Friday, 21 July, 2017 UTC


The biggest improvement this year to web performance has been the introduction of WebAssembly. Now available in Firefox and Chrome, and coming soon in Edge and WebKit, WebAssembly enables the execution of code at a low assembly-like level in the browser.
Mozilla has worked closely with the games industry for several years to reach this stage: including milestones like the release of games built with Emscripten in 2013, the preview of Unreal Engine 4 running in Firefox (2014), bringing the Unity game engine to WebGL also in 2014, exporting an indie Unity game to WebVR in 2016, and most recently, the March release of Firefox 52 with WebAssembly.
WebAssembly builds on Mozilla’s original asm.js specification, which was created to serve as a plugin-free compilation target approach for applications and games on the web. This work has accumulated a great deal of knowledge at Mozilla specific to the process of porting games and graphics technologies. If you are an engineer working on games and this sounds interesting, read on to learn more about developing games in WebAssembly.
Where Does WebAssembly Fit In?
By now web developers have probably heard about WebAssembly’s promise of performance, but for developers who have not actually used it, let’s set some context for how it works with existing technologies and what is feasible. Lin Clark has written an excellent introduction to WebAssembly. The main point is that unlike JavaScript, which is generally written by hand, WebAssembly is a compilation target, just like native assembly. Except perhaps for small snippets of code, WebAssembly is not designed to be written by humans. Typically, you’d develop the application in a source language (e.g. C/C++) and then use a compiler (e.g. Emscripten), which transforms the source code to WebAssembly in a compilation step.
This means that existing JavaScript code is not the subject of this model. If your application is written in JavaScript, then it already runs natively in a web browser, and it is not possible to somehow transform it to WebAssembly verbatim. What can be possible in these types of applications however, is to replace certain computationally intensive parts of your JavaScript with WebAssembly modules. For example, a web application might replace its JavaScript-implemented file decompression routine or a string regex routine by a WebAssembly module that does the same job, but with better performance. As another example, web pages written in JavaScript can use the Bullet physics engine compiled to WebAssembly to provide physics simulation.
Another important property: Individual WebAssembly instructions do not interleave seamlessly in between existing lines of JavaScript code; WebAssembly applications come in modules. These modules deal with low-level memory, whereas JavaScript operates on high-level object representations. This difference in structure means that data needs to undergo a transformation step—sometimes called marshalling—to convert between the two language representations. For primitive types, such as integers and floats, this step is very fast, but for more complex data types such as dictionaries or images, this can be time consuming. Therefore, replacing parts of a JavaScript application works best when applied to subroutines with large enough granularity to warrant replacement by a full WebAssembly module, so that frequent transitions between the language barriers are avoided.
As an example, in a 3D game written in three.js, one would not want to implement a small Matrix*Matrix multiplication algorithm alone in WebAssembly. The cost of marshalling a matrix data type into a WebAssembly module and then back would negate the speed performance that is gained in doing the operation in WebAssembly. Instead, to reach performance gains, one should look at implementing larger collections of computation in WebAssembly, such as image or file decompression.
On the other end of the spectrum are applications that are implemented as fully in WebAssembly as possible. This minimizes the need to marshal large amounts of data across the language barrier, and most of the application is able to run inside the WebAssembly module. Native 3D game engines such as Unity and Unreal Engine implement this approach, where one can deploy a whole game to run in WebAssembly in the browser. This will yield the best possible performance gain. However, WebAssembly is not a full replacement for JavaScript. Even if as much of the application as possible is implemented in WebAssembly, there are still parts that are implemented in JavaScript. WebAssembly code does not interact directly with existing browser APIs that are familiar to web developers, your program will call out from WebAssembly to JavaScript to interact with the browser. It is possible that this behavior will change in the future as WebAssembly evolves.
Producing WebAssembly
The largest audience currently served by WebAssembly are native C/C++ developers, who are often positioned to write performance sensitive code. An open source community project supported by Mozilla, Emscripten is a GCC/Clang-compatible compiler toolchain that allows building WebAssembly applications on the web. The main scope of Emscripten is support for the C/C++ language family, but because Emscripten is powered by LLVM, it has potential to allow other languages to compile as well. If your game is developed in C/C++ and it targets OpenGL ES 2 or 3, an Emscripten-based port to the web can be a viable approach.
Mozilla has benefited from games industry feedback – this has been a driving force shaping the development of asm.js and WebAssembly. As a result of this collaboration, Unity3D, Unreal Engine 4 and other game engines are already able to deploy content to WebAssembly. This support takes place largely under the hood in the engine, and the aim has been to make this as transparent as possible to the application.
Considerations For Porting Your Native Game
For the game developer audience, WebAssembly represents an addition to an already long list of supported target platforms (Windows, Mac, Android, Xbox, Playstation, …), rather than being a new original platform to which projects are developed from scratch. Because of this, we’ve placed a great deal of focus on development and feature parity with respect to other existing platforms in the development of Emscripten, asm.js, and WebAssembly. This parity continues to improve, although on some occasions the offered features differ noticeably, most often due to web security concerns.
The remainder of this article focuses on the most important items that developers should be aware of when getting started with WebAssembly. Some of these are successfully hidden under an abstraction if you’re using an existing game engine, but native developers using Emscripten should most certainly be aware of the following topics.
Execution Model Considerations
Most fundamental are the differences where code execution and memory model are concerned.
  • Asm.js and WebAssembly use the concept of a typed array (a contiguous linear memory buffer) that represents the low level memory address space for the application. Developers specify an initial size for this heap, and the size of the heap can grow as the application needs more memory.
