From Rust to beyond: The ASM.js galaxy

This blog post is part of a series explaining how to send Rust beyond earth, into many different galaxies. Rust has visited:

The second galaxy that our Rust parser will explore is the ASM.js galaxy. This post will explain what ASM.js is, how to compile the parser into ASM.js, and how to use the ASM.js module with Javascript in a browser. The goal is to use ASM.js as a fallback to WebAssembly when it is not available. I highly recommend to read the previous episode about WebAssembly since they have a lot in common.

What is ASM.js, and why?

The main programming language on the Web is Javascript. Applications that want to exist on the Web had to compile to Javascript, like for example games. But a problem occurs: The resulting file is heavy (hence WebAssembly) and Javascript virtual machines have difficulties to optimise this particular code, resulting in slow or inefficient executions (considering the example of games). Also —in this context— Javascript is a compilation target, and as such, some language constructions are useless (like eval).

So what if a “new” language can be a compilation target and still be executed by Javascript virtual machines? This is WebAssembly today, but in 2013, the solution was ASM.js:

asm.js, a strict subset of Javascript that can be used as a low-level, efficient target language for compilers. This sublanguage effectively describes a sandboxed virtual machine for memory-unsafe languages like C or C++. A combination of static and dynamic validation allows Javascript engines to employ an ahead-of-time (AOT) optimizing compilation strategy for valid asm.js code.

So an ASM.js program is a regular Javascript program. It is not a new language but a subset of it. It can be executed by any Javascript virtual machines. However, the specific usage of the magic statement 'use asm'; instructs the virtual machine to optimise the program with an ASM.js “engine”.

ASM.js introduces types by using arithmetical operators as an annotation system. For instance, x | 0 annotes x to be an integer, +x annotates x to be a double, and fround(x) annotates x to be a float. The following example declares a function fn increment(x: u32) -> u32:

function increment(x) {
    x = x | 0;
    return (x + 1) | 0;

Another important difference is that ASM.js works by module in order to isolate them from Javascript. A module is a function that takes 3 arguments:

  1. stdlib, an object with references to standard library APIs,
  2. foreign, an object with user-defined functionalities (such as sending something over a WebSocket),
  3. heap, an array buffer representing the memory (because memory is manually managed).

But it’s still Javascript. So the good news is that if your virtual machine has no specific optimisations for ASM.js, it is executed as any regular Javascript program. And if it does, then you get a pleasant boost.

A graph showing 3 benchmarks running against different Javascript engines: Firefox, Firefox + asm.js, Google, and native.

Remember that ASM.js has been designed to be a compilation target. So normally you don’t have to care about that because it is the role of the compiler. The typical compilation and execution pipeline from C or C++ to the Web looks like this:

Classical ASM.js compilation and execution pipeline from C or C++ to the Web.

Emscripten, as seen in the schema above, is a very important project in this whole evolution of the Web platform. Emscripten is:

a toolchain for compiling to asm.js and WebAssembly, built using LLVM, that lets you run C and C++ on the web at near-native speed without plugins.

You are very likely to see this name one day or another if you work with ASM.js or WebAssembly.

I will not explain deeply what ASM.js is with a lot of examples. I recommend instead to read Asm.js: The Javascript Compile Target by John Resig, or Big Web app? Compile it! by Alon Zakai.

Our process will be different though. We will not compile our Rust code directly to ASM.js, but instead, we will compile it to WebAssembly, which in turn will be compiled into ASM.js.

Rust 🚀 ASM.js

Rust to ASM.js

This episode will be very short, and somehow the most easiest one. To compile Rust to ASM.js, you need to first compile it to WebAssembly (see the previous episode), and then compile the WebAssembly binary into ASM.js.

Actually, ASM.js is mostly required when the browser does not support WebAssembly, like Internet Explorer. It is essentially a fallback to run our program on the Web.

The workflow is the following:

  1. Compile your Rust project into WebAssembly,
  2. Compile your WebAssembly binary into an ASM.js module,
  3. Optimise and shrink the ASM.js module.

