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What is GraphQL?

What is GraphQL?

Harold Bell
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Key Takeaways

GraphQL is a query language and runtime for APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) that was developed by Facebook. It provides a more efficient and flexible way to request and manipulate data from servers compared to traditional RESTful APIs. With GraphQL, clients can specify the exact data they need, avoiding over-fetching or under-fetching of information.

GraphQL is a query language for APIs. It was developed by Facebook engineers in 2015 and has since gained popularity among developers working on large-scale web applications. Positioned as a more robust alternative to traditional RESTful APIs, GraphQL is built on the principles of Graph Theory, which is a set of mathematical concepts that describe how networks of objects (nodes) interact with each other.

With GraphQL, querying APIs is simplified through the use of precise and concise requests. Just like how you would communicate with a friend about dinner plans or weekend activities, you can describe your needs to the API using variables and filters, making sure that you receive the exact desired response. Notable implementations of GraphQL include Facebook’s GraphQL, GitHub’s GraphQL API, and Salesforce’s App Cloud Connect service.

Why use GraphQL?

There are several reasons why GraphQL is preferable to traditional RESTful APIs. Firstly, GraphQL is more versatile. It enables you to specify the exact data you require, instead of relying on the API provider to decide which resources to return. Secondly, GraphQL simplifies query writing through its straightforward and intuitive syntax. Rather than constructing a complex URL with numerous parameters, you can articulate your request in a single or a few lines. Lastly, because GraphQL is designed for cross-platform compatibility, including web browsers and mobile devices, it can cater to a diverse range of use cases and applications.

How is GraphQL used?

GraphQL is usually utilized with a client application, such as a web browser or a mobile app. The client application uses GraphQL to request data from the API and then parses the response into a readable format. For instance, you could use GraphQL to retrieve information about a user account from an API provider like Facebook. This response would be processed on the client side by converting the JSON result to HTML and then sending it to the user’s web browser. Alternatively, you could use GraphQL to request a list of products from an API provider like Amazon. The JavaScript in the client application would parse the response and generate an HTML page for the user to view the list of products. In both these scenarios, the client application can process the result because it understands GraphQL.

GraphQL vs REST

GraphQL is a powerful query language and API platform that leverages the strengths of REST. It is fully compatible with RESTful APIs, making it an attractive option for developers familiar with REST. While both approaches have their merits, there are key differences between the two. The primary distinction lies in how requests are made. With a traditional REST API, developers must explicitly define how they will make requests to each individual endpoint. In contrast, GraphQL allows developers to define their queries in a centralized manner, and the server handles making the necessary requests. This streamlined approach simplifies the development process and enhances efficiency.

Other notable differences between GraphQL and REST include:

  • Query language: REST provides a set of resources and verbs (methods) that can be used to retrieve or manipulate data from a server. All transactions include all fields. In contrast, GraphQL offers a query language that enables you to specify exactly which data fields you want to interact with.
  • Resource structure: In REST, the server returns a list of resources. In contrast, with GraphQL, the server can return a single object or a collection of objects.
  • Queries vs. Requests: With REST, you make a request using a specific method or verb, and you receive one or more resources as a result. In contrast, with GraphQL, you make a query that returns data. REST requests are more complex because they require JSON to be parsed and processed on the server before the results can be returned. GraphQL queries, on the other hand, are simpler because they are written in the native language of the client, removing much of the overhead associated with handling requests and parsing JSON.

Here’s a simple example of a query using a traditional REST API and a GraphQL API: If you request data from the traditional REST API using GET or POST, the response you get back might look something like this: { ‘data’: [ { ‘name’: ‘John Smith’, ‘age’: 50 }, { ‘name’: ‘Jane Doe’, ‘age’: 20 } ] } If you want more details of a specific user from the data above, you have to re-query the API with another endpoint specifying the user’s name, like this: … GET /users/:name . You can see that using a GraphQL API would be much simpler. You could simply say: Give me the profile of John Smith, and the server would return data about John Smith as a response.

Both approaches have advantages and disadvantages, so the best choice depends on your specific application. If you’re unsure which approach to take, consult with your team’s developers or architects. They can help you choose the best solution for your needs.

