Why not: ogv.js in WebVR

Just for fun, using ogv.js to render WebM video to a texture in an A-Frame VR scene in iPad Safari :)


Works in Safari on both iOS and desktop… Doesn’t work as well in Edge in Windows 10; decoding is fine by texture flickers. This might be a general issue with painting WebGL canvases at each other.

Firefox and Chrome use native playback for the WebM.

If you get grounded in virtual reality, you get grounded in real life

I keep researching the new VR stuff and thinking “this could be fun, but it’s still too expensive and impractical”. Finally took a quick jaunt to the Portland Microsoft store this morning hoping for a demo of the HTC Vive VR headset to see how it feels in practice.

Turns out they don’t have the Vive set up for demos right now because it requires a lot of setup and space for the room-scale tracking, so instead I did a quick demo with the Oculus Rift, which doesn’t require as much space set aside.

First impressions:
* They make you sign a waiver in case of motion sickness…
* Might have been able to fit over my glasses, but I opted to just go without (my uncorrected blurry vision is still slightly better than the resolution of the Rift anyway)
* Turned it on – hey that’s pretty cool!
* Screen door effect from the pixel grid is very visible at first but kinda goes away.
* Limited resolution is also noticeable but not that big a deal for the demo content. I imagine this is a bigger problem for user interfaces with text though.
* Head tracking is totally smooth and feels natural – just look around!
* Demos where I sit still and either watch something or interact with the controllers were great.
* Complete inability to see real world gave a feeling of helplessness when had to, say, put on the controllers…
* Once controllers in hand, visualization of hand/controller helped a lot.
* Shooting gallery demo was very natural with the rift controllers.
* Mine car roller coaster demo instantly made me nauseated; I couldn’t have taken more than a couple minutes of that.

For FPS-style games and similar immersion, motion without causing motion sickness is going to be the biggest problem — compared to a fixed screen the VR brain is much more sensitive to mismatches between visual cues and your inner ear’s accelerometer…

I think I’m going to wait on the PC VR end for now; it’s a young space, the early sets are expensive, and I need to invest in a new more powerful PC anyway. Microsoft is working on some awesome “mixed reality” integration for Windows 10, which could be interesting to watch but the hardware and software are still in flux. Apple is just starting to get into it, mostly concentrating (so far as we know) on AR views on iPhones and iPads, but that could become something else some day.

Google’s Daydream VR platform for Android is interesting, but I need a newer phone for that — and again I probably should wait for the Pixel 2 later this year rather than buy last year’s model just to play with VR.

So for the meantime, I ordered a $15 Google Cardboard viewer that’ll run some VR apps on my current phone, as long as I physically hold it up to my face. That should tide me over with some games and demos, and gives me the chance to experiment with making my own 3D scenes via either Unity (building to a native Android app) or something like BabylonJS (running in Chrome with WebGL/WebVR support).

Brain dump: JavaScript sandboxing

Another thing I’ve been researching is safe, sandboxed embedding of user-created JavaScript widgets… my last attempt in this direction was the EmbedScript extension (examples currently down, but code is still around).

User-level problems to solve:

  • “Content”
    • Diagrams, graphs, and maps would be more fun and educational if you could manipulate them more
    • What if you could graph those equations on all those math & physics articles?
  • Interactive programming sandboxes
  • Customizations to editor & reading UI features
    • Gadgets, site JS, shared user JS are potentially dangerous right now, requiring either admin review or review-it-yourself
    • Narrower interfaces and APIs could allow for easier sharing of tools that don’t require full script access to the root UI
  • Make scriptable extensions safer
    • Use same techniques to isolate scripts used for existing video, graphs/maps, etc?
    • Frame-based tool embedding + data injection could make export of rich interactive stuff as easy as InstantCommons…

