How to run WebAssembly from your Rust Program

Cover Photo by Arun Prakash on Unsplash

Have you ever considered enhancing your Rust program’s capabilities with another language? WebAssembly (wasm) is a perfect candidate to script behavior and add capabilities without the hassle. Starting with WebAssembly is not as difficult as it might seem. This article will explore how to embed Web Assembly code in a Rust application.

What is Web Assembly?

According to MDN:

WebAssembly is a new type of code that can be run in modern web
browsers — it is a low-level assembly-like language with a compact
binary format that runs with near-native performance and provides
languages such as C/C++, C# and Rust with a compilation target so that
they can run on the web. It is also designed to run alongside
JavaScript, allowing both to work together.

wasm has been picking up steam since its inception in March 2017. While initially designed for the browser, people are actively working on building runtimes and environments on all sorts of platforms. This post focuses on using wasm as a secure runtime to script application behavior.

Implement a Custom Programming Language?

Sometimes, we might need the user to script certain behaviors in our application. While use cases vary, the first question that comes up is: Do I need to build my own Domain Specific Language (DSL)?
The inner geek might answer this with a definite YES! It’s a great
challenge, though rolling a custom language has some serious drawbacks:

  • Users need to spend extra time learning it
  • There’s little to no support on pages such as StackOverflow
  • Additional confusion if the DSL imitates syntax from an existing

As the first two bullet points line out, a lot of effort goes into supporting a custom language. While it grants you many liberties when implementing use cases and features, the developer experience often suffers. Before discussing why Web Assembly is the solution, let’s look at a real-world example of embedding another language.

CouchDB: Embedding JavaScript

Apache CouchDB belongs to the family of NoSQL databases. It is a document store with a strong focus on
replication and reliability. One of the most significant differences between CouchDB and a relational database (besides the absence of tables and schemas) is how you query data. Relational databases allow their users to execute arbitrary and dynamic queries via
SQL. Each SQL query may look completely different than the previous one. These dynamic aspects are significant for use cases where you work exploratively with your dataset but don’t matter as much in a web context. Additionally, defining an index for a specific table is optional. Most developers will define indices to boost performance, but the database does not require it.

CouchDB, on the other hand, does not allow developers to run dynamic queries on the fly. This circumstance might seem a bit odd at first. However, once you realize that regular web application database queries are static, this perceived restriction does not matter as much anymore. While implementing use cases, a web developer defines a query while implementing code. Once defined, this query stays the same, no matter where the code runs (development, staging, and production).

CouchDB also does not use SQL or a custom language. Instead, it leverages a language most web developers are already familiar with: JavaScript. The main database engine is written in Erlang, allowing users to specify queries in JavaScript. This design decision has several reasons: CouchDB requires users to build an index by default. Users will query a specific index when they want to fetch data. To construct an index, CouchDB will run user-defined JavaScript code. This code comes in the form of a map function that gets called for each document in the database. The map function decides if a document should be listed in
the index.

//Example of a map function in CouchDB
function (doc) {
 if (doc.type === 'post' && doc.tags && Array.isArray(doc.tags)) {
   doc.tags.forEach(function (tag) {
     emit(tag.toLowerCase(), 1);

The advantage here is clear: The user can define complex logic to build their indices in a well-documented and understood programming language. The barrier to getting started is much lower compared to a database that
uses a custom language.

WebAssembly is the Answer

Embedding JavaScript has been a well-accepted solution for a long time. The main reason is that JavaScript does not have a substantial standard library. It lacks many features other languages ship out of the box, such as any form of I/O. This lack of features is primarily due to the fact that JavaScript running in the browser does not require filesystem access (it’s a security feature).

