April 30, 2024

Federated Subscriptions with Router’s HTTP Callback Protocol

Liz Hennessy

Liz Hennessy

Federated subscriptions through GraphOS make the path to real-time data much smoother: a single query delivers continuous updates while the Apollo Router coordinates behind-the-scenes operations to subgraphs.

In addition to enabling subscriptions via WebSockets, the router supports an HTTP callback-based protocol. With callbacks, the router can communicate with subgraphs without needing to maintain multiple persistent connections for each new subscription event.

This article explores how the router orchestrates subscriptions over HTTP and uses a single subscription operation to query fresh data from two services.

Note: If you’d like to follow along, check out the repository for the demo code and complete the steps outlined in the README.

Real-time data: stock prices

Consider an example graph with two subgraphs: stocks and prices.

The stocks service provides basic data for a Stock type. A stock has three fields: id, name, and latestNews, which returns a recent news headline about the stock.

​​type Stock @key(fields: "id") {
  id: ID!
  name: String!
  latestNews: String

Note that the Stock type is an entity, which means it has fields defined in multiple subgraphs. The @key on the Stock type tells the router which field to use when syncing up data about a single Stock instance from multiple subgraphs.

To learn more about Apollo Federation and building a graph from the ground up, check out Federation with TypeScript & Apollo Server on Odyssey, Apollo’s official learning platform.

Because Stock is an entity type, the prices subgraph can contribute its own field, currentPrice, to the Stock type.

  type Stock @key(fields: "id") {
    id: ID!
    currentPrice: Int

To subscribe to changes in a stock’s price, we’ll use the stockPriceChange subscription field from the prices service.

  type Subscription {
    stockPriceChange(id: ID!): Stock

This field accepts an id argument for a particular stock, and returns a Stock type. This means we can build our subscription operations to include any of the Stock type fields—not just the currentPrice field that we know will change.

Here’s an example of a subscription operation that requests data about a stock from both subgraphs.

subscription Subscription($stockId: ID!) {
  stockPriceChange(id: $stockId) {
    name                 # provided by the `stocks` service
    latestNews           # provided by the `stocks` service
    currentPrice         # provided by the `prices` service

Before walking through how the router resolves this operation, let’s dive into how subscriptions with HTTP callbacks work.

The HTTP callback protocol

With HTTP callbacks, subgraph servers use a callback URL provided by the router to send new subscription data as soon as it becomes available. This process occurs without maintaining the long-lived, resource-intensive connections common with the WebSocket approach.

You can picture the process a bit like setting up channels for radio communication: the participants note where to reach each other and first make sure everything’s working (“Do you read me?”). They check in periodically with each other (“Are you still there?”) and, with any luck, share updates as they happen (“I have news!”). When the subscription is terminated or one of the parties stops responding, the channel shuts down (“Over and out”).

Metaphors aside, let’s dive into the technical details. Three primary roles make the process possible: the router, the subgraph, and the emitter.

When it receives a subscription operation, the router sends it onward to the responsible subgraph, attaching instructions for how the subgraph can “call back.” The emitter acts as the mechanism that checks in with the router periodically and “emits” new subscription data. For the purposes of this article, the subgraph plays both subgraph and emitter roles, though they can be separate systems as needed.

Configuring the router

The process starts in the router’s router.yaml file. This is the configuration file where we can provide all kinds of details about how the router should run—including how it should handle subscription events and which protocol to use for which subgraph.

  enabled: true
      path: /callback 
      heartbeat_interval: 15s
        - prices

To explore all possible configuration options in the router.yaml file, check out the official documentation.

The first four lines in the configuration snippet above enable subscriptions in the router and set the mode as callback. All the callback-specific configurations are below the callback key.  Let’s break them down, one by one.


The listen property specifies the IP address and port the router will listen on for subscription callbacks. We haven’t changed it from the default here, but note that for security reasons it’s likely best to expose a separate port that’s available only through your internal network.


The path property states the specific path of our router’s callback endpoint. It should match the value appended to the public_url. If you don’t specify a path, it takes the value of /callback by default.


heartbeat_interval is optional. By default, the router asks the subgraphs to send a “check” message every 5 seconds. Here we’ve lengthened the intervals to 15 seconds for demo purposes.


Lastly, under subgraphs, we specify the names of the subgraphs that use the HTTP callback protocol to provide subscription data. We have just one: prices.

Starting the subscription

Let’s look at an example operation the router might receive from a client.

subscription GetStockPriceUpdates {
	stockPriceChange(id: "1") {

The prices subgraph is responsible for the stockPriceChange subscription field, so the router sends it an initial data object. This object contains the subscription operation itself and all the information the subgraph will need to be able to “call back.”

This information includes the callbackUrl, subscriptionId, and heartbeatIntervalMs, along with a new property called verifier.