Low-level problems to solve

  • Isolating user-provided script from main web context
  • Isolating user-provided script from outside world
    • loading off-site resources is a security issue
    • want to ensure that wiki resources are self-contained and won’t break if off-site dependencies change or are unavailable
  • Providing a consistent execution environment
    • browsers shift and change over time…
  • Communicating between safe and sandboxed environments
    • injecting parameters in safely?
    • two-way comms for allowing privileged operations like navigating page?
    • two-way comms for gadget/extension-like behavior?
    • how to arrange things like fullscreen zoom?
  • Potential offline issues
    • offline cacheability in browser?
    • how to use in Wikipedia mobile apps?
  • Third-party site issues
    • making our scripts usable on third-party wikis like InstantCommons
    • making it easy for third-party wikis to use these techniques internally

Meta-level problems to solve

  • How & how much to review code before letting it loose?
  • What new problems do we create in misuse/abuse vectors?

Isolating user-provided scripts

One way to isolate user-provided scripts is to run them in an interpreter! This is potentially very slow, but allows for all kinds of extra tricks.


I stumbled on JS-Interpreter, used sometimes with the Blockly project to step through code generated from visual blocks. JS-Interpreter implements a rough ES5 interpreter in native JS; it’s quite a bit slower than native (though some speedups are possible; the author and I have made some recent tweaks improving the interpreter loop) but is interesting because it allows single-stepping the interpreter, which opens up to a potential for an in-browser debugger. The project is under active development and could use a good regression test suite, if anyone wants to send some PRs. :)

The interpreter is also fairly small, weighing in around 24kb minified and gzipped.

The single-stepping interpreter design protects against infinite loops, as you can implement your own time limit around the step loop.

For pure-computation exercises and interactive prompts this might be really awesome, but the limited performance and lack of any built-in graphical display means it’s probably not great for hooking it up to an SVG to make it interactive. (Any APIs you add are your own responsibility, and security might be a concern for API design that does anything sensitive.)


An old project that’s still around is Google Caja, a heavyweight solution for embedding foreign HTML+JS using a server-side Java-based transpiler for the JS and JavaScript-side proxy objects that let you manipulate a subset of the DOM safely.

There are a number of security advisories in Caja’s history; some of them are transpiler failures which allow sandboxed code to directly access the raw DOM, others are failures in injected APIs that allow sandboxed code to directly access the raw DOM. Either way, it’s not something I’d want to inject directly into my main environment.

There’s no protection against loops or simple resource usage like exhausting memory.

Iframe isolation and CSP

I’ve looked at using cross-origin <iframe>s to isolate user code for some time, but was never quite happy with the results. Yes, the “same-origin policy” of HTML/JS means your code running in a cross-origin frame can’t touch your main site’s code or data, but that code is still able to load images, scripts, and other resources from other sites. That creates problems ranging from easy spamming to user information disclosure to simply breaking if required offsite resources change or disappear.

Content-Security-Policy to the rescue! Modern browsers can lock down things like network access using CSP directives on the iframe page.

CSP’s restrictions on loading resources still leaves an information disclosure in navigation — links or document.location can be used to navigate the frame to a URL on a third domain. This can be locked down with CSP’s childsrc param on the parent document — or an intermediate “double” iframe — to only allow the desired target domain (say, “*.wikipedia-embed.org” or even “item12345678.wikipedia-embed.org”). Then attempts to navigate the frame to a different domain from the inside are blocked.

So in principle we can have a rectangular region of the page with its own isolated HTML or SVG user interface, with its own isolated JavaScript running its own private DOM, with only the ability to access data and resources granted to it by being hosted on its private domain.

Further interactivity with the host page can be created by building on the postMessage API, including injecting additional resources or data sets. Note that postMessage is asynchronous, so you’re limited in simulating function calls to the host environment.

There is one big remaining security issue, which is that JS in an iframe can still block the UI for the whole page (or consume memory and other resources), either accidentally with an infinite loop or on purpose. The browser will eventually time out from a long loop and give you the chance to kill it, but it’s not pleasant (and might just be followed by another super-long loop!)

This means denial of service attacks against readers and editors are possible. “Autoplay” of unreviewed embedded widgets is still a bad idea for this reason.

