emscripten – Compiling Python to WebAssembly

emscripten – Compiling Python to WebAssembly

WebAssembly vs asm.js

First, lets take a look how, in principle, WebAssembly is different from asm.js, and whether theres potential to reuse existing knowledge and tooling. The following gives pretty good overview:

Lets recapitulate, WebAssembly (MVP, as theres more on its roadmap, roughly):

  • is a binary format of AST with static typing, which can be executed by existing JavaScript engines (and thus JIT-able or compiled AOT),
  • its 10-20% more compact (gzipped comparison) and an order of magnitude faster to parse than JavaScript,
  • it can express more low-level operation that wont fit into JavaScript syntax, read asm.js (e.g. 64-bit integers, special CPU instructions, SIMD, etc)
  • is convertible (to some extent) to/from asm.js.

Thus, currently WebAssembly is an iteration on asm.js and targets only C/C++ (and similar languages).

Python on the Web

It doesnt look like GC is the only thing that stops Python code from targeting WebAssembly/asm.js. Both represent low-level statically typed code, in which Python code cant (realistically) be represented. As current toolchain of WebAssembly/asm.js is based on LLVM, a language that can be easily compiled to LLVM IR can be converted to WebAssembly/asm.js. But alas, Python is too dynamic to fit into it as well, as proven by Unladen Swallow and several attempts of PyPy.

This asm.js presentation has slides about the state of dynamic languages. What it means is that currently its only possible to compile whole VM (language implementation in C/C++) to WebAssembly/asm.js and interpret (with JIT where possible) original sources. For Python therere several existing projects:

  1. PyPy: PyPy.js (authors talk at PyCon). Heres release repo. Main JS file, pypyjs.vm.js, is 13 MB (2MB after gzip -6) + Python stdlib + other stuff.

  2. CPython: pyodide, EmPython, CPython-Emscripten, EmCPython, etc. empython.js is 5.8 MB (2.1 MB after gzip -6), no stdlib.

  3. Micropython: this fork.

    There was no built JS file there, so I was able to build it with trzeci/emscripten/, a ready-made Emscripten toolchain. Something like:

     git clone https://github.com/matthewelse/micropython.git
     cd micropython
     docker run --rm -it -v $(pwd):/src trzeci/emscripten bash
     apt-get update && apt-get install -y python3
     cd emscripten
     make -j
     # to run REPL: npm install && nodejs server.js 
    

    It produces micropython.js of 1.1 MB (225 KB after gzip -d). The latter is already something to consider, if you need only very compliant implementation without stdlib.

    To produce WebAssembly build you can change line 13 of the Makefile to

     CC = emcc -s RESERVED_FUNCTION_POINTERS=20 -s WASM=1
    

    Then make -j produces:

     113 KB micropython.js
     240 KB micropython.wasm
    

    You can look at HTML output of emcc hello.c -s WASM=1 -o hello.html, to see how to use these files.

    This way you can also potentially build PyPy and CPython in WebAssembly to interpret your Python application in a compliant browser.

Another potentially interesting thing here is Nuitka, a Python to C++ compiler. Potentially it can be possible to build your Python app to C++ and then compile it along with CPython with Emscripten. But practically Ive no idea how to do it.

Solutions

For the time being, if youre building a conventional web site or web app where download several-megabyte JS file is barely an option, take a look at Python-to-JavaScript transpilers (e.g. Transcrypt) or JavaScript Python implementations (e.g. Brython). Or try your luck with others from list of languages that compile to JavaScript.

Otherwise, if download size is not an issue, and youre ready to tackle a lot of rough edges, choose between the three above.

Q3 2020 update

  1. JavaScript port was integrated into MicroPython. It lives in
    ports/javascript.

  2. The port is available as a npm package called MicroPython.js.
    You can try it out in RunKit.

  3. Theres an actively developed Python implementation in Rust, called
    RustPython. Because Rust officially supports WebAssembly as
    compile target
    , no surprise theres demo link right in the
    top of the readme. Though, its early. Their disclaimer follows.

    RustPython is in a development phase and should not be used in
    production or a fault intolerant setting.

    Our current build supports only a subset of Python syntax.

In short: There are transpilers, but you cant automatically convert any arbitrary Python to Web Assembly, and I doubt you will be able to for a long time to come. Although theoretically the languages are equally powerful, and manual translation is always possible, Python allows for some data structures and expressive modes that requires a very smart inter-language compiler (or transpiler) [see below]. A workaround might be Python to C to Web Assembly since python-to-C technology is moderately mature, but that isnt generally going to work either since Python-to-C is also fragile (see below).

WebAssembly is specifically targeted to C-like languages as you can see at http://webassembly.org/docs/high-level-goals/

Translating from Python to C can be done with tools like PyPy, which has been under development for a long time, but which still does not work for arbitrary Python code. There are several reasons for this:

  1. Python has some very handy, abstract and nice data structures, but they are hard to translate into static code.
  2. Python depends on dynamic garbage collection.
  3. Most Python code depends heavily on various libraries, each of which has its own quirks and issues (such as being written in C, or even assembler).

If you look more carefully into why Python-to-C (or Python to C++) has been so tricky you can see the detailed reasons behind this terse answer, but I think thats outside the scope of your question.

emscripten – Compiling Python to WebAssembly

This wont be possible until web assembly implements garbage collection. You can follow progress here: https://github.com/WebAssembly/proposals/issues/16

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