Architecture of Wasmtime

This document is intended to give an overview of the implementation of Wasmtime. This will explain the purposes of the various wasmtime-* crates that the main wasmtime crate depends on. For even more detailed information it's recommended to review the code itself and find the comments contained within.

The wasmtime crate

The main entry point for Wasmtime is the wasmtime crate itself. Wasmtime is designed such that the wasmtime crate is nearly a 100% safe API (safe in the Rust sense) modulo some small and well-documented functions as to why they're unsafe. The wasmtime crate provides features and access to WebAssembly primitives and functionality, such as compiling modules, instantiating them, calling functions, etc.

At this time the wasmtime crate is the first crate that is intended to be consumed by users. First in this sense means that everything wasmtime depends on is thought of as an internal dependency. We publish crates to but put very little effort into having a "nice" API for internal crates or worrying about breakage between versions of internal crates. This primarily means that all the other crates discussed here are considered internal dependencies of Wasmtime and don't show up in the public API of Wasmtime at all. To use some Cargo terminology, all the wasmtime-* crates that wasmtime depends on are "private" dependencies.

Additionally at this time the safe/unsafe boundary between Wasmtime's internal crates is not the most well-defined. There are methods that should be marked unsafe which aren't, and unsafe methods do not have exhaustive documentation as to why they are unsafe. This is an ongoing matter of improvement, however, where the goal is to have safe methods be actually safe in the Rust sense, as well as having documentation for unsafe methods which clearly lists why they are unsafe.

Important concepts

To preface discussion of more nitty-gritty internals, it's important to have a few concepts in the back of your head. These are some of the important types and their implications in Wasmtime:

  • wasmtime::Engine - this is a global compilation context which is sort of the "root context". An Engine is typically created once per program and is expected to be shared across many threads (internally it's atomically reference counted). Each Engine stores configuration values and other cross-thread data such as type interning for Module instances. The main thing to remember for Engine is that any mutation of its internals typically involves acquiring a lock, whereas for Store below no locks are necessary.

  • wasmtime::Store - this is the concept of a "store" in WebAssembly. While there's also a formal definition to go of this it can be thought of as a bag of related WebAssembly objects. This includes instances, globals, memories, tables, etc. A Store does not implement any form of garbage collection of the internal items (there is a gc function but that's just for externref values). This means that once you create an Instance or a Table the memory is not actually released until the Store itself is deallocated. A Store is sort of a "context" used for almost all wasm operations. Store also contains instance handles which recursively refer back to the Store, leading to a good bit of aliasing of pointers within the Store. The important thing for now, though, is to know that Store is a unit of isolation. WebAssembly objects are always entirely contained within a Store, and at this time nothing can cross between stores (except scalars if you manually hook it up). In other words, wasm objects from different stores cannot interact with each other. A Store cannot be used simultaneously from mulitple threads (almost all operations require &mut self).

  • wasmtime_runtime::InstanceHandle - this is the low-level representation of a WebAssembly instance. At the same time this is also used as the representation for all host-defined object. For example if you call wasmtime::Memory::new it'll create an InstanceHandle under the hood. This is a very unsafe type that should probably have all of its functions marked unsafe or otherwise have more strict guarantees documented about it, but it's an internal type that we don't put much thought into for public consumption at this time. An InstanceHandle doesn't know how to deallocate itself and relies on the caller to manage its memory. Currently this is either allocated on-demand (with malloc) or in a pooling fashion (using the pooling allocator). The deallocate method is different in these two paths (as well as the allocate method).

    An InstanceHandle is laid out in memory with some Rust-owned values first capturing the dynamic state of memories/tables/etc. Most of these fields are unused for host-defined objects that serve one purpose (e.g. a wasmtime::Table::new), but for an instantiated WebAssembly module these fields will have more information. After an InstanceHandle in memory is a VMContext, which will be discussed next. InstanceHandle values are the main internal runtime representation and what the wasmtime_runtime crate works with. The wasmtime::Store holds onto all these InstanceHandle values and deallocates them at the appropriate time. From the runtime perspective it simplifies things so the graph of wasm modules communicating to each other is reduced to simply InstanceHandle values all talking to themselves.

