Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Trying Out Some Emscripten on Chrome

Omber is the GWT JavaScript app that I'm currently working on. It runs in a browser, and I've also created an Android version using Cordova. It has some computationally-intensive routines, so it's sometimes a little sluggish on cellphones, which is understandable given how under-powered cellphones are. I've been looking at whether there are ways to improve its performance.

The cellphone version of Omber runs on Chrome (specifically, the Crosswalk version of Chrome). It's unclear how to get optimal performance out of Chrome's V8 JavaScript engine. The Chrome developers talk a lot about how great its Turbofan optimizer is, but they never actually give any advice on how to write your code to get the best code generation from Turbofan. My code does a lot of floating point math, and I really need the numbers to be packed tightly to get the best performance out of the system. Should I be manually using Float64Arrays to do this? Or is V8's Turbofan smart enough to put them directly into objects? Are there ways I can add type hints to arrays and other methods? Can I reduce the number of array bounds checks? In a language like C++, I could simply write my code in a way that would produce the code generation that I wanted, but how do I guide Chrome into generating the code that I want?

Mozilla has their Emscripten project that can compile C++ to JavaScript asm.js style code. Firefox then has a special optimizer for translating JavaScript written in the asm.js style into highly optimized machine code. Personally, I think asm.js isn't a great idea. The asm.js subset is very limiting and sort of hackish. As far as I can tell, the code it produces is not very portable either. Basic things like memory alignment and endianness are ignored or simply handled poorly. For these reasons, most of the other browsers don't support asm.js-specific code optimization, but they claim that their optimizers are so good that their general optimization routines will still get good performance out of asm.js code.

So is it worth using Emscripten or not then? To try things out, I made a small test where I took my polygon simplification code and rewrote it in C++, compiled it using Emscripten to JavaScript, and compared the performance to my original GWT code. I was too lazy to record the actual numbers I was getting during my benchmarking runs, but here are the approximate numbers:

Original code on Chrome: ~280ms
Emscripten code on Chrome: ~230ms
Emscripten code with -O2 on Chrome: ~300ms
Original code on Firefox: ~4000ms
Emscripten code on Firefox: ~160ms
C++ code: ~150ms


  • The Firefox code optimizer isn't very good, so having a special optimizer for asm.js is really useful for Firefox. Firefox was able to get performance that was pretty close to that of raw C++ code when dealing with asm.js code though.
  • The Chrome optimizer is so good that the performance of the normal JavaScript code is almost as good as the Emscripten code. In fact, it probably wasn't worthwhile rewriting everything in C++ because I could have probably gotten similar performance by trying to optimize my Java(Script) code more
  • Since the Chrome optimizer isn't specifically tuned for Emscripten code, the Emscripten code might actually result in worse performance than JavaScript depending on whether Turbofan is triggered properly or not. For example, compiling Emscripten code with more optimizations (i.e. -O2), actually resulted in worse performance from Chrome
I was a little worried that Chrome's V8 engine might be tuned differently on cellphones, meaning that I might not get similar performance numbers when running on a cellphone. So I also ran the benchmarks on Cordova:

Original code on Chrome: ~2600ms
Emscripten code on Chrome: ~1600ms
Emscripten code with -O2 on Chrome: ~2800ms

Here, we can see that the Turbofan optimizer is still triggered even on cellphones, and the resulting code performs much better than the original JavaScript code. The Turbofan optimizer still isn't reliable though, so you might actually get worse performance depending on the Emscripten code output.

I'll probably stick with the Emscripten version for now, but I'll later try to optimize my original JavaScript and see if I can get similar performance out of it. It would be nice if I could just link my C++ code directly with JavaScript, but Cordova doesn't allow this. In Cordova, all non-JavaScript code must be triggered asynchronously through messages, which isn't a good fit for my application. It might be possible to do something with Crosswalk, but it seems messy and I'm too lazy. 

Alternately, I could try using Firefox on cellphones since its optimizer can get performance that's near that of C++, but the embedding story is a little unclear. The Mozilla people abandoned support for embedding their Gecko browser engine, and they ceded that market entirely to Chrome/Blink. They now realized that it was a mistake and they're trying to get back in the game with their Positron project etc, but I think they've entirely missed the point. They're building an embedding API that's compatible with Chrome's CEF, but Chrome's CEF already works fine, so why would anyone want to use Mozilla's version? The space to play in is the mobile market. Instead of wasting time on FirefoxOS, they should have spent more time working on embedded Firefox for mobile apps. An embedded Firefox for iOS with a JavaScript precompiler would be really useful, and Mozilla could dominate that space. Well, whatever.