Is GraphQL the Next Frontier for Web APIs?

For a long time the API community spent a lot of effort evangelizing hypermedia, which promised to make web APIs more discoverable through clients that could follow links like a human, and more future proof by re-using existing hypertext and HTTP semantics like <a> links and 301 redirects.

But hypermedia had a very hard time building any kind of traction. At least some of the trouble was technical, but its biggest problem wasn’t that it wasn’t useful, but that it wasn’t useful enough. It may have had some nominal advantages over the REST-ish JSON APIs that are seen most often today, but they weren’t valuable enough to justify the extra overhead.

After five years of strong evangelism at every API conference in the world and very little actual adoption, it’s a pretty safe bet that hypermedia isn’t going to be the next big thing. But that leads us to the question of what will be? Does the world even need a new API paradigm? REST-ish JSON over HTTP has proven itself to be quite practical and resilient to obsolescence; it might just be “good enough” to reign supreme for a long time to come.

As a service provider, it might be tempting to think that your choice of backend technology is going to make a big difference to your users, but isn’t necessarily true. As long as you meet a minimum bar of non-offensiveness, this is almost never the case (SOAP and OAuth 1 being two examples of technologies that don’t).

If there are reasonable tools available to keep the developer experience (DX) in integrating pretty good, users tend to be flexible. Avoid anything that’s too heavy, exotic, or obnoxious, and you’ll find that your users will care about the quality of your documentation far more than they do about the technology you use.

Roy Fielding’s original ideas around REST are elegant and now quite widespread, but it’s worth considering that the paradigm’s actual advantages in APIs for developers are fairly unremarkable. Practically speaking, REST’s strongest points are its widespread interoperability (every language has an HTTP client) and its conventions 1. URLs are usually resources. Resources often have standard CRUD operations that are mapped to HTTP verbs like PATCH and DELETE. Status codes usually convey information. Commonly needed API mechanics like authentication and encoding are sometimes integrated into standard HTTP headers like Authorization and Content-Encoding. This is all very good; convention allows a developer to learn something once and then re-use that information to figure out how other things will probably work.

Action HTTP Verb URL
Create POST /customers
Replace PUT /customers/:id
Update PATCH /customers/:id
Delete DELETE /customers/:id
The conventions of REST. URLs are resources and CRUD maps to HTTP verbs.

If convention in REST has one problem, it’s that there isn’t enough of it. I use words like usually, often, and sometimes above because although these practices are recommended by the spec, they may or may not be followed. In real life, most APIs are REST-ish at best. At Stripe for example, our resource updates should use PATCH instead of PUT, but for historical reasons they don’t, and it’s probably not worth changing at this point. Developers will need to read the documentation anyway, and they’ll find out about our ubiquitous use of the POST verb when they do.

REST also has other problems. Resource payloads can be quite large because they return everything instead of just what you need, and in many cases they don’t map well to the kind of information that clients actually want, forcing expensive N + 1 query situations. This is especially bad for clients on more limited networks like mobile, where bandwidth and bad latency conspire to make REST an expensive proposition.

While the world sticking to the status quo for a long time to come is a strong possibility, the inefficiencies of REST might mean that there’s room for something to come next. Let’s explore a few possibilities.

GraphQL is a fan favorite right now. Conceived at Facebook, it’s gotten some significant traction from at least one “big API” adopting it in the form of GitHub. More exciting though is the organic uptake, with many smaller companies with a better opportunity to greenfield starting with it instead of REST.

GraphQL produces an API that can be queried in complex ways.
GraphQL produces an API that can be queried in complex ways.

It has many advantages: built-in introspection so developers can use tools to navigate through an API they’re about to use. Data can be organized in a free form way that doesn’t necessarily tie it to heavy resources. A well-organized graph can allow a client request the exact set of data they need to do their work, with little waste in number of calls or payload size. Imagine having to send only a single API request out to load a page instead of dozens. It’s great for service operators too, because its explicitness allows them to get a better understanding of exactly what their users are trying to do.

But GraphQL’s future is still uncertain. Most notably, Facebook itself hasn’t adopted it for their public API, which brings into question their commitment to the idea. Also, despite its strengths, it might find itself in a similar place as hypermedia in that its edge just isn’t worthwhile enough to a large enough audience who are more than happy to keep using REST-ish JSON.

