Transforming Development Across Frontend & Backend with WebAssembly

Jan 22, 2024
Transforming Development Across Frontend & Backend with WebAssembly
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This post was originally published on The Data Source on January 18th, 2024, my monthly newsletter covering the top innovation in data infrastructure, engineering and developer-first tooling. Subscribe here!

I’ve been exploring the web development market where key players like Mozilla, Fastly, Cloudflare, Unity and the major cloud providers have led the charge in advancing WebAssembly (WASM) into new frontiers. What’s exciting is that WASM is no longer confined to traditional browsers—it has expanded into the edge and cloud ecosystems, overcoming technical barriers and making strides in diverse computing environments. 

Since its release in 2017, WebAssembly has evolved into a solution that has enabled developers to utilize a variety of programming languages alongside JavaScript. This flexibility is crucial for tackling common web development challenges. In the past, web development heavily relied on JavaScript for client-side scripting, limiting developers to a single language for building web apps. The advent of WASM has made it possible for developers to choose from languages like C++, Rust, and more. The integration of multiple languages has facilitated code reuse, interoperability, and optimization of performance-critical components, improving development experience and enabling the creation of sophisticated, high-performing web apps.

As organizations pivot towards edge-centric processing to bring computation closer to data sources and adopt cloud-native architectures to enhance scalability and flexibility, WASM has become a linchpin in this journey. Its ability to provide a standardized and efficient execution environment across diverse platforms is important for integrating apps in evolving computing paradigms. 

In edge computing, the lightweight and portable design of WASM ensures swift code execution on resource-constrained devices, minimizing unnecessary overhead. This portability extends to cloud-native architectures, where WASM serves as a universal runtime embedded within containers, facilitating seamless deployment across various cloud environments. 

Trend #1: Leveraging WASM to Supercharge Frontend Development

Historically, frontend development grappled with performance limitations and language constraints. However, WASM has ushered in a new era of flexibility, effectively addressing these challenges. The "write once, run anywhere" philosophy intrinsic to WASM streamlines cross-platform compatibility, fostering a seamless and efficient development process. This has resulted in frontend apps becoming more powerful, flexible, and efficient as they can now execute high-performance code directly in the browser.

As the momentum of WASM continues to build in the frontend ecosystem, I anticipate a shift towards more language-agnostic development practices. This shift would empower frontend engineers to choose the most suitable languages for specific tasks and lead to a modular and component-based approach where different parts of a frontend app can be crafted in languages optimized for their functionalities. This evolution promises near-native performance within browsers, and improved collaboration between frontend and backend development, as exemplified by startups like Drifting in Space and Liveblocks

Theme #2: Optimizing Backend Development with WebAssembly

WebAssembly is revolutionizing backend development, fundamentally altering how code is executed and deployed across the server-side and network edge. This transformation is evident in the integration of WASM by edge platforms like Fastly and Cloudflare into their backend systems. By compiling code across platforms, WASM eliminates language barriers and enhances portability, reducing latency in edge computing applications. Fastly and Cloudflare's adoption of WASM not only provides developers with a versatile and efficient execution environment but also optimizes resource utilization, delivering high-performance solutions at the network edge.

Cloud providers, recognizing the potential of WASM, have embraced it by integrating support into their services and runtime environments. AWS Lambda now supports WebAssembly, allowing developers to deploy functions in languages like Rust or C alongside traditional languages. Azure Functions, Microsoft’s serverless compute service has similarly incorporated WASM support to enhance language flexibility and runtime efficiency in building serverless applications.

In the backend development landscape, startups like Cosmonic and Fermyonare leveraging WASM to contribute to more efficient execution environments for serverless functions, promoting a unified and standardized approach across diverse cloud providers.

Looking forward, the backend ecosystem is poised for innovation with organizations adopting WASM not just for specific functionalities or optimizations but as a core element of the infrastructure layer. While WASM could be at the forefront of the next shift in cloud computing, the current challenge lies in the early stage of market adoption. Developers are still grappling with existing technologies like containers, that the full potential of WASM might take 5-10 years to become a mainstream investment. Despite being considered "cool tech" today, WASM could play a pivotal role in how developers design, build, and deploy applications across diverse cloud environments.

Trend #3: Revolutionizing Systems with Software Plugins

WebAssembly's impact extends to software plugins, addressing the longstanding interoperability issue in traditional systems. Traditionally, language-specific plugins created compatibility challenges when integrating them into systems built with different languages. WASM solves this by offering a universal binary format, acting as a lingua franca for plugins. Systems using WASM can incorporate a diverse range of software plugins without the typical challenges of language-specific integration, enhancing system architecture efficiency and adaptability.

The impact of WASM is exemplified by companies like Shopify and Segment/Twilio, showcasing the power of extensible software plugins. Shopify's apps, or software plugins, create a dynamic ecosystem, extending the functionality of the e-commerce platform. From marketing and sales tools to inventory management and analytics, these plugins cater to diverse business needs, enabling merchants to customize their stores without extensive coding. Similarly, Twilio users can integrate unique functionalities into Twilio's communication services, enabling customized communication features for applications and businesses.

Looking ahead, WASM could emerge as a solution for creating extensible software plugins, offering developers a standardized and efficient method to enhance application functionality. The performance advantages of WASM could contribute to the development of high-performance plugins, enhancing user experiences. Additionally, WASM could facilitate the sharing and distribution of plugins across platforms, fostering a collaborative and open-source community for plugin development.

While WASM-powered extensible systems offer substantial value, building and maintaining such systems in-house pose significant engineering challenges. Engineers must ensure flexibility, scalability, security, and compatibility with different technologies, making it a complex task. This is an area where startups like Dylibso and Suborbital (acquired by F5) come into play. Their goal is to unlock the capability of extensible infrastructure at a broader scale. They provide an interesting market opportunity by addressing the engineering constraints and considerations associated with in-house development and maintenance of extensible systems.

What’s Next for the WebAssembly Ecosystem?

Looking ahead, the WASM ecosystem is poised for continued expansion, reshaping how software is developed and deployed. Given its adoption beyond the web and across edge computing, cloud environments, and IoT devices, WASM will be ubiquitous across diverse computing scenarios. 

I'm particularly enthusiastic about future innovation in the startup world, which could potential drive the evolution of tools and developer support, making the technology more accessible and user-friendly. To enhance the development experience, there will be improved debugging tools for WASM apps, enabling more effective identification and resolution of issues. Additionally, there will be better integration with popular development environments, allowing developers to work on WASM projects within their preferred IDEs. Standardized APIs for interacting with WASM modules will further contribute to a smoother development process. Advancements in runtime environments and new languages compiling to WASM could further diversify the ecosystem. And, as collaborative efforts across the industry continue, common standards might be established to drive better interoperability and compatibility across platforms. 

‍Practitioners and startup builders, if this is an area of interest to you, please reach out to chat!