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Server-side Wasm to-do list lengthens for 2024

Server-side WebAssembly hype peaked in late 2022, but a year later, its path to general availability for key features remains long and cloud portability alternatives are emerging.

Server-side WebAssembly began 2023 prepared for takeoff in the enterprise, but its open source maintainers acknowledge it hasn't quite gotten off the ground yet.

Some industry watchers predicted early this year that server-side Wasm is the future of cloud-native application development, as it can be used to deploy applications on a wide range of infrastructure from the cloud data center to the edge without changes to the code. But discussions about Wasm at tech conferences this year also revealed significant challenges the technology faces, from mature support for multiple programming languages and multi-threaded apps to regulatory certifications, before it can usurp container-based frameworks' appeal in production enterprise apps.

"It is still about to take off," said Luke Wagner, distinguished engineer at content delivery network provider Fastly and creator of WebAssembly. "The difference is [in 2023] it was like an airplane being at the beginning of the runway, and currently, the wheels are about to leave it."

WebAssembly System Interface (WASI) requires further development to move server-side Wasm from a standalone application compilation target to a platform that can be shared consistently by applications written in different languages.

WASI Preview 2, originally slated for release this month, introduces the component model, a set of standardized plugin interfaces or components, for running cloud-native apps on Wasm. Components are a lighter-weight alternative to existing WASI modules without cumbersome dependencies, according to officials from Bytecode Alliance, an industry association that's building secure software foundations and implementations of the proposed standards from the W3C WASI Subgroup, who spoke at a conference in March.

Headshot photo of Bailey Hayes, CTO at CosmonicBailey Hayes

The WASI Preview 2 release is mostly complete but hasn't met W3C WASI Subgroup's standard of two separate reference implementations before a release is voted on to be approved, according to Bailey Hayes, CTO at Wasm platform vendor Cosmonic and a member of Bytecode Alliance's technical steering committee (TSC). One of the two has been completed, and the second is expected to be complete by Jan. 11.

The planned release after that, Preview 3, will tackle further important aspects of cloud-native application support, including multi-threading, application concurrency and streaming support. TSC members at September's WasmCon estimated that release would come in early 2024; now it's tentatively scheduled for some time in the next 12 months, at best, according to Wagner and Hayes.

GA seems far off. Wasm will struggle until WASI and the component model standards are [fully stable].
Larry CarvalhoIndependent analyst, Robust Cloud

This means that moving WASI out of preview and into general availability (GA), a customary requirement for many enterprises to consider a new technology, remains at least another year off, said Larry Carvalho, an independent analyst at Robust Cloud.

"GA seems far off," Carvalho said. "Wasm will struggle until WASI and the component model standards are [fully stable]."

Wasm shows great promise, but as a long-term possibility, said Phillip Carter, principal product manager at observability vendor Honeycomb.

"By providing a uniform runtime environment and API for any kind of app, it enables standardization of tool sets, such as profiling, in ways that were harder -- if not impossible -- to do without Wasm," he said. "Although it'll be a while before we're all deploying applications to Wasm."

Wasm made incremental progress in 2023

Multiple vendors and open source projects have emerged in the last 18 months to develop Wasm for use in enterprise applications, potentially as a faster-performing, less resource-intensive replacement for Linux containers. Early adopter enterprise customers such as Adobe and BMW began to experiment with those tools in 2022, and continued to extol their promise this year in presentations at industry events.

Cosmonic, maintainers of the open source wasmCloud project, and serverless Wasm specialist Fermyon already support the WASI component model in their products. Cosmonic plans to demonstrate GitOps support for its Cosmonic Connect module for Kubernetes in the coming weeks, Hayes said. The version 1.0 release of open source wasmCloud is expected in January, and Cosmonic is in talks with its first enterprise customers since its wasmCloud PaaS reached public beta in April.

Microsoft Azure has previewed Wasm support with Azure Kubernetes Service, and Microsoft disclosed this month that an experimental feature for .NET adds support for WASI apps to the programming language. Google's Go language added WASI support in September. Rust, the earliest programming language to offer support for server-side Wasm, is being updated to support the component model. Amazon Prime uses Wasm to deploy on various types of TV and mobile device hardware, but a Wasm-based version of AWS Lambda that Cosmonic officials expected to emerge in 2023 has yet to appear.

A group of telecom companies and software vendors within the TM Forum industry association for communications service providers (CSPs) recently demonstrated a Wasm-based replacement for Kubernetes within its open digital architecture framework. CSPs including Orange, Vodafone, Etisalat by e& and NBN Co and software vendors SigScale, Wavenet and Comviva delivered the proof of concept this month to bring WebAssembly to telecoms.

"CSPs are always looking for efficiencies, and while container run times provided improvements over virtual machines, WebAssembly may reach a higher plateau," said Vance Shipley, a Cloud Native Computing Foundation wasmCloud community member and CEO of SigScale, a systems integrator that designed the proof-of-concept project. "When workloads are delivered as Wasm, they are smaller with less overhead, and may be placed with a finer degree of granularity and on smaller platforms, such as at edge sites."

Edge computing and the industrial internet of things, where Wasm's potential efficiency advantages could have the most impact, are also expected to be major growth trends in 2024, according to Mike Bechtel, chief futurist at Deloitte Consulting.

"GPU compute and [advances in] battery and bandwidth tech … are becoming ubiquitous in the industrial space, which means that edge has gone from a term to a truth," Bechtel said. "And so the data center doesn't need to carry the entire burden of compute, but thanks to high bandwidth, the data center can play a role, too."

However, public examples of enterprise companies using vendors' server-side Wasm products in production have been largely missing so far, Carvalho said.

"Cosmonic and Fermyon are the leading Wasm companies I have heard of and talked to, but they need public [commercial customer] references," he said. "WasmCon had customers speak about using it on the main stage, but only related to open source versions. … ROI in [commercial] implementations should be well documented for enterprises to adopt the technology."

WASI component model diagram.
The WebAssembly System Interface component model is expected to improve how applications written in different programming languages can share the same Wasm-based infrastructure.

Microservices orchestration vies for cloud portability spotlight

Apart from cloud-to-edge environments, microservices orchestration tools that also offer cloud-level portability between diverse enterprise microservices applications have emerged outside the Wasm ecosystem in 2023. Among them is the open source Conductor project, originally created at Netflix and now managed by cloud orchestration vendor Orkes.

The Dapr open source framework also offers a set of APIs that can be shared by multiple applications and their underlying components, such as messaging systems, across clouds without requiring changes to application code. Wasm operates at a lower layer of the IT stack than Dapr and offers potential performance advantages over Linux containers in addition to app portability. They could potentially be used together -- WasmEdge vendor Second State has demonstrated integration between Dapr, Wasm and Kubernetes.

But there's still some overlap between the two projects, and unexplored areas of potential collaboration between the two communities, Wagner said.

"[Dapr community members] have expressed interest in alignment with WASI, because they kind of want the same thing," he said. "Portable interfaces that you run between clouds is already a thing they've been working on."

Beth Pariseau, senior news writer at TechTarget, is an award-winning veteran of IT journalism. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @PariseauTT.

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