November 10, 2022

Fullstack GraphQL tutorial: @defer and Apollo GraphOS

Michael Watson

Michael Watson

With Apollo GraphOS, you can improve your client app’s time-to-interactive (TTI) and reduce latency in a few lines of code. Just plug your GraphQL API into the supergraph and add the @defer directive to the slow parts of your GraphQL query. When you mark slow fields with @defer, the supergraph knows it can deliver those parts of the result asynchronously.

The @defer directive is a proposal to the GraphQL specification that has been in development since July 2020. We know the GraphQL community has been eager to try it, so we announced full end-to-end support for @defer across Apollo GraphOS at this year’s GraphQL Summit. Even if your GraphQL API doesn’t support @defer yet, you can still use it with GraphOS.

In this tutorial, we’ll show you how to use @defer with our e-commerce example. If you like what you see, you can follow the same steps to plug your GraphQL API into the supergraph and start using @defer to craft a snappier user experience.

Get started with GraphOS

First, we need to connect our GraphQL API to GraphOS, Apollo’s supergraph platform. GraphOS includes a global supergraph runtime, powered by Apollo Router. It’s free to use with 10MM queries/month included. Create an account and add your GraphQL endpoint to set up your supergraph.

Here, we’re using as our GraphQL endpoint. When we connect it to the supergraph, our GraphQL API becomes a subgraph.

Creating a new Supergraph in GraphOS using our existing GraphQL endpoint. Make sure to write down your Supergraph ID, we’ll use it later.

Define our first entities

Now that we’re connected to the supergraph, let’s dive into our subgraph’s schema to define our first entities. An entity is a thing in the graph you can identify. Like a user with an account number, or a product in your catalog. You already have some entities in your schema today!

Why are entities important? Under the hood, the supergraph uses a query plan to determine how to fetch the deferred portions of a query. Apollo Federation builds that query plan with entities. Think of entities as the building blocks for the supergraph. We’re using them to power cool features coming soon to GraphOS, like live queries and caching.

To define your first entities:

  1. Install the Apollo Federation package for your subgraph. Ensure your schema is being built with the installed package.
  2. Add the @key directive to any type and define the key fields (typically the id field).
  3. Create the reference resolver for your entities.

Here are two examples showing how to add the @key directive to a schema whether you’re using Schema Definition Language (SDL) or Code-first Schema Development:

On the left, we’re defining Product as an entity with Apollo Server using SDL. On the right, we’re defining a Product entity in Strawberry, a code-first Python framework. Over 20 languages and frameworks are supported.

Here are two examples showing how to add the reference resolver for the Product entity we defined in step 2:

On the left, we’re defining our Product.__resolveReference resolver using Typescript. On the right, we’re defining our Product.resolve_reference with @classmethod inside the class using Python.

We’ve already completed those steps for you in our products subgraph schema and resolvers. Now try it in your graph! The more entities you define, the more places you can start using @defer.

Remember that @defer still works even if you have only one subgraph. A deferred query could be re-entrant within the same subgraph! 🤘

Add another subgraph

If you have several subgraphs, they can be added to a supergraph from the Subgraphs tab in GraphOS. While this step is optional, it’s a best practice to think about separation of concerns when designing your GraphQL schemas. We’ve already split our reviews entity into a separate subgraph for this example, but if you want to follow along, you can follow the instructions displayed in GraphOS and use the reviews deployment located at

Test @defer with Explorer

We’ve connected our subgraphs to the supergraph and defined our entities. Let’s test out @defer with Explorer, our GraphQL IDE. You can test out ours here.

  1. Write a query that includes an entity (like products or reviews).
  2. Select the part you want to defer. Right-click to extract a fragment and add @defer.
  3. Execute the query and you can see the data load dynamically

Use @defer in a React app

Since @defer returns multiple responses, the client must support a multipart format. Apollo Client and Apollo Kotlin both support @defer today. Apollo iOS support is coming soon.

Here’s how to use @defer in your React application:

  1. Install the latest version of Apollo Client (v3.7.0 or later):
npm install @apollo/client@latest
  1. Add @defer to your query with a fragment.
  2. Ensure your React component expects the deferred data to be undefined since it might not be available right away.

Configure your router to secure your subgraph and set up CORS rules for your website. Below is an example of a configuration we used:

     - insert:
         name: "subgraph-token"
         value: "${env.SUBGRAPH_SECRET}"
     - propagate:
          named: "authorization"

You can see @defer in action in our e-commerce site example. It’s a product details page where we’re deferring the product’s reviews. To increase/decrease the latency for the deferred views, adjust the slider in “Demo Settings.”

Notice the product details load first and provide a quicker TTI for the user while the reviews load when the data is available (and it’s all from one query!)

@defer + GraphOS = 😍

Let’s recap what we learned! By implementing @defer with Apollo GraphOS, we can improve our app’s TTI and reduce latency in 3 steps:

  1. Connect our GraphQL API to the supergraph.
  2. Define entities in our supergraph using @key.
  3. Mark slow fields in our query with @defer.

To check out the code powering our example, here’s the frontend, the subgraphs, and Explorer. We’d love to hear your feedback in our community forums.

Happy querying!

Written by

Michael Watson

Michael Watson

Read more by Michael Watson