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GraphQL vs gRPC vs REST - Which API to Use?

Aryan Raj
~ 8 min read | Published on Dec 15, 2023


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Sharing data is crucial for any organization, whether it be between different departments or with other organizations. The data can come in various forms like text, documents, and videos. To make the process of data sharing seamless, organizations can use technologies like APIs and web services. Among these technologies, GraphQL, gRPC, and REST are popular options for creating APIs. In this article, we will explore the main differences between GraphQL, gRPC, and REST, so that you can choose the right one for your data exchange needs.


What is GraphQL?

GraphQL is a data query language for APIs that was developed by Facebook and released publicly in 2015. It is implemented in multiple languages, and its results are returned in JSON format. The GraphQL Schema Definition Language became part of the specification in 2018.

It allows clients to specifically request the data they need. Unlike REST, which uses HTTP methods, GraphQL uses queries, mutations, and subscriptions to access and manipulate data. Queries request data from the server, mutations send and modify data on the server, and subscriptions provide live updates when data changes, typically through web sockets.

How GraphQL API work

GraphQL Architecture

GraphQL has a unique approach to the client-server relationship, as it allows the client to determine the data they want and the format in which they want it. This approach reverses the traditional client-server dictation and facilitates extended functionality.

GraphQL Protocols and verbs

This uses the HTTP protocol and can be accessed through a simple POST API or via the GraphQL playground. It offers different verbs such as Query and Mutation for performing CRUD operations.

GraphQL Speed

GraphQL allows clients to request multiple data fields at once, but the response will be as fast as the slowest requested field. Therefore, users should optimize queries based on usage patterns to improve performance. In general, gRPC will be faster than GraphQL.

Programming languages GraphQL supports

GraphQL also supports a wide range of languages, including Perl, PHP, Java, Python, and others.

Pros of GraphQL

  1. GraphQL allows you to define the specific data needed for each instance, improving app performance by reducing excess data transfer from the server to the client.
  2. With GraphQL, you can select multiple fields from different resources in a single query, eliminating the need for multiple round trips to the server.
  3. Third-party code generators make it easy to write GraphQL code for one platform and automatically generate it for the second platform.
  4. In GraphQL, you can define the exact data that the server should respond with on the frontend, which eliminates the need to create a new versioned API when adding new fields to the data model on the server side. This also reduces the likelihood of breaking frontend code due to forgotten updates.

Cons of GraphQL

  1. GraphQL has caching problems, specifically with HTTP caching, which has hindered its widespread adoption.
  2. The way GraphQL queries are written can lead to issues with requesting too many nested fields at once, resulting in circular queries and crashing the server.
  3. Implementing rate-limiting in REST is more straightforward and seamless compared to GraphQL.


What is gRPC?

gRPC is an open-source, high-performance, remote procedure call (RPC) framework that was developed by Google. gRPC was released as an open-source project in 2015, and since then it has gained widespread adoption in microservice architecture for its low latency and high throughput.

It is based on contracts and agreements defined by the relationship between the server and client rather than the architecture.

It utilizes Protocol Buffers (Protobuf) to serialize structured data and improve communication.gRPC is lightweight, and requires minimal resources, making it a suitable option for low-powered situations. This makes it ideal for situations where the data requester wants to conserve resources, commonly used in IoT devices such as smart light switches, voice controllers, cameras, and smoke alarm locks.

How gRPC API work

gRPC Architecture

gRPC is based on the concept of Contracts. In this architecture, the client-server relationship plays a significant role in determining the functionality of the API. The client is given a lot of power and responsibility, while the server is responsible for handling and computation work.

gRPC Protocols and verbs

gRPC uses the HTTP/2 protocol, which is an improvement over HTTP/1. It supports bidirectional and multiplexing communication and uses a binary protocol instead of JSON.

gRPC Speed

gRPC has a strong focus on performance through features such as compact data format, use of HTTP/2 as the transport layer along with fast encoding and decoding of messages. It also uses code generation for both the client and the server, which helps in saving developers time and improve performance.

Programming languages gRPC supports

gRPC has official libraries for popular languages such as Java, C#, C/C++, JavaScript, Go, PHP, Python, and Kotlin.

Pros of gRPC

  1. gRPC comes with Protocol Buffers which support more data types than JSON and it is significantly faster due to its optimized binary format.
  2. gRPC supports full-duplex streaming out of the box, making it suitable for features such as video and voice calls, while REST handles queries one at a time.
  3. Automatically performs load balancing to distribute client requests evenly across servers, improving the overall performance of the application.
  4. Uses HTTP2 by default, which reduces latency compared to REST APIs.
  5. It is designed to be backwards compatible, meaning that adding new fields or methods to a gRPC service does not generally break existing clients.
  6. Serializes data in binary format (protocol buffers), which is faster than REST's JSON, giving gRPC a greater performance advantage.

