Sunday, June 19, 2011

First steps from node.js to concurrent JavaScript

I've always been somewhat ambivalent about node.js.

The project has received praise for advancing the idea of event-based server development. This argument never seemed terribly persuasive; Twisted and Event Machine (among others) have been plowing that soil for some time now and it's not clear that node.js adds anything new in this space. This does not mean that the project has made no contribution. The most impressive accomplishment of node.js has been to show what JavaScript can do when let out of it's browser-shaped cage. Crockford and others have put in a considerable amount of work to demonstrate that there's a fully-formed programming language hiding behind the event handlers and DOM manipulation. node.js provides further evidence that they were right all along.

The functional side of JavaScript (anonymous functions and/or closures specifically) lends itself to asynchronous network programming. But what about other paradigms? Suppose we're writing a concurrent application with multiple synchronous "threads" [1] of control. Let's further suppose that these "threads" implement a share-nothing architecture and communicate via messaging. Does JavaScript have anything to offer our application? We would expect the answer to be "yes"; in addition to anonymous functions/closures serving as message handlers we might also lean on the easy creation of arbitrary objects to achieve something resembling Erlang's tuples. But that's just speculation. In order to know for sure we should try our model on an actual concurrent problem or two.

But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. Before we dig into any samples we should probably define our framework. We'll start with the Go language. Go's support for lightweight processes (i.e. goroutines) maps naturally onto the "threads" we refer to above so it's a natural match for our problem space. We can also easily define our goal in terms of goroutines: we wish to create the ability to implement a goroutine in JavaScript. Finally, Go's built-in support for native code should facilitate interaction with our JavaScript engine. While we're on that subject, we'll follow the lead of node.js and use v8 as our JavaScript implementation.

The ability to implement goroutines in JavaScript requires at least three components:

  • Obviously we require the ability to execute arbitrary JavaScript from within a Go program

  • We'll also need to add bindings to the v8 environment from within Go. This allows us to pass channels and other objects into the JavaScript code

  • JavaScript code running in v8 should be able to interact with Go code. Our JavaScript goroutines must be able to send and receive messages from Go channels

We begin with the execution of JavaScript from within Go. The language supports good integration with C code, but v8 is written in C++. A few previous efforts work around this mismatch by way of a C shim into the C++ code. This works but seems somewhat artificial. Go now supports the use of SWIG to interact with C++; in fact it's the recommended method for interacting with C++ code. We'll start there and see where it takes us.

Initially we try to expose the various C++ structures referenced in the v8 sample documentation to Go via SWIG, but this approach rapidly runs aground for a couple of reasons. First, the v8 API includes a few stack-allocated data structures which won't persist across SWIG calls. Second, the API also makes some use of nested C++ classes, a feature not yet supported by SWIG [2]. So we shift gears a bit; we should be able to define a set of classes and/or static functions which can do the heavy lifting for us. This approach enables us to execute JavaScript, but unfortunately we can't easily bind Go objects or expose Go code in the JS environment. v8 does allow us to define C++ functions that can be made available to that environment, but unfortunately SWIG can only expose C/C++ code to higher level languages; it can't do the inverse. As a consequence there's no way to make any C++ function we inject aware of the Go code that's interacting with it. JavaScript code thus cannot interact with channels, so at the moment the best we can do is to return a value from our JavaScript function which can then be accessed from within the Go code.

[@varese v8-golang]$ make buildshell
swig -c++ -go v8wrapper.i
g++ -c -I/home/fencepost/svn/v8/include -fpic
g++ -c -I/home/fencepost/svn/v8/include -fpic v8wrapper_wrap.cxx
g++ -shared -L/home/fencepost/svn/v8 v8wrapper_wrap.o v8wrapper.o -o -lv8
8g v8.go
8c -I/home/fencepost/hg/go/src/pkg/runtime v8_gc.c
gopack grc v8.a v8.8 v8_gc.8
8g -I. v8shell.go
8l -L . -r . -o v8shell v8shell.8
[@varese v8-golang]$ more fib.js
// Simple accumulator-based Fibonacci implementation
function fib(a,b,count) {
function _fib(_a,_b,_count,_accum) {
if (_count <= 0) {
return _accum;
var n = _a + _b;
return _fib(_b,n,(_count - 1),_accum + "," + n);
return _fib(a,b,(count - 2),a + "," + b);

[@varese v8-golang]$ ./v8shell -script=fib.js
Using JavaScript file: fib.js
Result: 0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34

The above code was built with SWIG 2.0.4. Full code can be found on github.

This technique works but isn't very satisfying. We don't have communication via channels, which in turn prevents us from having long-running JavaScript as our goroutine. We're also constrained to returning strings from our JavaScript functions, hardly a general purpose solution. We'll try to move past these limitations in future work.

[1] Think "thread of execution" rather than something your operating system might recognize
[2] There are some workarounds but nothing that seemed viable for our purposes