions later without having to plow through all the issues and pull requests. This rationale document tries to list how decisions were made, and where tradeoffs were made for the sake of language ergonomics, portability, performance, security, and Getting Things Done.

WebAssembly was designed incrementally, with multiple implementations being pursued concurrently. As the MVP stabilizes and we get experience from real-world codebases, we’ll revisit the alternatives listed below, reevaluate the tradeoffs and update the design before the MVP is finalized.

Why a stack machine?

Why not an AST, or a register- or SSA-based bytecode?

  • We started with an AST and generalized to a structured stack machine. ASTs allow a dense encoding and efficient decoding, compilation, and interpretation. The structured stack machine of WebAssembly is a generalization of ASTs allowed in previous versions while allowing efficiency gains in interpretation and baseline compilation, as well as a straightforward design for multi-return functions.
  • The stack machine allows smaller binary encoding than registers or SSA JSZap, Slim Binaries, and structured control flow allows simpler and more efficient verification, including decoding directly to a compiler’s internal SSA form.
  • Polyfill prototype shows simple and efficient translation to asm.js.

Why not a fully-general stack machine?

The WebAssembly stack machine is restricted to structured control flow and structured use of the stack. This greatly simplifies one-pass verification, avoiding a fixpoint computation like that of other stack machines such as the Java Virtual Machine (prior to stack maps). This also simplifies compilation and manipulation of WebAssembly code by other tools. Further generalization of the WebAssembly stack machine is planned post-MVP, such as the addition of multiple return values from control flow constructs and function calls.

Basic Types Only

WebAssembly only represents a few types.

  • More complex types can be formed from these basic types. It’s up to the source language compiler to express its own types in terms of the basic machine types. This allows WebAssembly to present itself as a virtual ISA, and lets compilers target it as they would any other ISA.
  • These types are directly representable on all modern CPU architectures.
  • Smaller types (such as i8 and i16) are usually no more efficient and in languages like C/C++ are only semantically meaningful for memory accesses since arithmetic get widened to i32 or i64. Avoiding them at least for MVP makes it easier to implement a WebAssembly VM.
  • Other types (such as f16, i128) aren’t widely supported by existing hardware and can be supported by runtime libraries if developers wish to use them. Hardware support is sometimes uneven, e.g. some support load/store of f16 only whereas other hardware also supports scalar arithmetic on f16, and yet other hardware only supports SIMD arithmetic on f16. They can be added to WebAssembly later without compromising MVP.
  • More complex object types aren’t semantically useful for MVP: WebAssembly seeks to provide the primitive building blocks upon which higher-level constructs can be built. They may become useful to support other languages, especially when considering garbage collection.

Load/Store Addressing

Load/store instructions include an immediate offset used for addressing. This is intended to simplify folding of offsets into complex address modes in hardware, and to simplify bounds checking optimizations. It offloads some of the optimization work to the compiler that targets WebAssembly, executing on the developer’s machine, instead of performing that work in the WebAssembly compiler on the user’s machine.

Alignment Hints

Load/store instructions contain alignment hints. This makes it easier to generate efficient code on certain hardware architectures.

Either tooling or an explicit opt-in “debug mode” in the spec could allow execution of a module in a mode that threw exceptions on misaligned access. This mode would incur some runtime cost for branching on most platforms which is why it isn’t the specified default.

Out of Bounds

The ideal semantics is for out-of-bounds accesses to trap, but the implications are not yet fully clear.

There are several possible variations on this design being discussed and experimented with. More measurement is required to understand the associated tradeoffs.

