It's the year 2000 and computer scientist Roy Fielding earned his Ph.D. with a dissertation that proposed a new software architectural style: Representational State Transfer. REST, for short.

RESTful APIs allowed web clients to access resources through a predefined set of stateless operations. Because requests made to a resource's URI could be sent back in JSON, REST was a simpler solution than SOAP, the dominant protocol at the time, where requests would be sent back in difficult-to-parse XML.

RESTful APIs quickly became the de-facto standard for web APIs. It's only in the last few years that a credible competitor has emerged. Since 2012, Facebook has been using a new query language to build its mobile apps: GraphQL. The language was open-sourced in 2015 and it's been growing in popularity ever since.

This article will address the main differences between REST and GraphQL. As you'll see, GraphQL has some distinct advantages over REST, although which API you need will ultimately depend on the specific app you're building.

Additionally, the advantages of GraphQL described in this article are mostly over "so-called REST" APIs, as Zdenek Nemec calls them in this blog post. There's a lot to REST and the HTTP protocol. Given enough time and knowledge, you can create a REST API that's just as good as and arguable more flexible than a GraphQL API.

This being said, given that developers are busy enough as is and true REST APIs are incredibly hard to pull off (as Nemec says himself in his blog post), we'll be talking about REST APIs as most are configured today.

Many Endpoints vs One Endpoint

A REST API has multiple endpoints (which can also be called paths). This means that it exposes multiple URIs that react to different HTTP methods. The developers define which paths are open to the client. The most common HTTP methods for a REST API are GET, POST, PUT, PATCH, and DELETE.

For example, POST /user {name: 'Thomas'} is a request to one path. It consists of the HTTP verb POST, the path /user, and the request body {name: 'Thomas'} (which is optional, depending on the HTTP verb).

A GraphQL API, however, only has one endpoint, usually /graphql. All GraphQL requests for a given resource should be directed to this endpoint. Additionally, a GraphQL API only takes one HTTP method: POST (there's an option to enable GET too). Here's an example of a GraphQL POST request query: /graphql?query={user{name}}.

query is the operation type, user is the operation endpoint, and name is the requested field that you'd like to get back. The request body is necessary here, and allows you to be quite specific in what you'd like to get back, which brings us to the second big difference between REST and GraphQL.

Over- and Underfetching vs Getting What You Ask For

REST APIs are prone to both over- and underfetching. Overfetching, because a REST API will send back all the data in a single endpoint, regardless of whether you want it all. In the below example, you will receive all the fields that are associated with the /movies/12 endpoint:

With GraphQL, however, you can build the schema so that clients can be much more specific. This is how you could build a GraphQL schema for the above example:

And here's how you can ask for data and what the results would look like with GraphQL:

As you can see, you get back exactly what you want. There's no overfetching, because the client specifies exactly what it wants in the request body of the query.

A REST API tends to underfetch too, because it often needs to take multiple roundtrips for related resources. For example, looking up information about a blog post and its author might need two HTTP GET requests through a REST API, because there are two endpoints: /posts/1 and /users/1.

With GraphQL, you can ask for that information in a single request. The downside of this preciseness is that GraphQL adds an extra layer of complexity, because developers have to manage the schema types and queries in the front-end.

About Versioning

Due to time and money constraints, the first version of any API can sometimes be a little bit rough around the edges. Let's imagine the v1 of a REST API where the /user endpoint returns these results:

As the developers look over the API, they realize that role isn't very semantic. It's hard to know what the number 3 actually means. They would like to clarify this field, and they have two options. For one, they can add a new field to the endpoint, like so:

While it wouldn't break any clients, it would result in even more overfetching in their REST API. Not desirable. The developers can also decide to change the actual role field, like so:

But that would require creating a v2 of the API, which would need to be communicated out to the public. You also wouldn't create a new API version for such a small change. You'd wait until there are enough changes in the v1 of this API for it to merit a v2. So you can't update the API as fast as you'd maybe like to.

GraphQL, on the other hand, is versionless. Imagine you've defined a type in GraphQL that acts similarly to the above example, with two integers:

The results returned are the same as for the v1 of the REST API, and the developers come to the same conclusion. An integer for the role field isn't very semantic. They want to change it.

Developers can opt to add a new field, identical to the first solution of the REST APIs devs. The difference here, however, is that GraphQL doesn't overfetch, so there's no downside to doing this:

Eventually, you can deprecate the role field to let client-side devs know that it shouldn't be used. Additionally, because GraphQL lets you know exactly what information a client is looking for, you can target only the clients who are asking for deprecated fields and inform them of the change, instead of targeting all clients asking for a certain endpoint.

In Conclusion

REST uses many endpoints while GraphQL uses one. Additionally, REST is prone to over- and underfetching while GraphQL isn't. It also isn't as easy to update as GraphQL is.

This being said, REST APIs can leverage HTTP content types, caching, status codes, and hypermedia controls. As I said at the beginning of the article, there's a lot to REST and it can be very powerful when you're deeply familiar with how it can receive and send over HTTP.

Ultimately, which API you choose will depend on your project, but I think it's safe to say that, unless you're deeply familiar with REST and HTTP, the advantages of GraphQL over REST have made it the preferred way to build an API.