Possibly most importantly, GraphQL might not provide the superior developer experience that many of us are looking for. At the end of the day it involves writing up a big query blob with minimal typing and guarantees on the client-side. It’s structured, but individual operations still need to be looked up in a query explorer or reference documentation. Its closest analog is SQL; although this is a technology that many of us use every day, maintaining SQL query blobs are a painful enough experience that most of us turn to ORMs to wrap them. The same could certainly be done for GraphQL, but in that case we might have to ask ourselves just how much it’s really accomplished for us.

A very strong argument could be made that if most APIs are REST-ish instead of REST-ful, and assuming that most of the conventions that we’re actually using boil down to making URLs consistent and basic CRUD, then just maybe REST really isn’t buying us all that much. It may be an elegant idea, but as a developer my foremost value is ease of integration; an API’s ideological integrity is a distant tertiary concern.

One possibility for the next big paradigm in APIs is just to make them a set RPCs (remote procedure calls) and use something like GRPC to generate libraries in a huge variety of languages that users can pull down and use at their leisure. Under GRPC, data moves around in the efficient protocol buffers format over HTTP2, making transport performance of a GRPC-based API good by default, and with no effort required on the parts of either users or operators.

A well-organized set of RPC methods could offer strong enough conventions to be competitive with what REST gives us (e.g. create_charge(), update_customer(id:), delete_subscription(id:)), and as a developer be just as pleasant to use.

By dropping a resource-based world view, we can better map endpoints to the user actions.
By dropping a resource-based world view, we can better map endpoints to the user actions.

Dropping REST’s resource-based world view also has the advantage of letting designers better map their endpoints to the actions that their users are really trying to take. For example, if almost everyone who creates a customer in your API will want to immediately create a charge for that customer, then those two operations could be rolled up into one despite requiring two separate steps in REST (1. POST /customers, 2. POST /charges).

But the real world-shifting power of RPC would only become apparent if you could get everyone to agree on it. Imagine if AWS, GitHub, Stripe, etc. were all on GRPC, and integrating with a new API was as simple as downloading a new set of protobuf definitions and writing code immediately because all your supporting infrastructure (i.e. initialization, libraries, configuration, …) was already in place and ready to go.

Going back to the idea of developer experience being of utmost importance, it may be that the future of big APIs are custom-built libraries in all the major languages that their users care about. The maintenance overhead of this route is obviously significantly worse for service providers, but these libraries could be designed according to the local conventions of each language, making them a pleasure to integrate with.

Some tooling to help create a bespoke leather product.
Some tooling to help create a bespoke leather product.

Strong typing could be used to make sure that the compiler catches as many bugs as possible without a round trip to the API server even needed. For example, we could make it impossible to make an API call unless an API key was provided, or require that an email parameter be provided to create a new user. Documentation could be provided within the language’s own ecosystem (Godoc for example), or even inline while writing code if there’s a good IDE.

In this world, the API’s design (i.e. whether it’s on REST, GraphQL, etc.) would be totally opaque to end users and purely up to the discretion of the library maintainers. Maybe function invocations translate directly into REST requests, but the library could also compile each one into a specially crafted GraphQL query (or mutation) to maximize its network efficiency.

In the end, we shouldn’t forget what REST-ful APIs did for us in terms of providing a set of conventions that helped us be more productive because what we knew was transferable as we looked at new APIs.

GraphQL, RPC, and bespoke clients are all pretty plausible ways forward to a post-REST world, but whichever we choose, we shouldn’t forget the lessons that REST taught us in that convention and widespread consistency are powerful things. If we do adopt something new, we should aim to make it as ubiquitous as possible so that we don’t worsen developer experience by fracturing technologies. Unfortunately though, realistically that might mean just sticking to REST.

Here’s one final strong opinion: religious adherence to REST is overrated and its perceived advantages have never materialized as fully as its proponents hoped. Whatever we choose next should aim to be flexible and efficient, and GraphQL seems like a good candidate for that. We should move to GraphQL as a backend and combine it with great language-specific libraries that leverage good type systems to catch integration mistakes before the first HTTP call flies, and which allow developers to use their own tooling to auto-complete (in the sense of VS IntelliSense or Vim’s YouCompleteMe) to success.

1 I realize that REST is designed to provide much greater facilities in the form of discovery and content negotiation, but in practice these just don’t see a lot of use, which is why I normally say that convention is REST’s strongest attribute.

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