  • wasmtime_runtime::VMContext - this is a raw pointer, within an allocation of an InstanceHandle, that is passed around in JIT code. A VMContext does not have a structure defined in Rust (it's a 0-sized structure) because its contents are dynamically determined based on the VMOffsets, or the source wasm module it came from. Each InstanceHandle has a "shape" of a VMContext corresponding with it. For example a VMContext stores all values of WebAssembly globals, but if a wasm module has no globals then the size of this array will be 0 and it won't be allocated. The intention of a VMContext is to be an efficient in-memory representation of all wasm module state that JIT code may access. The layout of VMContext is dynamically determined by a module and JIT code is specialized for this one structure. This means that the structure is efficiently accessed by JIT code, but less efficiently accessed by native host code. A non-exhaustive list of purposes of the VMContext is to:

    • Store WebAssembly instance state such as global values, pointers to tables, pointers to memory, and pointers to other JIT functions.
    • Separate wasm imports and local state. Imported values have pointers stored to their actual values, and local state has the state defined inline.
    • Hold a pointer to the stack limit at which point JIT code will trigger a stack overflow.
    • Hold a pointer to a VMExternRefActivationsTable for fast-path insertion of externref values into the table.
    • Hold a pointer to a *mut dyn wasmtime_runtime::Store so store-level operations can be performed in libcalls.

    A comment about the layout of a VMContext can be found in the file.

  • wasmtime::Module - this is the representation of a compiled WebAssembly module. At this time Wasmtime always assumes that a wasm module is always compiled to native JIT code. Module holds the results of said compilation, and currently the Cranelift and Lightbeam modes can be used for compiling. It is a goal of Wasmtime to support other modes of representing modules but those are not implemented today just yet. Additionally the Lightbeam compiler has not received maintenance in a long time, so effectively everyone uses Cranelift.

  • wasmtime_environ::Module - this is a descriptor of a wasm module's type and structure without holding any actual JIT code. An instance of this type is created very early on in the compilation process, and it is not modified when functions themselves are actually compiled. This holds the internal type representation and state about functions, globals, etc. In a sense this can be thought of as the result of validation or typechecking a wasm module, although it doesn't have information such as the types of each opcode or minute function-level details like that.

Compiling a module

With a high-level overview and some background information of types, this will next walk through the steps taken to compile a WebAssembly module. The main entry point for this is the wasmtime::Module::from_binary API. There are a number of other entry points that deal with surface-level details like translation from text-to-binary, loading from the filesystem, etc.

Compilation is roughly broken down into a few phases:

  1. First compilation walks over the WebAssembly module validating everything except function bodies. This synchronous pass over a wasm module creates a wasmtime_environ::Module instance and additionally prepares for function compilation. Note that with the module linking proposal one input module may end up creating a number of output modules to process. Each module is processed independently and all further steps are parallelized on a per-module basis. Note that parsing and validation of the WebAssembly module happens with the wasmparser crate. Validation is interleaved with parsing, validating parsed values before using them.

  2. Next all functions within a module are validated and compiled in parallel. No inter-procedural analysis is done and each function is compiled as its own little island of code at this time. This is the point where the meat of Cranelift is invoked on a per-function basis.

  3. The compilation results at this point are all woven into a wasmtime_jit::CompilationArtifacts structure. This holds module information (wasmtime_environ::Module), compiled JIT code (stored as an ELF image), and miscellaneous other information about functions such as platform-agnostic unwinding information, per-function trap tables (indicating which JIT instructions can trap and what the trap means), per-function address maps (mapping from JIT addresses back to wasm offsets), and debug information (parsed from DWARF information in the wasm module). These results are inert and can't actually be executed, but they're appropriate at this point to serialize to disk or begin the next phase...

  4. The final step is to actually place all code into a form that's ready to get executed. This starts from the CompilationArtifacts of the previous step. Here a new memory mapping is allocated and the JIT code is copied into this memory mapping. This memory mapping is then switched from read/write to read/execute so it's actually executable JIT code at this point. This is where various hooks like loading debuginfo, informing JIT profilers of new code, etc, all happens. At this point a wasmtime_jit::CompiledModule is produced and this is itself wrapped up in a wasmtime::Module. At this point the module is ready to be instantiated.

