Table of Contents



  1. Introduction
  2. Bindings and JavaScript API

After the successful “hello XLNT” example, it was time to start exposing stuff to JavaScript. There are two easy ways of achieving this: embind and WebIDL. I chose embind because it doesn’t require any special file format and its way more complete and explicit than WebIDL.

All the sources from this blog post can be found here:

This awesome library allows exposing class definitions by simply defining their exportable members (constructors, methods, properties, etc).

#include <emscripten/bind.h>

        .function("active_sheet", &workbook::active_sheet);

After adding those lines to my example, I was able to create workbooks and call one of their methods from JavaScript. Awesome, isn’t it?

const workbook = new xlnt.workbook();
const sheet = workbook.active_sheet();

sheet.delete(); // calls destructor, explained later
workbook.delete(); // calls destructor, explained later

I started writing all the bindings for other classes and methods until I found some challenges that I already expected: implicit conversions, exporting custom js functions, managing ownerships, function overloads and templates in general.

Implicit Conversions and Custom Functions

I expected implicit conversions to work magically but, of course, they didn’t.

There are two ways of retrieving a cell from the given worksheet in XLNT: providing a cell_reference which is implicitly convertible from a string or passing both column_t and row_t which are implicitly convertible from uint32_t.

// XLNT declarations
cell worksheet::cell(const cell_reference& reference); // sheet.cell("B2")
cell worksheet::cell(column_t column, row_t row); // sheet.cell(2, 2)

The javascript API always needs to be a 100% explicit, and this was an issue. Implicit conversions like those are forbidden, they basically force your API consumers to construct those intermediate types manually before passing them to our functions.

I didn’t want to expose those types to the API, I preferred to use string and uint32_t for the overloads. Also, there is a huge benefit that comes from avoiding the manual instantiation of those intermediate types: API consumers aren’t forced to do any manual memory management.

It’s our responsibility to manually call the destructor of all new C++ objects that we create in JavaScript and everything from the API that gets returned by value. This can be achieved by calling the member function .delete()

The solution was obvious: I decided to wrap those functions into custom exposed methods that took string and uint32_t as parameters. Turns out that you can expose custom member functions that are implemented by static functions if they take the reference to *this as the first parameter. Also, optional_override helps a lot when defining those by using lambdas.


    .function("cell", optional_override([](
        worksheet& worksheet,
        const string& cell_reference)
        return worksheet.cell(cell_reference);

    .function("cell", optional_override([](
        worksheet& worksheet,
        uint32_t col,
        uint32_t row)
        return worksheet.cell(col, row);

This was an elegant solution, but it had a big drawback: it exposed the ownership of the cell to JavaScript, forcing consumers to call cell.delete() all the time. This completely ruins the experience when using method chains like the ones shown in the XLNT example. Unacceptable.

sheet.cell("B2").value(1234); // memory leak

Avoiding Exposed Ownership

Now that we are all aware of the problems related to memory ownerships in JavaScript, I want to do a small break in the story and recommend you a nice pattern that helped me a lot when designing this kind of APIs: executing JS functions from C++ to preserve C++ ownerships.

I know, this pattern sounds super confusing right now. Please let me explain how it works.

The ‘using’ Pattern

Instead of returning an object from C++ and forcing the consumer to destroy it, let’s pass a JavaScript function that uses the object as a parameter to the C++ method and invoke it from there. This way we can still manage the lifetime of the object in the C++ side and ensure the proper destruction.

sheet.using_cell("B2", c => c.set_value(1234));
// also
v = sheet.using_cell("B2", c => c.get_value());

It sounds amazing after the explanation, huh?

Invoking JS Callbacks from C++

There is a magical type called emscripten::val that basically wraps anything that comes from JavaScript world to C++. It implements some explicit conversions and operator(), which is exactly what we need for invoking callbacks.

Passing a pointer to the object avoids extra copies. This is the most important part in the implementation.


    .function("using_cell", optional_override([](
        worksheet& worksheet,
        const string& cell_reference,
        val action)
        auto cell = worksheet.cell(cell_reference);
        // ptr avoids extra copies
        auto* cell_ptr = &cell;

        return action(cell_ptr); 

    // ... the other overload

We just preserved the method chain style and abstracted the API consumer from managing memory ownerships just by using this smart pattern. I love it.

