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  8. .gitignore
  9. configure
  12. libc.py
  13. Makefile
  14. README
  15. README.md

WebAssembly experiment for musl libc with limited dynamic linking

A musl experiment.

The goal of this prototype was to get a WebAssembly libc off the ground. Limited dynamic linking (no cross-module function pointers) came out of it for free which is mighty convenient. We should:

  1. Focus on the libc aspect, with static linking.
  2. As a secondary goal use limited dynamic linking to inform WebAssembly's design.

Note: This experimental WebAssembly C library with limited dynamic linking is a hack. Don‘t rely on it: it’s meant to inform the design of WebAssembly. Things are changing rapidly, so mixing different parts of the toolchain may break from time to time, try to keep them all in sync. In particular, the current WebAssembly design doesn‘t allow sharing heaps between modules. It’s a convenience API in the V8 implementation which may be removed in the future.

In this experiment, limited dynamic linking is entirely done through JavaScript, which is acting as the dynamic linker / loader. This merely uses the WebAssembly object's capabilities as implemented today.

Quick how-to

Pre-built Linux x86-64 Linux binaries are available on the waterfall, so are musl.wast, musl.wasm, and wasm.js. The waterfall marks as green the builds which are known to work properly. Click on a green build to download the archived binaries. Check out its last known good revision. You can build everything yourself using the waterfall's build.py.

Compile your program using LLVM:

  clang -S -O2 --target=wasm32-unknown-unknown foo.c

Creates a .s assembly file. Link it:

  s2wasm foo.s -o foo.wast

Creates a .wast WebAssembly s-expression. Assemble it:

  sexpr-wasm foo.wast -o foo.wasm

You now have a WebAssembly binary file.

Run .wasm files which import libc functions:

  d8 --expose-wasm musl/arch/wasm32/wasm.js -- foo.wasm musl-out/musl.wasm

Or run it without musl, using only wasm.js to emulate libc:

  d8 --expose-wasm musl/arch/wasm32/wasm.js -- foo.wasm

This may work... or not. File bugs on what's broken, or send patches!

libc + dynamic linking: how does it work?

In the current V8 implementation of WebAssembly binaries, each .wasm module:

  • Declares it imports and its exports.
  • Takes in a dictionary mapping Foreign Function Interface (FFI) names to corresponding functions.
  • Takes in its heap, an ArrayBuffer.

The wasm.js file:

  • Initializes the heap.
  • Implements a rudimentary C library in JavaScript, and adds these functions to the FFI object.
  • Loads .wasm files provided on the command-line, from last to first.
  • Adds each exported function to the FFI object, sometimes shadowing the JavaScript fallback.
  • Loads the first .wasm file provided and calls its main function.

Each loaded .wasm file is initialized with the same heap. They all share the same address space.

Calls from one WebAssembly module to another trampoline through JavaScript, but they should optimize well. We should figure out what we suggest developers use, so that the default pattern doesn‘t require gymnastics on the compiler’s part.

Indirect calls from one WebAssembly module to another do not work.

A WebAssembly module with un-met imports will throw. This can be handled, add the missing function as a stub to FFI, and then load again (loop until success) but it‘s silly. If WebAssembly modules were loadable, imports inspectable, and FFI object provided later then we’d be better off. We could implement very fancy lazy-loading, where the developer can handle load failures. We can easily implement dlopen / dlsym / dlclose as demonstrated by the <dlfcn.h> example below.

It would also be good to be able to specify compilation / execution separately.

libc implementation details

The current libc implementation builds a subset of musl using the hacked-up libc.py script. It excludes files which triggered bugs throughout the toolchain, not that the files being built are bug free either.

The implementation is based on Emscripten‘s musl port, but is based on a much more recent musl and has no modifications to musl’s code: all changes are in the arch/wasm32 directory. It aims to only communicate to the embedder using a syscall API, modeled after Linux' own syscall API. This may have shortcomings, but it‘s a good thing to try out since we can revisit later. Note the musl_hack functions in wasm.js: they fill in for functionality that’s currently been hacked out and which musl expects to import. It should be exporting these instead of importing them. Maybe more functionality should be implemented in JavaScript, but experience with NaCl and Emscripten leads us to believe the syscall API is a good boundary.