A wasmtime::Module is an atomically-reference-counted object where upon instantiation into a Store the Store will hold a strong reference to the internals of the module. This means that all instances of a wasmtime::Module share the same compiled code. Additionally a wasmtime::Module is one of the few objects that lives outside of a wasmtime::Store. This means that wasmtime::Module's reference counting is its own form of memory management.

Note that the property of sharing a module's compiled code across all instantiations has interesting implications on what the compiled code can assume. For example Wasmtime implements a form of type interning, but the interned types happen at a few different levels. Within a module we deduplicate function types, but across modules in a Store types need to be represented with the same value. This means that if the same module is instantiated into many stores its same function type may take on many values, so the compiled code can't assume a particular value for a function type. (more on type information later). The general gist though is that compiled code leans relatively heavily on the VMContext for contextual input because the JIT code is intended to be so widely reusable.


An important aspect to also cover for compilation is the creation of trampolines. Trampolines in this case refer to code executed by Wasmtime to enter WebAssembly code. The host may not always have prior knowledge about the signature of the WebAssembly function that it wants to call. Wasmtime JIT code is compiled with native ABIs (e.g. params/results in registers according to System V on Unix), which means that a Wasmtime embedding doesn't have an easy way to enter JIT code.

This problem is what the trampolines compiled into a module solve, which is to provide a function with a known ABI that will call into a function with a specific other type signature/ABI. Wasmtime collects all the exported functions of a module and creates a set of their type signatures. Note that exported in this context actually means "possibly exported" which includes things like insertion into a global/function table, conversion to a funcref, etc. A trampoline is generated for each of these type signatures and stored along with the JIT code for the rest of the module.

These trampolines are then used with the wasmtime::Func::call API where in that specific case because we don't know the ABI of the target function the trampoline (with a known ABI) is used and has all the parameters/results passed through the stack.

Another point of note is that trampolines are not deduplicated at this time. Each compiled module contains its own set of trampolines, and if two compiled modules have the same types then they'll have different copies of the same trampoline.

Type Interning and VMSharedSignatureIndex

One important point to talk about with compilation is the VMSharedSignatureIndex type and how it's used. The call_indirect opcode in wasm compares an actual function's signature against the function signature of the instruction, trapping if the signatures mismatch. This is implemented in Wasmtime as an integer comparison, and the comparison happens on a VMSharedSignatureIndex value. This index is an intern'd representation of a function type.

The scope of interning for VMSharedSignatureIndex happens at the wasmtime::Engine level. Modules are compiled into an Engine. Insertion of a Module into an Engine will assign a VMSharedSignatureIndex to all of the types found within the module.

The VMSharedSignatureIndex values for a module are local to that one instantiation of a Module (and they may change on each insertion of a Module into a different Engine). These are used during the instantiation process by the runtime to assign a type ID effectively to all functions for imports and such.

Instantiating a module

Once a module has been compiled it's typically then instantiated to actually get access to the exports and call wasm code. Instantiation always happens within a wasmtime::Store and the created instance (plus all exports) are tied to the Store.

Instantiation itself (crates/wasmtime/src/ may look complicated, but this is primarily due to the implementation of the Module Linking proposal. The rough flow of instantiation looks like:

  1. First all imports are type-checked. The provided list of imports is cross-referenced with the list of imports recorded in the wasmtime_environ::Module and all types are verified to line up and match (according to the core wasm specification's definition of type matching).

  2. Each wasmtime_environ::Module has a list of initializers that need to be completed before instantiation is finished. For MVP wasm this only involves loading the import into the correct index array, but for module linking this could involve instantiating other modules, handling alias fields, etc. In any case the result of this step is a wasmtime_runtime::Imports array which has the values for all imported items into the wasm module. Note that in this case an import is typically some sort of raw pointer to the actual state plus the VMContext of the instance that was imported from. The final result of this step is an InstanceAllocationRequest, which is then submitted to the configured instance allocator, either on-demand or pooling.

  3. The InstanceHandle corresponding to this instance is allocated. How this is allocated depends on the strategy (malloc for on-demand, slab allocation for pooling). In addition to initialization of the fields of InstanceHandle this also initializes all the fields of the VMContext for this handle (which as mentioned above is adjacent to the InstanceHandle allocation after it in memory). This does not process any data segments, element segments, or the start function at this time.

