Caching Relational GraphQL Data

urql's normalised cache mechanisms explained.

When I see essays on why to build new apps with GraphQL, most of them generally seem to promote two main reasons. Querying data from GraphQL gives us the perfect relational shape of data, and this data, like with a surgical knife, is cut precisely to which fields we’ve requested, theoretically reducing the payload of what is sent. Those who’ve worked longer with GraphQL, however, may give a more succinct analysis of its benefits; its schema’s self-documenting nature, strongly typed constraints with custom scalars, and, if it’s properly cared for, it may replace the maintenance of multiple “backends for frontends” (BFFs), the concept of creating an intermediary API that shapes data from other data sources into a new API that caters for a specific team or application’s data requirements. A perfectly balanced API.

However, I believe this can be distilled even further to its consequence on how we build APIs and apps. GraphQL maps data sources into a schema that encodes both business logic and relations into a single API, which only leaves our apps, the consumers of a GraphQL API, to almost purely map this data to UI structures or views.

This sounds rather innocent but GraphQL’s strengths lie in how it pairs with today’s architecture of rich web applications nicely. With the rise of React, most developers adopted patterns where application data flows unidirectionally, from top to bottom, with UI state being added in deeper in their apps’ structure. An app that follows this pattern embraces its structure as a graph or tree more than its similarity to MVC (“Model View Controller” pattern). GraphQL’s ideas may individually not be new but it is comprehensive in guiding and extending the unidirectional flow of data from its sources through a schema via a query to our apps’ UI. The ingenuity of complementing the unidirectional nature of our apps on the API-side is what should be the biggest selling point of GraphQL.

GraphQL's queries pairs nicely into the mantra of unidirectional data flows.

GraphQL Clients fulfil a large responsibility in this system. They bridge the gap from querying this interconnected data to injecting it into an app’s data flow, making this domain-crossing transition of data seamless. However, rich client apps often show another requirement, which is to treat relational data as such, and normalise this data as we frequently do in Redux. Normalised data stores exploit the relational shape of our data to ensure that no piece of data is duplicated and updates are distributed across an entire app. In GraphQL, this means that different queries and mutations may have to update one another automatically.

APIs typically send data in a more or less denormalised form to optimise delivery — in GraphQL our queries mean that all data is highly relational and denormalised. In a rich web app we’d typically normalise that data when storing it, putting it into relational “tables” keyed by a primary key and denormalise that data again when it is read from our UI’s app tree. In GraphQL normalised caches automate this process of normalising and re-denormalising the API’s data, guided by query documents and types, and ensure that queries and mutations can affect and update each other automatically.

This automatic normalisation enables the seamless unidirectional flow of relational data from data sources through a GraphQL API to a frontend app, with little developer intervention. While this magic-like feature is often hidden away, let’s explore how it is transparently and intuitively implemented in urql’s normalised cache, and work our way from the basics all the way to how we can stack more benefits on top of this base idea.

Normalising relational data

The principles of normalising relational data as it’s pulled from an API hold true, no matter whether we’re dealing with a GraphQL API, a RESTful API, or any other API. This also closely resembles structures in relational databases, which isn’t a coincidence, since we’re dealing with “entities” identified by primary keys that are linked together.

“Collectively, multiple tables of data are called relational data because it is the relations, not just the individual datasets, that are important.”
R for Data Science

In GraphQL, we write schemas with types that have fields, which return either scalars or other types, and build up a graph. As data resolved by our API these relations and scalars are copied into nested, denormalised JSON data, which the API receives, matching the query document it has sent. For a normalisation to take place this hierarchical nested data needs to be stored in flat tables, and for that, the cache needs information on the types of the data and an ID to index the objects (or “entities”) by a primary key.

If we wrote normalisation code for a REST API, the responses’ structures are known by us per endpoint beforehand, and we’d write our code to make assumptions based on that. This is, for instance, the underlying principle of normalizr, a library that normalises JSON data by having us write a schema definition for it. However, in GraphQL, the responses’ structures are dynamic and change depending on the query document, so it isn’t possible to automatically assume a type for any given field. GraphQL clients solve this by using two things: the query document’s structure itself and “Type Name Introspection”.

