Observability in GraphQL - Navigating the Complexities of Modern APIs

February 28, 2024

GraphQL has revolutionized the way we build and interact with APIs, offering a more flexible and efficient approach to data retrieval. However, with its advantages come new challenges in ensuring the reliability and performance of our systems. In this blog post, we'll explore the critical role of observability in managing and troubleshooting GraphQL-based architectures, focusing on three common issues: N+1 problems, cyclic queries, and the limitations of API gateways.

2024 02 28

The Three Big Challenges of GraphQL

  1. N+1 Problem: This occurs when a single GraphQL query leads to multiple, sequential requests to a database or other data sources, resulting in inefficient data fetching and potential performance bottlenecks.
  2. Cyclic Queries: GraphQL's flexibility allows for complex queries, including those that unintentionally create cycles, leading to infinite loops and server crashes if not properly handled.
  3. API Gateways: While API gateways can provide a layer of security and abstraction, they can also obscure the underlying issues in GraphQL queries. They often return a generic 200 OK status, making it difficult to debug and troubleshoot specific problems.

The Evolution from Monitoring to Observability

Monitoring has traditionally been about answering the "what" - what's happening in our system? However, as our systems grow in complexity, simply knowing what's happening is no longer enough. We need to understand the "why" behind the issues. This is where observability comes in. It's an evolution of monitoring that provides deeper insights into the internal state of our systems, allowing us to diagnose and address problems that we might not have anticipated beforehand.

Leveraging Observability with Telemetry

One of the key components of observability is telemetry, which involves collecting and analyzing data about the operation of a system. OpenTelemetry has emerged as the new open-source standard for exposing observability data, offering a unified approach to collecting traces, metrics, and logs.

Traces in GraphQL

Traces are particularly useful in the context of GraphQL. They allow us to follow a request as it travels through a distributed system, providing a detailed view of how data is fetched and processed. This visibility is crucial for identifying and resolving issues like the N+1 problem or cyclic queries.

The Magic of Context Propagation and Instrumentation

The real magic of observability in GraphQL lies in two concepts: context propagation and instrumentation.

  • Context Propagation: This ensures that the metadata associated with a request is carried throughout the entire processing pipeline, allowing us to maintain a continuous trace of the request's journey.
  • Instrumentation: This involves adding monitoring capabilities to our codebase, enabling us to capture detailed information about the execution of GraphQL queries, including errors and performance metrics.

Instrumenting GraphQL for Error Capture

By instrumenting our GraphQL servers, we can capture errors and log them in a structured format. This data can then be fed into monitoring tools like Prometheus, allowing us to set up alerts and dashboards to track the health of our API.

Leveraging Open Source Tools for Observability

There are several open-source tools available that can enhance the observability of GraphQL systems. Jaeger, for example, is a popular tool for tracing distributed systems. It provides a visual representation of how requests flow through the system, making it easier to diagnose issues and understand the "why" behind the problems.


Observability is crucial for managing the complexities of modern GraphQL-based APIs. By leveraging telemetry, context propagation, and instrumentation, we can gain deeper insights into our systems, allowing us to proactively address issues and ensure the reliability and performance of our APIs. Open-source tools like OpenTelemetry and Jaeger play a vital role in this process, providing the necessary infrastructure to monitor and troubleshoot our systems effectively.

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Victor Leung, who blog about business, technology and personal development. Happy to connect on LinkedIn