An Embedded WASM Shell

September 30, 2021

If I go back far enough, it's clear my professional career in tech started with the realization that AutoCAD's command line interface was in fact a shell. It didn't just accept instructions, but you could write little programs in this "weird language" called Lisp and it would make calculations based on your drawing or even make changes to the drawing1. I started with automating repetitive work, and then one day a forward-thinking architect I worked with asked if I could write a program that would make accurate construction bid estimates. The first project built came within 5% of the software estimated budget, and it's been a roughly 20 year trip from there to writing blog posts about WASM for you today.

But the important part of this trip down memory lane is the notion that you can have software that includes a constrained embedded programming environment, and the power this provides a skilled user to fit the software to their purpose. A former colleague Sam Wilson gave a great talk at the Philadelphia DevOps meetup a few years ago2 where he called this idea "coding in production." The key to making this work is that the interface should be exploratory, as one gets with a REPL or SQL console, and that it should be properly constrained for safety.

This all came to mind again recently while working on an application with a lot of internal state, where I wanted to expose a REPL to operators so they could debug that state "live". For various reasons, I want to be able to assert to the owner of the data that the shell user can't arbitrarily damage the data3. So I've built the beginnings of an embeddable Scheme interpreter in Rust, compiled to a Web Assembly (WASM) module hosted via Wasmtime.

Most of the use cases I've seen for WASM boil down to either (1) "I don't want to write JavaScript for the web" or (2) "I want to host other people's untrusted code in a PaaS-like environment", which are both awesome use cases. But this means that a lot of the example code in the documentation handwaves over the communication between the host application and the WASM guest, because either you're leaning on DOM bindgen libraries or exposing a narrow system interface to the guest like allowing it access to specific file handles. In particular, I struggled with figuring out how a guest written in Rust was supposed to set up linear memory and make host function calls.

I've published the code below as a repository with commits for each step at tgross/wasm-shell-example.

Allergy warning: please note that this use case requires the unsafe keyword in the guest application. The host application has no use of unsafe in the application code, but of course if you dig down far enough into the wasmtime library you'll find it there as well. In any case, this code was extracted from the project I'm working on and is intended for educational purposes and not any particular use.

Because my Scheme interpreter is incomplete and not the point of this post, we'll start with the dumbest possible shell that just echos whatever you input:

fn main() {
    loop {
        let mut user_input = String::new();
            .read_line(&mut user_input)
            .expect("error reading in user input");
        let result = eval(&user_input);
        println!("{:?}", result);

fn eval(input: &str) -> &str {

We'll set up a Cargo workspace with an empty host application, and exclude the shell from the workspace so that we can compile it to a separate target via a Makefile4. Then we compile the shell with cargo wasi build and get a .wasm target. This is commit 0e7dff6.

Next we'll build the host. Most of this is right out of the Wasmtime docs on embedding in Rust, but I want to point out that we're using WASI to let the guest inherit stdin/stdout from the host:

let wasi = WasiCtxBuilder::new().inherit_stdio().build();
let mut store = Store::new(&engine, wasi);

With cargo run we can interact with the shell directly in our terminal. This is commit c1e34bb, but it's not very interesting.

Instead, let's have the host expose a Unix Domain Socket, and have each connection on this socket start its own shell. This gives us an example of how the host program can restrict the guest. We could allow remote access over TLS with authentication, we could rate-limit connections or data transfer, or we could allow certain users access to more WASM "fuel" than others. So long as we implement the std::io::{Read, Write} traits, the guest shell doesn't need to know (and indeed shouldn't know) these details.

For each connection, we'll spawn a thread and hand it the new stream and reference-counted copies of the WASM engine, our compile module, the linker with our functions (we'll come back to those in a moment), and the application state:

let linker = Arc::new(linker);
let state = Arc::new(Mutex::new(State::new()));
let listener = UnixListener::bind(bind_path)?;

for stream in listener.incoming() {
    match stream {
        Ok(stream) => {
            let state = state.clone();
            let engine = engine.clone();
            let module = module.clone();
            let linker = linker.clone();
            thread::spawn(move || handle_client(stream, &engine, &module, &linker, &state));
        Err(_) => {
            eprintln!("connection failed");

In the handler, we end up needing to clone the stream twice: once to split it into a reader and writer stream (for stdin and stdout), and once more to have an error channel so the host can send in-band error messages to the client even if the guest shell exits unexpectedly.

