The Emerging GraphQL Python stack

GraphQL is an interesting technology originating at Facebook. It is a query language that lets you get JSON results from a server. It's not a database system but can work with any kind of backend structure. It tries to solve the same issues traditionally solved by HTTP "REST-ish" APIs.

Some problems with REST

When you do a REST-ish HTTP API, you expose information about the server on a bunch of URLs. These URLs each return some data, typically JSON. You can also update the server using HTTP methods, such as POST, PUT and DELETE. The client-side code needs to know what URLs exist on the system and construct URLs based on what it wants to know. If your REST-ish HTTP API is also a proper REST API (aka a hypermedia API), you make sure that all information can actually be accessed without constructing URLs but by following links (or doing search requests) instead -- this is more loosely coupled but also more difficult to implement.

But REST-ish HTTP APIs have some problems:


Imagine you have person resources and address resources. If you have a UI on the client that shows a person's address, you will have to access both resources on separate URLs. This can easily add up to a lot of requests from the client to the server. This not only causes network traffic but can also make it harder to program the client, especially if you can only do a new request based on information you got in another response.

You can reduce this problem by embedding information -- a person resource has address information directly embedded in it. But there's no standard way to control what gets embedded and this makes the next issue worse.

too much information

In a HTTP API, you want to send out as much information about a resource as possible, even if a particular UI doesn't need it. This means that there is more network traffic, and possibly more work done on the server to generate the data even though it's not needed.

too little information

There is typically rather little machine-readable metadata that describes what the information on the server really exists. Having such information can really help with tooling, and this in turn can help avoid bugs. There are emerging specifications that tackle this, but they're not commonly used.

REST will be here to stay for the foreseeable future. There is also nothing inherent in REST that stops you from solving this -- I wrote about this in a previous blog entry. But meanwhile GraphQL has already solved much of this stuff, so at the very least is interesting to explore.


GraphQL introduces a query language that lets the client express what it really wants from the server. A single request with this query goes to the server, and the server comes back with a complete structure with everything that's needed for a particular state of the UI. To get person information with its address information embedded, you can write something like:

  person(id: 101) {
    address {

You get back JSON like:

    "fullname": "Bob Lasereyes',
    "address: {
      "street": "Laserstreet",
      "number": "77",
      "postalCode": "XYZQ",
      "city": "Super City",
      "country": "Mutantia"

Check the GraphQL readme for much more.

This solves the issues with RESTish HTTP APIs:

less spamminess

To represent a single UI state you can typically get away with doing just a single request to the server specifying everything you need. The server then gives you a single response.

the right amount of information

You only get the information you ask for, nothing more, nothing less.

enough meta information

The server has a schema (which tools can introspect) that describes exactly what kind of data you can access.


If you use GraphQL with the React UI library there's another project from Facebook you can use with it: Relay. Relay lets you declare what data you want (using GraphQL), co-locate GraphQL snippets with the bits of UI that need it, so your UIs are more composable and can be rearranged more easily, and has a sophisticated system to help with mutations, so that you display the updated information in the UI as quickly as possible without re-fetching too much data.

It's cool, it's just new, I want to explore it to see whether it can tackle some of my use cases and make life easier for developers.

On the server side

So Relay and GraphQL are interesting and cool. So what do we need to start using it? To use React with Relay on the client side to build UIs, we need a Relay-compliant GraphQL server.

Facebook released a reference implementation of GraphQL, in JavaScript: graphql-js. It also released a library to help make a GraphQL server Relay compliant, again in JavaScript: graphql-relay-js. It also released a server that exposes GraphQL over HTTP, again in JavaScript: express-graphql.

That's all very cool if your server is in JavaScript. But what if your server is in Python? Luckily the Facebook people anticipated this and GraphQL is not bound to JavaScript. See the GraphQL draft specification and the GraphQL Relay specification.

The Python GraphQL stack

Last week I started exploring the state of the GraphQL stack in Python on the server. I was very pleased to find that it was in good shape already:

  • graphqllib: this is an implementation of GraphQL by Taeho Kim with contributions by an emerging open source community around it. Lots of contributions are by Jake Heinz, who was also very helpful in discussions on the Slack chat (#python at

  • graphql-relay-py: an implementation of graphql-relay-js for Python by Syrus Akbary, so we can make our GraphQL Relay server more compliant.

The piece that was missing was actually using this stack as a backend for a React + Relay frontend. Was it mature enough to do this? I figured I'd give it a try. So I set out to port the one missing piece to Python, the HTTP web server. So I took express-graphql and ported over its code and tests to Python + WSGI using WebOb. The result is wsgi_graphql, a WSGI component that offers the same HTTP API as express-graphql.

It was a fun little exercise. I found a few issues in graphqllib while doing so, and they're fixed already. I even found a minor bug in express-graphql while doing so, which is fixed as well.

So does it work? Can you use React and Relay on the frontend with Python on the backend? I created a demo project, relaypy, that experimentally pulls all these pieces together. It exposes a GraphQL server with a Relay-compliant schema. I hooked up some simple React + Relay code on the frontend. It worked! In addition, I threw in a cool introspection/query UI that was created for GraphQL called GraphiQL. This works too!

Should you be using this stuff in the real world? No, not yet. There are big warning letters on the graphqllib project that it's highly experimental. But while it's all very early days for these components, but the Python support has come very far in just a few short months -- GraphQL was only released as a public project in July, and Relay is even younger. I expect that in a short time this stuff will be ready for production and we'll have a capable GraphQL stack in Python that we can use with React and Relay.

Bonus: Graphene

Emerging just last week as well was graphene, which a very new library by Syrus Akbary to make implementing GraphQL servers more Pythonic. The API offered by graphqllib is rather low-level, which is nice as it's very flexible, but for many Python projects you'd like to use something more Pythonic. Graphene promises to be that API.


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