Building WebAssembly for Deno

Thu Dec 26 2019A guide to WASM targeting Deno.

Written by Tilman Roeder

Recently, I started building a SQLite3 module for Deno. The module works by compiling SQLite3 with a custom 'Virtual File System (VFS)' to WASM and wrapping it in a small JavaScript API.

Throughout the project I learned a lot about compiling WASM modules, avoiding JavaScript glue code, and even got to expose two issues with Deno.

Using a compiled language like C and importing it to JavaScript is really exciting! It enables modules that are much faster than anything we could write in JavaScript and let's us use libraries like SQLite3 without platform-specific runtime extensions.

Below is a tutorial on compiling C libraries for use with Deno.

A simple demo module

Let's start with a module.c which will allow us to use a few simple c functions:

int total_count = 0;

// Modules can have state
int count() {
  return ++total_count;

// They can do work
int add(int a, int b) {
  return a + b;

// But they only work with numbers
char * string() {
  return "Hello, world!";

Compiling the WASM binary

Now the first step is to build a WASM binary from this. WASM is supported by LLVM, so all we need to do to compile our module.c file is running:

clang --target=wasm32 --no-standard-libraries -Wl,--export-all -Wl,--no-entry -o module.wasm module.c

(Caveat: If you're on macOS, the default LLVM shipped by Apple does not support WASM. But you can easily install one that does via e.g. homebrew using brew install llvm.)

Let's unpack this command:

  • --target=wasm32 tells LLVM that we want to produce a WebAssebly binary
  • --no-standard-libraries does exactly what it says; this means we won't have access to things like <stdlib.h>, <stdio.h>, or <string.h>
  • -Wl,--export-all tells the linker to export all symbols
  • -Wl,--no-entry tells the linker we don't need a main function
  • -o module.wasm specifies the output file

Having build our module, we can now proceed to using the functions it exports. In Deno, creating a WebAssembly instance is super simple:

import * as module from "./module.wasm";

should output:

{ __data_end, __dso_handle, __global_base, __heap_base, __wasm_call_ctors, add, count, memory, string, total_count }

Calling Functions

Having done this, functions exported by the module can be called as if they were regular JavaScript functions:

// ...
console.log(module.count(), module.count(), module.count());
console.log("1+1 =", module.add(1, 1));
1 2 3
1+1 = 2

However, there are a few things to be aware of. Firstly, until interface types are supported, WASM modules can only input and output numbers. This means that reading things like strings from our WASM module is a bit more involved:

// ...
function readString(ptr) {
  // Get the memories bytes, starting from the beginning of the string.
  const mem = new Uint8Array(module.memory.buffer, ptr);
  // Find the length of the string.
  // (doing this in C would be faster)
  let length;
  for (length = 0; mem[length] !== 0; length++);
  // Decode the string (see note about optimization below)
  return new TextDecoder("utf-8").decode(
    new Uint8Array(mem.buffer, ptr, length),
Hello, world!

(Notice that this can be done more efficiently, see here for an example using an optimization stolen from EMSCRIPTEN.)

Another limitation comes from JavaScript. In JavaScript numbers are always floating point values. Specifically, they are encoded in memory in such a way that there are no 64 bit integers. This means that integers are always cast to 32 bit if passed from JavaScript. We have to do something like the following if we want maximum precision numbers:

void needs_64_bit_int(long long int number) {
  // ...
// becomes
void needs_64_bit_int(double number_js) {
  long long int number = (long long int)number_js;
  // ...

Exporting only specific functions

So far we used the -Wl,--export-all linker option to export all the symbols declared in our module. However this also exported some symbols we don't care about. To only export specific symbols we have multiple options:

  • Export specific symbols with a the -Wl,--export,SYMBOL linker flag. E.g. -Wl,--export,count
  • Use pragmas in our code to control what gets exported. EMSCRIPTEN defines the macro EMSCRIPTEN_KEEPALIVE. We can do the same like so:

    #define KEEPALIVE __attribute__((used)) __attribute__((visibility ("default")))
    // and then e.g.
    int KEEPALIVE count() {
      // ...