In case you wonder why I created a new local variable for storing the pointer, it is a workaround for a bug in embind: passing the ptr as lvalue instead of the ptr itself.

Overloading by Return Type

Considering that C++ has templates and also allows overloading by return type, it’s normal that XLNT uses those features for operations like getting the value of a cell. This is a nice C++ design but exposing it to JavaScript can be really painful.

// XLNT declarations
template<typename T> T cell::value() const;

Embind doesn’t support type-based overloading so the obvious solution here was to create different methods with different names depending on the return type. The implementation of this was a no-brainer.

.function("get_value_str", &cell::value<string>)
.function("get_value_bool", &cell::value<bool>)
.function("get_value_number", &cell::value<double>)

Done! …right? nope. This sucks.

Visitor Pattern to the Rescue!

I was sure that there was a better way to do this, mostly because I would NEVER design my API like this if it was purely implemented in JavaScript.

C++17 introduced std::variant which provides storage for different types, like a type-safe union. I would expect any modern excel library to use a variant<double, bool, string> to store the value of the cells. If this was the case, I could later visit whatever value it stores there and convert it to emscripten::val.

variant<string, double> var;
var = 2.33;
var = "LOL";

// returns a JS string "LOL"
return visit(
    [](auto&& v) {
        return val(forward<decltype(v)>(v));
    }, var);

Since XLNT is C++14, it doesn’t use std::variant but the design ideas remain the same. After some checkings, it turned out that implementing dynamic return type for get_value was as simple as doing a switch-case. Respecting JS standards, I decided to fallback to undefined for empty or unknown types.

.function("get_value", optional_override([](
    cell& cell)
    switch (cell.data_type())
        case cell_type::boolean:
            return val(cell.value<bool>());

        case cell_type::number:
            return val(cell.value<double>());

        case cell_type::inline_string:
        case cell_type::shared_string:
            return val(cell.to_string());

            return val::undefined();

Overloading by Argument Type

XLNT is designed to take advantage of C++ overloads to make the interfaces “simple” for the consumers. This is great for C++ but we can do it better for JavaScript.

// XLNT declarations
void cell::value(bool value);
void cell::value(double value);
void cell::value(const string& value);
void cell::value(nullptr_t);

Now that I knew how to deal with dynamic return types, doing it on arguments sounded easy-peasy. After checking the emscripten::val implementation, I saw a typeOf() method that is basically a proxy for JavaScript’s typeof operator.

Using this, I was able to bind anything from my parameters to val and do the type-checking in runtime. The solution turns out to be very similar to the switch-case from the previous example.

.function("set_value", optional_override([](
    cell& cell,
    val value)
    auto type = value.typeOf().as<string>();
    if (type == "number")
        return cell.value(<double>());
    else if (type == "string")
        return cell.value(<string>());
    else if (type == "boolean")
        return cell.value(<bool>());
    else if (value.isNull() || value.isUndefined())
        return cell.value(nullptr_t{});

        throw new TypeError("value must be string, number or boolean");

Exporting Custom JavaScript Functions

I also want to share one interesting trick I found when implementing the method This method was really simple: saving the workbook and triggering the download dialog as we saw in the first post, but this required some JavaScript underneath and I didn’t want to add an extra JS file to the solution just for this.

After some brainstorming, I realized that EM_ASM can be really helpful in those cases and decided to give it a try. This macro allows inlining sync JavaScript code in C++ code, giving you the chance to manipulate the generated code from the bindings.

The implementation of download(fileName) turned out to be really simple when using this trick.

void download(
    workbook& workbook,
    const string& fileName)

        fileName = Pointer_stringify($0);
        fileContent = [FS.readFile(fileName)];

        mime = "application/vnd.openxmlformats-officedocument.spreadsheetml.sheet";
        file = new Blob(fileContent, { type: mime });
        downloadUrl = URL.createObjectURL(file);

        // Download the Blob
        anchor = document.createElement('a'); = fileName;
        anchor.href = downloadUrl;
        anchor.dataset.downloadurl = mime + ":" + fileName + ":" + downloadUrl;
    }, fileName.c_str());

        .function("download", &download)
        // ...

Creating the TypeScript Definitions

I’m reserving this for a future post where I will explain how to make the JS library modular, how to manage memory ownerships via mixins, how to deal with member constructors and much more!

Excel-ent experiment with WebAssembly:

  1. Introduction
  2. Bindings and JavaScript API