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tRPC vs GraphQL – Why tRPC Finally Fixes the Type Safety Hassle

Last updated on
November 2, 2023



tRPC vs GraphQL – Why tRPC Finally Fixes the Type Safety Hassle

Type safety with GraphQL has been a hassle, so tRPC was long overdue

tRPC has recently risen to fame in the TypeScript community, and I dare to say a library like this was long overdue. In the past, achieving type safety was a tedious task. The common options were either manually creating and managing types or using GraphQL with a code generator.

Interestingly, many engineers neglected one of the key features of GraphQL – language agnosticism. Furthermore, some of us complicated matters by generating a schema from our TypeScript code (or even writing it ourselves) and then converting everything back to TypeScript for our web application.

To make it easier to ensure type safety and never have to deal with the complex configuration of TypeScript and GraphQL again, I decided to give tRPC a try. Let’s see how they work under the hood and compare one against another.

tRPC requests based on procedures, while Graph Query Language requests selective data

tRPC is a tool specifically designed for TypeScript and monorepos. In simple terms, it integrates the types from the backend with the web client. You can optionally specify the return types, but tRPC can infer them automatically. This means you don't need to generate or reload anything. If there's a change in the input, it will immediately show an error in your frontend code. The frontend client is based on TanStack Query with some adjustments, so there's no need to learn new syntax to integrate the API.

On the other hand, GraphQL allows us to request only the necessary fields, which is a groundbreaking feature, particularly for mobile apps. However, I'm willing to sacrifice that for the speed and efficiency that tRPC offers. Let's demonstrate this through a simple step-by-step comparison of both approaches.

How tRPC and GraphQL work – Demo project

In both cases, I’ll be implementing a simple search.

I’ll be using Prisma to model my PostgreSQL database. In schema.prisma file I’ll define a simple model:

GraphQL setup

Creating the endpoint

For the GraphQL part I’ll be using NestJS as it allows a code-first approach for generating GQL schemas.

In order to generate the schema, I’ll need to create a link between TypeScript and GraphQL. To do so, I need to define a class for my return type decorated with @ObjectType.

GraphQL doesn’t understand TypeScript enums out of the box, so I also needed to register my enum.

Next up is creating a resolver and a query inside of it, which will return the fruit. Resolvers provide the instructions needed for turning GraphQL operations (a query in this case) into data.

To generate a GraphQL schema query, I used @Query() decorator to which I provided the previously created return type and a query name.

Passing arguments to a query can be achieved through @Args decorator. Like before, I also need to specify the GraphQL type, not only the TypeScript one.

After those steps, I can see that my schema file reflects my API in GraphQL. The type I created is present as well as the enum and the query.

A date-time string at UTC, such as 2019-12-03T09:54:33Z, compliant with the date-time format.

Frontend part

I start integrating my GraphQL API by setting up codegen.

Then I need to write a query to define the data I want to fetch.

After running the code generator my types are ready and I can use them to type ApolloClient's useQuery.

As you can see I have to provide the type myself, useQuery doesn’t know the types just from providing the document.

tRPC setup

Creating the endpoint

Firstly I need to create a procedure – a piece of logic to be executed upon hitting a route.

This time around I won’t need to specify the return type, but I will need to create an input. I chose zod as my validator, but tRPC supports multiple validation libraries as well as custom validation.

The procedure will have the input and prisma as its parameters, PrismaClient will be passed through tRPC’s context.

Now the logic is ready to be attached to a route. To achieve that I will create a router for all of my fruit-related operations.

Routers can be created from any point of your application by using createTRPCRouter. They need to be connected to the main appRouter though.

By default, you are provided with publicProcedures, but you can also use restricted ones by creating middlewares. Procedures use the builder pattern which makes them very flexible. I’ll be using input and query construction steps, in order to modify data one should use mutation, exactly like in GraphQL.

Frontend part

tRPC can be easily integrated into Next.js with some basic boilerplate code. Here are some examples of bootstrappers, I personally really like T3 stack.

The boilerplate code transforms a Next.js API route to work as an API handler. tRPC itself is not a backend framework, it attaches to an adapter of your choice. The full list of supported adapters can be found here.

The client configuration is also included in the boilerplate code.

Now whenever I want to use my query, I simply call the proper TanStack Query method on a procedure from my router. Everything is fully typed out of the box, so there is very little room left for errors. I already know what kind of procedures I can call from each of my routers, as well as which methods from TanStack Query are available for a given procedure.

tRPC is the go-to tool when changes are essential

If I were also to search fruits by their type, I would have to include the new argument in the GraphQL query in my web app. The compiler won’t automatically notify me of a new mandatory argument. If I forgot to fix the query, I’d get an error from the server. Changing the query also requires me to run codegen again.

Modifications like this one are much simpler with tRPC. After modifying my zod input object, the compiler instantly prompts me to fix my input on the client side.

tRPC vs GraphQL: tRPC lets you achieve more with less effort, compared to GraphQL

If you’re not planning on utilizing language agnosticism and there are no circumstances under which the ability to only ask for necessary fields is key for optimizing queries and improving the performance of your app, GraphQL may be a choice that will only add a bunch of chores to the development process.

A well-designed tRPC API will result in a fully type-safe app that can be modified effortlessly. Every point of your app will be aware of available routes, their types (mutation/query), and inputs.

The only downside to tRPC I was able to observe so far is the lack of a convention which may result in hard-to-maintain code.

The authors of tRPC themselves are big fans of GraphQL, and I couldn’t agree with them more:

<blockquote><p>If you already have a custom GraphQL-server for your project, you may not want to use tRPC. GraphQL is amazing; it's great to be able to make a flexible API where each consumer can pick just the data they need.</p><p>The thing is, GraphQL isn't that easy to get right – ACL is needed to be solved on a per-type basis, and complexity analysis and performance are all non-trivial things.</p><p>tRPC is a lot simpler and couples your server & website/app more tightly together (for good and for bad). It allows you to move quickly, make changes without having to update a schema and avoid thinking about the ever-traversable graph.</p></blockquote>

At the end of the day, what matters to me as a developer is how effective a tool is and how much effort it needs from me to achieve that effectiveness. tRPC lowers the effort while improving the effect when compared to GraphQL.

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Angelika Jeziorska
JavaScript Software Engineer

AWS-Certified Developer, graduate of The Silesian University of Technology. Passionate with 4 years of professional experience.

Angelika Jeziorska
JavaScript Software Engineer

AWS-Certified Developer, graduate of The Silesian University of Technology. Passionate with 4 years of professional experience.

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