Carnegie Mellon University Launches WebAssembly Research Center Center Will Unite Researchers, Industry to Explore Future Applications

Aaron AupperleeWednesday, September 27, 2023

CMU has launched the WebAssembly Research Center to harness the potential of the open-source platform and explore how it's currently used and could be used in the future.

Carnegie Mellon University has launched the WebAssembly Research Center to harness the potential of the open-source platform.

The internet isn't just the internet anymore. Increasingly, users turn to the web to stream videos, play games, shop, edit photos, collaborate with colleagues and more. Those users expect the internet to work seamlessly on everything from a computer to a smartphone. To make that happen means juggling code in different languages written for different platforms.

WebAssembly (Wasm) was created to do just that.

"Ultimately, all software could one day run on WebAssembly," said Ben Titzer, director of the WebAssembly Research Center and a principal researcher in the Software and Societal Systems Department (S3D). "But WebAssembly is quickly spreading beyond the web to edge computing, distributed compute infrastructure, embedded systems and more. WebAssembly holds promise as the elusive universal code format with strong security properties, broad language support and excellent performance."

CMU's WebAssembly Research Center will be the first to unite researchers from across the university, other institutions and industry to explore how the platform is used now and how it could be used in the future. The center is also the first devoted exclusively to WebAssembly. Research on the platform is currently scattered, with isolated individuals or research groups plugging away on their own. The WebAssembly Research Center will be a venue for researchers to collaborate with industry on emerging applications.

The WebAssembly Research Center aims to increase the uptake of research around the technology by building research infrastructure and developing academic instruction, projects and programs to train the next generation of WebAssembly specialists. These goals will fill a need for virtual machine expertise and enable the next generation of innovation.

"The WebAssembly Research Center enables researchers and industry partners to look at the technology in new and exciting ways. It provides the opportunity to take a long-term view of its potential," said Heather Miller, an assistant professor in S3D and a faculty lead of the center. "The research happening at the center includes things that people never thought WebAssembly could be used for."

A grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) made the formation of the WebAssembly Research Center possible. The NSF awarded nearly $300,000 to Titzer and Miller to develop the center as a means for providing the needed infrastructure in the WebAssembly research community to harness the power of open-source development for the creation of new technology solutions to problems of national and societal importance.

Additionally, the WebAssembly Research Center launches with three founding members: DFINITY Foundation, Shopify and Siemens. The center will give these members the ability to explore new use cases.

DFINITY Foundation, a Swiss-based nonprofit organization and a major contributor to the Internet Computer, sees WebAssembly as a critical component of this blockchain-based platform that hosts general-purpose applications as WebAssembly modules. Since its launch in May 2021, Internet Computer nodes have executed over 2 quintillion WebAssembly instructions for over 300,000 applications. 

"WebAssembly is particularly well suited for decentralized and replicated execution because it is secure, deterministic and fast, and is an open standard with a continually growing ecosystem that includes open-source projects, programming languages and tools," said Jan Camenisch, chief technology officer of the DFINITY Foundation. "DFINITY is excited to join the WebAssembly Research Center to further investigate the unique properties of WebAssembly as an execution environment and to use them as a way to advance the Internet Computer."

Shopify is a global commerce company that uses WebAssembly to power one of its key products, Shopify Functions. Shopify Functions allows developers to customize the backend logic of Shopify in many languages that target WebAssembly, including JavaScript and Rust.  By using WebAssembly as its foundational technology, Shopify Functions becomes a vital extensibility tool within Shopify, enabling a truly customizable checkout experience for all merchants.

"With WebAssembly, we can execute untrusted code on premise without sacrificing performance, security and flexibility," said Erin Ren, an engineering manager at Shopify. "We are excited to collaborate with the esteemed experts at the WebAssembly Research Center. This partnership presents an opportunity for mutual learning and advancement of the WebAssembly ecosystem, enabling us to tackle real-world challenges on a large scale."

For Siemens, WebAssembly has the potential to have a profound impact on industrial Internet of Things, and the company will contribute use cases, requirements and preexisting research to help meet these goals faster.

"We at Siemens Technology believe it's a collaboration between academia and industry groups that will allow us to realize the technological future we envision," said Chris Woods, senior key expert at Siemens Technology, the company's R&D hub in the U.S. "That's why we are excited to work with Carnegie Mellon University and other industry partners to launch the WebAssembly Research Center." 

An interdisciplinary group of CMU faculty and students will participate in the WebAssembly Research Center. Current faculty members include Fraser Brown, an assistant professor in S3D; Claire Le Goues, an associate professor in S3D; Anthony Rowe, a professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Department in the College of Engineering; Titzer and Miller. Students from S3D, ECE, the Computer Science Department and other departments have participated in the center. Titzer expects participation to grow.

"WebAssembly adoption is accelerating," Titzer said. "This center focuses on bringing people together to do research with and around WebAssembly."

Members of the center have organized the second-ever WebAssembly Research Day on Friday, Oct. 13, to share work and discuss long-term projects. The research day coincides with the WebAssembly Community Group Meeting, where WebAssembly stakeholders discuss the open standards governing the platform and move it forward. The inaugural WebAssembly Research Day in 2022 included talks on topics ranging from extending WebAssembly with new features and verifying security properties of WebAssembly and its implementations to new languages on WebAssembly and studying and improving WebAssembly performance. It featured speakers from Stanford, Northeastern University, Utrecht University, the University of Cambridge, The University of Edinburgh, Siemens, the University of British Columbia and CMU.

More information about the WebAssembly Research Center, including how to join, is available on the center's website.

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Aaron Aupperlee | 412-268-9068 |