GraphQL vs Protobuf: Differences, Similarities, and Why to Use Them

Shay Bratslavsky January 10, 2023 7 min read

Both GraphQL and Protocol Buffers (Protobuf) are types of formats for transferring data between client and server. Each has its own set of advantages and disadvantages, and they are used in different contexts depending on the specific requirements of an application.

GraphQL is a query language and API runtime designed to provide a consistent and flexible way to fetch and manipulate data. It enables clients to specify the exact data required and makes it simple to evolve APIs over time without breaking existing client code.

In contrast, Protobuf is a binary serialization format and set of tools for working with data structures defined by Protocol Buffer (proto) files. It is typically used for data transmission over a network or data storage in a structured and efficient manner.

In this article, we’ll explain GraphQL and Protobuf, their key features, benefits and drawbacks, and their similarities and differences.

What is GraphQL

GraphQL is a query language and runtime system for APIs that allows clients to request specific data from the server and receive only the data they require. It is a faster and more adaptable alternative to traditional REST APIs. GraphQL allows developers to express their data requirements declaratively, and the server will return the requested data in a predictable format. This results in improved performance and developer experience.

It was initially created by Facebook to power their APIs, but it is now widely used by different companies.

Key Features of GraphQL

Some of GraphQL’s key features are:

  1. Flexible Querying: GraphQL allows you to query exactly the data you require in a single request, and the server will return only that data, reducing the amount of data that must be sent over the network.
  2. Strong Typing: GraphQL includes a type system that allows developers to define the types of data that can be queried, making it easier to detect errors before they occur.
  3. Hierarchical Structure: It has a hierarchical structure, which allows clients to easily navigate the data and access the specific information they require.
  4. Inspection: GraphQL allows you to query the schema itself, which means you can ask the server what data types are available and what fields those data types have. This facilitates understanding and exploration of GraphQL APIs.
  5. Real-time updates: GraphQL includes support for real-time updates, which means that the server can push new data to the client as soon as it becomes available, rather than the client having to ask the server for updates.
  6. Documentation: It is self-documented, which means the server can provide API documentation, making it easier for developers to understand and use the API.

Advantages Of Using GraphQL

GraphQL has some advantages that make it easy to use. Some of them are:

  1. Improved efficiency: GraphQL allows clients to request only the data they require, reducing unnecessary data transfer and improving overall application performance.
  2. Better developer experience: GraphQL provides a consistent interface for querying data, allowing developers to build and maintain complex APIs more easily.
  3. Strong Community Support: GraphQL has a strong and growing community, with many companies and organizations using it in production and contributing to its development. There are also a plethora of open-source tools and libraries available to assist you in getting started with GraphQL.
  4. Improved Data Organization And Management: GraphQL allows for the creation of a central schema that defines all of the data in an application, providing a clear and organized structure for data management.

Disadvantages of Using GraphQL

Some of the disadvantages/drawback of using GraphQL include:

  1. Some databases and technologies offer limited support and adoption, which can impede compatibility and integration with existing systems.
  2. Potential security risks, such as unauthorized access to sensitive data or GraphQL schema vulnerabilities.
  3. The requirement for additional training and expertise in order to implement and use GraphQL effectively, which can increase development costs and time.
  4. The possibility of increased complexity and overhead in managing and maintaining GraphQL schemas and queries.
  5. The possibility of performance degradation, particularly for large and complex queries, as a result of GraphQL’s additional layers of abstraction and processing.

What is ProtoBuf?

Protobuf, also known as Protocol Buffers, is a language-independent, platform-independent, and extensible mechanism for serializing structured data. It is used for data transmission over networks or data storage in a compact, efficient, and easily parsable format. Google created and maintained Protobuf, which is used in a variety of applications and services.

Key Features Of Protobuf

Some of Protobuf’s key features are:

  1. It is Language-independent and platform-neutral. 
  2. It supports efficient binary serialization format. 
  3. It supports complex data structures and nested messages.
  4. It supports the use of custom encoding and compression algorithms for optimized data transfer and storage. 
  5. It gives the ability to define custom data structures and message types using a clear and simple syntax.
  6. It is compatible with several programming languages, including C++, Java, Python, and Go.

