by Estanislao López Morgan

WebAssembly (Wasm): The Lightweight Champion for Edge Computing

Exploring WebAssembly

The web development landscape is constantly evolving, with new technologies emerging to push the boundaries of what’s possible in the browser. One such technology is WebAssembly (Wasm), a binary compilation target that allows developers to run high-performance code in web pages. Traditionally, web browsers have relied on JavaScript for interactivity, but JavaScript can be computationally expensive. WebAssembly offers a solution by enabling developers to write code in languages like C, C++, and Rust (among others), and then compile it into a format that can run within the web browser sandbox.

Harnessing the Power of WebAssembly

WebAssembly isn’t just for web pages anymore. Its potential extends far beyond the browser, making it a perfect fit for edge computing environments. Edge devices, like smart sensors, industrial controllers, and Internet of Things (IoT) devices, often require real-time processing and low latency. However, these devices are typically resource-constrained, with limited processing power and memory. WebAssembly’s small footprint and fast execution speed make it an ideal solution for bringing high-performance computing to the edge.

WebAssembly’s Modular Magic: Building Powerful Edge Applications

WebAssembly (Wasm) boosts the power of modularity, allowing developers to decompose intricate edge applications into self-contained building blocks known as Wasm modules. This modular approach unlocks a treasure trove of benefits for developers:

  • Component Reuse: Individual Wasm modules can be developed and tested independently, promoting code reuse across different projects. This saves development time and ensures consistent functionality. This approach is achieved thanks to the Component Model. As the byte code alliance defines it, The WebAssembly Component Model is a broad-reaching architecture for building interoperable Wasm libraries, applications, and environments. 

In a very simple way that means that it allows developers to create modular, reusable components – like Lego bricks –  each encapsulated in a Wasm module. These components can then be assembled into complex applications.

  • Reduced Footprint: Since functionalities are separated into modules, only the necessary modules are loaded onto the edge device. This minimizes memory usage, a critical factor for resource-constrained devices.
  • Scalability and Updates: Adding new features or updating existing functionalities becomes easier. Developers can simply deploy the modified Wasm module without affecting the rest of the application.
  • Interoperability: Wasm modules can be written in various languages (C, C++, Rust) and seamlessly communicate with each other, fostering collaboration between developers with different preferences.

Here’s how Wasm modules are typically used in edge applications:

  1. Modular Design: The application logic is divided into distinct functionalities, each encapsulated within a Wasm module.
  2. Import/Export: Modules can import functions and variables from other modules, enabling communication and data exchange.
  3. Runtime Environment: A WebAssembly runtime on the edge device executes the Wasm modules and manages their interactions.
  • Wasm Modules Management:  As the number of Wasm modules within a single application grows, and their lifecycles and dependencies become more intricate, the limitations of a basic deployment strategy become evident. This is where the need of an orchestration framework steps in. In a non constraint architecture with nearly unlimited scaling capabilities like servers, Kubernetes clusters seems the obvious choice, but what about an (Far) Edge device with a clear limitation of RAM and flash memory, and may even lack a Memory Management Unit (MMU) essential for container isolation and memory access control. In such cases, a different strategy is necessary. This raises the question:  Could WebAssembly be also the solution to this problem?

WebAssembly: Orchestration Hero for Tiny Edge Devices?

As the complexity of edge deployments grows, with multiple Wasm modules and potentially other microservices working together, the need for orchestration becomes critical. Kubernetes, a popular container orchestration tool, excels at managing large-scale container deployments across clusters. However, Kubernetes itself is a heavyweight solution with significant resource requirements. This makes it unsuitable for constrained devices at the edge, where every byte of memory and cycle counts. Here’s where WebAssembly shines. WebAssembly’s small footprint and efficient execution environment will enable a stronger alternative optimized for the edge, compared with the container with Kubernetes orchestration. Instead, lightweight WebAssembly modules could be directly deployed and managed on these devices, providing a more efficient and scalable solution for complex edge applications.

Unlocking Performance with WebAssembly

By deploying WebAssembly on edge devices, developers can enhance the performance of their edge applications. Here are some of the benefits of using WebAssembly on edge devices:

  • Reduced Latency: Processing data at the edge eliminates the need to send it back to the cloud for analysis, resulting in significantly lower latency. Webassembly helps its maintenance and CI/CD pipeline .
  • Improved Efficiency: WebAssembly code is highly optimized, allowing edge devices to perform complex computations with minimal resource usage and reuse code on top of different hardware architectures. 
  • Offline Functionality: WebAssembly applications can be designed to function effectively even when devices are disconnected from the internet, enabling reliable operation in remote or intermittent connectivity environments. 

Future of Edge Development with WebAssembly

WebAssembly for Edge devices is still a relatively new technology, but it has the potential to revolutionize edge computing. As the technology matures and the developer ecosystem grows, we can expect to see even more innovative use cases emerge. Here are some exciting possibilities for the future of edge development with WebAssembly:

  • Real-time analytics and decision making: WebAssembly can enable edge devices to analyze data in real-time and make autonomous decisions without relying on the cloud.
  • Enhanced security: By processing data locally, WebAssembly applications can help to improve data security and privacy by reducing the amount of data that needs to be transmitted to the cloud.
  • Intelligent IoT devices: WebAssembly can empower edge devices with greater intelligence, allowing them to perform complex tasks like machine learning and image recognition directly on the device.

WebAssembly is a powerful tool that can unlock the potential of edge computing. By leveraging its capabilities, developers can create high-performance, efficient, and secure applications that push the boundaries of what’s possible at the edge.