In preparation for our upcoming release of Wasmtime 1.0 on September 20, we have prepared two blog posts describing the work we have put into the compiler and runtime recently. This first post will describe performance-related projects: making the compiler generate faster code, making the compiler itself run faster, making Wasmtime instantiate a compiled module faster, and making Wasmtime’s runtime as efficient as possible once the module is running. Our subsequent post will describe the work we have done to ensure that Wasmtime is secure and that the compiler generates correct code. We’re excited to present all of our work in both of these directions!

What is Performance?

We care about making Wasmtime and Cranelift fast, because speed has both direct effects (a faster system!) and indirect effects (newly-possible applications! higher developer productivity!). But what do we mean by “fast”? In fact, there are multiple kinds of speed.

When Wasmtime executes a Wasm program, the CPU executes both native instructions that have been compiled from the Wasm bytecode, and parts of the “Wasmtime runtime”, which is the part of Wasmtime that maintains data structures to help implement Wasm semantics. For each of these two halves of the execution, there are two phases: startup/initialization (compilation of Wasm code, and initialization of runtime), and steady-state execution. All four combinations of these two dimensions have some impact on performance and can be optimized separately:

  Compiler (Cranelift) Runtime (Wasmtime)
Startup Phase Time to compile code Time to instantiate a Wasm module
Steady-State Phase Speed of generated code Speed of runtime primitives

We have done extensive work to improve each of these four quadrants, and we’ll discuss each of them in this blog post!

Wasm Module Instantiation

A key aspect of WebAssembly’s security approach is the isolation between separate instances: each instantiation of a Wasm module gets its own state and cannot affect the state of others. To use this isolation effectively, some applications of Wasm will instantiate a fresh instance for every unit of work, such as an incoming request on a server. This fine-grained isolation means that a bug triggered while processing one unit of work can’t affect any subsequent unit (either accidentally or maliciously!). Instead, each unit of work starts from a well-defined state and the “blast radius”, or potential damage, of a bug is limited.

Extremely fast module instantiation is thus a key requirement for a Wasm VM like Wasmtime. Over the past year, we have done substantial work to take module instantiation from milliseconds to microseconds. How is this possible? In brief, by doing as little work as possible, and doing it lazily when we must, or ahead-of-time if we can.

We have already discussed how we do Wasm-level snapshotting to make startup of certain workloads fast. This technique can be applied to any WebAssembly context, because it generates a purpose-built Wasm module with the initialized state included. However, even this is often not enough: a simple Wasm runtime will need to allocate memory, initialize data structures, and copy the initial heap image from this pre-initialized module into the Wasm heap before it executes a single Wasm instruction. Can we do better?

Virtual Memory Tricks

Modern computers use virtual memory: an abstracted view of memory that lets the operating system compose a “virtual” view of an address space from many different physical parts, and lazily load or generate contents of a single memory “page” (a small unit, typically 4 to 16 KiB) when it is first accessed. The processor includes hardware that gives us this remapping ability without significant extra cost, and so finding ways to leverage “virtual-memory tricks” is often the best way to implement complex behavior with memory.

Let’s recap: our issue is that we have an “image” of a Wasm program’s heap state, and instantiating the Wasm program requires initializing a large block of memory (the heap) to this image. The simplest implementation would be to allocate the block (via malloc or mmap or some other allocator) and then copy the data into the right locations. This is in fact how Wasmtime used to work!

But virtual memory lets us use a technique known as “copy-on-write” as well. The key idea is that because we can (i) change the physical page that a virtual page of memory refers to, and (ii) apply permissions such as read-only protection, we can keep one copy of the “initial state” around and create a new Wasm heap by setting up read-only mappings to this one copy.

This means that now the cost of instantiation is reduced to the cost of making that mapping. This may even be a constant-time operation (i.e., not dependent on how large the heap is) if the kernel is smart about lazily populating the per-page mappings: it can just create a single node in a mapping data structure instead. Production operating systems like the Linux kernel, and also macOS and Windows, work this way.

According to the Wasm specification, the Wasm heap must behave as if it were a separate copy. But there is a subtle trick we can play here: sharing a single copy of the data is fine as long as the program only performs reads. This is because if no instance of the program changes the one data copy, then no other instance can tell it is being shared. This is why instantiating without copying anything is still a correct approach.

But what do we do when one instance does modify some of its heap? In this case, we do as the “copy-on-write” technique’s name implies: we catch the write before it happens (because of the read-only permissions), we make a new copy of that single page, and we alter the mapping so that the particular instance gets that “private”, and now writeable, copy of the page.

We implemented an “instance allocator” in Wasmtime that makes use of this copy-on-write (CoW) technique for very fast instantiations. It also uses a Linux syscall known as madvise to quickly “reset” the page mappings back to the original read-only heap image, so we can reuse the same mappings over and over when the same Wasm program is re-instantiated many times. (One might imagine this would be the case in a server serving many requests, for example!)