Additionally, older browser versions don’t always support CSP — IE is a mess for instance. So defenses against cross-origin loads either need to somehow prevent loading in older browsers (poorer compatibility) or risk the information exposure (poorer security). However the most popular browsers do enforce it, so applications aren’t likely to be built that rely on off-site materials just to function, preventing which is one of our goals.

Worker isolation

There’s one more trick, just for fun, which is to run the isolated code in a Web Worker background thread. This would still allow resource consumption but would prevent infinite loops from blocking the parent page.

However you’re back to the interpreter’s problem of having no DOM or user interface, and must build a UI proxy of some kind.

Additionally, there are complications with running Workers in iframes, which is that if you apply sandbox=allow-scripts you may not be able to load JS into a Worker at all.

Non-JavaScript languages

Note that if you can run JavaScript, you can run just about anything thanks to emscripten. ;) A cross-compiled Lua interpreter weighs in around 150-180kb gzipped (depending on library inclusion).

Big chart

Here, have a big chart I made for reference:

Offline considerations

In principle the embedding sites can be offline-cached… bears consideration.

App considerations

The iframes could be loaded in a webview in apps, though consider the offline + app issues!

Data model

A widget (or whatever you call it) would have one or more sub resources, like a Gadget does today plus more:

  • HTML or SVG backing document
  • JS/CSS module(s), probably with a dependency-loading system
  • possibly registration for images and other resources?
    • depending on implementation it may be necessary to inject images as blobs or some weird thing
  • for non-content stuff, some kind of registry for menu/tab setup, trigger events, etc

Widgets likely should be instantiable with input parameters like templates and Lua modules are; this would be useful for things like reusing common code with different input data, like showing a physics demo with different constant values.

There should be a human-manageable UI for editing and testing these things. :) See jsfiddle etc for prior art.

How to build the iframe target site


  • Subdomain per instance
    • actually serve out the target resources on a second domain, each ‘widget instance’ living in a separate random subdomain ideally for best isolation
    • base HTML or SVG can load even if no JS. Is that good or bad, if interactivity was the goal?
    • If browser has no CSP support, the base HTML/CSS/JS might violate constraints.
    • can right-click and open frame in new window
    • …but now you have another out of context view of data, with new URLs. Consider legal, copyright, fairuse, blah blah
    • have to maintain and run that second domain and hook it up to your main wiki
    • how to deal with per-instance data input? Pre-publish? postMessage just that in?
      • injecting data over postMessage maybe best for the InstantCommons-style scenario, since sites can use our scripts but inject data
    • probably easier debugging based on URLs
  • Subdomain per service provider, inject resources and instance data
    • Inject all HTML/SVG/JS/CSS at runtime via postMessage (trusting the parent site origin). Images/media could either be injected as blobs or whitelisted by URL.
    • The service provider could potentially be just a static HTML file served with certain strict CSP headers.
    • If injecting all resources, then could use a common provider for third-party wikis.
      • third-party wikis could host their own scripts using this technique using our frame broker. not sure if this is good idea or not!
    • No separate content files to host, nothing to take down in case of legal issues.
    • Downside: right-clicking a frame to open it in new window won’t give useful resources. Possible workarounds with providing a link-back in a location hash.
    • Script can check against a user-agent blacklist before offering to load stuff.
    • Downside: CSP header may need to be ‘loose’ to allow script injection, so could open you back up to XSS on parameters. But you’re not able to access outside the frame so pssssh!

Abuse and evil possibilities

Even with the security guarantees of origin restrictions and CSP, there are new and exciting threat models…

Simple denial of service is easy — looping scripts in an iframe can lock up the main UI thread for the tab (or whole browser, depending on the browser) until it eventually times out with an error. At which point it can potentially go right back into a loop. Or you can allocate tons of memory, slowing down and eventually perhaps crashing the browser. Even tiny programs can have huge performance impact, and it’s hard to predict what will be problematic. Thus script on a page could make it hard for other editors and admins to get back in to fix the page… For this reason I would  recommend against autoplay in Wikipedia articles of arbitrary unreviewed code.

