Running WebAssembly 100x faster 🔥

We’ve been working steadily to get Wasmer to execute WebAssembly modules on the server-side as fast as possible.

TL;DR — We got 100x improvement on startup time on Wasmer 0.2.0

Before getting into details, it’s essential to understand how Wasmer works under the hood to see what could be improved.

How WebAssembly runtimes work

When a user executes a WebAssembly file with Wasmer, the following happens:

  1. Parsing: Wasmer parses the wasm file, assuring its validity according to the spec.
  2. Function compilation: the function bodies defined in WebAssembly bytecode are compiled to machine code via a compiler framework (Cranelift, LLVM, …), so they can be executed at native speed. This process generates a Module object.
  3. Instantiation: at this step, we create the memories (where data lives) and tables (where functions pointers are stored) that the WebAssembly Instance will use.
    Once we have everything in place, we call the start function in the instance (usually that’s the main function in C, C++ or Rust)

So, how can we improve the timing for executing WebAssembly files?

Timings

Let’s start analyzing where Wasmer spends the most time when we run a heavy WebAssembly application. Nginx can serve us as a great example:

Nginx startup time analysis

After analyzing the timings, it was clear that most of the time that wasmer spends on running nginx.wasm is just on the compilation side. That means compiling the functions from WebAssembly bytecode to machine code.

Can we do something to improve it?

Caching

We started to think about what was a good option to accelerate compilation times. Since the machine code that is generated ahead of time for the functions of a given WebAssembly module is completely deterministic… why not cache it?

So we started working on it. We identified as possible solutions:

  • Making Module serialize/deserialize to a custom data format.
  • Converting a Module to and from a standardized shared library, and use the native code directly from our runtime.

We opted for the first strategy since it was a bit easier to implement and it gave us a bit more control of how to deal with the internal structures.

Note: some browsers improve the “compilation” times by using streaming compilation (compile as the module is being downloaded).
However, since Wasmer is initially designed to run locally, the access to the files is quite fast and therefore we can’t really take advantage of the fact that the network is slower than the compiler.

After a few weeks of work, we got our prototype ready and…
I guess an image is better than 1000 words!

Nginx startup time comparison (non-cached vs cached)

Note: the cache is implemented synchronously and slows-down about 1% the initial compilation time (serializing the module). It can also be skipped easily via
wasmer run --disable-cache ...

Bonus: Hashing times

Ok, we got caching working… what else can we do to improve timing?

We set up our caching system by generating a unique hash that identifies the WebAssembly module binary and using it as the key to retrieve the cached content when available.

We started using sha256 to generate a hash given the WebAssembly bytecode. However, sha256 can only hash at 200Mb/s… it seems fast, but it adds an overhead of 5ms for hashing a 1Mb WebAssembly module.

After some research, we found the meowhash crate and with it we were able to speed up hashing time by 125x, from 5ms to just 40us (0.04ms).

Note: after publishing the article we received feedback on how we can’t infer safely that if meowhash(x) == meowhash(y) then x == y. We updated our hashing algorithm since to use blake2bp instead of meowhash (hashes at 500us).

Wasmer 0.2.0 ✨

All these new caching improvements have been included in the Wasmer 0.2.0 release, which we just published today.
The runtime internals have been completely refactored and now we pass 100% the WebAssembly spectests.

Apart from including the new caching mechanism, it also includes experimental support for Windows!

Install Wasmer

curl https://get.wasmer.io -sSfL | sh
(Note: for Windows just head to our release page, and download the .exe installer)

-or- Upgrade Wasmer

wasmer self-update

And run your WebAssembly files at the speed of light! ⚡️