It Depends — Examining GraphQL Myths and Assumptions

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As with any technology choice, choosing GraphQL as an API style involves tradeoffs. Some tell us GraphQL is here to replace everything else, others tell us using GraphQL is a mistake. In this talk, we'll explore why both these things are false, and how everything is context dependent.

Marc-André Giroux
Marc-André Giroux
25 min
02 Jul, 2021

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Video Summary and Transcription

Today's talk explores the nuances of GraphQL and how its effectiveness depends on the context. Caching is a polarizing subject in GraphQL, but there are tools available for caching. The trade-off for client-side flexibility in GraphQL affects performance predictability. GraphQL as a backend for frontend offers flexibility but limits true decoupling. It's important to consider the context and trade-offs when deciding whether to use GraphQL or REST. The speaker emphasizes the need for better conversations and understanding the nuances of GraphQL.

Available in Español

1. Introduction to GraphQL and Caching

Short description:

Today's talk is called 'It Depends.' We'll explore the nuanced discussions around GraphQL and how its effectiveness depends on the context. Caching is a polarizing subject in GraphQL. Some say it's impossible to cache, while others say it's not a concern. Let's dive into it. GraphQL clients have powerful normalized caches, and backend resolvers can be cached too. However, the challenge lies in HTTP caching and the absence of shared HTTP caches. Shared caching allows responses to be reused across different clients and servers.

Hey, hello again, everyone! Thank you for coming to watch my talk. So, today my talk is called, It Depends. It may sound a little boring, and it might be, but we'll see. We'll kind of examine how there's certain discussions around GraphQL that these days we either hear like that's totally true or totally false. But there's many things about GraphQL that just depend a lot on the context you're in and have so much nuance. So, we'll just try to dive real deep into some of that stuff.

So, my name is Mark. I work at GitHub, and I'm from Montreal, Canada. So, It Depends. What do I mean by that? So, as I was saying earlier, with GraphQL, there are some topics that we're going to see today that either people say you can't do with GraphQL, or that GraphQL is the best solution for. But in reality, something I've noticed, working with a lot of different people, working at different places on GraphQL, is that the context in which we take these decisions are way more important than GraphQL versus REST, or GraphQL versus gRPC, or these kind of things.

And the first thing I want to start with is caching. And I've talked about this before. So, if you've seen a talk of mine on caching before, there might be a little bit of a repeat here, but I think it's one of the most interesting subjects around GraphQL because it's such a polarized subject. On one end, you hear some people saying caching GraphQL is literally impossible. The other end, people say it isn't a concern at all. So, let's dive into it. When we talk about caching, and when we hear that GraphQL is hard to cache, sometimes it's a little hard to understand why. Because on the client side, literally any GraphQL client you look at has powerful normalized caches on the client side with a lot of features. And on the backend side, well, we're using just regular programming languages. We can cache what we want, resolvers are just functions. And we've got tools like Data Loader that allow us to cache data loading, which is great. So it's hard to tell really what is hard about it when we have so many good tools to do it. Reality is that when people say caching is hard, they usually talk about different caching than what we just saw. They talk about HTTP caching. And in particular, what they say will be missing is shared HTTP caches. So if you've never heard about this, it's actually quite a complex mechanism, but the problem itself is kind of basic to explain. So when clients generally hit your GraphQL server, they got a response back. With a shared cache, you can cache these responses and reuse. Because it's shared, you can reuse these responses across different clients and across different servers.

2. Caching in Authenticated APIs

Short description:

This kind of allows one client to take the cost for computing a response and other clients just getting it for free. The problem is the spec itself for HTTP says if you've got an authorization header in there, shared caches shouldn't cache things. If we do have all these great tools to do caching where we can and you've got an authenticated API, does it really matter? Well, it maybe does a little bit, but it's not the end of the world as we saw in the previous conversation where somebody says you literally shouldn't be using GraphQL because you lose caching. So, I think the first thing I want to talk about here is how every specific context informs a lot if GraphQL is a good choice or not so much of a good choice. But there's some truth to it as well in the sense that HTTP caching by itself is all about conventions. We have years of experience with HTTP caching. Browsers speak it natively. A lot of clients speak it. With GraphQL, as you saw, we do need to build those smart clients with normalized caches. But these tools are built and are ready to be used, so it might not make a big difference for you.

This kind of allows one client to take the cost for computing a response and other clients just getting it for free. This is great. We should always strive to have a cache like this if we can.

The problem is the spec itself for HTTP says if you've got an authorization header in there, shared caches shouldn't cache things. It may be a little weird if you just read the spec, but if you think about it, it makes a lot of sense because you don't want to be caching things that are specific to a user and be serving this in a shared way to other clients. The idea of a shared cache in authenticated API context really doesn't make that much sense.

If we do have all these great tools to do caching where we can and you've got an authenticated API, does it really matter? Well, it maybe does a little bit, but it's not the end of the world as we saw in the previous conversation where somebody says you literally shouldn't be using GraphQL because you lose caching. If your API is an authenticated API and deals with a lot of live data that just you can't afford to have stale, well, we aren't losing that much. We aren't losing that powerful shared cache because it would've been useful to us anyways.

So, I think the first thing I want to talk about here is how every specific context informs a lot if GraphQL is a good choice or not so much of a good choice. But there's some truth to it as well in the sense that HTTP caching by itself is all about conventions. We have years of experience with HTTP caching. Browsers speak it natively. A lot of clients speak it. With GraphQL, as you saw, we do need to build those smart clients with normalized caches. But these tools are built and are ready to be used, so it might not make a big difference for you.

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