Cons of gRPC

  1. Protocol buffers, gRPC's official data format, currently only supports a limited number of languages and does not support languages like R and Swift, while JSON which REST uses are supported by virtually all languages.
  2. It does not come with out of the box browser support, although workarounds such as gRPC-Web exist, which is an extension of it’s for the web that is based on HTTP 1.1, but it does not provide all the its features.


What is REST?

REST (Representational State Transfer) is a popular architectural style for building web services. It was introduced by Roy Fielding in 2000 in his PhD dissertation. REST is widely used because of its simplicity, scalability, and compatibility with the existing web infrastructure. RESTful APIs have become the standard for building web services and are used by many companies and organizations, including Twitter, Amazon, and Google. REST provides a flexible and scalable solution for building and consuming web services, making it a popular choice for many web developers.

It uses various HTTP verbs such as GET, POST, PUT, and DELETE for data retrieval, transfer, modification, and deletion, respectively.

REST also allows for re-sending requests if necessary and includes all the necessary information for the server to process the request. As a result, the server in a REST API does not store the client state, making it stateless. Additionally, REST uses HTTPs native caching headers to implement caching, as it encourages requests to be cacheable whenever possible.

How REST API work

REST Architecture

REST, or Representational State Transfer, is a broad architectural style that does not have a concrete API framework or specification. This can lead to ambiguity and interpretation, which has resulted in the creation of frameworks like JSON: HAL, API, and OData to help guide developers in building RESTful APIs.

REST Protocols and verbs

It uses the HTTP 1.1 protocol and resources are accessed through a common interface using standard HTTP methods such as GET, POST, PUT, and DELETE.

REST Speed

REST, which uses the HTTP 1.1 protocol, can be slower due to its request-response model of communication. Each request is served one at a time, which can slow down the entire process.

Programming languages REST supports

It supports a variety of languages including JavaScript, Python, PHP, and GO.

Pros of REST

  1. Caching in REST is easy to implement, it takes advantage of HTTP to eliminate the need for constant interaction between the client and server, improving performance and scalability.
  2. REST's maturity and popularity in the tech industry is one of its biggest advantages, it is widely used and understood by developers, making it easy to work with and a good choice for commercial APIs.
  3. Due to its popularity, many developers are already familiar with REST and find it easy to work with.
  4. It is easier to monitor and rate-limit REST-based APIs than GraphQL, as each resource is usually located behind a unique endpoint, making it easy to lock individual resources behind a paywall.

Cons of REST

  1. In REST, you can select specific fields under a resource, while in REST you need to request all data under the resource, which can result in large payloads.
  2. REST requires multiple round trips to different endpoints while GraphQL, allows batching different resource requests, and sending them to the same endpoint.
  3. It is a bit difficult in REST to make changes to a database schema without causing breaking changes, unlike GraphQL.
  4. REST does not have backward compatibility features that make it easy to update data structures without breaking clients' code, gRPC fares better in this aspect.

GraphQL vs gRPC vs REST - Comparison and use cases

Feature GraphQL gRPC REST
Data fetch This fetches data very efficiently. Only required data will be fetched from the server. This might return extra data to the server unless new endpoints/filters are defined on the server side. Some extra data might be returned by the server unless new endpoints/query filters are defined on the server side
HTTP 1.1 vs HTTP 2 This adheres to a request-response model. It can work with either HTTP version but is typically built with HTTP 1.1. This adheres to a client-response model and is based on HTTP 2. Some servers have workarounds to make it work with HTTP 1.1 but it is not the default. This adheres to a request-response model. It can work with either HTTP version but is still typically built with HTTP 1.1.
Browser support This works everywhere. This has limited support. We need to use gRPC-Web, which is an extension of gRPC for the web and is based on HTTP 1.1. This works everywhere.
Payload data structure This uses JSON-based payloads to send/receive data. This mostly uses Protocol Buffers by default to serialize payload data. This mostly uses JSON- and XML-based payloads to send/receive data.
Code generation We need to use third-party tools like GraphQL Code Generator to generate client code. Docs and an interactive playground can be natively generated by using GraphQL. gRPC has native support for code generation for various target languages. We need to use third-party tools like Swagger to generate client code.
Request caching This is difficult to cache requests by default as every request is sent to the same endpoint. This does not support request/response caching by default. This is easy to cache requests on the client and server sides. Most clients/servers natively support it.

Which API to choose?

The selection of the appropriate API technology for a project is crucial as it can greatly impact the performance, scalability, and ease of use of the final product. The three main options to consider are REST, GraphQL and gRPC, each with its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

REST (Representational State Transfer) is a widely used and well-established option that is suitable for generic APIs that will be used by a large number of clients. GraphQL is a more recent technology that allows clients to create their own unique queries and receive only the specific data they need quickly, making it ideal for flexible and dynamic requests. gRPC is a high-performance framework that is designed for fast and seamless communication between internal services.

Combining different technologies can also be effective and help achieve optimal results. In the end, the choice of API technology will depend on the specific goals and requirements of the project.

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