Community Blog When Knative Meets WebAssembly

When Knative Meets WebAssembly

This article introduces the WAGI project and explains how it can combine WASM and WASI applications with Serverless frameworks.

By Yi Li

Knative is a technical framework for Serverless computing based on Kubernetes. It can simplify the development and O&M of Kubernetes applications. It became a CNCF incubation project in March 2022. Knative consists of Knative Serving, which supports HTTP online applications, and Knative Eventing, which supports CloudEvents and event-driven applications.

Knative can support various containerized runtime environments. Today, let's explore the use of WebAssembly technology as a new serverless runtime.

From WASM to WASI and WAGI

WebAssembly (WASM) is an emerging W3C specification. It is a virtual instruction set architecture (ISA). Its initial goal is to write programs for C/C++ and other languages that can run safely and efficiently in the browser. In December 2019, W3C announced that the core specification of WebAssembly became a Web standard, which promoted the popularization of WASM technology. Today, WebAssembly is supported by streaming browsers (such as Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, Apple Safari, and Mozilla Firefox). More importantly, WebAssembly, a secure, portable, and efficient virtual machine sandbox, can safely run applications anywhere (in any operating system) and with any CPU architecture.

Mozilla proposed the WebAssembly System Interface (WASI) in 2019, which provides standard APIs (like POSIX) to standardize the interaction of WebAssembly applications with file systems, memory management, and other system resources. The emergence of WASI expands the application scenarios of WASM, allowing it to run various types of server applications as a virtual machine. In order to continue promoting the development of the WebAssembly ecosystem, Mozilla, Fastly, Intel, and Red Hat jointly established the Bytecode Alliance to lead WASI standards, WebAssembly runtime, tools, and other work. Microsoft, Google, ARM, and other companies are also members of the alliance.

WebAssembly technology is still undergoing continuous and rapid evolution. In April 2022, W3C announced the first batch of public work drafts for WebAssembly 2.0, which is an important symbol of its maturity and development.

As an emerging backend technology, WASM/WASI has the characteristics of native security, portability, high performance, and lightweight, which is suitable for running as a distributed application environment. Unlike containers, which are independent and isolated operating system processes, WASM applications can implement security isolation within a process and support millisecond-level cold start time and extremely low resource consumption. The following figure shows the difference:

Image Source: Cloudflare

Currently, WASM/WASI is in the early stage of development. There are still many technical limitations, such as the failure to support threads and low-level Socket network applications, which limit the application scenarios of WASM on the server. The community is exploring an application development model that can adapt to WASM to foster strengths and avoid weaknesses. Engineers at Microsoft Deislabs drew inspiration from the history of HTTP server development and came up with WAGI-WebAssembly Gateway Interface Items [1]. The concept of WAGI comes from CGI.

Common Gateway Interface (CGI) is a specification for the HTTP server to interact with other programs. The HTTP server communicates with the CGI scripting language through standard input and output interfaces. Developers can use Python, PHP, Perl, and other implementations to process HTTP requests.

If we can call WASI applications through CGI specifications, developers can easily use WebAssembly to write Web APIs or micro-applications without handling many network implementation details in WASM. The following figure compares the conceptual architecture diagrams of CGI and WAGI.


The two architectures are very similar but also have differences. In the traditional CGI architecture, each HTTP request will create an OS process, and the process mechanism of the operating system will realize safe isolation. In WAGI, WASI applications will be called in an independent thread for each HTTP request, and WebAssembly virtual machines are used to realize secure isolation between applications. Theoretically, WAGI can have lower resource loss and shorter response time than CGI.

This article will not analyze WAGI's architecture and WAGI application development, but you can read the project documents for more information.

Furthermore, if we can use WAGI as a Knative Serving runtime, we can build a bridge to apply WebAssembly to Serverless.

WAGI Application Cold Start Analysis and Optimization

Cold start performance is a key metric in Serverless scenarios. In order to understand the execution efficiency of WAGI better, we can use ab to do a simple stress test.

$ ab -k -n 10000 -c 100


Server Software:
Server Hostname:
Server Port:            3000

Document Path:          /
Document Length:        12 bytes

Concurrency Level:      100
Time taken for tests:   7.632 seconds
Complete requests:      10000
Failed requests:        0
Keep-Alive requests:    10000
Total transferred:      1510000 bytes
HTML transferred:       120000 bytes
Requests per second:    1310.31 [#/sec](mean)
Time per request:       76.318 [ms](mean)
Time per request:       0.763 [ms](mean, across all concurrent requests)
Transfer rate:          193.22 [Kbytes/sec] received

Connection Times (ms)
              min  mean[+/-sd] median   max
Connect:        0    0   0.6      0       9
Processing:     8   76  29.6     74     214
Waiting:        1   76  29.6     74     214
Total:          8   76  29.5     74     214

Percentage of the requests served within a certain time (ms)
  50%     74
  66%     88
  75%     95
  80%    100
  90%    115
  95%    125
  98%    139
  99%    150
 100%    214 (longest request) 


We can see that the P90 request response time is 115ms. This is different from our understanding on the lightweight of WASM. We can quickly locate the problem on the flame graph: prepare_wasm_instance function consumes 80% of the time of the overall application running.

