Compiling JavaScript on Embedded Devices

We've recently enabled the JavaScript eval function on embedded devices using the XS JavaScript engine. Our long-held position is unchanged: it is almost always a bad idea to compile JavaScript on an embedded device. The reasons that eval are used on the web, for example, do not typically apply to embedded development. Still, compiling scripts on the device is useful in a handful of situations. We want to provide a clean, maintainable solution for those.

Executive summary: You can now use eval on embedded devices with XS. Think twice before doing it.

Why not eval on embedded?

The ability to compile source code is a widely used feature of JavaScript. The global eval function is commonly used to compile and execute script source code, and there are several other ways. The XS engine in the Moddable SDK has always supported compilation of source code. However, this capability has only been enabled on desktop builds of XS. This capability of XS has been disabled on embedded devices because:

  • Compilation requires additional memory. Memory is used when the script is being parsed and compiled to byte code. The byte code itself then resides in RAM until it is no longer needed. For non-trivial scripts, this strains already tight RAM on many embedded devices.

  • The parsing code increases the size of the XS engine, reducing flash space available for your code.

  • Running the parser takes time, slowing the launch of scripts.

Instead, for embedded JavaScript, the XS compiler and linker run on the development machine at build time, outputting JavaScript byte code. Offloading the compilation work to the development machine speeds launch time of scripts on the embedded device. The generated byte code is stored in flash, and executed directly from flash, and consequently uses no RAM.

Note: The ECMAScript standard allows a JavaScript engine to disable compilation of scripts. This is handled through the HostEnsureCanCompileStrings abstract operation. This capability is part of JavaScript to support Content Security Policy on the web.

Using eval with XS on embedded

The JavaScript language is big and continues to grow. One way the Moddable SDK keeps the XS engine small in flash is by automatically removing code that supports features unused by scripts. For example, if your scripts never invoke a Promise, either directly or through a module they include, the support for Promises is removed from the build of the XS engine deployed to the embedded device's firmware. The scripts running on the device have access to all the language features they use; unused features are automatically eliminated.

Recent changes to XS apply this same automatic feature stripping to the parser. If the scripts in the firmware use eval (or another language feature that invoke the parser), then the parser is included. If not, it is automatically removed. This means that no special configuration is required to include the parser in the firmware build -- a script simply invokes it as usual. Importantly, scripts that do not use eval do not pay the penalty of carrying it in flash.

There is one challenge that arises. The stripping of unused JavaScript features occurs during build time on the development computer. The features are not simply removed, they are replaced with a small stub. The call to eval executing on the embedded device may use one of the stripped language features. If this does happen, it will invoke the stub, which generates a JavaScript exception. The exception generated has the message "dead strip" to indicate unexpected invocation of a removed feature. In some cases this may be acceptable. Perhaps the developer did not use Promises in their script and they do not want scripts executed by eval to use Promises either.

In other situations, the developer of the firmware may want to ensure all language features are available. It would be impractical to try to invoke all language features in the application scripts to force the features to be available. The removal of language features is controlled by the project's manifest file. The base manifest for most projects is manifest_base.json, which uses the following line to declare all unused language features should be removed:

"strip": "*",

A project that does not want to strip unused features overrides it as follows:

"strip": [],

The strip feature of the manifest can also be used to explicitly exclude only certain functions. This is more difficult to do, as it requires knowledge of XS internals. An example is given in the Manifest documentation.

Some numbers

Embedded software developers always talk about numbers. This is because the devices that their software executes on often have extremely limited resources, with most relevant here being RAM and Flash (ROM). The RAM and ROM used by XS vary depending on the build configuration, target device, and other factors. To give some perspective, let's take a look at XS flash use on an ESP32 microcontroller built using GCC. Results for other microcontrollers and toolchains should be roughly similar.

Flash code size

To establish a baseline, the hello_world application from the Espressif IDF SDK was built. This generates a binary of 137,008 bytes. This is without XS. We take this as the minimum baseline size of the ESP32 firmware.

Next, the helloworld application from the Moddable SDK was built. This builds the hello world script, the XS machine, and the ESP32 firmware together. The total binary size is 307,696 bytes. This means that the XS engine adds about 170,688 bytes. Of course, many unused features have been stripped. Still, the basics of a JavaScript engine are present.

A build of helloworld with the debugger statement invoked by eval, to force the parser to be included, increases the binary size to 365,136 bytes. Therefore, the parser code size is 57,440 bytes.

Finally, a simple REPL application from the Moddable SDK was built. Its manifest disables automatic removal of unused features giving scripts executed by eval access to the full language. The resulting binary size is 519,744 bytes, which means that the full XS increased the Flash memory used by 212,048 bytes. Not all of these bytes are used by XS, however. In the hello world example, all functions of the global Math were stripped. For example, Math.sin is removed which allows the native linker to remove the C library sin function too. This means that some of the 212,048 bytes are not strictly part of XS, but the supporting device firmware.