There’s also possible trolling patterns: hide a shock image in a data set or inside a seemingly safe image file, then display it in a scriptable widget bypassing existing image review.

Advanced widgets could do all kinds of fun and educational things like run emulators for old computer and game systems. That brings with it the potential for copyright issues with the software being run, or for newer systems patent issues with the system being emulated.

For that matter you could run programs that are covered under software patents, such as decoding or encoding certain video file formats. I guess you could try that in Lua modules too, but JS would allow you to play or save result files to disk directly from the browser.

WP:BEANS may apply to further thoughts on this road, beware. ;)

Ideas from Jupyter: frontend/backend separation

Going back to Jupyter/IPython as an inspiration source; Jupyter has a separation between a frontend that takes interactive input and displays output, and a backend kernel which runs the actual computation server-side. To make for fancier interactive displays, the output can have a widget which runs some sort of JavaScript component in the frontend notebook page’s environment, and can interact with the user (via HTML controls), with other widgets (via declared linkages) and with the kernel code (via events).

We could use a model like this which distinguishes between trusted (or semi-trusted) frontend widget code which can do anything it can do in its iframe, but must be either pre-reviewed, or opted into. Frontend widgets that pass review should have well-understood behavior, good documentation, stable interfaces for injecting data, etc.

The frontend widget can and should still be origin-isolated & CSP-restricted for policy enforcement even if code is reviewed — defense in depth is important!

Such widgets could either be invoked from a template or lua module with a fixed data set, or could be connected to untrusted backend code running in an even more restricted sandbox.

The two main ‘more restricted sandbox’ possibilities are to run an interpreter that handles loops safely and applies resource limits, or to run in a worker thread that doesn’t block the main UI and can be terminated after a timeout…. but even that may be able to exhaust system resources via memory allocation.

I think it would be very interesting to extend Jupyter in two specific ways:

  • iframe-sandboxing the widget implementations to make loading foreign-defined widgets safer
  • implementing a client-side kernel that runs JS or Lua code in an interpreter, or JS in a sandboxed Worker, instead of maintaining a server connection to a Python/etc kernel

It might actually be interesting to adopt, or at least learn from, the communication & linkage model for the Jupyter widgets (which is backbone.js-based, I believe) and consider the possibilities for declarative linkage of widgets to create controllable diagrams/visualizations from common parts.

An interpreter-based Jupyter/IPython kernel that works with the notebooks model could be interesting for code examples on Wikipedia, Wikibooks etc. Math potential as well.

Short-term takeaways

  • Interpreters look useful in niche areas, but native JS in iframe+CSP probably main target for interactive things.
  • “Content widgets” imply new abuse vectors & thus review mechanisms. Consider short-term concentration on other areas of use:
    • sandboxing big JS libraries already used in things like Maps/Graphs/TimedMediaHandler that have to handle user-provided input
    • opt-in Gadget/user-script tools that can adapt to a “plugin”-like model
    • making those things invocable cross-wiki, including to third-party sites
  • Start a conversation about content widgets.
    • Consider starting with strict-review-required.
    • Get someone to make the next generation ‘Graphs’ or whatever cool tool as one of these instead of a raw MW extension…?
    • …slowly plan world domination.

Brain dump: x86 emulation in WebAssembly

This is a quick brain dump of my recent musings on feasibility of a WebAssembly-based in-browser emulator for x86 and x86-64 processors… partially in the hopes of freeing up my brain for main project work. ;)

My big side project for some time has been ogv.js, an in-browser video player framework which uses emscripten to cross-compile C libraries for the codecs into JavaScript or, experimentally, the new WebAssembly target. That got me interested in how WebAssembly works at the low level, and how C/C++ programs work, and how we can mishmash them together in ways never intended by gods or humans.