With Type Name Introspection, a query document may contain special __typename fields on any selection set to inquire the API about the type name of an entity. If we query an API for a type Item and add the __typename field to our selection then the GraphQL API will respond with the "__typename": "Item" record on the response. The normalised cache can add this field to any outgoing query’s selection sets automatically and thus retrieve all the response’s type information on the fly.

We also know that any response must match the query document the API received, which we can use to our advantage to traverse the response as it’s also traversing the query. Furthermore, the way a query is written it already says a lot about the response. If a field has no selection set it’s typically a scalar, e.g. { createdAt }, and if a field has a selection set it’s likely a relation to another entity, e.g. { todo { id } }.

Lastly, the normalised cache needs to be able to generate a primary key for each entity. Relay enforces that types on a schema must all have an id field with a globally unique ID. Apollo and Graphcache on the other hand assume that a type may have either an id or _id field, by default, and that the query document always includes it, though the specific keying function is configurable by type in either, though.

Normalisation can be based on types, keys, and relations, which can be assumed by the presence of selection sets in query documents.

Traversing a Query Document

Query documents contain an operation and fragments, defining nested selection sets of fields. A normalised cache traverses the selection sets both when storing results from the API and when generating results from its stored data. The structure of GraphQL.js’ types makes traversing query documents rather simple. An OperationDefinitionNode contains a SelectionSetNode, which may contain FragmentSpreadNodes and InlineFragmentNodes, or FieldNodes which may again contain a selection set.

The traversal of GraphQL types in a document, a result’s structure, and the relations that a cache stores all mirror each other. Traversing a SelectionSetNode as part of writing or reading normalised data is the most intensive part of the normalised cache’s logic. Here, during the writing process, we may differentiate between fields that contain scalars (or “records” in Graphcache) and fields with selection sets that lead to other entities, so relations, and store both in our data structure. During the reading process, where the normalised cache attempts to create a result just from its cached data, the cache can use the relations it has stored, when it reaches a nested selection set, to traverse the query document and the relations in its cache in tandem.

A special case here is “embedded data”. Not all types in GraphQL have keyable fields. Some may just abstract scalar-like data or simply add nested data to its parent type. For instance, an Image type may contain fields for URLs, image formats, dimensions, or other data, but would only be accessed through a consistent parent entity, like a Post. If a normalised cache encounters an unkeyable type, it may embed it inside the parent entity. This means that, like a scalar, it becomes only reachable from its parent’s field on which it was originally found. Caches have varying approaches to storing embedded data, but Graphcache still treats it as a relation and creates a key based on the parent’s key and the current field.

Normalised Data Structures

At its core, normalising data means that we take individual fields and store them in a table. In our case we store all values of fields in a dictionary of their primary key, generated from an ID or other key and type name, and the field’s name and arguments, if it has any.

Primary KeyFieldValue
Type name and ID / KeyField name (not alias) and optionally argumentsScalar value or relation

How this data is stored in normalised caches differs from one implementation to another. Graphcache itself went through three different phases, where we optimised and iterated on its internal data structure and how it stores GraphQL data. Currently, the data structure compares to and resembles tables as seen in relational databases (and the above table) quite closely. It stores each entity as a record object of its fields and this object is stored separately in a Map of primary keys.

Map {
  'Item:123': Record {
    __typename: 'Item',
    id: '123',
    name: 'Generic Example',
    'description({"short":true})': 'Generic...'

In this data structure, a Map is used to index entities by their primary keys. Each entity is stored as an object containing all fields. The fields are keyed not only by name but also by a JSON string of their arguments, if the field was access with any arguments. In an earlier version, Graphcache used to store all this data on a flat Map (and later a HAMT tree), without having separate objects for each entity. But we found that the newer, more nested structure pairs well with how JavaScript engines optimise for consistent shapes of objects.