After analyzing the code, we found that WAGI has to reconnect WASI and wasi-http extensions and configure the environment for the compiled WSM application in each response to the HTTP request. This consumes a lot of time. After the problem is located, the solution is simple. Reconstruct the execution logic so these preparations are only executed once during the initialization process, without repeating execution during each HTTP request. Please refer to Optimized Implementation [2] for details.

We rerun the stress test.

$ ab -k -n 10000 -c 100


Server Software:
Server Hostname:
Server Port:            3000

Document Path:          /
Document Length:        12 bytes

Concurrency Level:      100
Time taken for tests:   1.328 seconds
Complete requests:      10000
Failed requests:        0
Keep-Alive requests:    10000
Total transferred:      1510000 bytes
HTML transferred:       120000 bytes
Requests per second:    7532.13 [#/sec](mean)
Time per request:       13.276 [ms](mean)
Time per request:       0.133 [ms](mean, across all concurrent requests)
Transfer rate:          1110.70 [Kbytes/sec] received

Connection Times (ms)
              min  mean[+/-sd] median   max
Connect:        0    0   0.6      0       9
Processing:     1   13   5.7     13      37
Waiting:        1   13   5.7     13      37
Total:          1   13   5.6     13      37

Percentage of the requests served within a certain time (ms)
  50%     13
  66%     15
  75%     17
  80%     18
  90%     21
  95%     23
  98%     25
  99%     27
 100%     37 (longest request)


In the optimized implementation, the P90 response time has dropped to 21ms, and the time occupation of prepare_wasm_instance has dropped to 17%. The overall cold start efficiency has been improved.

Note: This article uses the performance analysis of Flamegraph [3].

Run the WAGI Application with Knative

In order to run WAGI as a Knative application, we need to add support for SIGTERM signals on WAGI to allow WAGI containers to go offline smoothly. The details will not be repeated.

You can use Minikube to create a local test environment by referring to the Knative Installation Documentation [4].

Note: You have to manage to access Knative images in gcr.io domestically.

A simpler way is to use Alibaba Cloud Serverless Container Service for Kubernetes (ASK) [5] to enter the serverless Kubernetes cluster. ASK has built-in Knative support [6]. You can develop and use Knative applications without complicated configuration and installation.

First, we use WAGI to define a Knative service:

apiVersion: serving.knative.dev/v1
kind: Service
  name: autoscale-wagi
  namespace: default
        # Knative concurrency-based autoscaling (default).
        autoscaling.knative.dev/class: kpa.autoscaling.knative.dev
        autoscaling.knative.dev/metric: concurrency
        # Target 10 requests in-flight per pod.
        autoscaling.knative.dev/target: "10"
        # Disable scale to zero with a min scale of 1.
        autoscaling.knative.dev/min-scale: "1"
        # Limit scaling to 100 pods.
        autoscaling.knative.dev/max-scale: "10"
      - image: registry.cn-hangzhou.aliyuncs.com/denverdino/knative-wagi:0.8.1-with-cache
  • The container image knative-wagi includes the WAGI gateway and some examples of WASI applications. Please see Project [7] for more details.
  • autoscale-wagi services can perform auto scaling based on the number of requests.
$ kubectl apply -f knative_test.yaml

$ kubectl get ksvc autoscale-wagi
NAME             URL                                                LATESTCREATED           LATESTREADY            READY   REASON
autoscale-wagi   http://autoscale-wagi.default.   autoscale-wagi-00002   autoscale-wagi-00002   True
$ curl http://autoscale-wagi.default.
Oh hi world
$ curl http://autoscale-wagi.default.
hello world

You can do some stress tests to learn about Knative's auto-scaling ability.


This article introduces the WAGI project, which can decouple the network processing details of the HTTP server from the WASM application logic implementation. This makes it easy to combine WASM and WASI applications with Serverless frameworks (like Knative). On the one hand, we can reuse the flexibility and large-scale resource scheduling capabilities brought by Knative and Kubernetes. On the other hand, we can take advantage of the security isolation, portability, and lightweight of WebAssembly.

In the previous article (WebAssembly + Dapr = Next-Generation Cloud-Native Runtime?), I introduced an idea to decouple WASM applications from external service dependencies through Dapr to solve the contradictions between portability and diversified service capabilities.

These jobs are used to verify the possible boundaries of technology. The main purpose is to hear everyone's thoughts about the next generation of distributed application frameworks and runtime environments.

Click here to learn more about Alibaba Cloud Serverless Container Service for Kubernetes.


[1] WAGI-WebAssembly Gateway Interface Items:


[2] Optimized Implementation:

[3] Flamegraph:

[4] Knative Installation Documentation:

[5] Serverless Kubernetes Clusters:

[6] Knative:

[7] Project:

0 1 0
Share on

You may also like


Related Products

  • Function Compute

    Alibaba Cloud Function Compute is a fully-managed event-driven compute service. It allows you to focus on writing and uploading code without the need to manage infrastructure such as servers.

    Learn More
  • Container Service for Kubernetes

    Alibaba Cloud Container Service for Kubernetes is a fully managed cloud container management service that supports native Kubernetes and integrates with other Alibaba Cloud products.

    Learn More
  • Serverless Workflow

    Visualization, O&M-free orchestration, and Coordination of Stateful Application Scenarios

    Learn More
  • Serverless Application Engine

    Serverless Application Engine (SAE) is the world's first application-oriented serverless PaaS, providing a cost-effective and highly efficient one-stop application hosting solution.

    Learn More