  4. At this point the InstanceHandle is stored within the Store. This is the "point of no return" where the handle must be kept alive for the same lifetime as the Store itself. If an initialization step fails then the instance may still have had its functions, for example, inserted into an imported table via an element segment. This means that even if we fail to initialize this instance its state could still be visible to other instances/objects so we need to keep it alive regardless.

  5. The final step is performing wasm-defined instantiation. This involves processing element segments, data segments, the start function, etc. Most of this is just translating from Wasmtime's internal representation to the specification's required behavior.

Another part worth pointing out for instantiating a module is that a ModuleRegistry is maintained within a Store of all instantiated modules into the store. The purpose of this registry is to retain a strong reference to items in the module needed to run instances. This includes the JIT code primarily but also has information such as the VMSharedSignatureIndex registration, metadata about function addresses and such, etc. Much of this data is stored into a GLOBAL_MODULES map for later access during traps.


Once instances have been created and wasm starts running most things are fairly standard. Trampolines are used to enter wasm (or we can enter with a known ABI if using wasmtime::TypedFunc) and JIT code generally does what it does to execute wasm. An important aspect of the implementation to cover, however, is traps.

Wasmtime today implements traps with longjmp and setjmp. The setjmp function cannot be defined in Rust (even unsafely -- ( so the crates/runtime/src/helpers.c file actually calls setjmp/longjmp. Note that in general the operation of longjmp is not safe to execute in Rust because it skips stack-based destructors, so after setjmp when we call back into Rust to execute wasm we need to be careful in Wasmtime to not have any significant destructors on the stack once wasm is called.

Traps can happen from a few different sources:

  • Explicit traps - these can happen when a host call returns a trap, for example. These bottom out in raise_user_trap or raise_lib_trap, both of which immediately call longjmp to go back to the wasm starting point. Note that these, like when calling wasm, have to have callers be very careful to not have any destructors on the stack.

  • Signals - this is the main vector for trap. Basically we use segfault and illegal instructions to implement traps in wasm code itself. Segfaults arise when linear memory accesses go out of bounds and illegal instructions are how the wasm unreachable instruction is implemented. In both of these cases Wasmtime installs a platform-specific signal handler to catch the signal, inspect the state of the signal, and then handle it. Note that Wasmtime tries to only catch signals that happen from JIT code itself as to not accidentally cover up other bugs. Exiting a signal handler happens via longjmp to get back to the original wasm call-site.

The general idea is that Wasmtime has very tight control over the stack frames of wasm (naturally via Cranelift) and also very tight control over the code that executes just before we enter wasm (aka before the setjmp) and just after we reenter back into wasm (aka frames before a possible longjmp).

The signal handler for Wasmtime uses the GLOBAL_MODULES map populated during instantiation to determine whether a program counter that triggered a signal is indeed a valid wasm trap. This should be true except for cases where the host program has another bug that triggered the signal.

A final note worth mentioning is that Wasmtime uses the Rust backtrace crate to capture a stack trace when a wasm exception occurs. This forces Wasmtime to generate native platform-specific unwinding information to correctly unwind the stack and generate a stack trace for wasm code. This does have other benefits as well such as improving generic sampling profilers when used with Wasmtime.

Linear Memory

Linear memory in Wasmtime is implemented effectively with mmap (or the platform equivalent thereof), but there are some subtle nuances that are worth pointing out here too. The implementation of linear memory is relatively configurable which gives rise to a number of situations that both the runtime and generated code need to handle.

First there are a number of properties about linear memory which can be configured:

  • wasmtime::Config::static_memory_maximum_size
  • wasmtime::Config::static_memory_guard_size
  • wasmtime::Config::dynamic_memory_guard_size
  • wasmtime::Config::guard_before_linear_memory

The methods on Config have a good bit of documentation to go over some nitty-gritty, but the general gist is that Wasmtime has two modes of memory: static and dynamic. Static memories represent an address space reservation that never moves and pages are committed to represent memory growth. Dynamic memories represent allocations where the committed portion exactly matches the wasm memory's size and growth happens by allocating a bigger chunk of memory.

The guard size configuration indicates the size of the guard region that happens after linear memory. This guard size affects whether generated JIT code emits bounds checks or not. Bounds checks are elided if out-of-bounds addresses provably encounter the guard pages.