On a side note, this data structure is directly mutated by the cache during traversal rather than being an immutable structure that is copied and then changed. Graphcache always copies data from its store to a result, when generating a result, so each query result it generates is a fresh result unrelated to the cached data or to a previous result, hence immutability isn’t necessary internally.

This table-like data structure is also used to store relations, which Graphcache calls “links”, albeit in a separate table rather than in the same one, since relations can be identified separately on query documents by the presence or absence of selection sets on fields. This avoids having to mark any data in our data structures as special “link types”.

Map {
  'Query': Record {
    'item({"id":"123"})': 'Item:123',
    'item({"id":"123"})': null,
    'items': ['Item:123'],
  'Item:123': Record {
    creator: 'Author:123'

This separate table contains only the relations of entities to other entities. Here we also first see the Query root type from which the traversal of queries originates. Links from one entity to another may be represented by a single key, but when a relation is to an array of entities the data structure stores an array of keys. Any field in GraphQL that isn’t marked as required may also be nullable, so any link may also be set to null.

Are all updates automatic?

While normalised caches store and update entities in a single location, which means that all changes to an entity are shared across any result, an API makes a lot of implicit changes to the relations of data as it runs. For instance, when an item is created a cache won’t automatically know that it should add this item to a list of items on a separate field. For these kinds of cases Graphcache has “updater” and “resolver” configurations.

As I’ve mentioned earlier, a configuration option exists to alter the keys that are generated for entities by type. Other configuration options exist to step into Graphcache’s traversal process as data is either read or written to the cache. It’s common in GraphQL caches and clients to have options available both to tell the cache how to assume a relation exists and to update relations as needed after mutations (or subscription events.)

  resolvers: {
    Query: {
      todo: (_parent, args) => ({ __typename: 'Todo', id: })

When an entity’s field is visited during traversal, Graphcache also looks at a configuration option that’s called resolvers, which can alter the value of a field dynamically without interrupting the cache’s traversal process. This is a pretty powerful API as it may “interleave” results from the resolver and the cached data. The example shows the simplest resolver which relates the Query.todo field to a Todo item which allows the cache to lookup the item even if it hasn’t seen the relation from an API result before.

The interleaving of resolver results come into play when the resolver’s result contains additional fields that aren’t used just for keying. In that case it may override the value of fields even if the fields are cached. This is particularly useful to perform pagination, where several pages are merged into an “infinite list” of results. In short, a resolver may alter any field or nested data that Graphcache knows about dynamically.

Similarly to resolvers, the traversal process for mutations may also be altered by adding updates. The configuration option may be used to update queries or fragments separate from any query that the cache is currently running. This spawns a nested traversal that ad hoc starts traversing the cache separately. The cache.updateQuery method allows the developer to update data for a query document manually, and since all data that is queried from the cache is a fresh copy, as previously mentioned, it’s even safe to just mutate it:

  updates: {
    Mutation: {
      addTodo: (result, args, cache, info) => {
        cache.updateQuery({ query: TodosQuery }, data => {
          return data;

What we’re hoping from these configuration APIs is that they’re obvious enough to feel trivial and intuitive. They’re modelled to imitate the GraphQL resolvers that are found in API code. Personally, I feel that having configurations for keys, resolvers, and updaters on the cache, that all seem similarly structured and used, is a big win from an API design standpoint. They each represent a specific step in the traversal and caching process.

We also early on made the decision to keep all configuration options centralised. These options represent how data is cached and altered, and closely represent the application data as the API presents it to us. By keeping this configuration central and closely related to the schema, rather than queries or the UI, the cache imitates the API ever more closely.

Doing better with more information.

As we can see, a normalised cache can do a lot with just the bare minimum of type information — the __typename fields. So it’s worth asking at this point whether we can do any better given that GraphQL has a whole schema worth of information about its data graph. What can we do if we give Graphcache, say, the entire schema? Mikhail Novikov’s talk about GraphQL clients contains a mention of this concept, which really stuck with me:

“We can make the cache know more about the API. […] The way to make better caches is to have more metadata.”
— Mikhail Novikov

While this talk presented the idea of adding more metadata on top of existing GraphQL schemas with directives as additional annotations, I felt that the existing dynamic GraphQL clients of the time didn’t even use the usual metadata of a schema effectively. And one feature that can be implemented with more metadata from the schema are partial results.