The disadvantage: JavaScript runtimes are complex and are designed for long-running programs. Also, we might not want to rely on JavaScript in the first place but on other languages. That’s where WebAssembly becomes an alternative.
First of all, its footprint is much smaller. It does not come with a standard library nor allows access to the outside world by default. From a developer’s point of view, the main benefit is: We can compile almost every currently
popular programming language to WebAssembly. We can support both users if one user prefers to write Python while another wants to stick to JavaScript. While we will look at some wasm code later in the tutorial, it is mainly a compilation target. Developers do not write wasm by hand. The wasm runtime does not care what language you write your code in.
Our advantage: An improved developer experience, as developers can leverage the language they’re most comfortable with and compile down to Web Assembly at the end of the day.

wasm is the perfect candidate as an embedded runtime to allow users to script application behavior.

How to Embed WebAssembly in a Rust Application

In this tutorial, we rely on wasmtime. wasmtime is a standalone runtime for WebAssembly.

Let’s start by creating a new Rust project:

$ cargo new rustwasm
$ cd rustwasm

Next, let’s install a few crates we’ll need:

$ cargo add anyhow
$ cargo add wasmtime

Once the crates are installed, we add the code to our file (explanation below):

 //Original Code from
 //Adapted for brevity
 use anyhow::Result;
 use wasmtime::*;

 fn main() -> Result<()> {
     println!("Compiling module...");
     let engine = Engine::default();
     let module = Module::from_file(&engine, "hello.wat")?; //(1)

     let mut store = Store::new(
     ); //(2)

     println!("Creating callback...");
     let hello_func = Func::wrap(&mut store, |_caller: Caller<'_, ()>| {
         println!("Calling back...");
     }); //(3)

     println!("Instantiating module...");
     let imports = [hello_func.into()];
     let instance = Instance::new(&mut store, &module, &imports)?;

     println!("Extracting export...");
     let run = instance.get_typed_func::<(), ()>(&mut store, "run")?; //(4)

     println!("Calling export..."); store, ())?; //(5)


Step 1:

We start by loading a module from disk. In this case, we’re loading hello.wat. By default, you would distribute Web Assembly code in binary form. For our purposes, however, we rely on the textual representation (wat).

Step 2:

We also want to share some state between the host and wasm code when we run wasm code. With Store, we can share this context. In our case, we don’t need to share anything right now. Therefore we specify a Unit type as the second argument to Store::new.

Step 3:

In this tutorial, we want to make a Rust function available to the wasm code it then subsequently can call. We wrap a Rust closure with Func::wrap. This function does not take any arguments and also does not return anything; it just prints out "Calling back" when invoked.

Step 4:

wasm code by default does not have a main function; we treat it as a library. In our case, we expect a run function to be present, which we’ll use as our entry point.

Before we can invoke the function, we need to retrieve it first. We use get_typed_func to specify its type signature as well. If we find it in the binary, we can invoke it.

Step 5:

Now that we located the function let’s call it.

Inspecting Web Assembly Code

With our Rust program in place, let’s have a look at the wasm code we want to load:

  (func $hello (import "" "hello"))
  (func (export "run") (call $hello))

The wasm text format uses so-called S-expressions.

S-expressions are a very old and very simple textual format for
representing trees, and thus we can think of a module as a tree of
nodes that describe the module’s structure and its code. Unlike the
Abstract Syntax Tree of a programming language, though, WebAssembly’s
tree is pretty flat, mostly consisting of lists of instructions.

This small program performs three tasks:

  • It imports a function with the name hello from its host
    environment and binds it to the local name $hello.
    ((func $hello (import "" "hello")))
  • It defines a function run which it also exports.
  • In run, it calls the imported $hello function.

As mentioned earlier, .wat (same for the binary representation) is not something we usually write by hand but is generated by a compiler.

Run everything

With all components in place, let’s run it:

 $ cargo run 
     Finished dev [unoptimized + debuginfo] target(s) in 0.62s
     Running `target/debug/rustwasm`
Compiling module...
Creating callback...
Instantiating module...
Extracting export...
Calling export...
Calling back...

Find the full source code on GitHub.

One thought on “How to run WebAssembly from your Rust Program

  1. Hi Jan, I co-host the Rust Dublin Meetup , we are looking for WASM speakers at the moment, this would make for a great talk. Would you be interested? A

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