  • After an out-of-bounds access, the instance can no longer execute code and any outstanding JavaScript ArrayBuffer aliasing the linear memory are detached.
    • This would primarily allow hoisting bounds checks above effectful operators.
    • This can be viewed as a mild security measure under the assumption that while the sandbox is still ensuring safety, the instance’s internal state is incoherent and further execution could lead to Bad Things (e.g., XSS attacks).
  • To allow for potentially more-efficient memory sandboxing, the semantics could allow for a nondeterministic choice between one of the following when an out-of-bounds access occurred.
    • The ideal trap semantics.
    • Loads return an unspecified value.
    • Stores are either ignored or store to an unspecified location in the linear memory.
    • Either tooling or an explicit opt-in “debug mode” in the spec should allow execution of a module in a mode that threw exceptions on out-of-bounds access.

Linear Memory Resizing

To allow efficient engines to employ virtual-memory based techniques for bounds checking, memory sizes are required to be page-aligned. For portability across a range of CPU architectures and operating systems, WebAssembly defines a fixed page size. Programs can depend on this fixed page size and still remain portable across all WebAssembly engines. 64KiB represents the least common multiple of many platforms and CPUs. In the future, WebAssembly may offer the ability to use larger page sizes on some platforms for increased TLB efficiency.

The grow_memory operator returns the old memory size. This is desirable for using grow_memory independently on multiple threads, so that each thread can know where the region it allocated starts. The obvious alternative would be for such threads to communicate manually, however wasm implementations will likely already be communicating between threads in order to properly allocate the sum of the allocation requests, so it’s expected that they can provide the needed information without significant extra effort.

The optional maximum size is designed to address a number of competing constraints:

  1. Allow WebAssembly modules to grab large regions of contiguous memory in a 32-bit address space early in an application’s startup before the virtual address space becomes fragmented by execution of the application.
  2. Allow many small WebAssembly instances to execute in a single 32-bit process. (For example, it is common for a single web application to use dozens of libraries, each of which may, over time, include WebAssembly modules as implementation details.)
  3. Avoid forcing every developer using WebAssembly to understand their precise maximum heap usage.
  4. When threading and shared memory are added to WebAssembly post-MVP, the design should not require memory growth to realloc since this implies significant implementation complexity, security hazards, and optimization challenges.

The optional maximum addresses these constraints:

  • (1) is addressed by specifying a large maximum memory size. Simply setting a large initial memory size has problems due to (3) and the fact that a failure to allocate initial is a fatal error which makes the choice of “how big?” difficult.
  • (2) and (3) are addressed by making the maximum optional combined with the implied implementation that, on 32-bit, engines will not allocate significantly more than the current memory size, and the compiler sets the initial size to just enough to hold static data.
  • (4) is addressed assuming that, when threading is added, a new, optional “shared” flag is added to the memory section that must be set to enable shared memory and the shared flag forces the maximum to be specified. In this case, shared memory never moves; the only thing that changes is that the bounds grows which does not have all the abovementioned hazards. In particular, any extant SharedArrayBuffers that alias linear memory stay valid without any updates.

Linear memory disabled if no linear memory section

See #107.

Control Flow

Structured control flow provides simple and size-efficient binary encoding and compilation. Any control flow–even irreducible–can be transformed into structured control flow with the Relooper algorithm, with guaranteed low code size overhead, and typically minimal throughput overhead (except for pathological cases of irreducible control flow). Alternative approaches can generate reducible control flow via node splitting, which can reduce throughput overhead, at the cost of increasing code size (potentially very significantly in pathological cases). Also, more expressive control flow constructs :unicorn: may be added in the future.

Nop

The nop operator does not produce a value or cause side effects. It is nevertheless useful for compilers and tools, which sometimes need to replace instructions with a nop. Without a nop instruction, code generators would use alternative does-nothing opcode patterns that consume space in a module and may have a runtime cost. Finding an appropriate opcode that does nothing but has the appropriate type for the node’s location is nontrivial. The existence of many different ways to encode nop - often mixed in the same module - would reduce the efficiency of compression algorithms.

Locals

C/C++ makes it possible to take the address of a function’s local values and pass this pointer to callees or to other threads. Since WebAssembly’s local variables are outside the address space, C/C++ compilers implement address-taken variables by creating a separate stack data structure within linear memory. This stack is sometimes called the “aliased” stack, since it is used for variables which may be pointed to by pointers.