Specifically, I’m thinking it would be fun to make an x86-64 Linux process-level emulator built around a WebAssembly implementation. This would let you load a native Linux executable into a web browser and run it, say, on your iPad. Slowly. :)

System vs process emulation

System emulators provide the functioning of an entire computer system, with emulated software-hardware interfaces: you load up a full kernel-mode operating system image which talks to the emulated hardware. This is what you use for playing old video games, or running an old or experimental operating system. This can require emulating lots of detail behavior of a system, which might be tricky or slow, and programs may not integrate with a surrounding environment well because they live in a tiny computer within a computer.

Process emulators work at the level of a single user-mode process, which means you only have to emulate up to the system call layer. Older Mac users may remember their shiny new Intel Macs running old PowerPC applications through the “Rosetta” emulator for instance. QEMU on Linux can be set up to handle similar cross-arch emulated execution, for testing or to make some cross-compilation scenarios easier.

A process emulator has some attraction because the model is simpler inside the process… If you don’t have to handle interrupts and task switches, you can run more instructions together in a row; elide some state changes; all kinds of fun things. You might not have to implement indirect page tables for memory access. You might even be able to get away with modeling some function calls as function calls, and loops as loops!

WebAssembly instances and Linux processes

There are many similarities, which is no coincidence as WebAssembly is designed to run C/C++ programs similarly to how they work in Linux/Unix or Windows while being shoehornable into a JavaScript virtual machine. :)

An instantiated WebAssembly module has a “linear memory” (a contiguous block of memory addressable via byte indexing), analogous to the address space of a Linux process. You can read and write int and float values of various sizes anywhere you like, and interpretation of bytewise data is up to you.

Like a native process, the module can request more memory from the environment, which will be placed at the end. (“grow_memory” operator somewhat analogous to Linux “brk” syscall, or some usages of “mmap”.) Unlike a native process, usable memory always starts at 0 (so you can dereference a NULL pointer!) and there’s no way to have a “sparse” address space by mapping things to arbitrary locations.

The module can also have “global variables” which live outside this address space — but they cannot be dynamically indexed, so you cannot have arrays or any dynamic structures there. In WebAssembly built via emscripten, globals are used only for some special linking structures because they don’t quite map to any C/C++ construct, but hand-written code can use them freely.

The biggest difference from native processes is that WebAssembly code doesn’t live in the linear memory space. Function definitions have their own linear index space (which can’t be dynamically indexed: references are fixed at compile time), plus there’s a “table” of indirect function references (which can be dynamically indexed into). Function pointers in WebAssembly thus aren’t actually pointers to the instructions in linear memory like on native — they’re indexes into the table of dynamic function references.

Likewise, the call stack and local variables live outside linear memory. (Note that C/C++ code built with emscripten will maintain its own parallel stack in linear memory in order to provide arrays, variables that have pointers taken to them, etc.)

WebAssembly’s actual opcodes are oriented as a stack machine, which is meant to be easy to verify and compile into more efficient register-based code at runtime.

Branching and control flow

In WebAssembly control flow is limited, with one-way branches possible only to a containing block (i.e. breaking out of a loop). Subroutine calls are only to defined functions (either directly by compile-time reference, or indirectly via the function table)

Control flow is probably the hardest thing to make really match up from native code — which lets you jump to any instruction in memory from any other — to compiled WebAssembly.

It’s easy enough to handle craaaazy native branching in an interpreter loop. Pseudocode:

loop {
instruction = decode_instruction(ip)
instruction.execute() // update ip and any registers, etc

In that case, a JMP or CALL or whatever just updates the instruction pointer when you execute it, and you continue on your merry way from the new position.

But what if we wanted to eke more performance out of it by compiling multiple instructions into a single function? That lets us elide unnecessary state changes (updating instruction pointers, registers, flags, etc when they’re immediately overridden) and may even give opportunity to let the compiler re-optimize things further.

A start is to combine runs of instructions that end in a branch or system call (QEMU calls them “translation units”) into a compiled function, then call those in the loop instead of individual instructions:

loop {
tu = cached_or_compiled_tu(ip)
tu.execute() // update registers, ip, etc as we go

So instead of decoding and executing an instruction at a time, we’re decoding several instructions, compiling a new function that runs them, and then running that. Nice, if we have to run it multiple times! But…. possibly not worth as much as we want, since a lot of those instruction runs will be really short, and there’ll be function call overhead on every run. And, it seems like it would kill CPU branch prediction and such, by essentially moving all branches to a single place (the tu.execute()).