The eventual goal is for the WebAssembly libc to be upstreamed to musl, and that'll require doing it right according to the musl community. We also want Emscripten to be able to use the same libc implementation. The approach in this repository may not be the right one.


Dynamic linking and pointer-less dynamic linking aren‘t in WebAssembly’s current MVP because we thought it would be hard. This repository shows that it's possible to expose limited but useful functionality, we therefore may as well design it right from the start, or make it entirely impossible for the MVP.

That‘ll including figuring out calling convention and ABI. Exports currently don’t declare their signature in a WebAssembly module, even though they are in the binary format, and don‘t cause any failure when the APIs don’t match. That should be fixed.

We'll also need to figure out how to make memory segments relocatable, and the AST references to the segments position independent. Do we even want to allow non-relocatable segments? The current implementation overwrites previous segments if they specify the same memory location.

It seems like user code should be managing all of the heap, the first module that‘s loaded (even before libc) could therefore be a basic memory manager. The dynamic loading mechanism (implemented in JavaScript) would then query this heap manager to figure out where to locate segments, as well as to position user stacks. libc’s malloc would then use this basic memory manager to implement runtime memory management, the same would be true for stack positioning, thread stacks, and thread-local storage allocation.

Interesting applications can be built when modules don't share the same heap. They need to communicate through copy-in / copy-out functionality (such as Linux' copy_from_user / copy_to_user functions), and are then entirely isolated from each other except for their API boundary. This allows applications to instantiate their heap in a private closure and only expose APIs, providing good isolation properties and preventing user code from overflow and other security issues.

Why do dynamic linking now?

These basic experiments are finding bugs in the toolchain, if anything they‘re useful in making it more robust. It’s also an unexpected usage of the APIs! It's better that we find it now and figure out what it means.

Having a standalone musl.wasm is much simpler for code deployment and allows caching.

Developers are in control: they can do the equivalent of -ffunction-sections and -fdata-sections but emit one .wasm file per section. This allows them to lazy-load and lazy-compile each function as needed, and even unload them when the program doesn't need them anymore.

<dlfcn.h> example

This example doesn't use musl.wasm, it currently only uses wasm.js. musl could be used for this, it would be much cleaner (e.g. dlerror could work and return const char * as it should), but it requires hooking up syscalls properly.

Create dlhello.c:

  #include <dlfcn.h>
  #include <stdio.h>
  #include <stdlib.h>

  int main() {
    typedef void (*world_type)();

    void *handle = dlopen("dlworld.wasm", RTLD_NOW);
    if (!handle) {
      puts("dlopen failed:");

    world_type world = (world_type)dlsym(handle, "world");
    const char *err = dlerror();
    if (err) {
      puts("dlsym failed:");


    return 0;

And dlworld.c:

  #include <stdio.h>
  void world() { puts("World!"); }

Compile the programs:

  clang -S -O2 --target=wasm32-unknown-unknown ./dlhello.c
  clang -S -O2 --target=wasm32-unknown-unknown ./dlworld.c
  s2wasm dlhello.s -o dlhello.wast
  s2wasm dlworld.s -o dlworld.wast
  sexpr-wasm dlhello.wast -o dlhello.wasm
  sexpr-wasm dlworld.wast -o dlworld.wasm

Execute it:

  d8 --expose-wasm musl/arch/wasm32/wasm.js -- dlhello.wasm

Note that this currently doesn't work because the dlsym implementation returns the function from another module, and the implementation puts the functions in different tables (hence the “limited” nature of this hacky dynamic linking). call_indirect can only call functions from the same module, whereas call_import can call functions from another module by trampolining through JavaScript. We could fix this by:

  • Forcing developers to use a function such as dlcall and provide handles for the module and symbol. dlcall would trampoline through JavaScript. This requires that developers modify their code: C currently allows them to call the dlsym result directly.
  • Map functions from all module into the same table.
  • Map functions from other modules into the current one when dlsym is invoked, e.g. adding new functions to the _WASMEXP_ instance. This also requires tracking dlclose properly.

This amounts to designing full dynamic linking correctly, which we may not want to do for MVP.