[llvm-dev] Volatile in WebAssembly

Dan Gohman via llvm-dev llvm-dev at lists.llvm.org
Thu Sep 13 06:14:04 PDT 2018


Like most ISAs, the WebAssembly ISA doesn't have volatile flags, just
regular loads/stores, and soon regular atomics. WebAssembly is a virtual
ISA though, and WebAssembly engines may optimize regular loads/stores in
ways that are permitted by the C/C++ standards, but which aren't found in
typical hardware-implemented ISAs. This could potentially be observable, in
a racy way, once WebAssembly supports threads.

For example, a hypothetical WebAssembly engine could hoist a seeming
loop-invariant non-atomic load out of a loop, something that traditional
hardware CPUs typically wouldn't do. In code like this:


The code is expecting the volatile loads to eventually observe volatile
stores from another thread. If a WebAssembly engine hoists the loads out of
the loops, they may never see the stores. The C and C++ standards consider
this a data race, so it's undefined behavior. So we're not required to do
anything more here. But, such code works in practice on other platforms.

Though the specifics are different, the same problem arises on other
platforms, such as ARM, which effectively has weaker volatile semantics
than x86, in ways that break legacy code in the real world. Clang and LLVM
have never attempted to support such code, except for clang's MSVC
compatibility mode. And while MSVC has a flag to enable compatibility with
such code, that's regarded as an error, and MSVC's flag is disabled by
default on ARM. Nevertheless, some people are asking us if we can support
such code on WebAssembly.

So we're currently evaluating our options, and are interested in feedback.

 * Clang has an existing option, -fms-volatile, which addresses the broader
problem of code using volatile and expecting atomic semantics, and it turns
out to be sufficient to solve the problem we have here too. Currently it's
only available in MSVC mode though, so should we make it available for
WebAssembly users too? This flag gives volatile accesses consistent atomic
semantics through the entire compilation pipeline.

 * Or, should we make WebAssembly CodeGen translate volatile accesses into
atomic accesses? This wouldn't provide atomic semantics at the LLVM IR
level, so it wouldn't prevent code from being broken by LLVM's optimizer in
general, but it would allow code that survives the optimizer to work. And,
it would present the code to the optimizer in a form closer to that which
it may have been tested with, assuming the testing on legacy platforms was
done with clang, which may increase the chances of it surviving through
LLVM's optimizer with the behavior and performance it was tested with
(although, if the testing was done with MSVC on x86, this would make the
code *less* likely to survive with the behavior and performance it was
tested with). And if there exist any non-C/C++ frontends that similarly use
volatile and mistakenly expect atomic semantics, it would allow them to
work on WebAssembly in cases where their output similarly survives the

 * Or, should we do nothing? This would mean that volatile loads and stores
are translated to wasm as plain loads and stores, the same as in all other
ISAs. The C/C++ standards don't normatively require us to do anything else
here (though there are differing views on the non-normative intent), other
backends don't do anything here despite having the same problems, and we
don't currently have any reports of this problem occurring in practice on

If we do something:

 * Should we enable it by default for WebAssembly?

 * Should we implement it in a way that can be used by other platforms too?
The broader problem of people using volatile and expecting atomic semantics
isn't limited to WebAssembly.

- WebAssembly backend developers
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