The guard_before_linear_memory configuration additionally places guard pages in front of linear memory as well as after linear memory (the same size on both ends). This is only used to protect against possible Cranelift bugs and otherwise serves no purpose.

At the time of this writing Wasmtime only supports WebAssembly with 32-bit memories, so a maximum of 4GB in size. Wasmtime has not implemented the memory64 proposal from upstream WebAssembly yet.

The defaults for Wasmtime on 64-bit platforms are:

  • 4GB static maximum size (meaning all memories are static)
  • 2GB static guard size (meaning all loads/stores with less than 2GB offset don't need bounds checks)
  • Guard pages before linear memory are enabled.

Altogether this means that linear memories result in an 8GB virtual address space reservation by default in Wasmtime. With the pooling allocator where we know that linear memories are contiguous this results in a 6GB reservation per memory because the guard region after one memory is the guard region before the next.

Tables and externref

WebAssembly tables contain reference types, currently either funcref or externref. A funcref in Wasmtime is represented as *mut VMCallerCheckedAnyfunc and an externref is represented as VMExternRef (which is internally *mut VMExternData). Tables are consequently represented as vectors of pointers. Table storage memory management by default goes through Rust's Vec which uses malloc and friends for memory. With the pooling allocator this uses preallocated memory for storage.

As mentioned previously Store has no form of internal garbage collection for wasm objects themselves so a funcref table in wasm is pretty simple in that there's no lifetime management of any of the pointers stored within, they're simply assumed to be valid for as long as the table is in use.

For tables of externref the story is more complicated. The VMExternRef is a version of Arc<dyn Any> but specialized in Wasmtime so JIT code knows where the offset of the reference count field to directly manipulate it is. Furthermore tables of externref values need to manage the reference count field themselves, since the pointer stored in the table is required to have a strong reference count allocated to it.

GC and externref

Wasmtime implements the externref type of WebAssembly with an atomically-reference-counted pointer. Note that the atomic part is not needed by wasm itself but rather from the Rust embedding environment where it must be safe to send ExternRef values to other threads. Wasmtime also does not come with a cycle collector so cycles of host-allocated ExternRef objects will leak.

Despite reference counting, though, a Store::gc method exists. This is an implementation detail of how reference counts are managed while wasm code is executing. Instead of managing the reference count of an externref value individually as it moves around on the stack Wasmtime implements "deferred reference counting" where there's an overly conservative list of ExternRef values that may be in use, and periodically a GC is performed to make this overly conservative list a precise one. This leverages the stack map support of Cranelift plus the backtracing support of backtrace to determine live roots on the stack. The Store::gc method forces the possibly-overly-conservative list to become a precise list of externref values that are actively in use on the stack.

Index of crates

The main Wasmtime internal crates are:

  • wasmtime - the safe public API of wasmtime.
  • wasmtime-jit - JIT-specific support for Wasmtime. This is the concrete implementation that manages executable memory generated at Runtime. Currently all modules are compiled this way, but one day Wasmtime may be able to be compiled without JIT support where only precompiled modules can be loaded.
  • wasmtime-runtime - low-level runtime implementation of Wasmtime. This is where VMContext and InstanceHandle live. This crate is theoretically agnostic to how JIT code was compiled and the runtime that it's running within.
  • wasmtime-environ - low-level compilation support. This is where translation of the Module and its environment happens, although no compilation actually happens in this crate (although it defines an interface for compilers). The results of this crate are handed off to other crates for actual compilation.
  • wasmtime-cranelift - implementation of function-level compilation using Cranelift.

Note that at this time Cranelift is a required dependency of wasmtime. Most of the types exported from wasmtime-environ use cranelift types in their API. One day it's a goal, though, to remove the required cranelift dependency and have wasmtime-environ be a relatively standalone crate.

In addition to the above crates there are some other miscellaneous crates that wasmtime depends on:

  • wasmtime-cache - optional dependency to manage default caches on the filesystem. This is enabled in the CLI by default but not enabled in the wasmtime crate by default.
  • wasmtime-fiber - implementation of stack-switching used by async support in Wasmtime
  • wasmtime-debug - implementation of mapping wasm dwarf debug information to native dwarf debug information.
  • wasmtime-profiling - implementation of hooking up generated JIT code to standard profiling runtimes.
  • wasmtime-obj - implementation of creating an ELF image from compiled functions.