There is more we could do here still: we have studied the way that the Linux kernel’s locking, and its interaction with the hardware (“TLB flushes” and “inter-processor interrupts” (IPIs)), can cause bottlenecks, and we have further plans down the road. But for now, this virtual-memory-based approach is extremely fast compared to the earlier explicit memory initialization.

Lazy Initialization

After building the basic copy-on-write implementation above, we next realized that the Wasmtime runtime was spending significant time initializing data structures before starting to execute the compiled Wasm code.

A WebAssembly virtual machine needs to implement various abstractions that the Wasm program expects to have available. We have already talked about heaps above, but there are others too. The VM needs to provide “function imports”, or the ability to call functions from other modules or the embedding context (the application that embeds Wasmtime). It needs to implement “tables”, which are a way for Wasm program to store references to functions or other objects. And there are quite a few more. All of these need to be initialized to the proper state before the program starts.

It turns out that when a large program executes, it may only use a small number of the imported functions, or function references stored in a table. So the time spent to fill out this state — in some cases, hundreds of kilobytes of memory, with some work to compute each individual word or struct — is mostly wasted.

This was a prime use-case for the technique of “lazy initialization”: that is, deferring the work of setting up some state until it is actually needed. To make this work, one needs a way to track the “not yet initialized” state and differentiate it from the normal state at runtime, and then one needs to check for this and do the initialization at a fine granularity — for a single item — right before using it.

We implemented lazy initialization for tables of function references and the function closure objects they point to. This optimization removed the other big piece of work done when instantiating a large Wasm module. For the multi-megabyte test case we were using (a version of the SpiderMonkey JS engine compiled to Wasm), the heap initialization involved writing tens of megabytes. After using virtual-memory tricks as above we were down to hundreds of kilobytes. Finally with lazy table and function-object initialization we wrote just a few kilobytes to memory per instantiation with no expensive computations at all.1

Following this work, we did a series of optimizations to other bottlenecks that removing the two major ones exposed (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8). At the end of that line of work, we were satisfied that we had pared instantiation down to its bare essentials, and any further bottlenecks were likely to be elsewhere in the system — either the thing that requests the instantiation, or the Wasm program that is instantiated!

We should note, too, that Wasmtime had already been designed to frontload a lot of the work of loading and verifying a Wasm module prior to the instantiation event itself. For example, the Linker and InstancePre structs allow the user of Wasmtime to explicitly do import resolution and typechecking beforehand, amortized over many instantiations. It was in this context that we were able to focus solely on the mechanics of setting up the runtime-internal state for an instance.

Fast Instantiation: Results

As a result of all of this work, instantiation time of SpiderMonkey.wasm went from about 2 milliseconds (eager initialization of all heap and other data structures) to 5 microseconds, or 400 times faster. Not bad!

Runtime Performance

Now that we’ve started the Wasm program, we need to help it run as quickly as possible with fast runtime primitives!

While most of the CPU time during Wasm execution is typically spent in the Wasm program itself, or in the “hostcalls” that it invokes (which are code that the Wasmtime user plugs into Wasmtime and which we don’t control directly), there are parts of Wasmtime itself that have to run in certain cases. These bits of code are what we call the “VM runtime”.

We need bits of the runtime, for example, to help us “walk the stack” and list all of the active stack frames when we generate a stacktrace for a trap, or when we trace all active object references for garbage collection. We also need a small part of the runtime called a “trampoline” when we invoke code outside of Wasmtime, or when code outside of Wasmtime initially invokes Wasm code.

Fast Stack-Walking

We have completed several projects to speed up parts of the runtime over the past year. The most impressive win is perhaps the fast stack walking work. Previously, in order to allow Wasmtime to enumerate all stackframes, the Cranelift compiler generated what is known as “unwind info”. This is a kind of metadata that describes where the compiled code will put values on the stack at any given point. Using this metadata, Wasmtime’s “unwinder” is able to reverse-engineer the program state: it understands the stack frame of one active function call at a time, eventually finding out who called it and iterating up the stack until it reaches the initial entry into Wasm.

This turns out to be extremely slow, for several reasons. First, the metadata format, known as DWARF2, is quite complex, and takes significant effort to interpret. This is an advantage when it comes to working for any conceivable stack-frame layout — so it can be produced by many different compilers — but in our case, this flexibility is overkill. Second, the system library typically used to walk a stack with DWARF metadata is known as libunwind, and though it is widely used and generally reliable, it has significant scalability issues. For example, we discovered that the system unwinder has poor performance when thousands of Wasm modules (each with their own DWARF metadata) are loaded into a single process. Collecting a trap stacktrace in such a case could take up to half a second! Interacting with the system unwinder is also a source of bugs in some cases, and makes fixing them harder. We have had such issues on multiple platforms. Controlling our own unwind process lets us solve these issues.