QEMU goes further in its dynamic translation emulators, modifying the TUs to branch directly to each other in runtime discovery. It’s all very funky and scary looking…

But QEMU’s technique of modifying trampolines in the live code won’t work as we can’t modify running code to insert jump instructions… and even if we could, there are no one-way jumps, and using call instructions risks exploding the call stack on what’s actually a loop (there’s no proper tail call optimization in WebAssembly).


What can be done, though, is to compile bigger, better, badder functions.

When emscripten is generating JavaScript or WebAssembly from your C/C++ program’s LLVM intermediate language, it tries to reconstruct high-level control structures within each function from a more limited soup of local branches. These then get re-compiled back into branch soup by the JIT compiler, but efficiently. ;)

The binaryen WebAssembly code gen library provides this “relooper” algorithm too: you pass in blocks of instructions, possible branches, and the conditions around them, and it’ll spit out some nicer branch structure if possible, or an ugly one if not.

I’m pretty sure it should be possible to take a detected loop cycle of separate TUs and create a combined TU that’s been “relooped” in a way that it is more efficient.

BBBBuuuuutttttt all this sounds expensive in terms of setup. Might want to hold off on any compilation until a loop cycle is detected, for instance, and just let the interpreter roll on one-off code.

Modifying runtime code in WebAssembly

Code is not addressable or modifiable within a live module instance; unlike in native code you can’t just write instructions into memory and jump to the pointer.

In fact, you can’t actually add code to a WebAssembly module. So how are we going to add our functions at runtime? There are two tricks:

First, multiple module instances can use the same linear memory buffer.

Second, the tables for indirect function calls can list “foreign” functions, such as JavaScript functions or WebAssembly functions from a totally unrelated module. And those tables are modifiable at runtime (from the JavaScript side of the border).

These can be used to do full-on dynamic linking of libraries, but all we really need is to be able to add a new function that can be indirect-called, which will run the compiled version of some number of instructions (perhaps even looping natively!) and then return back to the main emulator runtime when it reaches a branch it doesn’t contain.

Function calls

Since x86 has a nice handy CALL instruction, and doesn’t just rely on convention, it could be possible to model calls to already-cached TUs as indirect function calls, which may perform better than exiting out to the loop and coming back in. But they’d probably need to be guarded for early exit, for several reasons… if we haven’t compiled the entirety of the relooped code path from start to exit of the function, then we have to exit back out. A guard check on IP and early-return should be able to do that in a fairly sane way.

function tu_1234() {
// loop
do {
// calc loop condition -> set zero_flag
ip = 1235
if !zero_flag {
ip = 1236
// CALL 4567
tu = cached_or_compiled_tu(4567)
if ip != 1236 {
// only partway through. back to emulator loop,
// possibly unwinding a long stack :)
// more code

I think this makes some kind of sense. But if we’re decoding instructions + creating output on the fly, it could take a few iterations through to produce a full compiled set, and exiting a loop early might be … ugly.

It’s possible that all this is a horrible pipe dream, or would perform too bad for JIT compilation anyway.

But it could still be fun for ahead-of-time compilation. ;) Which is complicated… a lot … by the fact that you don’t have the positions of all functions known ahead of time. Plus, if there’s dynamic linking or JIT compilation inside the process, well, none of that’s even present ahead of time.

Prior art: v86

I’ve been looking at lot at v86, a JavaScript-based x86 system emulator. v86 is a straight-up interpreter, with instruction decoding and execution mixed together a bit, but it feels fairly straightforwardly written and easy to follow when I look at things in the code.

v86 uses a set of aliased typed arrays for the system memory, another set for the register file, and then some variables/properties for misc flags and things.