Next we present the two streams as WasiFile to the WASI context, and spawn a new wasmtime::Store from this context and the application state:

let wasi = WasiCtxBuilder::new()
    .stdin(Box::new(ReadPipe::new(stream)) as Box<dyn WasiFile>)
    .stdout(Box::new(WritePipe::new(write_stream)) as Box<dyn WasiFile>)

let mut store = Store::new(
    StoreData {
        state: state,
        wasi: wasi,

And finally we instantiate our WASM instance with the shell. Because we've built a binary (i.e. something with a main), we'll call the _start function. This is commit fafc0f3.

let mut run_interpreter = move || -> Result<(), Trap> {
    let instance = linker.instantiate(&mut store, module)?;
    let run = instance.get_typed_func::<(), (), _>(&mut store, "_start")?;
    run.call(&mut store, ())

if let Err(e) = run_interpreter() {
    if let Err(e) = write!(&mut err_stream, "{}", e) {
        eprintln!("{}", e);

At this point we can cargo run and connect to the socket file from another terminal with socat - UNIX-CONNECT:/tmp/wasm-shell.sock. But our shell still doesn't do anything other than echo back our results. Let's change that.

Updating Host State from the Guest

Earlier we'd glossed over the application state, so let's populate a State and a separate StoreData that contains the state and the WasiCtx for the WASM engine. The host application will use this same object to manipulate state from its side. This could even include a reference to your database connection if our application had one.

struct State {
    counts: Vec<i32>,

struct StoreData<'a> {
    state: &'a Arc<Mutex<State>>,
    wasi: WasiCtx,

Our state is a vector of integers, and the two functions we're going to expose to the shell are add to push another number onto the vector, and sum to total all the numbers we've seen so far. I'm intentionally punting on more complex objects like strings for the moment, but we'll come back to that.

impl State {
    fn add(&mut self, val: i32) {

    fn sum(&self) -> i32 {
        self.counts.iter().fold(0, |mut sum, &x| {
            sum += x;

Wrapping one of these functions has some important details to call out. The first string is the name of the module our guest will import, and the second string is the name we'll expose to the guest shell. The signature of the closure is a wasmtime::IntoFunc and all the arguments must be compatible with WebAssembly types. So for example, you can't pass a usize or u8 here, nor can you return a tuple or struct. When we want to manipulate the state, we call either data() or data_mut() to get a reference (or mutable reference) to the caller's Store, and then take the mutex to finally get our State methods.

    |mut caller: Caller<'_, StoreData>, param: i32| {

How do we call these functions from our shell? The Wasmtime import host functionality docs are helpful here. Note that calling these functions is always unsafe:

#[link(wasm_import_module = "host")]
extern "C" {
    fn host_add(count: i32);
    fn host_sum() -> i32;

Lastly, we'll update our eval function in the guest to parse our inputs and call the functions. Normally we'd probably want to use a real command-line parsing library, but this will do for now.

fn eval(input: &str) -> String {
    let parsed: Vec<_> = input.trim_end().trim_start().split(' ').collect();
    match parsed.get(0) {
        Some(&"sum") => unsafe { format!("{}", host_sum()) },
        Some(&"add") => match parsed.get(1) {
            Some(next) => match str::parse(next) {
                Ok(i) => {
                    unsafe { host_add(i); }
                _ => { ... }
            _ => { ... }

At this point we should be able to run the application, and connect with two different instances of socat. Each connection should be able to see the changes written to the state by the other, so if we add 2 in one and add 3 in the other, sum will now return 5 in both. This is commit a226910.

Working Around Interface Types

To use functions that pass arguments or return values that are something other than integers and floats, we need WebAssembly Interface Types. Unfortunately these have not yet been standardized and shipped! This would put a damper on our ambitions to have a shell, but we can work around this by using WASM linear memory.

Effectively what we're going to do is make a syscall-like interface between our guest and host. The guest will write to a buffer, and then call a host function passing a pointer (or rather, an offset in the WASM linear memory) and length for each parameter and for the return value. The host will get the result and write the value back to return buffer and return the length of the data written to the caller.

We'll be using "safe" wasmtime::Memory interfaces on the host side that copy the data out before working on it, and on the guest side we're single threaded and waiting on the return from the host function. So we don't need to worry about the guest messing with the data while we're reading it. (And hopefully interface types ship before threads!)

That being said, I managed to segfault the guest a few dozen times before finally finding Radu Matei's excellent Practical Guide to WASM Memory. The control flow we have here is reverse from Matei's post, because the guest is deciding what to allocate. But as it turns out this largely gets implemented in the same way. We want these two functions in the guest:

fn alloc(len: usize) -> *mut u8 {
    let mut buf = vec![0u8; len];
    let ptr = buf.as_mut_ptr();

unsafe fn dealloc(ptr: *mut u8, len: usize) {
    let _buf = Vec::from_raw_parts(ptr, 0, len);

If we were exporting these functions from the guest these would need to be extern "C", but in this workflow we'll keep all the unsafe code inside the guest. When the guest prepares a buffer for the host (either a parameter or space for the result), it calls alloc. That alloc function "forgets" about the buffer we allocate without dropping it. If we skip this, the buffer will get reclaimed and the host will get garbage data (which it will safely reject when it tries to parse it into a string). But the error message we write in the return buffer is also corrupt in the same way, and the guest crashes ("traps", in WASM parlance). This workflow also means we need to clean up the buffer manually with dealloc. In dealloc we read the buffer pointed to by the pointer, and then drop it.