The wasm2js tool will be your best companion to compile the WebAssembly binary into an ASM.js module. It is part of Binaryen project. Then, assuming we have the WebAssembly binary of our program, all we have to do is:

$ wasm2js --pedantic --output gutenberg_post_parser.asm.js gutenberg_post_parser.wasm

At this step, the gutenberg_post_parser.asm.js weights 212kb. The file contains ECMAScript 6 code. And remember that old browsers are considered, like Internet Explorer, so the code needs to be transformed a little bit. To optimise and shrink the ASM.js module, we will use the uglify-es tool, like this:

$ # Transform code, and embed in a function.
$ sed -i '' '1s/^/function GUTENBERG_POST_PARSER_ASM_MODULE() {/; s/export //' gutenberg_post_parser.asm.js
$ echo 'return { root, alloc, dealloc, memory }; }' >> gutenberg_post_parser.asm.js

$ # Shrink the code.
$ uglifyjs --compress --mangle --output .temp.asm.js gutenberg_post_parser.asm.js
$ mv .temp.asm.js gutenberg_post_parser.asm.js

Just like we did for the WebAssembly binary, we can compress the resulting files with gzip and brotli:

$ # Compress.
$ gzip --best --stdout gutenberg_post_parser.asm.js > gutenberg_post_parser.asm.js.gz
$ brotli --best --stdout --lgwin=24 gutenberg_post_parser.asm.js >

We end up with the following file sizes:

  • .asm.js: 54kb,
  • .asm.js.gz: 13kb,
  • 11kb.

That’s again pretty small!

When you think about it, this is a lot of transformations: From Rust to WebAssembly to Javascript/ASM.js… The amount of tools is rather small compared to the amount of work. It shows a well-designed pipeline and a collaboration between many groups of people.

Aside: If you are reading this post, I assume you are developers. And as such, I’m sure you can spend hours looking at a source code like if it is a master painting. Did you ever wonder what a Rust program looks like once compiled to Javascript? See bellow:

Screen Shot 2018-08-28 at 09.29.26
A Rust program compiled as WebAssembly compiled as ASM.js.

I like it probably too much.

ASM.js 🚀 Javascript

The resulting gutenberg_post_parser.asm.js file contains a single function named GUTENBERG_POST_PARSER_ASM_MODULE which returns an object pointing to 4 private functions:

  1. root, the axiom of our grammar,
  2. alloc, to allocate memory,
  3. dealloc, to deallocate memory, and
  4. memory, the memory buffer.

It sounds familiar if you have read the previous episode with WebAssembly. Don’t expect root to return a full AST: It will return a pointer to the memory, and the data need to be encoded and decoded, and to write into and to read from the memory the same way. Yes, the same way. The exact same way. So the code of the boundary layer is strictly the same. Do you remember the Module object in our WebAssembly Javascript boundary? This is exactly what the GUTENBERG_POST_PARSER_ASM_MODULE function returns. You can replace Module by the returned object, et voilà!

The entired code lands here. It completely reuses the Javascript boundary layer for WebAssembly. It just sets the Module differently, and it does not load the WebAssembly binary. Consequently, the ASM.js boundary layer is made of 34 lines of code, only 🙃. It compresses to 218 bytes.


We have seen that ASM.js can be fallback to WebAssembly in environments that only support Javascript (like Internet Explorer), with or without ASM.js optimisations.

The resulting ASM.js file and its boundary layer are quite small. By design, the ASM.js boundary layer reuses almost the entire WebAssembly boundary layer. Therefore there is again a tiny surface of code to review and to maintain, which is helpful.

We have seen in the previous episode that Rust is very fast. We have been able to observe the same statement for WebAssembly compared to the actual Javascript parser for the Gutenberg project. However, is it still true for the ASM.js module? In this case, ASM.js is a fallback, and like all fallbacks, they are notably slower than the targeted implementations. Let’s run the same benchmark but use the Rust parser as an ASM.js module:

Javascript parser (ms) Rust parser as an ASM.js module (ms) speedup
demo-post.html 15.368 2.718 × 6
shortcode-shortcomings.html 31.022 8.004 × 4
redesigning-chrome-desktop.html 106.416 19.223 × 6
web-at-maximum-fps.html 82.92 27.197 × 3
early-adopting-the-future.html 119.880 38.321 × 3
pygmalian-raw-html.html 349.075 23.656 × 15
moby-dick-parsed.html 2,543.75 361.423 × 7

The ASM.js module of the Rust parser is in average 6 times faster than the actual Javascript implementation. The median speedup is 6. That’s far from the WebAssembly results, but this is a fallback, and in average, it is 6 times faster, which is really great!

So not only the whole pipeline is safer because it starts from Rust, but it ends to be faster than Javascript.

We will see in the next episodes of this series that Rust can reach a lot of galaxies, and the more it travels, the more it gets interesting.

Thanks for reading!

5 thoughts on “From Rust to beyond: The ASM.js galaxy

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