Some quick notes:

  • a register file in an array means accesses at difference sizes are easy (al vs ax vs eax), and you can easily index into it from the operand selector bits from the instruction (as opposed to using a variable per register)
  • is there overhead from all the object property accesses etc? would it be more efficient to do everything within a big linear memory?
  • as a system emulator there’s some extra overhead to things like protected mode memory accesses (page tables! who knows what!) that could be avoided on a per-process model
  • 64-bit emulation would be hard in JavaScript due to lack of 64-bit integers (argh!)
  • as an interpreter, instruction decode overhead is repeated during loops!
  • to avoid expensive calculations of the flags register bits, most arithmetic operations that would change the flags instead save the inputs for the flag calculations, which get done on demand. This still is often redundant because flags may get immediately rewritten by the next instruction, but is cheaper than actually calculating them.

WebAssembly possibilities

First, since WebAssembly supports only one linear memory buffer at a time, the register file and perhaps some other data would need to live there. Most likely want a layout with the register file and other data at the beginning of memory, with the rest of memory after a fixed point belonging to the emulated process.

Putting all the emulator’s non-RAM state in the beginning means a process emulator can request more memory on demand via Linux ‘brk’ syscall, which would be implemented via the ‘grow_memory’ operator.

64-bit math

WebAssembly supports 64-bit integer memory accesses and arithmetic, unlike JavaScript! The only limitation is that you can’t (yet) export a function that returns or accepts an i64 to or from JavaScript-land. That means if we keep our opcode implementations in WebAssembly functions, they can efficiently handle 64-bit ops.

However WebAssembly’s initial version allows only 32-bit memory addressing. This may not be a huge problem for emulating 64-bit processes that don’t grow that large, though, as long as the executable doesn’t need to be loaded at a specific address (which would mean a sparse address space).

Sparse address spaces could be emulated with indirection into a “real” memory that’s in a sub-4GB space, which would be needed for a system emulator anyway.

Linux details

Statically linked ELF binaries would be easiest to model. More complex to do dynamic linking, need to pass a bundle of files in and do fix-ups etc.

Questions: are executables normally PIC as well as libraries, or do they want a default load address? (Which would break the direct-memory-access model and require some indirection for sparse address space.)

Answer: normally Linux x86_64 executables are not PIE, and want to be loaded at 0x400000 or maybe some other random place. D’oh! But… in the common case, you could simplify that as a single offset.

Syscall on 32-bit is ‘int $80’, or ‘syscall’ instruction on 64-bit. Syscalls would probably mostly need to be implemented on the JS side, poking at the memory and registers of the emulated process state and then returning.

To do network i/o would probably need to be able to block and return to the emulator… so like a function call bowing out early due to an uncompiled branch being taken, would potentially need an “early exit” from the middle of a combined TU if it does a syscall that ends up being async. On the other hand, if a syscall can be done sync, might be nice not to pay that penalty.

Could also need async syscalls for multi-process stuff via web workers… anything that must call back to main thread would need to do async.

For 64-bit, JS code would have to …. painfully … deal with 32-bit half-words. Awesome. ;)


WebAssembly initial version has no facility for multiple threads accessing the same memory, which means no threads. However this is planned to come in future…

Processes with separate address spaces could be implemented by putting each process emulator in a Web Worker, and having them communicate via messages sent to the main thread through syscalls. This forces any syscall that might need global state to be async.

Prior art: Browsix

Browsix provides a POSIX-like environment based around web techs, with processes modeled in Web Workers and syscalls done via async messages. (C/C++ programs can be compiled to work in Browsix with a modified emscripten.) Pretty sweet ideas. :)

I know they’re working on WebAssembly processes as well, and were looking into synchronous syscalls vi SharedArrayBuffer/Atomics as well, so this might be an interesting area to watch.

Could it be possible to make a Linux binary loader for the Browsix kernel? Maybe!

Would it be possible to make graphical Linux binaries work, with some kind of JS X11 or Wayland server? …mmmmmmaaaaybe? :D

Closing thoughts

This all sounds like tons of fun, but may have no use other than learning a lot about some low-level tech that’s interesting.