To address this issue, we developed a custom stack-walker. We started with the observation that because we control the compiled code, we can limit the complexity of the stack format to something that is much easier and faster to traverse. Specifically, we can ensure that we always maintain a linked list of frame pointers. A stack walk is then as simple as a linked-list traversal, with saved return addresses immediately adjacent to each frame-pointer value.

According to the benchmarks, this change improved the speed of stack walking by between 64% and 99.95%, depending on the situation, and it completely removed the quadratic worst-case and other potential issues, known or unknown, of relying on libunwind and its complex metadata. This performance improvement is a huge qualitative improvement: it allows stack traces to be enabled in contexts where they previously could not be, and improves Wasmtime’s robustness substantially.

Fast Cooperative Multitasking with Epoch Interruption

A common use-case for Wasmtime is to run many different WebAssembly guests concurrently and timeslice between them. Wasmtime has built-in support for running calls to Wasm on an async event loop.

One issue that a Wasmtime user might have in such a situation is how to limit the execution time of a Wasm program. Typically when running asynchronously with an event loop, a compute-intensive task should be split into segments so that the event loop is not stalled for more than a maximum “timeslice”.

With a standard compilation of Wasm bytecode to native machine code, a loop in Wasm becomes a loop in the compiled code and runs as many iterations as it likes, with no limit. If the user calls this function from an event loop, then that event loop may be stalled indefinitely.

Thus, especially when running untrusted code, it is important for the Wasmtime user to establish a way to regain control after a certain time limit. So Wasmtime must provide a way to interrupt Wasm execution at a certain point.

Prior to this year, the main way to implement this behavior was via “fuel”. This is a mechanism by which the compiled Wasm code is augmented with code that counts “operations”, checks this current count against a limit, and yields back to the caller or event loop if the limit is exceeded.

Fuel is an effective mechanism, but it is heavyweight: it requires augmenting every piece of code with the “counting”, and frequently storing that count to memory and checking it.

In our epoch interruption work, we realized that there is actually a much faster way. Fuel is overly precise: it counts operations and stops at exactly the limit. But if we could instead rely on some external agent to change a flag in memory at approximately the right time, we could just test that flag and branch to the yield if it changes. This removes the need to account fuel usage (which is almost as expensive as the main Wasm computation itself), and removes the frequent updates to the count in memory. Instead a single, infrequently-changing value can be touched once by a periodically-waking thread and this “broadcasts” an interrupt to all worker threads in Wasm code.

It turns out that this makes execution of SpiderMonkey.wasm roughly twice as fast as when using fuel interruption. For applications that require interruption schemes because of their asynchronous event loop, this is quite a significant boost!

Cranelift: Compiled-Code Quality

We’ll talk now about the compiler, Cranelift, that underpins Wasmtime. We use Cranelift to compile Wasm bytecode to native machine code that the computer can execute directly. We have had a number of long-running projects to overhaul pieces of the Cranelift compiler pipeline to improve performance. Broadly speaking, we can improve the quality of generated code by implementing more optimization passes, tuning the instruction-selection rules as needed, and improving the core algorithms such as register allocation to support more advanced heuristics and approaches.

Register Allocator Revamp: regalloc2

One major compiler effort that we have made over the past year or so is the introduction of our new register allocator, regalloc2. A register allocator is a piece of a compiler that assigns storage locations to values in the program. WebAssembly, as an abstract and hardware-independent virtual machine, does not have a notion of input and output locations for most instructions. Rather it just speaks of an abstract “operand stack” (and locals and the heap, but most instructions do not operate on these). In a real CPU, instructions operate on data in registers, which are small storage locations that can hold one value (e.g. a 64-bit number) each. A register allocator decides which values to keep in which registers at which times. Doing this well improves program performance substantially because it implies less moving around of values.

regalloc2 was designed to support more advanced kinds of algorithms to decide how to allocate values to registers (you can read more detail in this post or in its design document). When introduced, it improved runtime performance of SpiderMonkey.wasm by about 5% and another CPU-intensive benchmark, bz2, by 4% (for example). It also had a substantial impact on compile time, as we’ll discuss below. (Both impacts will be augmented further in the future as we adjust Cranelift’s code generation to make more use of regalloc2’s additional features.)

Better Pattern Matching: New Backends, ISLE, and Ongoing Tuning

The next major set of improvements we have done are in the area of instruction selection. The instruction-selection problem is that of choosing the best CPU instructions to implement a given program behavior. Because each CPU has its own unique set of instructions, and because these can be combined in many different ways, this is a very difficult combinatorial puzzle to solve. Cranelift initially adopted a new compiler-backend design that enables more advanced pattern-matching, and currently takes an approach of expressing instruction lowerings in a pattern-matching DSL (domain-specific language) so that we can more easily tune these patterns.

Measuring from just before we switched to the new backend framework by default, up to just before adopting regalloc2 — so, measuring the effect of the new backend framework and a year of tuning it — we improved performance on SpiderMonkey.wasm by 22%, and bz2 by 18%. This was a substantial win and we continue to find ways to tune the instruction patterns.

Future: Mid-end Optimizations

In the future, we plan to introduce more advanced mid-end optimizations to Cranelift. A “mid-end optimizer” is the part of the compiler that transforms the program in ways that make it faster before it is “lowered” into a machine-specific form (that is, before instruction selection). There is a classical set of optimizations that almost all compilers will perform that includes basic rules like simplifying constant expressions (1 + 1 becomes 2). But there are many more complex and subtle transformations too.

Our prototype “mid-end optimizer” improves performance of SpiderMonkey.wasm by 13% and bz2 by 3%, and serves as a framework in which we can more easily write a large number of “rewrite rules” to express algebraic identities, clever implementations of particular computations (such as bit-twiddling tricks), and many others. We are excited by the potential that this carries!

Cranelift: Compile-Time Optimizations

Aside from optimizing Cranelift’s generated code, the compilation process itself is a nontrivial computation, and if it is too slow, then Wasmtime could take a long time to start up with a new piece of code, hindering productivity (for Wasm developers) and responsiveness (for end-users accessing new applications). Thus, compiler speed is an important metric, and we’ve worked hard to improve this. Broadly speaking, we can improve compile time by choosing better algorithms in the key parts of the backend, such as the register allocator or the optimization passes, or by doing general program optimizations, like reducing memory use.


Many of the above revamps that we designed to improve the quality of the compiler’s output also, by virtue of better design or more careful construction, run faster. The regalloc2 switchover improved compile times substantially, because register allocation is a large fraction of compile time: measuring single-thread time (not compiling in parallel), SpiderMonkey.wasm builds 6% faster and bz2 10% faster. One of the explicit design goals of regalloc2 was to avoid bad outliers with more robust algorithms, and this has a particular effect on parallel compilation, where hard-to-compile functions “stick out” more: on a 12-core system, SpiderMonkey.wasm builds 21% faster and bz2 builds 15% faster. The best improvement was in clang.wasm, a Wasm-module version of the Clang compiler, which now builds 42% faster in Cranelift. Improvements of 20% or so are typical.

Mid-End Optimizer: Many Passes into One

Algorithmic redesign can substantially improve compile time as well. In our mid-end optimizer prototype, we have taken a new approach to the relevant part of the compiler design: several different “passes”, or specific algorithms that transform the program in a certain way, have been combined into one unified framework that passes over the program only once. This approach allows better compile times in many cases. We measured bz2 compiling 15% faster under our prototype, for example (and SpiderMonkey.wasm is roughly at parity).

Standard Program Optimizations

A compiler is a computer program like any other — perhaps more CPU-intensive than most — and the sorts of changes that one would make to any program to speed it up, one can make to a compiler as well. One particularly effective kind of change for speed is to reduce memory allocation and usage. The less memory the program allocates, the faster it runs, for at least two reasons: the memory allocator itself can be slow, and using more memory can cause more cache misses and memory traffic as well. Cranelift also tends to stress allocators especially hard because of its multithreaded compilation model.

We recently had a series of changes (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) that improve compiler performance by about 5% in aggregate with Rust’s default allocator, and substantially more (22-32%, 11%, 9-13%, 8-10%, and 2-6% respectively) if the system allocator is particularly slow (as it is in the Sightglass benchmark suite, or more realistically, with custom allocators that some programs use for various reasons). These wins are important because over-dependence on fast malloc makes Cranelift less flexible and less applicable in some situations.


This post has been a whirlwind tour of many of the ways we have optimized Wasmtime and Cranelift to perform better in each of the four quadrants: Wasm compiler speed, speed of compiled Wasm code, runtime initialization speed, and runtime steady-state speed. High performance is a critical aspect of any software that aspires to be part of a foundation for building efficient, long-lasting systems. If WebAssembly is to succeed, it needs tools that execute it as quickly as possible, so that it can compete with native code. We continue to work toward this goal.

  1. Interesting anecdote: it turns out that at the scale we reached, even zeroing an array of the closure objects (“anyfuncs”) had a measurable impact. Every cache miss counts! The PR initially used a bitmap to track whether a slot was initialized instead, but eventually my colleague Alex suggested a brilliantly simple approach where we re-initialize an anyfunc whenever we take a pointer to it. (This turns out to be non-racy because of Rust’s aliasing protections.) 

  2. DWARF is supposedly named as it is because it is often used with the ELF executable format, and even compiler and linker nerds sometimes like to have fun.