  • Virtually all web APIs operate using events and an event queue mechanism to provide notifications, e.g. for keyboard and mouse input, file IO and network events. These events are all asynchronous and delivered to event handler functions. There are no polling type APIs for synchronously asking the “browser OS” for events, such as those that native platforms often provide.
  • Web browsers execute web pages on the main thread of the browser. This property carries over to WebAssembly modules, which are also executed on the main thread, unless one explicitly creates a Web Worker and runs the code there. On the main thread it is not allowed to block execution for long periods of time, since that would also block the processing of the browser itself. For C/C++ code, this means that the main thread cannot synchronously run its own loop, but must tick simulation and animation forward based on an event callback, so that execution periodically yields control back to the browser. User-launched pthreads will not have this restriction, and they are allowed to run their own blocking main loops.
  • At the time of writing, WebAssembly does not yet have multithreading support – this capability is currently in development.
  • The web security model can be a bit more strict compared to other platforms. In particular, browser APIs constrain applications from gaining direct access to low-level information about the system hardware, to mitigate being able to generate strong fingerprints to identify users. For example, it is not possible to query information such as the CPU model, the local IP address, amount of RAM or amount of available hard disk space. Additionally, many web features operate on web domain boundaries, and information traveling across domains is configured by cross-origin access control rules.
  • A special programming technique that web security also prevents is the dynamic generation and mutation of code on the fly. It is possible to generate WebAssembly modules in the browser, but after loading, WebAssembly modules are immutable and functions can no longer be added to it or changed.
  • When porting C/C++ code, standard compliant code should compile easily, but native compilers relax certain features on x86, such as unaligned memory accesses, overflowing float->int casts and invoking function pointers via signatures that mismatch from the actual type of the function. The ubiquitousness of x86 has made these kind of nonstandard code patterns somewhat common in native code, but when compiling to asm.js or WebAssembly, these types of constructs can cause issues at runtime. Refer to Emscripten documentation for more information about what kind of code is portable.
Another source of differences comes from the fact that code on a web page cannot directly access a native filesystem on the host computer, and so the filesystem solution that is provided looks a bit different than native. Emscripten defines a virtual filesystem space inside the web page, which backs onto the IndexedDB API for persistence across page visits. Browsers also store downloaded data in navigation caches, which sometimes is desirable but other times less so.
Developers should be mindful in particular about content delivery. In native application stores the model of upfront downloading and installing a large application is an expected standard, but on the web, this type of monolithic deployment model can be an off-putting user experience. Applications can download and cache a large asset package at first run, but that can cause a sizable first-time download impact. Therefore, launching with minimal amount of downloading, and streaming additional asset data as needed can be critical for building a web-friendly user experience.
Toolchain Considerations
The first technical challenge for developers comes from adapting the existing build systems to target the Emscripten compiler. To make this easier, the compiler (emcc & em++) is designed to operate closely as a drop-in replacement for GCC or Clang. This eases migration of existing build systems that are already aware of GCC-like toolchains. Emscripten supports the popular CMake build system configuration generator, and emulates support for GNU Autotools configure scripts.
A fact that is sometimes confused is that Emscripten is not a x86/ARM -> WebAssembly code transformation toolchain, but a cross-compiler. That is, Emscripten does not take existing native x86/ARM compiled code and transform that to run on the web, but instead it compiles C/C++ source code to WebAssembly. This means that you must have all the source available (or use libraries bundled with Emscripten or ported to it). Any code that depends on platform-specific (often closed source) native components, such as Win32 and Cocoa APIs, cannot be compiled, but will need to be ported to utilize other solutions.
Performance Considerations
One of the most frequently asked questions about asm.js/WebAssembly is whether it is fast enough for a particular purpose. Curiously, developers who have not yet tried out WebAssembly are the ones who most often doubt its performance. Developers who have tried it, rarely mention performance as a major issue. There are some performance caveats however, which developers should be aware of.
  • As mentioned earlier, multithreading is not available just yet, so applications that heavily depend on threads will not have the same performance available.
  • Another feature that is not yet available in WebAssembly, but planned, is SIMD instruction set support.
  • Certain instructions can be relatively slower in WebAssembly compared to native. For example, calling virtual functions or function pointers has a higher performance footprint due to sandboxing compared to native code. Likewise, exception handling is observed to cause a bigger performance impact compared to native platforms. The performance landscape can look a bit different, so paying attention to this when profiling can be helpful.
  • Web security validation is known to impact WebGL noticeably. It is recommended that applications using WebGL are careful to optimize their WebGL API calls, especially by avoiding redundant API calls, which still pay the cost for driver security validation.
  • Last, application memory usage is a particularly critical aspect to measure, especially if targeting mobile support as well. Preloading big asset packages on first run and uncompressing large amounts of audio assets are two known sources of memory bloat that are easy to do by accident. Applications will likely need to optimize specifically for this when porting, and this is an active area of optimization in WebAssembly and Emscripten runtime as well.
WebAssembly provides support for executing low-level code on the web at high performance, similar to how web plugins used to, except that web security is enforced. For developers using some of the super-popular game engines, leveraging WebAssembly will be as easy as choosing a new export target in the project build menu, and this support is available today. For native C/C++ developers, the open source Emscripten toolchain offers a drop-in compatible way to target WebAssembly. There exists a lively community of developers around Emscripten who contribute to its development, and a mailing list for discussion that can help you getting started. Games that run on the web are accessible to everyone independent of which computation platform they are on, without compromising portability, performance, or security, or requiring up front installation steps.
WebAssembly is only one part of a larger collection of APIs that power web-based games, so navigate on to the MDN games section to see the big picture. Hop right on in, and happy Emscriptening!