We can also combine the two. E.g. it makes sense to use a pragma for your own code, and export standard library functions you need to access from JavaScript (e.g. malloc and free) using linker flags.


So far, our module was extremely simple. We did not use any C standard libraries, and could compile our module directly with a standard LLVM clang compiler. If we need any standard headers like <stdlib.h> or <string.h>, this will no longer work.

Anything we want to use that doesn't know its memory requirements up front (e.g. uses malloc) will not be able to compile this way. To get these standard libraries, we need to use an SDK that includes libraries which run on a WASM VM.

The EMSCRIPTEN compiler provides us with an LLVM compiler and a posix libc which runs in a browser. This will also work for Deno, but their implementation produces a non-trivial amount of glue-code which is tricky to work with. It is also based on constrains which don't quite align with our needs, for example deno-sqlite runs faster when not using the EMSCRIPTEN provided glue.

The exported function for instantiating modules is also not that nice. It implements a .then (like a promise) but isn't a real promise which caused me all sorts of headaches.

All of this does not (!) mean that EMSCRIPTEN is bad. On the contrary, there are very impressive demos that demonstrate what the compiler is capable of. It's just built for a different use-case.

WASI and standard libraries

WASI is short for WebAssemblySystemInterface and is an emerging standard which aims to let WebAssembly target environments outside of the browser. It is not yet supported by Deno, but they still provide a quite nice standard library which we can use as long as we don't use any headers that need sys-calls (specifically <stdio.h> is something we sadly can't use).

Note that you can use these features, if you provide the module with the necessary WASI imports when instantiating it. That, however, means that you won't be able to directly import the binary from a JavaScript file.

If you need to emulate a complete POSIX environment, you should use EMSCRIPTEN as your compiler. But if you can get away with not using these APIs (notably that is the case for wrapping SQLite), using the libc provided by the WASI SDK allows you to build .wasm modules which are fast and self-sufficient.

You can download the WASI SDK for your platform here.

Compiling using the WASI SDK

To compile our module, we simply need to use the clang provided by the SDK and specify where the linker should look for the standard libraries:

$(WASI_SDK_DIR)/bin/clang --target=wasm32-unknown-wasi -Wl,--no-entry -nostartfiles --sysroot $(WASI_SDK_DIR)/share/wasi-sysroot

As before, there is a lot going on here. These are the new options:

  • --target=wasm32-unknown-wasi target WASM with WASI
  • -nostartfiles means we don't want to link in any standard initialization actions provided by the OS
  • --sysroot tells the linker where to find the WASI libc

Bundling WASM files for Deno

Update (16th Feb. 2020): This problem has been resolved starting with Deno v0.33.0. This section of this guide will be left here for completeness, but is no longer required.

Update (18th Mar. 2020): Deno has removed .wasm imports for their v1.0 release. Thus this section is relevant again.

This will be irrelevant once this issue is resolved. Until then, Deno will not correctly fetch .wasm binaries over the network. For local files, using

import * as module from "./module.wasm";

is fine. But to reliably import files via the network, we need to embed the WASM binary into our JavaScript source. (We could also fetch it dynamically, but that means requesting network permission and also does not play too well with relative imports.)

I have seen people use hexadecimal encoding. This encodes 1 byte as 2 ASCII bytes. We can do better by using base 64 encoding to 'only' get an extra 33%.

A base 64 string of our binary is readily obtained, e.g. using:

base64 module.wasm

It is also easily decoded in JavaScript. This gives us the following module file, which can be imported similarly to a bare .wasm as import module from "./module.js":

// WASM binary
const base64 = "\

// Decode base 64 to typed array
function decode(base64) {
  const str = atob(base64);
  const bytes = new Uint8Array(str.length);
  for (let i = 0; i < str.length; i++) {
    bytes[i] = str.charCodeAt(i);
  return bytes;

// Export WASM binary instance's exports
const { instance } = await WebAssembly.instantiate(decode(base64));
export default instance.exports;

Thank You!

I'd like to end by saying THANK YOU to the amazing people behind WebAssembly and Deno. I also want to acknowledge the posts and materials I used when figuring out how to do this. The following where especially useful and/ or interesting: