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Home / Tips and Tricks / Why is WebAssembly important? – CloudSavvy IT

Why is WebAssembly important? – CloudSavvy IT



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Shutterstock/Andrey Suslov

WebAssembly is a binary instruction format that can be executed in web browsers. It provides a sandbox execution environment with near-native performance, eliminating most of the overheads associated with JavaScript on web pages.

WebAssembly (Wasm) is low-level machine code that runs in a stack-based virtual machine. This means it is much closer to your hardware than JavaScript. That has to be parsed and fully interpreted before it can be executed.

Creating Wasm is a bit more complicated than writing JavaScript. While you can code it by hand in Wasm Text Format, it̵

7;s low-level and equivalent to writing assembly code for native execution. More often you write in an established programming language and compile to Wasm. (More on that later.)

Why is wasm important?

If the proliferation of rich web applications is anything, developers are generally quite comfortable writing JavaScript. It has evolved considerably over the past decade with new syntax features and improvements in browser performance. These have elevated simple scripts into a language capable of supporting complex, standalone applications. So why is WebAssembly necessary?

Wasm does not replace JavaScript. It is aimed at specific use cases where JavaScript is still a hindrance and possibly always will be. Of these cases, it is the performance where Wasm particularly excels.

JavaScript-heavy websites tend to feel sluggish and eat up memory. This is especially noticeable on mobile devices, where web apps still lack the “feel” of their native counterparts.

Because Wasm is so much closer to the hardware, it offers a level of performance that is barely distinguishable from native apps. This opens the web to a new class of performance-critical applications. If it runs on your desktop, it can run in the browser with no noticeable performance slowdown.

Do we need more web performance?

There will always be an argument that some apps are simply best for desktop use. However, the web offers its own advantages, especially around wide distribution.

Publishing your app on the web will give you the widest possible audience. Anyone can access it from any device. This increases the convenience for your users and means that you have to maintain one codebase.

The real question isn’t whether we need more web performance: instead, we should ask ourselves whether we need more applications on the web. To answer that question, let’s look at high-featured sites that Wasm have already adopted.

AutoCAD is computer aided design software for architects and engineers. The latest web version debuted at Google I/O in 2018. It uses Wasm to consume components of the existing desktop codebase as is. Some of the code is 35 years old, but now runs in the browser.

Another example is Figma, which already used the JavaScript subset asm.js to optimize performance. By moving to Wasm, Figma noticed a 3x performance improvement. Google also uses Wasm and relies on it to bring Google Earth to the web for everyone.

These very complex applications could not previously exist on the Internet. If they did, they received heavy performance penalties compared to their desktop counterparts. Wasm is the architecture needed to complete the web’s transition from document-oriented pages to a complete application platform. You can even play Doom 3!

Increase developer choice

In addition to performance, WebAssembly is important because it gives developers more flexibility and choice. Aside from the legacy of Flash, Java, and ActiveX plugins, JavaScript was your only choice when writing code for the browser.

That situation has now changed. WebAssembly is a low-level format into which other languages ​​can be compiled. C, C++, C#, Java, Python, Rust and many more are able to run WebAssembly modules. This gives developers many more options when creating code for the web.

You still need JavaScript to load your Wasm modules, but that’s about it. You can implement all the functionality of your project in your chosen language and then compile it to Wasm for the browser.

Developers can now write for the web in the language that best suits them and their application. That can be a strongly typed, object-oriented language, or something that focuses on functional programming. You are no longer limited to JavaScript’s single type and object prototypes.

Enabling code reuse

WebAssembly offers significant advantages when it comes to code reuse. You can bring your shared libraries to the web without redeploying them in JavaScript. This can save hours, days or weeks of your time.

Using C# as an example, you may have a .NET DLL that contains convenience methods used by your server code and your desktop application. Previously, you had to implement those methods in JavaScript when it came time to build your web app.

Wasm allows you to recompile your DLL targeting WebAssembly. The the same code becomes accessible in the browser. Wasm reduces waste and duplication of engineering by letting you use what you already have.

Historically, this was only really possible if you used Node.js backend. You could abstract common logic into a JavaScript library ready for reuse in the frontend. Now you can work with libraries written in any language.

This works even if you stick with JavaScript for most of your web app. You can interact with Wasm modules via JavaScript, so you can still use your DLL with shared functions. Asynchronous APIs allow you to exchange data with Wasm so that you can call functions and get their return values.

Resume

WebAssembly is easily dismissed as an obscure technology with little relevance to today’s web apps. Wasm really focuses on the web of tomorrow, where desktop-class apps will run with native performance.

It’s also important to look beyond the headline benefits. Wasm isn’t just about speed increases. It can also reduce time-to-ship for development teams, especially those who work cross-platform or share logic between the client and the server. Part of the excitement surrounding WebAssembly comes from the web’s transformation into a compilation target, rather than being a completely standalone platform. Building for the browser no longer means writing JavaScript.

Here, in 2021, WebAssembly adoption remains relatively low. Projects using it have reported success – all you need to do is try Figma or Google Earth to appreciate Wasm’s standard of performance. You will likely see more of Wasm in the coming years as both new and old apps are brought into the browser.


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