While retrieving data from the cache there are a lot of opportunities for cache misses, which happen when the cache doesn’t have enough data to fulfil a query only from its store, and instead must send a request to the API. Thinking of the most basic app examples, having a list page that links to a details page is pretty common, and furthermore, displaying (and hence querying) more data on the details page than for the list’s items is also commonly done. But how could a GraphQL client attempt to display a details page sooner without running into a cache miss immediately? By displaying some of it, as best as it can! 👷

When a schema is passed to Graphcache, it receives metadata on which fields are marked as optional or required. When Graphcache encounters a missing field in its cache while it has a schema, it does exactly what the graphql execution would on the server-side, it sets the field to null if it’s optional or cascades the cache miss upwards until it either finds a different nullable field on a parent entity, or the query itself becomes cache miss afterall. In other words, it attempts to give us only partial result and sends the API request for more data off in the background. Given that a lot of GraphQL apps we’re seeing now use TypeScript with type generation, a lot of UIs are already being built to deal with nullable GraphQL data.

A query may display stale partial data without waiting for the full result to be available.

This is one of the more “extravagant” features in Graphcache, but based on what I have experienced when building apps and heard from people, who are starting from scratch with GraphQL, it was a grievance for some to build partially loading UIs, and the intention of partial results is to make it easier to progressively improve the user experience of our apps, by filling this gap. It also is one of the defining features that pushed us to add Offline Support!

Optimistic Ordering and Layers

There are two more features that I was leaving out so far that enable us to do one more thing™. In Graphcache we went so far as to add Offline Support back in June 2020, and it’s two important features that enabled us to come this far:

  • Optimistic Updates, which allow mutations to optimistically make changes to the cache’s data immediately, before a request is even sent to the API.
  • Commutative Data Layering, which ensures that results from the API are applied in order, even if they arrive in varying order.

Both of these features were vital for us to allow Offline Support to be added while keeping the developer experience neither complicated nor confusing. When this mode of Graphcache is used, a storage engine may be passed (the default one uses IndexedDB) which persists results and queues mutations, which when they fail may be retried when the client comes back online. When the client is offline however, Graphcache is able to continue delivering fully cached or partial results as best as it can, while when it’s online it continually persists data.

Optimistic Updates

“Optimistic Updates” are a feature that we’ve added almost right at the start of implementing Graphcache, as it has become an almost standard feature of normalised caches. With optimistic updates an optimistic configuration option may be passed to Graphcache that tells the cache how to generate a “fake result” for a mutation before a request has been sent to the API.

  optimistic: {
    favoriteTodo: (variables, cache, info) => ({
      __typename: 'Todo',
      favorite: true,

So far, the data structure that we’ve looked at previously store normalised data just fine, and Graphcache keeps two tables of entries, one for “records” (or scalars) and one for “links” (or relations.) When an optimistic result is applied, the cache actually creates additional layers of these tables that it stacks on top of the “base layer”.

When a mutation is executed that has an optimistic entry, the optimistic result is used to temporarily apply changes to the cache on new layers. When the API responds with the mutation’s result, this temporary layer is erased again and the API’s result is applied to the base layer. This allows the UI to immediately adapt to mutations in response to a user interaction when the API would otherwise delay it.

On apps like Twitter, this is a common UX technique to display “likes” immediately rather than waiting for the API to respond, since, unlike composing a tweet, this interaction isn’t time-sensitive and resilient to failure. For Offline Support this means that our apps can stay interactive even when we’re offline and mutations can’t be sent, since the result of those mutations can be optimistically emulated for the UI.

Commutative Data Layering

For Optimistic Updates we already had data layering implemented, but for full Offline Support it became clear that we needed to provide stronger guarantees around the cache’s data for a client to maintain consistency, in the face of unstable or inconsitent network connections. When an app becomes offline-resilient it first starts adding retry logic to its requests (for urql we have a retry exchange), which means it’s then dealing with a potentially large flurry of requests that may resolve at different points in the future — out of order.

