How-To Guides
Resources Vs Records

Choosing Between Resources and Records

The difference between a resource and a record can be subtle when first starting out, but there is a simple rule of thumb that will work 90% of the time:

Records contain data, resources encapsulate behaviour.

Typical Examples

A person is a good example of a record.

record person {
    name: string,
    age: u8,
    address: option<address>,

record address {
    number: u32,
    street: string,
    state: string,
    country: string,
    postcode: u32,

On the other hand, a database connection would be best represented using a resource.

resource database {
    static connect: func(connection_string: string) -> expected<database, error>
    query: func(sql: string) -> expected<list<record>, error>
    close: func() -> expected<unit, error>

Key Considerations

When deciding between using a resource or a record, consider the following:

  • Performance: Records require deep copying when passed between guest and host, which can be expensive for large or complex records. Consider using resources for objects with significant amounts of data or complex structures to mitigate performance issues.
  • Immutability: Records provide a level of immutability due to their pass-by-value nature. If immutability is a priority, records can be a suitable choice. However, if you need to frequently modify an object's state, a resource might be more appropriate.
  • Encapsulation: For objects with both data and behavior, consider whether separating the data and behavior into different objects—a record for data and a resource for behavior—adds value or complexity to your code.
  • Data Sharing: If data sharing or synchronization across components or instances is important, resources are a better choice since they use references, while records are not ideal for sharing data.

Edge Cases

While the "Records contain data, resources encapsulate behaviour" rule works for most cases, you will almost certainly run into situations where something has both data and behaviour.

This happens a lot when wrapping a "normal" library with a WAI interface so it can be used from WebAssembly. The distinction between "object" and "data" is more fluid in most general purpose programming languages, so it can be common to encounter something that doesn't neatly fall into the "record" or "resource" categories.

Workaround 1: Getters & Setters

If something would normally have publicly accessible fields and methods which might modify those fields, the best solution is to make that thing a resource with getters and setters.

For example, a virtual machine might normally expose its instruction pointer and any global variables that are defined, while also having an eval() method for evaluating code snippets.

resource virtual-machine {
    instruction-pointer: func() -> u32
    set-instruction-pointer: func(ip: u32)
    global-variables: func() -> list<tuple<string, value>>
    set-global-variable: func(name: string, value: value)
    eval: func(code: string) -> expected<unit, error>

This approach works particularly well when the methods will update state because all resources are reference types, meaning any modifications made to a resource through one handle (e.g. via a method) will be seen by all other handles to the same resource.

One downside of this approach is that each getter or setter is implemented using a method. When you have a large number of fields to expose, these extra methods can become hard to maintain or make it easy to lose interesting functionality within a wall of boilerplate.

Workaround 2: Move Methods to Top-Level Functions

Going in the other direction, sometimes it might be better to turn methods into top-level functions and use a record.

One example of this could be the satellite object used in a library that predicts the motion of a satellite.

/// An element
record satellite {
    object-name: optional<string>,
    norad-id: u64,
    inclination: float64,
    right-ascension: float64,

/// Parse a satellite from its JSON representation.
satellite-from-json: func(json: string) -> expected<satellite, error>

/// Predict where a satellite will be at a particular time.
predicted-location: func(s: satellite, ts: timestamp) -> position

This works well when the thing being expressed is mostly data, with only a couple of pieces of associated behaviour.

Records are passed around by value, meaning any operations that would normally modify a field will need to return a new value with the updated field, instead. This can be quite expensive when the record is large, because passing a record from guest to host (or host to guest) will often mean the entire object is serialized recursively and copied across the host-guest boundary. Consider the trade-offs between performance and immutability when deciding whether to use records or resources in these edge cases.