Mar 22 • 1HR 5M

Software at Scale 44 - Building GraphQL with Lee Byron

 
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Software at Scale is where we discuss the technical stories behind large software applications.
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Lee Byron is the co-creator of GraphQL, a senior engineering manager at Robinhood, and the executive director of the GraphQL foundation.

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We discuss the GraphQL origin story, early technical decisions at Facebook, the experience of deploying GraphQL today, and the future of the project.

Highlights

(some tidbits)

[01:00] - The origin story of GraphQL.

Initially, the Facebook application was an HTML web-view wrapper. It seemed like the right choice at the time, with the iPhone releasing without an app-store, Steve Jobs calling it an “internet device”, and Android phones coming out soon after, with Chrome, a brand-new browser.

But the application had horrendous performance, high crash rates, used up a lot of RAM on devices and animations would lock the phone up. Zuckerberg called the bet Facebook’s biggest mistake.

The idea was to rebuild the app from scratch using native technologies. A team built up a prototype for the news feed, but they quickly realized that there weren’t any clean APIs to retrieve data in a palatable format for phones - the relevant APIs all returned HTML. But Facebook had a nice ORM-like library in PHP to access data quickly, and there was a parallel effort to speed up the application by using this library. There was another project to declaratively declare data requirements for this ORM for increased performance and a better developer experience.

Another factor was that mobile data networks were pretty slow, and having a chatty REST API for the newsfeed would lead to extremely slow round-trip times and tens of seconds to load the newsfeed. So GraphQL started off as a little library that could make declarative calls to the PHP ORM library from external sources and was originally called SuperGraph. Finally, the last piece was to make this language strongly typed, from the lessons of other RPC frameworks like gRPC and Thrift.

[16:00] So there weren’t any data-loaders or any such pieces at the time.

GraphQL has generally been agnostic to how the data actually gets loaded, and there are plugins to manage things like quick data loading, authorization, etc. Also, Facebook didn’t need data-loading, since its internal ORM managed de-duplication, so it didn’t need to be built until there was sufficient external feedback.

[28:00] - GraphQL for public APIs - what to keep in mind. Query costing, and other differences from REST.

[42:00] - GraphQL as an open-source project

[58:00] - The evolution of the language, new features that Lee is most excited about, like Client-side nullability.

Client-side nullability is an interesting proposal - where clients can explicitly state how important retrieving a certain field is, and on the flip side, allow partial failures for fields that aren’t critical.