This is horrible for maintaining consistency in the cache’s store. There’s no prediction to be made of how data is written and merged anymore, there’s no guarantee in which order data is written to the cache, and worse, there’s no guarantee in which order mutations are written to the cache. Oops; as James Long says in his talk “CRDTs for Mortals”::

“Why is syncing so hard? Unreliable ordering and conflicts.”
— James Long

In this talk, James talks about synchronising data from multiple distributed clients with CRDTs, which are a method of assigning timestamps to messages for establishing an eventual consistency when synchronising updates across multiple clients.

Unfortunately, CRDTs aren’t suitable for our GraphQL cache, since implementing them requires changes to the API, and as they’re more suitable for synchronising updates rather than entire sets of results. Luckily though, since with GraphQL we’re dealing with a client/server network, there isn’t as much distribution, and hence, synchronisation that needs to be done. Instead, we can assume any consistent order and move on.

The method that we applied to Graphcache for ensuring more consistency is what we aptly call commutativity — the strategy of applying ordered results in order. Understanding and planning this feature wasn’t easy and the first implementation that Jovi de Croock and I discussed over weeks was implemented in a PR from March 2020, while we were at Formidable’s HQ in Seattle.

What we planned was to reuse the layering approach that was already implemented for optimistic updates. To implement this feature we decided that queries and mutations would register themselves first in the order they were queued up in. If their results eventually arrive out of order, they’d first be applied to layers that are kept in the original order. These commutative layers essentially sort changes in the cache’s data structure as they are applied.

If a layer result comes in first, results are written to separate layers, where data in later ones take precedence.

When the earliest result in the stack of layers (the lowest in “FILO” order) is resolved from the API, then that layer is committed or rather “squashed” into the base layer. Since all of these layers are tables of scalars and relations, this is the equivalent of copying each entry down to the base layer, so they’re cleaned up continuously. Optimistic layers also participate in this structure and are different in that they may already contain optimistic values when they’re created.

As the cache now reads values from this layered data structure, when it looks up an entry in the layered tables it will start with the latest layer on top and cascade down into the base layer until it finds the value or not. This may also be one of the rare cases where JavaScript’s difference between null and undefined comes in handy! If we want a layer to erase an entry, we can set it to undefined and treat it separately from having no value at all and from having a scalar of null.

Keeping optimistic and non-optimistic data apart.

The last problem we faced with this system is keeping optimistic changes away from non-optimistic ones. With the updates API, it’s easy for developers to accidentally read some optimistic data while an update is written to a non-optimistic layer, making a temporary change accidentally permanent. This may even happen when multiple items are optimistically added to a list, which makes the result eventually contain optimistic items, even when their non-optimistic results have already been added. Oops again! 😕

Hence, we put some systems into place to keep optimistic data as separate from “real data” as possible. Once one or more optimistic updates for mutations have been made, all active mutations for these optimistic updates will be delayed and resolved together as a batch. For the user, this makes no difference as the optimistic changes already reflected what the server data changes too. But internally this allows all optimistic layers to be cleared before the mutations’ results are applied, preventing the mutation results from ever “seeing” the optimistic ones.

Relatedly, we quickly found out that it’s inconvenient to have queries overwrite optimistic mutations. When an optimistic mutation adds an item to the list, it’d be very awkward for a query to refetch that list, making the optimistic addition disappear. So we also started blocking queries that conflict with optimistic updates, which solved this issue too.

The idea that we could delay results to improve the user experience around optimistic updates was an unexpected and important realisation to say the least.

Taking the garbage out.

Another small feature that shall not go unmentioned here is Garbage Collection. Over the lifetime of an app, the cache may accumulate a lot of unused entities in memory. This could even become a more severe problem when the cache is used offline, since all persisted data is loaded into memory on startup, which could then grow larger and larger.

