GraphQL, the next-generation API technology that’s transforming how applications communicate with a variety of backend systems, has taken the industry by storm. Facebook’s brainchild has quickly become something that leading tech companies like Airbnb, Github, and Twitter rely on. Should you be using it, as well?
What is GraphQL?
Before we dig into the benefits and use cases of GraphQL, let’s get clear on what it is. (This will also help you understand what it is not.)
As TutorialsPoint.com explains, “A GraphQL schema is at the core of any GraphQL server implementation. It describes the functionality available to the client applications that connect to it. We can use any programming language to create a GraphQL schema and build an interface around it.”
The GraphQL runtime defines a basic graph-based schema in order to publish capabilities of the data it represents. Client applications are used to query schema within these capabilities. As a result, clients are decoupled from servers and both are given the freedom to scale and evolve independent of one another.
In practical terms, GraphQL is a query-based language that allows developers to write queries using object structures (as opposed to text strings). This means an SQL query would deviate from a traditional SQL query like this:
SELECT name, id, description FROM projects
And instead look something like this:
This makes it surprisingly simple to retrieve data. And while it comes with a bit of a learning curve, all of the hard work eventually becomes worth it once you’ve mastered the art of writing GraphQL queries and schema.
Making the Case for GraphQL
Now that you have a very basic understanding of GraphQL, let’s explore some of the top reasons why people use it. And why you probably should, too!
- Strongly Typed Schema
One of the big issues that developers encounter with APIs is a lack of strong contracts (in terms of what an operation should look like). If you’ve spent any time with other APIs, you’ve certainly found yourself in a situation where you needed to reference API documentation to know what sort of operations are supported and how they can be deployed.
GraphQL APIs, on the other hand, have strongly typed schema that serve as the reliable backbone of each and every GraphQL API. These clearly defined operations are supported by the API and can be written in very simple and expressive GraphQL SDL (or Schema Definition Language).
Furthermore, you won’t ever have to manually write API documentation. Instead, it’s auto-generated based on the schema that’s being used to define the API. Talk about saving massive amounts of time!
- No More Underfetching or Overfetching
One of the most appealing aspects of GraphQL is the fact that clients can retrieve the precise data they need directly from the API. In other words, they don’t have to rely on REST endpoints that return fixed, predefined data structures. The client is able to determine the shape of the response objects that the API returns. This means no more underfetching or overfetching (which are fairly common issues with REST APIs).
Underfetching typically occurs when there’s not enough data in an API response. This leads the client to make more API requests in order to satisfy the requirements. Overfetching is the opposite of underfetching. It occurs when the client retrieves data that isn’t needed. (This slows things down and exhausts the user’s data plan.)
- Reduced Complexity
The abstract nature of GraphQL reduces complexity – something that many developers realize once they get into the nuts and bolts.
“The thing that made it all ‘click’ for me was when I realized that all of the requests are sent to a single /graphql endpoint,” developer Jeff Lombard writes. “Why does this matter? The actual transmission of requests and data is abstracted away.”
As a result, there’s no more worrying about planning out long URLs or response codes. No more stressing over endpoints. Everything becomes so much easier.
Putting it All Together
Is GraphQL perfect for every scenario? Definitely not.
But can it be leveraged as an effective option when you’re looking for flexibility, simplicity, and speed without the headaches that come with other alternatives? The answer is yes (definitively).
At the end of the day, there’s a reason so many large companies use GraphQL. And if you do your own research, you’ll discover that it might be a good fit for you, as well