  "query": "subscription GetStockPriceUpdates { stockPriceChange(id: "1") { currentPrice }}",
  "extensions": {
    "subscription": {
      "callbackUrl": "http://127:0.0.1:4000/callback/c4a9d1b8-dc57-44ab-9e5a-6e6189b2b945",
      "subscriptionId": "c4a9d1b8-dc57-44ab-9e5a-6e6189b2b945",
      "verifier": "XXX",
      "heartbeatIntervalMs": 15000

The verifier property verifies the subgraph’s identity with the router; each response the subgraph sends to the router needs to include this property. When it receives this object, the subgraph server uses the verifier property right away and sends the router its first message, establishing that it can make contact. (“Do you read me?”)

When the router confirms (“Copy, prices subgraph, I read you”), the subgraph sends an empty GraphQL response object. With that, setup is complete—we’re ready to receive subscription updates!

The loop

The subscription operation has been dispatched, and the router’s waiting to receive some new data. What’s happening under the hood? A few things:

  1. Every fifteen seconds, (or whatever we set as the subscription’s heartbeat_interval), the subgraph acting in its emitter role sends a “check” message to the router. (“Just checking in!”)
  2. When the subgraph detects a subscription event, it sends the router a “next” message containing the new data. (“Here’s the latest…”)
  3. If something goes wrong or the subscription should be terminated, the subgraph sends a “complete” message, and the router ends the subscription. (“Over and out!”)

Without any changes to the stock’s current price, this loop continues with the subgraph sending its regular “check” message to the router.

When we trigger a mutation that changes the stock’s price, however, the router sends a response containing the new data.

Updating the stock’s price caused our prices service to emit a “next” message to the router. The router packages up the new data and serves it back to the client. Then, the main loop continues: the subgraph will continue to check in at regular intervals, sending data when it becomes available.

Subscriptions and the query plan

In GraphOS Explorer, we get a sneak peek at the router’s plan of action to fulfill a query. By selecting Query Plan Preview from the Response panel dropdown, we see precisely where the router needs to fetch data from.

With a subscription operation that asks for a single field, currentPrice, the query plan is simple: the router just needs to fetch data from prices.

But what happens when our subscription response includes more fields from the Stock type?

Let’s update our query to include the latestNews and name fields from the stocks subgraph.

subscription Subscription($stockId: ID!) {
  stockPriceChange(id: $stockId) {
    name                 # provided by the `stocks` service
    latestNews           # provided by the `stocks` service
    currentPrice         # provided by the `prices` service

When we check out the Query Plan Preview, we’ll see that the router has planned another stop in its itinerary. After fetching the currentPrice field from the prices subgraph, it then retrieves the remaining fields (name and latestNews) from the stocks subgraph.

Though our subscription operation is primarily concerned with a single field—namely, the new value of currentPrice after a price-changing event—the router ensures that the remaining fields queried for the Stock type come along for the ride.

We’ll see this in action by triggering another changePrice mutation. We’ll see data for all three of our Stock fields appear in the Response panel.

We’ll run one more mutation, changing the price a final time.

And we’ll see not only a new value for currentPrice, but a new latestNews value as well!

Here’s what’s happening:

  1. The prices subgraph sends the router an update that the stock’s price has changed, along with the value of currentPrice.
  2. The router has all of the data it needs to return from the prices subgraph, but the subscription operation it’s executing includes two fields from the stocks subgraph as well: name and latestNews.
  3. The router executes a regular GraphQL query to the stocks subgraph to get the value of the name and latestNews fields.
  4. Now equipped with all the data from both subgraphs, the router bundles it up and sends it back to the client.

Notice that we haven’t explicitly subscribed to the latestNews field from the stocks subgraph, yet the router still refetches this field when a stock’s price changes. As a result, we get the latest data from both subgraphs—all from a single subscription operation!

A note on deduplication

By default, the router will not open a new subscription when it’s already handling an identical operation. By deduplicating both subscription operations from clients, and the requests to the subgraphs that fulfill the queried data, the router keeps stress to a minimum.


The router supports subscriptions using the HTTP callback protocol. This allows the router and subgraphs to communicate relevant updates without the need for long-lived, persistent connections. Currently this feature is available out of the box with Apollo Server. To take advantage of this new feature, other subgraph libraries or frameworks should implement the HTTP callback protocol such that it can do the following:

  1. Establish a connection with the router using a callbackUrl and a verifier.
  2. Send regular “check” messages to the router at a predefined interval.
  3. Provide the router with subscription updates via a “next” message.
  4. Close a subscription connection with the router.

Taken altogether, we get the power of federated subscriptions across the graph without the weight of multiple, long-term WebSocket connections. We can send the router a subscription operation that requests data from multiple subgraphs, and the router takes care of fetching those updates when anything changes. This allowed us to subscribe to stock price changes in one subgraph, and receive updates for all the fields in our operation.

Check out our demo code to give subscriptions with HTTP callbacks a try!

Written by

Liz Hennessy

Liz Hennessy

Read more by Liz Hennessy