To prevent this from becoming a problem, Graphcache schedules a garbage collection run each time it makes any changes to its store. If an entity has no relation leading to it, and is hence unused, it is removed during this cleanup phase. When we implemented this we had to decide between two possible implementations: tracing gargabe collection and automatic reference counting.

The former scans all relations it can find starting from the Query root type, and marks entities it can find to then determine which ones are unused. Reference counting on the other hands counts the amounts of references to an entity as they are created, updated, or removed. Ultimately, we decided on the latter method as it’s much faster and easier to implement.

  refCount: {
    'Item:123': 1,
    'Item:0': 0
  refLock: {
    [1]: { 'Item:234': 1 }
  gc: Set { 'Item:0' }

Our data structure tracks the amount of references to each entity, both on the base layer and separately on the optimistic layers. When the amount of references falls to zero, the entity key is added to the gc set, which means it’s scheduled for deletion.

This approach does not delete cyclical references. If two entities reference each other, they won’t be deleted, even if they aren’t used by any other relation. This is a drawback, but given that this garbage collector is designed to be fast rather than accurate, we’ve found the tradeoff to be worth it.

Notifying the UI of changes

In urql, all queries, mutations, and subscriptions are sent through an extension pipeline, which contains all of its GraphQL client logic. The Client itself only has the task to coordinate this pipeline and to communicate with framework bindings. This pipeline contains what we call “Exchanges”, which are middleware that accept a stream of operations (queries, mutations and subscriptions), forward them to the next exchange, and return a stream of results. This system allows us to integrate caches into the same pipeline as all other logic, like retrying, fetching, or deduplication, rather than layering caches on top of the Client with an additional API-surface.

For Graphcache this means that it needs to notify the Client of any changes to the active queries as it updates its cache. For instance, a mutation may update an entity that is shared with a query, which means that Graphcache needs to notify the Client that the query’s data has changed.

The Client is notified when any dependencies of a query overlap with an update.

To identify changes as data is updated by the cache, the traversal also tracks all entities it has visited by key. A Set of keys is collected. This Set clearly identifies either which entities have been read or written, depending on whether Graphcache was updating or reading from its store. We call this list of keys the “dependencies” of a query document.

The exchange then only needs to compare the Set it gets when it updates the cache with the dependencies of active queries. If any queries contains a dependency that has been updated, the Client is notified that this query has a new update. In other words, the caching logic in Graphcache is completely agnostic to how it’s run and could even be used for GraphQL clients other than urql.

Graphcache — More than just a normalised cache

Graphcache has come quite far in the year that we’ve been working on it now, and as this post has hopefully shown, what goes into a normalised GraphQL cache goes much beyond the data normalisation bit of it. Today we can be proud of a normalised cache that is one of the fastest and smallest in the community. We’re continuing to experiment with “smart features” which have already brought us ideas such as the built-in Offline Support, which are what ultimately make Graphcache unique. But seeing how much I had to cover in just one post explaining it is encouraging already — to recap:

  • Normalised Data Structures & GraphQL document traversal
  • Manual updaters & resolvers configurations
  • Schema awareness & partial results
  • Optimistic Updates
  • Commutative Layers
  • Garbage Collection
  • Data Dependencies for notifying the Client

It’s easy for me to list out where Graphcache’s implementation has ended up and what it does, but there’s a long list of reasons, discussions, and failed experiments behind each change and feature, we’ve introduced. It’s almost a shame to not mention them, since each problem we encountered felt like the hardest I’d work on for weeks at a time. However, the important takeaway is that we focus on making each of our features intuitive, which is best exemplified by the detailed warnings and errors Graphcache logs when something goes wrong. It’s impressive how a simple specification like GraphQL that enough people can and have agreed on can enable us to experiment with more automatic optimisations and mechanisms that ultimately benefit a lot of people.

“There are two hard problems in Computer Science: We only have one joke and it’s not funny.” (Source)

The urql GraphQL client is an Open Source project we work on at Formidable. We’re a consultancy — if your team needs help with a GraphQL or React project, let’s talk!