by • May 11, 2023
The evolution of APIs (application programming interfaces) has been all the hype in recent years. In many ways, they’re powering the modern internet as they open doors to organizations and developers around the globe. Data shows that 98% of enterprise leaders believe APIs are essential for survival concerning digital transformation, yet most struggle to develop a comprehensive rollout strategy.
The reasons businesses need APIs are vast, ranging from quicker app development to improved security — but how do you know which API to invest in?
REST and GraphQL are terms that are often thrown around in the API world. REST has become the go-to standard for API creation, but GraphQL is gaining popularity. How do these options compare, and which is better for your organization?
The right option for your organization will depend on the use case and application. Hint: It doesn’t need to be an either/or decision.
Here are the key takeaways about REST and GraphQL APIs:
Table of Contents:
Sign up for our free 14 day hosted trial to learn how.
Starting with the basics — what is an API, again?
APIs are intermediaries that let two computers or applications communicate. APIs are utilized constantly, from third-party logins and eCommerce applications to weather apps and social media bots. APIs power businesses across various industries, helping them integrate with other companies and software while developing business intelligence. In other words, they aren’t just for tech companies. From banking to retail, healthcare to media, APIs are everywhere.
To build on that concept, there are different types of APIs. Learn more about the types and categories of APIs to pinpoint what’s best for your organization or application. Understanding your exact needs will help you select the best API design styles and tools to achieve your goals.
REST (representational state transfer) is a software architectural style that provides client-server standards between systems. It has become the standard when designing web service APIs and microservices applications. However, REST APIs (also known as RESTful APIs) can be inflexible when aiming to keep up with changing requirements — which is why alternatives are being explored, like GraphQL.
A REST API is a specific type of server-driven API that follows REST guidelines to make integrations simple and scalable. To fully harness the functionality that REST yields, APIs must meet several requirements, including:
The main advantages of REST include the following:
Opting for REST API is ideal when you:
The development of GraphQL is much more recent than REST API. Facebook created this query language in 2012 and introduced it to the public in 2015. In contrast, the concept of a REST API was developed in 2000 by Roy Fielding, an American computer scientist. While REST API ticks many boxes, companies like Facebook and Netflix began exploring other options once mobile usage boomed. REST’s inflexibility created issues when dealing with sloppy networks and low-powered devices. As the number of front-end frameworks and platforms increased, greater flexibility was the primary concern.
GraphQL is a client-driven approach developed to overcome these hurdles. This open-source language allows you to retrieve and manipulate data without making multiple API calls to the server. Unlike REST APIs, which send data as an HTTP response, GraphQL requests data using queries, subscriptions, and mutations. It is a runtime for fulfilling queries via declarative data fetching, allowing you to specify the exact data you need.
The main advantages of GraphQL APIs include the following:
GraphQL ensures greater flexibility and solves many of the shortcomings associated with REST APIs, including under-fetching and over-fetching. For example, with REST, endpoints can return more information than needed. This query language will allow you to get the data you seek — no more, no less. Also, once the GraphQL schema is defined, front-end and back-end teams can work independently.
Teams of all sizes use this GraphQL query language, with some of the main companies being Facebook, Shopify, Github, and Pinterest.
The most significant difference between REST and GraphQL is how they send data to the client. With REST architecture, clients make an HTTP request and the data is then sent as an HTTP response. In comparison, with GraphQL, clients request data with queries.
When deciding which option is best for your organization, consider the variables most important to you.
As discussed above, GraphQL is not a REST replacement, so depending on the project, they can co-exist. For example, you could find opportunities for using REST API as a backend for GraphQL or using GraphQL as a layer on top of REST API.
There are several advantages surrounding GraphQL, as it is an excellent solution to the issues related to building and consuming APIs. However, GraphQL is simply an alternative to REST when developing APIs — it’s not a replacement.
GraphQL is a powerful tool and offers value within specific use cases, but if slow performance and complexity are off-putting to you, a REST architecture may be optimal instead. Error handling can also become complicated, and because of a lack of industry adoption, support can be limited compared to REST APIs. When using REST, you can build a monitoring system to assist with troubleshooting based on API responses. With GraphQL, you don’t have that option.
So, while GraphQL did address many of the challenges developers face with RESTful architecture, it also created new challenges. This means that, at this point, GraphQL is not a replacement. Knowing the pros and cons of each will help you identify which you need and when based on your application and circumstances.
It’s clear that GraphQL offers improvements over REST. When you want to achieve a quick, smooth development, GraphQL’s flexibility and declarative characteristics are ideal. Since its inception, GraphQL has attracted a large community and is implemented in several programming languages, from Go to Java. If you are currently building a mobile application, consider GraphQL.
In contrast, REST should be your first choice if you are building an application that requires a more robust API with monitoring and caching capabilities. REST also has a lower barrier to entry, which is attractive to many — especially when leveraging the power of low code technology. Today, you can invest in no code API creation and automation, taking this one step further.
For many, it’s not a question of one or the other but more of which is the best option based on the use case. However, it is essential to note that GraphQL has a difficult learning curve.
Whether you opt for GraphQL or REST, you can now leverage API automation and integration with DreamFactory — a scalable, stateless solution. As discussed, both options have advantages and disadvantages depending on your use case. Regardless of your protocol or architecture style, some of the most crucial variables are security, scalability, and availability. Investing in an API generation and management solution can help you take that next critical step.
Still unsure how to proceed with API development? Start a 14-day trial to unlock the potential of API automation.
GraphQL excels in terms of data efficiency because it allows clients to specify exactly what they need, which can reduce the amount of data transmitted over the network. In contrast, REST APIs often return a fixed data structure, which can lead to over-fetching or under-fetching of data. This can lead to inefficiencies, especially for mobile users with limited bandwidth.
REST is generally considered easier to grasp for beginners because it’s based on standard HTTP protocols and methods. GraphQL, on the other hand, has a steeper learning curve as it requires understanding of its schema and type system, as well as mastering its query language.
REST often requires versioning because changes to the API structure can break existing clients. This leads to multiple versions of the API co-existing, which can be complex to manage. On the other hand, GraphQL’s flexible query structure can reduce the need for versioning as clients can specify the data they need, and the API can evolve without breaking existing clients.
REST APIs typically utilize HTTP status codes to communicate the status and errors. With GraphQL, you typically receive a 200 OK status for all responses, with errors detailed in the payload of the response. This can make error handling more consistent in GraphQL, but it can also make it less transparent if not handled carefully.
Both REST and GraphQL can perform well under high loads if properly optimized. However, GraphQL can incur additional performance costs due to the complexity of queries and potential for nested queries that can strain backend services. On the other hand, REST APIs can be more predictable as they have fixed data return structures.
REST is inherently request-response based, which doesn’t lend itself well to real-time updates. While there are workarounds like long-polling or websockets, they aren’t built into the REST architecture. GraphQL, on the other hand, has built-in real-time functionality through subscriptions, making it a more natural fit for applications needing real-time updates.
Both REST and GraphQL can be secured using common practices such as OAuth for authentication and HTTPS for data transmission. However, GraphQL’s complexity can introduce additional security considerations, such as the potential for costly queries to impact server performance (known as Denial of Service attacks), which must be mitigated with appropriate measures like query complexity analysis or depth limiting.
Terence Bennett, General Manager at DreamFactory, has a strong operational, business, and extensive experience in government IT systems and Google Cloud. He started his career as a U.S. Navy Intelligence Officer, then honed his skills on Google’s Red Team and later became the COO of Integrate.io.
Join the DreamFactory newsletter list.