On ESP32, a full deployment of XS, including the parser and RegExp, is comfortably under 400 KB.


The RAM requirements of the parser vary depending on the script being parsed. As a rule of thumb, having at least 8 KB free RAM is a good idea. The longest individual string or symbol that can be parsed is configured in the manifest. The default is 1 KB, which is enough for most purposes, and may be increased if needed:

    "parser": {
        "buffer": 1024,

xsbug, the XS debugger, has been enhanced to display in the instrumentation panel the number of bytes used by the parser when it executes. This is useful both to see when the parser is invoked and to understand the amount of memory used by the parser during execution.

However, the majority of RAM used by the parser often is in the byte code it outputs, not the temporary memory used during parsing. The byte code resides in the chunk heap. The more scripts compiled, the less RAM is free for other purposes.


With the JavaScript parser now available on embedded devices, we wrote a simple REPL (Read-eval-print loop) example application for interactive exploration of the capabilities of XS. The REPL is similar in concept to the JavaScript console found in web browsers.

Build and run

The REPL builds like any other example, though it is necessary to turn off JavaScript debugging. This is because the REPL runs over the same serial connection as xsbug which would cause conflicts.

cd $MODDABLE/examples/js/repl
mcconfig -m -p esp32

When the REPL launches, the ESP32 IDF turns the terminal window into a serial console. You can then type commands to the REPL interactively:

Moddable REPL (version 0.0.1)

> var x = 12
> x
> x + 5
> x ** 2
> eval("x + 3")

The REPL runs on ESP8266:

mcconfig -m -p esp

On ESP8266, you need to run your own terminal program as the default build tools do not provide one. The serial port runs at 921,600 baud, 8 bits, no parity, one stop bit. You may change the serial configuration by modifying the call to uart_init.

The REPL runs on Mac:

mcconfig -m -p x-cli-mac

The REPL runs on Windows:

mcconfig -m -p x-cli-win

The explicit invocation of repl on Mac and Windows is necessary as mcconfig does not launch it directly.

Note: The REPL on Windows does not support arrow key input, so type carefully.

Exploring with the REPL

Use the require function to access modules:

> const Timer = require("timer")
> Timer.set(() => console.log("hello"), 1000)
[object Object]
> hello

Note: The Timer module is available in the REPL for embedded devices, but not on Mac or Windows.

The cache property of the require function contains a list of loaded modules, including those preloaded:

> Object.keys(require.cache)

To experiment with other modules, add them to the REPL manifest and rebuild. For example, to try Base64:

"modules": {
    "*": [
"preload": [

Here's a sample use of the Base64 module. Note that encode accepts either a String or ArrayBuffer, and decode always returns an ArrayBuffer.

> const Base64 = require("base64")
> Base64.encode("xyzzy")
> let result = Base64.decode("eHl6enk=")
> result
[object ArrayBuffer]
> result = new Uint8Array(result)
> result.forEach(value => console.log(String.fromCharCode(value)))


The REPL runs in strict mode. The Moddable SDK always runs in strict mode on embedded devices. Among other things, this means variables must be explicitly declared. The following session shows an example.

> test
ReferenceError: ?: get test: undefined variable
> global.test = 1
> test
> let test = 2
> test
> global.test

Note: XS implements the global global variable, a Stage 3 ECMAScript proposal. This global is expected to be renamed to eliminate conflicts with existing libraries on the web. When it is renamed, XS will adopt the new name.


The ability to run a standard JavaScript 2018 implementation of eval on microcontrollers that sell for just a few dollars is unprecedented. It is tempting to use eval in many places. Yet, we don't recommend its broad use. It is our experience that precompiling on a development machine is a better solution in most circumstances. Dynamically compiling and executing scripts on the device uses considerably more RAM for anything but trivial scripts. It also takes more time and reduces the flash space for your code.

Here are some scenarios where we believe using eval on the device is a good choice:

  • Exploration. Being able to interact with the virtual machine interactively is a great way to understand the implementation and the device's capabilities. Using our simple REPL we've already found (and fixed!) a few bugs.

  • Education. For students getting started with a new language, being able to execute it directly provides immediate feedback.

  • Development. During development, especially while debugging, it can be useful to run a few lines of code that aren't part of the executable.

It may be tempting to use the REPL as the start of a command line interface. We don't recommend it. A true command line is generally easier to work with. The Moddable SDK provides a CLI class to add commands to both our serial console and telnet implementations. Not only is this better in most situations where command line interface is used, but the code size and RAM use are considerably lower.