We can put this all together to pass a string to the host_kv_get function. We allocate a buffer for the key, and copy the key into it. We also need to allocate the buffer for the response. Then we pass the pointers and lengths of both buffers into the host_kv_get function that we've imported. The return value of host_kv_get will be the number of bytes written into the response buffer.

fn eval_kv_get(key: &str) -> String {
    let key_len = key.len();
    let res;

    unsafe {
        let key_ptr = alloc(key.len());
        std::ptr::copy(key.as_ptr(), key_ptr, key_len);

        let res_ptr = alloc(MAX_RESPONSE_LENGTH);

        let _res_len = host_kv_get(
            key_ptr as u32,
            key_len as u32,
            res_ptr as u32,
            MAX_RESPONSE_LENGTH as u32,

        let res_len = _res_len.try_into().unwrap();
        res = read_results(res_ptr, res_len);

        // free our forgotten memory for the key; the from_utf8 will
        // free the response buffer
        dealloc(key_ptr, key_len);
    match std::str::from_utf8(&res) {
        Ok(s) => s.to_string(),
        Err(err) => format!("error parsing results as string: {:?}", err),

The eval_key_set function is almost identical, but with an extra buffer for the value we want to set. The guest side of this work is commit c84c596.

Reading Memory From the Host

As we saw earlier the wasmtime::FuncWrap expects a closure and if we want to access memory the first parameter of that closure is a wasmtime::Caller. Getting the memory and accessing the store in the correct order is a little fussy if you want to both read and write to memory in the same function (as we do here), because writing will need a mutable borrow. I've elided some error handling here but you can see the full code listing in commit f95d398. Note that we're looking for the export named "memory", which is what the wasm32-wasi target exports by default.

    "host", "host_kv_get",
    |mut caller: Caller<'_, StoreData>,
     key_ptr: u32, key_len: u32,
     res_ptr: u32, res_len: u32|
     -> u32 {
        let mem = match caller.get_export(&"memory"){ ... }
        let store = caller.as_context();
        let result = kv_get(mem, &store, key_ptr, key_len, res_ptr, res_len);

        // now that we're done with our borrow, upgrade to mutable
        let mut store = caller.as_context_mut();
        match result {
            Ok(response) => {
                return write_response(mem, &mut store, res_ptr, res_len, response)
                    .map_err(|err| eprintln!("{}", err))
            Err(err) => { ... }

This wrapper is calling into functions that return a Result and then it's responsible for writing that response back. The kv_get implementation can be fairly slim:

fn kv_get(
    mem: Memory, store: &StoreContext<StoreData>,
    key_ptr: u32, key_len: u32,
    res_ptr: u32, res_len: u32,
) -> Result<String> {
    let key = read_parameter(mem, &store, key_ptr, key_len)?;
    validate_wasm_param(res_ptr, res_len)?;
    let max_len: usize = res_len.try_into().unwrap_or(1024);

    let map = &store.data().state.lock().unwrap().map;
    let mut response = map.get(&key).ok_or(anyhow!("no such key"))?.to_string();

And finally we have a couple of helper functions for reading and writing the memory:

fn read_parameter(
    mem: Memory,
    store: &StoreContext<StoreData>,
    ptr: u32,
    len: u32,
) -> Result<String> {
    validate_wasm_param(ptr, len)?;
    let mut buf = vec![0u8; len as usize];
    mem.read(&store, ptr.try_into()?, &mut buf)?;

fn write_response(
    mem: Memory,
    store: &mut StoreContextMut<StoreData>,
    ptr: u32,
    max_len: u32,
    mut response: String,
) -> Result<u32> {
    mem.write(store, ptr.try_into()?, response.as_bytes())?;
    Ok(response.len() as u32)

This is all wired up in commit f95d398. Now we can cargo run and connect to the shell, and do set :key :val in one shell and retrieve that value from get :key in another shell.

Wrapping Up

So how practical is all of this? I haven't yet explored async functions, which is fine for this use case but could be a performance issue for guests that are doing a lot of IO. There's definitely enough to build a real application here. But expect to have to make some investment in the infrastructure around host/guest communication.

  1. The command window doubled as an AutoLISP REPL, but you could of course also load programs from files on disk, including while starting up AutoCAD. I have a vague memory that the entire drawing could even be exported as a s-expression in text format, but a quick look at the DXF format spec says my memory is faulty. Was there another way to do this that I've forgotten? ↩︎

  2. Sadly it's not online anywhere. ↩︎

  3. Not the least of which because I'll be the only operator for the foreseeable future and I'm obviously an idiot. ↩︎

  4. It looks like cargo/#9406 will make this unnecessary. ↩︎


© Timothy Gross

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