Disadvantages of GraphQL

A notable challenge in using GraphQL is the lack of an official standard for implementing GraphQL APIs. Consequently, developers must rely on the open-source community to create tools and libraries that simplify working with GraphQL.

While GraphQL may appear to be a clear winner over REST APIs, there are some factors to consider. GraphQL offers fewer endpoints than REST because it is designed to return smaller data chunks as results. Consequently, obtaining all the necessary data from a GraphQL API may require more effort. However, code-generation tools can automate the generation of entire codebases from the GraphQL schema, although setting it up initially may be more involved compared to a REST API. Additionally, there are more developer tools available for debugging REST APIs than for GraphQL APIs.

Securing your GraphQL API

It is crucial to secure GraphQL APIs as they are highly vulnerable to attacks by hackers. To ensure maximum protection, it is recommended to implement a secure authentication system that mandates the use of an API key with every query. Additionally, access to the APIs should be restricted based on the roles assigned to users. Furthermore, utilizing HTTPS encryption is essential in preventing unauthorized access to queries by third-party users.

For maximum protection, you should use a platform that detect misconfigurations and provide runtime protection that monitors data access in real time and alerts you to unexpected or unauthorized activity on your API. With the right API security platform in place, you can quickly respond to any security threats and protect your data from being stolen.

GraphQL FAQs

Can GraphQL be used with any programming language?

One of the strengths of GraphQL is its language agnosticism, which allows it to be used with virtually any programming language.

So, what is GraphQL? GraphQL specifies how APIs should behave, defining a schema and a query language rather than dictating the implementation details. GraphQL simplifies API calls by providing a more flexible way to request and retrieve data. This flexibility allows developers to implement GraphQL servers and clients using the programming language of their choice, such as JavaScript, Python, and Ruby.

Are there security concerns with GraphQL?

While GraphQL isn’t inherently insecure, improper implementation can introduce security vulnerabilities. Here are some ways to enhance data protection:

  • Implement strong authentication mechanisms to ensure that only those authorized can access your endpoints.
  • Validate and sanitize input data to prevent injection attacks. Make sure that the input adheres to the expected schema and data types.
  • Use HTTPS to encrypt data and protect against man-in-the-middle attacks.
  • Use multi-factor authentication to require users to provide multiple forms of identification and reduce the risk of unauthorized access to GraphQL endpoints.

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Can GraphQL be used to update data in real time?

Yes, GraphQL supports real-time data through a feature called subscriptions, which allow clients to receive real-time updates from the server when certain events occur. Unlike typical queries and mutations that are request-response based, subscriptions establish a persistent connection between the client and the server. Therefore, the server pushes updates to the client whenever relevant data changes.

What is GraphQL used for? The ability to define subscription types makes GraphQL well-suited for apps that require real-time updates, such as chat applications or collaborative editing environments.

What are the best GraphQL developer tools?

Several GraphQL developer tools simplify the development, testing, and debugging process. These include: 

  • GraphiQL: Similar to GraphQL Playground, GraphiQL is an in-browser integrated development environment (IDE) for exploring GraphQL APIs. It enables developers to interactively build and execute queries.
  • Apollo Client Devtools: An extension for Chrome and Firefox, Apollo Client Devtools enhances the debugging experience for applications using Apollo Client. It provides insights into GraphQL queries, caching, and network requests.
  • Prisma: Prisma is a powerful database toolkit that simplifies database access in GraphQL applications. Prisma Client provides a type-safe database that auto-generates queries based on the GraphQL schema.
  • GraphQL Voyager: This visualization tool generates an interactive graph representation of a GraphQL schema. It helps developers understand the relationships between types and explore the structure of their API.
  • Security testing tools: Security testing tools like GraphQL Guard are designed to identify and protect against common security risks, such as query complexity attacks and denial-of-service (DOS) attacks. They help reduce potential threats to your GraphQL API.

Harold Bell

Harold Bell was the Director of Content Marketing at Noname Security. He has over a decade of experience in the IT industry with leading organizations such as Cisco, Nutanix, and Rubrik, and has been featured as an executive ghostwriter in Forbes Technology Council and Hacker News.

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