Since the aliased stack appears to the WebAssembly engine as normal memory, WebAssembly optimizations that would target the aliased stack need to be more general, and thus more complicated. We observe that common compiler optimizations done before the WebAssembly code is produced, such as LLVM’s global value numbering, effectively split address-taken variables into many small ranges that can often be allocated as local variables. Thus our expectation that any loss of optimization potential here is minimal.

Conversely, non-address taken values which are usually on the stack are instead represented as locals inside functions. This effectively means that WebAssembly has an infinite set of registers, and can choose to spill values as it sees fit in a manner unobservable to the hosted code. This implies that there’s a separate stack, unaddressable from hosted code, which is also used to spill return values. This allows strong security properties to be enforced, but does mean that two stacks are maintained (one by the VM, the other by the compiler which targets WebAssembly) which can lead to some inefficiencies.

Local variables are not in Static Single Assignment (SSA) form, meaning that multiple incoming SSA values which have separate liveness can “share” the storage represented by a local through the set_local operator. From an SSA perspective, this means that multiple independent values can share a local variable in WebAssembly, which is effectively a kind of pre-coloring that clever producers can use to pre-color variables and give hints to a WebAssembly VM’s register allocation algorithms, offloading some of the optimization work from the WebAssembly VM.

Variable-Length Argument Lists (“varargs”)

C and C++ compilers are expected to implement variable-length argument lists by storing arguments in a buffer in linear memory and passing a pointer to the buffer. This greatly simplifies WebAssembly VM implementations by punting this ABI consideration to the front-end compiler. It does negatively impact performance, but variable-length calls are already somewhat slow.

Multiple Return Values

WebAssembly’s MVP does not support multiple return values from functions because they aren’t strictly necessary for the earliest anticipated use cases (and it’s a minimum viable product), and they would introduce some complexity for some implementations. However, multiple return values are a very useful feature, and are relevant to ABIs, so it’s likely to be added soon after the MVP.

Indirect Calls

The table-based scheme for indirect function calls was motivated by the need to represent function pointers as integer values that can be stored into the linear memory, as well as to enforce basic safety properties such as calling a function with the wrong signature does not destroy the safety guarantees of WebAssembly. In particular, an exact signature match implies an internal machine-level ABI match, which some engines require to ensure safety. An indirection also avoids a possible information leak through raw code addresses.

Languages like C and C++ that compile to WebAssembly also imposed requirements, such as the uniqueness of function pointers and the ability to compare function pointers to data pointers, or treat data as function pointers.

Several alternatives to direct indices with a heterogeneous indirect function table were considered, from alternatives with multiple tables to statically typed function pointers that can be mapped back and forth to integers. With the added complication of dynamic linking and dynamic code generation, none of these alternatives perfectly fit the requirements.

The current design requires two dynamic checks when invoking a function pointer: a bounds check against the size of the indirect function table and a signature check for the function at that index against an expected signature. Some dynamic optimization techniques (e.g. inline caches, or a one-element cache), can reduce the number of checks in common cases. Other techniques such as trading a bounds check for a mask or segregating the table per signature to require only a bounds check could be considered in the future. Also, if tables are small enough, an engine can internally use per-signature tables filled with failure handlers to avoid one check.

Control Flow Instructions with Values

Control flow instructions such as br, br_if, br_table, if and if-else can transfer stack values in WebAssembly. These primitives are useful building blocks for WebAssembly producers, e.g. in compiling expression languages. It offers significant size reduction by avoiding the need for set_local/get_local pairs in the common case of an expression with only one immediate use. Control flow instructions can then model expressions with result values, thus allowing even more opportunities to further reduce set_local/get_local usage (which constitute 30-40% of total bytes in the polyfill prototype). br-with-value and if constructs that return values can model also model phis which appear in SSA representations of programs.