Advantages Of Using Protobuf

Some of the advantages of using Protobuf in any application are:

  1.  Increased data transfer efficiency: Protobuf transfers data in binary format, which is much more efficient than text-based formats like XML or JSON. This means that data transfer speeds are significantly faster, and the transfer process has less overhead.
  2.  Smaller file sizes: Because Protobuf uses a binary format, data transferred is much smaller than data transferred using text-based formats. This means that Protobuf files are smaller in size, which is useful for applications that require frequent data transfers or have limited storage space.
  3. Language independence: Because Protobuf is language-independent, it can be used to transfer data between applications written in different programming languages. This is useful for applications that require data integration from multiple sources or platforms.
  4. Simple to use: Protobuf is simple to use, with a simple syntax and a clear set of rules for defining and using data types. This allows developers to quickly get started with Protobuf and integrate it into their applications.
  5. Improved maintainability: Protobuf employs a clear and concise data schema that is simple to understand and maintain for developers. This can reduce the need for additional documentation while also streamlining the development process.
  6.  Reduced network bandwidth consumption: Protobuf’s compact binary format can significantly reduce the amount of data that must be transmitted over a network. This can improve the performance and scalability of network-dependent applications.

Disadvantages of Using Protobuf

  1. Lack of language support: Protobuf is not supported by all programming languages, hence, developers may encounter difficulties integrating it into their existing systems.
  2. Limited support for complex data types: Because Protobuf does not support complex data types like maps, nested objects, and enums, it may be ineffective for some applications.
  3. Lack of real-time data streaming support: Because Protobuf is not designed for real-time data streaming, it may not be suitable for applications requiring low-latency data transfer.
  4. Limited interoperability: Because protobuf is not as widely used as other serialization formats, integrating with systems that use different serialization formats may be difficult.
  5. Performance constraints: In terms of performance, Protobuf may not be as efficient as other serialization formats, particularly when dealing with large amounts of data.
  6. Learning curve: Because Protobuf has a steep learning curve, developers may need to invest time and effort in learning how to use it effectively.
  7. Track changes: To serialize a struct to protobuf, it is required to have a .proto file that declares the struct. The serialization and deserialization can be made only against a valid .proto file. Therefore, every service that takes part in the protobuf communication must store that .proto as well, making it complicated to evolve the struct as the application becomes more mature because every change has to be reflected across all services.

Similarities Between GraphQL and Protobuf

There are some similarities between GraphQL and Protobuf, as they both deal with data communication and transmission in applications. Some of them are:

  1. GraphQL and Protobuf are both intended to improve the efficiency and performance of client-server data communication.
  2. Both offer a means of defining the structure of data exchanged between the client and server, ensuring that the data is in a consistent format.
  3. Both allow for the creation of custom data types as well as the definition of relationships between different data types.
  4. Both allow for the creation of reusable code for common data structures and operations, making system maintenance and updates easier.
  5. Both provide tools for validating the data being exchanged and ensuring its accuracy and consistency.
  6. Both support versioning, which allows for the addition of new data types and changes to existing data without compromising compatibility.
  7. Both can generate code for various programming languages, making it easier to integrate with a wide range of platforms and technologies.

Differences between GraphQL and Protobuf

Feature GraphQL Protobuf
Data serialization format JSON or XML Binary
Data representation Hierarchical Flat
Type system Strongly-typed Weakly-typed
Compatibility with different languages Yes (uses HTTP as a transport layer) Limited (requires code generation for each language)
Query language GraphQL query language Protocol buffer language
Schema definition Yes (mandatory for ensuring data integrity) No (not necessary for encoding and decoding data)
Error handling Detailed error messages Basic error messages
Performance Slower (due to hierarchical data representation) Faster (due to binary data representation)
Developed By Facebook Google

Schemaverse – Enforce GraphQL schemas on server-to-server communication

In a federated data platform, in which responsibilities are distributed between stakeholders, teams, and sources, it’s harder to control and establish a single standard. This is where the data contracts concept comes into play. Why do data contracts matter? Because (a) they provide insights into who owns what data products, and (b) they support setting standards and managing your data pipelines with confidence. They also provide crucial information on what data is being consumed, by whom, and for what purpose. Bottom line: data contracts are essential for robust data management!

The very basic building block to control and ensure the quality of data that flows through your organization between the different owners is by defining well-written schemas and data models.

Memphis Schemaverse provides a robust schema store and schema management layer on top of memphis broker without a standalone compute or dedicated resources. With a unique and modern UI and programmatic approach, technical and non-technical users can create and define different schemas, attach the schema to multiple stations and choose if the schema should be enforced or not. Memphis’ low-code approach removes the serialization part as it is embedded within the producer library. Schema X supports versioning, GitOps methodologies, and schema evolution. Schemaverse supports both GraphQL and Protobuf.

More on Schemaverse can be found here.