Mechanising and evolving the formal semantics of WebAssembly: the Web's new low-level language


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WebAssembly is the first new programming language to be supported natively by all major Web browsers since JavaScript. It is designed to be a natural low-level compilation target for languages such as C, C++, and Rust, enabling programs written in these languages to be compiled and executed efficiently on the Web. WebAssembly’s specification is managed by the W3C WebAssembly Working Group (made up of representatives from a number of major tech companies). Uniquely, the language is specified by way of a full pen-and-paper formal semantics.

This thesis describes a number of ways in which I have both helped to shape the specification of WebAssembly, and built upon it. By mechanising the WebAssembly formal semantics in Isabelle/HOL while it was being drafted, I discovered a number of errors in the specification, drove the adoption of official corrections, and provided the first type soundness proof for the corrected language. This thesis also details a verified type checker and interpreter, and a security type system extension for cryptography primitives, all of which have been mechanised as extensions of my initial WebAssembly mechanisation.

A major component of the thesis is my work on the specification of shared memory concurrency in Web languages: correcting and verifying properties of JavaScript’s existing relaxed memory model, and defining the WebAssembly-specific extensions to the corrected model which have been adopted as the basis of WebAssembly’s official threads specification. A number of deficiencies in the original JavaScript model are detailed. Some errors have been corrected, with the verified fixes officially adopted into subsequent editions of the language specification. However one discovered deficiency is fundamental to the model, an instance of the well-known "thin-air problem".

My work demonstrates the value of formalisation and mechanisation in industrial programming language design, not only in discovering and correcting specification errors, but also in building confidence both in the correctness of the language’s design and in the design of proposed extensions.

Sewell, Peter
WebAssembly, mechanisation, Isabelle/HOL, virtual machine, programming language semantics, WasmCert
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (1790117)
2019 Google PhD Fellowship in Programming Technology and Software Engineering Peterhouse Research Fellowship