Limited Local Nondeterminism

There are a few obvious cases where nondeterminism is essential to the API, such as random number generators, date/time functions or input events. The WebAssembly specification is strict when it comes to other sources of limited local nondeterminism of operators: it specifies all possible corner cases, and specifies a single outcome when this can be done reasonably.

Ideally, WebAssembly would be fully deterministic because a fully deterministic platform is easier to:

  • Reason about.
  • Implement.
  • Test portably.

Nondeterminism is only specified as a compromise when there is no other practical way to:

  • Achieve portable native performance.
  • Lower resource usage.
  • Reduce implementation complexity (both of WebAssembly VMs as well as compilers generating WebAssembly binaries).
  • Allow usage of new hardware features.
  • Allows implementations to security-harden certain usecases.

When nondeterminism is allowed into WebAssembly it is always done in a limited and local manner. This prevents the entire program from being invalid, as would be the case with C++ undefined behavior.

As WebAssembly gets implemented and tested with multiple languages on multiple architectures we may revisit some of the design decisions:

  • When all relevant hardware implements an operation the same way, there’s no need for nondeterminism in WebAssembly semantics. One such example is floating-point: at a high-level most operators follow IEEE-754 semantics, it is therefore not necessary to specify WebAssembly’s floating-point operators differently from IEEE-754.
  • When different languages have different expectations then it’s unfortunate if WebAssembly measurably penalizes one’s performance by enforcing determinism which that language doesn’t care about, but which another language may want.

NaN bit pattern propagation

In general, WebAssembly’s floating point operations provide the guarantee that if all NaNs passed to an operation are “canonical”, the result is “canonical”, where canonical means the most significant bit of the fraction field is 1, and the trailing bits are all 0.

This is intended to support interpreters running on WebAssembly that use NaN-boxing, because they don’t have to canonicalize the output of an arithmetic instruction if they know the inputs are canonical.

When the inputs are non-canonical, the resulting NaN is nondeterministic, to accomodate a variety of known hardware behaviors: returning one of the input NaNs, returning a canonical NaN, or bitwise-or’ing the input NaNs together.

The sign bit of generated NaNs is always nondeterministic since x86 generates NaNs with it set to 1 while other architectures generate NaNs with it set to 0.

Integer operations

WebAssembly’s signed integer divide rounds its result toward zero. This is not because of a lack of sympathy for better alternatives, but out of practicality. Because all popular hardware today implements rounding toward zero, and because C and many other languages now specify rounding to zero, having WebAssembly in the middle doing something different would mean divisions would have to be doubly complicated.

Similarly, WebAssembly’s shift operators mask their shift counts to the number of bits in the shifted value. Confusingly, this means that shifting a 32-bit value by 32 bits is an identity operation, and that a left shift is not equivalent to a multiplication by a power of 2 because the overflow behavior is different. Nevertheless, because several popular hardware architectures today implement this masking behavior, and those that don’t can typically emulate it with a single extra mask instruction, and because several popular source languages, including JavaScript and C#, have come to specify this behavior too, we reluctantly adopt this behavior as well.

WebAssembly has three classes of integer operations: signed, unsigned, and sign-agnostic. The signed and unsigned instructions have the property that whenever they can’t return their mathematically expected value (such as when an overflow occurs, or when their operand is outside their domain), they trap, in order to avoid silently returning an incorrect value.

Note that the add, sub, and mul operators are categorized as sign-agnostic. Because of the magic of two’s complement representation, they may be used for both signed and unsigned purposes. Note that this (very conveniently!) means that engines don’t need to add extra overflow-checking code for these most common of arithmetic operators on the most popular hardware platforms.

