Rethinking Another Best Practice

Just over two years ago, Facebook released React. At the time, I joined an apparent majority of commenters in declaring that it looked weird and clunky. Inline XML, onclick handlers, markup and logic together… yuck! To say React has taken off and captured developer mindshare since then is a huge understatement. Today it feels like every second company is migrating their existing MVC codebase to React and/or Flux.

Web developers are a fickle bunch, and the massive churn in the world of web frameworks is well documented. So what’s far more interesting than React’s popularity is the way it’s changed how we think about front-end web applications. React’s key features are great encapsulation through components, and declarative UI, rather than directly manipulating global state (ie. the DOM). React’s virtual DOM is generally considered to be its key feature, but in reality it’s an implementation detail that powers these two breakthroughs.

A few weeks ago, Facebook released the initial spec and reference implementation for GraphQL, a new way to do data transfer between servers and app/web clients. Just as React and Flux challenged our assumptions that MVC was the preferred (only?) way to write clean frontend applications, GraphQL now puts REST in the crosshairs.

REST has turned into a bit of a sacred cow among web developers. It’s generally considered “the right way” to do data exchange between servers and web UIs, and what we’ve lost with this uncritical attitude is a more nuanced understanding of REST’s tradeoffs for the systems we’re building. Furthermore, most of us are pretty low on the Richardson Maturity Model, so you can argue that often we’re not even doing REST correctly. How many REST APIs have you written that actually use hypermedia to link and expose affordances between your resources?

I highly recommend reading Facebook’s GraphQL introduction, as it does a fantastic job of enumerating the problems with REST for the increasingly complex and performance-sensitive systems we’re building today. It also lists issues with the “Ad Hoc Endpoints” that many of us build and erroneously call “REST APIs”.

One of the promising things about GraphQL is that it’s not tied to HTTP at all– this is great for two reasons. First, it means you should also be able to use it with other transports like Websockets or TCP. Secondly, HTTP has always been pretty awkward for representing application semantics. If you’ve ever agonized over the correct response code for an error condition in a REST API, you’ve experienced this first-hand. It shouldn’t be surprising that a protocol designed for document delivery is not an ideal fit for the wide variety of things we do with APIs and web applications today.

GraphQL is still extremely young as a public project, so it’s hard to tell if it will live up to its promise. Like any technology, it will have its pain points, but at the moment only people inside of Facebook are intimately aware of them. It’s also clearly still at the “technical preview” stage, and some critical things like mutations (ie. writes to your data) are still not fully fleshed out in the documentation. Things should really ramp up when Facebook releases Relay, a client-side JavaScript framework they’ve been teasing that’s designed to integrate tightly with GraphQL. It’s projected to drop some time in the next month and I’m really looking forward to digging in, so we can get a wider look into GraphQL’s potential.