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Introduction to Apollo Federation

Implement a single data graph across multiple services

Implementing services are now known as subgraphs.

If you find an outdated use of "implementing service," please submit article feedback or a pull request using the links on the right.

To get the most out of GraphQL, your organization should expose a single data graph that provides a unified interface for querying any combination of your backing data sources. However, it can be challenging to represent an enterprise-scale data graph with a single, monolithic GraphQL server.

To remedy this, you can divide your graph's implementation across multiple composable services with Apollo Federation:

Web app
iOS app
Products subgraph
Reviews subgraph
Inventory subgraph

Unlike other distributed GraphQL architectures (such as schema stitching), Apollo Federation uses a declarative programming model that enables each subgraph to implement only the part of your composed supergraph that it's responsible for.

Apollo Federation also supports a free managed mode with Apollo Studio, which enables you to add, remove, and refactor your subgraphs without requiring any downtime for your production graph.


An Apollo Federation architecture consists of:

  • A collection of subgraphs (usually represented by different back-end services) that each define a distinct GraphQL schema
  • A gateway that composes the subgraphs into a federated data graph and executes queries across multiple subgraphs

Apollo Server provides libraries for acting both as a subgraph and as a gateway, but these components can be implemented in any language and framework.

Apollo Federation does not currently support GraphQL subscription operations.

The following presentation by Mandi Wise further describes the architecture of Apollo Federation and walks through implementing a federated graph:

Core principles

Incremental adoption

Like the rest of the Apollo platform, Apollo Federation can (and should) be adopted incrementally:

In both of these cases, all of your clients will continue to work throughout your incremental migration. In fact, clients have no way to distinguish between different data graph implementations.

Separation of concerns

Apollo Federation encourages a design principle called separation of concerns. This enables different teams to work on different products and features within a single data graph, without interfering with each other.

Limitations of type-based separation

When considering how to split a single GraphQL schema across multiple subgraphs, it seems straightforward to divide schemas up by type. For example, a users subgraph would define the entirety of a User type, the products subgraph would define a Product type, and so on:

3 separate types divided into 3 services

Although this separation looks clean, it quickly causes issues. Specifically, a particular feature (or concern) usually spans multiple types.

Consider the recentPurchases field of the User type in the above schema. Even though this field is a member of the User type, a list of Products should probably be populated by the products subgraph, not the users subgraph.

By defining the recentPurchases field in the products subgraph instead:

  • The subgraph that defines the field is also the subgraph that knows how to populate the field. The users subgraph might not even have access to the back-end data store that contains product data.
  • The team that manages product data can contain all product-related logic in a single subgraph that they own unilaterally.

Concern-based separation

The following schema uses Apollo Federation to divide the same set of types and fields across the same three subgraphs:

Splitting those 3 types by data source rather than by type. Includes type extensions across services

The difference is that now, each subgraph defines the types and fields that it is capable of (and should be responsible for) populating from its back-end data store.

The result is the best of both worlds: an implementation that keeps all the code for a given feature in a single subgraph and separated from unrelated concerns, and a product-centric schema with rich types that reflects the natural way an application developer would want to consume the graph.

Apollo Server libraries

Apollo Server supports Apollo Federation via two open-source extension libraries:

  • @apollo/federation provides primitives that subgraphs use to make their individual GraphQL schemas composable.
  • @apollo/gateway enables you to set up an instance of Apollo Server as a gateway that distributes incoming GraphQL operations across one or more subgraphs.

Federated schema example

Let's look at an example. Below, we define the schema for a basic e-commerce application as three subgraphs, each of which is implemented as a standalone service:

extend type Query {
  me: User

type User @key(fields: "id") {
  id: ID!
  username: String!
extend type Query {
  topProducts(first: Int = 5): [Product]

type Product @key(fields: "upc") {
  upc: String!
  name: String!
  price: Int
type Review {
  body: String
  author: User @provides(fields: "username")
  product: Product

extend type User @key(fields: "id") {
  id: ID! @external
  reviews: [Review]

extend type Product @key(fields: "upc") {
  upc: String! @external
  reviews: [Review]

These schemas illustrate several important conventions of Apollo Federation:

  • A subgraph can reference a type that's defined by another subgraph. For example, the Review type includes a product field of type Product, even though the Product type is defined in a different subgraph.

  • A subgraph can also extend a type that's defined by another subgraph. For example, the reviews subgraph extends the User type by adding a reviews field to it.

  • A subgraph must add the @key directive to a type's definition in order for other subgraphs to be able to reference or extend that type. This directive tells other subgraphs which fields to use to uniquely identify a particular instance of the type.

Gateway example

The gateway for our federated data graph fetches the schema from each subgraph and composes those schemas into a single graph:

const gateway = new ApolloGateway({
  serviceList: [
    { name: 'accounts', url: 'http://localhost:4001' },
    { name: 'products', url: 'http://localhost:4002' },
    { name: 'reviews', url: 'http://localhost:4003' }

const server = new ApolloServer({ gateway });

That’s it! With Apollo Federation, schemas and resolvers live in your subgraphs. The gateway serves only to plan and execute GraphQL operations across those subgraphs.

Now we can execute GraphQL operations against our composed schema just as if it were implemented as a single, monolithic service:

# A query that the gateway resolves by calling all three services
query GetCurrentUserReviews {
  me {
    reviews {
      product {

Managed federation

In addition to running a gateway with a static list of services, Apollo Gateway can operate in managed federation mode, where Apollo Studio acts as the source of truth for each subgraph's schema.

This mode enables multiple teams working on a data graph to coordinate when and how underlying subgraphs change. It's recommended for all federated graphs. For more information, read Managed federation overview.

Next, learn how to define a subgraph.

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