Motivating Scenarios for Feature Testing

  1. Post-MVP :unicorn:, i32.min_s :unicorn: is introduced. A WebAssembly developer updates their toolkit so that the compiler may leverage i32.min_s. The developer’s WebAssembly module works correctly both on execution environments at MVP, as well as those supporting i32.min_s.
  • A variant of this, where a few more new opcodes are available, the compiler is updated to be able to leverage all of them, but not all execution targets support all of them. The developer wants to reach as many of their customers as possible, while at the same time providing them with the best experience possible. The developer has to balance the cost of the test matrix resulting from the combinations of possible feature configurations.
  1. Post-MVP :unicorn:, module authors may now use Threading APIs in the browser. A developer wants to leverage multithreading in their module.
  • In one variant of the scenario, our developer does not want to pay the engineering cost of developing and supporting a threaded and non-threaded version of their code. They opt not to support MVP targets, and only support post-MVP targets. End-users (browser users) get some message indicating they need MVP support.

  • In another variant, our developer explicitly authors both MVP-only and post- MVP (with threads) code.

  1. SIMD support is not universally equivalent on all targets. While polyfill variants of SIMD APIs are available, a developer prefers writing dedicated SIMD and non-SIMD versions of their compression algorithm, because the non-SIMD version performs better in environments without SIMD support, when compared to the SIMD polyfill. They package their compression code for reuse by third parties.

  2. An application author is assembling together an application by reusing modules such as those developed in the scenarios above. The application author’s development environment is able to quickly and correctly identify the platform dependencies (e.g. threading, SIMD) and communicate back to the application author the implications these dependencies have on the end-application. Some APIs exposed from the threading-aware module are only pertinent to environments supporting threading. As a consequence, the application author needs to write specialized code when threads are/are not supported. (Note: we should understand this scenario for both forms of WebAssembly reuse currently imagined: dynamic linking and static imports.)

  3. The compression algorithm described in scenario 3 is deployed on a restrictive execution environment, as part of an application. In this environment, a process may not change memory page access protection flags (e.g. certain gaming consoles, to investigate server side deployment scenarios). The compression module is compiled by the WebAssembly environment, enabling the configuration most specific to the target (i.e. with/without Threads, SIMD, etc).

  • A variant of this scenario where the environment is additionally separating storage into system-visible and application-visible, the latter not being able to contain machine-executable code (certain phones, to investigate if gaming consoles or server side have a similar sandboxing mechanism).

Why a binary encoding?

Given that text is so compressible and it is well known that it is hard to beat gzipped source, is there any win from having a binary format over a text format? Yes:

  • Large reductions in payload size can still significantly decrease the compressed file size.
    • Experimental results from a polyfill prototype show the gzipped binary format to be about 20-30% smaller than the corresponding gzipped asm.js.
  • A binary format that represents the names of variables and functions with raw indices instead of strings is much faster to decode: array indexing vs. dictionary lookup.
    • Experimental results from a polyfill prototype show that decoding the binary format is about 23× faster than parsing the corresponding asm.js source (using this demo, comparing just parsing in SpiderMonkey (no validation, IR generation) to just decoding in the polyfill (no asm.js code generation).
  • A binary format allows many optimizations for code size and decoding speed that would not be possible on a source form.

Why a layered binary encoding?

  • We can do better than generic compression because we are aware of the code structure and other details:
    • For example, macro compression that deduplicates AST trees can focus on ASTs + their children, thus having O(nodes) entities to worry about, compared to generic compression which in principle would need to look at O(bytes*bytes) entities. Such macros would allow the logical equivalent of #define ADD1(x) (x+1), i.e., to be parameterized. Simpler macros (#define ADDX1 (x+1)) can implement useful features like constant pools.
    • Another example is reordering of functions and some internal nodes, which we know does not change semantics, but can improve general compression.
  • JITs and simple developer tooling do not benefit from compression, so layering allows the related development and maintenance burden to be offloaded to reusable tools/libraries.
  • Each of the layers works to find compression opportunities to the best of its abilities, without encroaching upon the subsequent layer’s compression opportunities.
  • Existing web standards demonstrate many of the advantages of a layered encoding strategy.