Introduction to realtime Postgraphile with custom subscriptions
Wednesday, July 12, 2023


This is a work in progress article. Publishing before it's finished is an experiment for me. I'm happy to take feedback on Discord.


  • my opinion is that custom subscriptions are the best choice for production Postgraphile environments
  • Postgraphile also provides simple subscriptions I used them for prototyping in the development phase
  • we use Postgraphile with an AWS serverless postgres instance that doesn’t support live queries so building subscription is the best option

How the realtime flow works in Postgraphile


There are three methods available with Postgraphile for pushing data from the server to the client:

  • Live Queries
  • Simple Suscriptions
  • Custom subscriptions

Of course the GraphQL protocol and frameworks like Apollo supports polling queries from the client side.

Why I don’t use live queries

  • first of all live queries are not part of the official GraphQL protocol but subscriptions are

  • using multiple live queries cause performance issues but depends it on implementation. In contrast, custom subscriptions have the benefit that we can fine tune how often they fire on a Postgres trigger level, additionally to that we can further add optimisations on the GraphQL resolver level

  • the official Postgraphile docs says

    official realtime provider plugin, @graphile/subscriptions-lds, monitors a “logical replication slot” from PostgreSQL”

    The issue with this is that the replication slot usually is not available for managed Postgres instances like AWS Aurora Serverles Postgres so you can’t use @graphile/subscriptions-lds based live queries with managed databases

Subscription flow in Postgraphile

  1. A trigger puts a message on the Postgres message queue
  2. Postgraphile listens for messages on the Postgres message queue and matches JavaScript (or TypeScript) functions to message topics. These functions are called resolvers
  3. If a resolver is triggered it either executes an SQL query (if more data is needed, more on this later) or directly creates a GraphQL response based on the content of the message and pushes it to the front-end.
  4. Client in the browser gets notified on a web-socket managed by Apollo and the UI is updated

What is the difference between simple and custom subscriptions?

With simple subscriptions there is no need for any manual labour, just enable them in the Postgraphile config and it’s done. Postgraphile will provide subscriptions to all tables. It’s good for prototyping but it can be inefficient.

What is the benefit of using custom subscriptions

They are a bit more work but you get a few benefits:

  • you can write your own triggers with custom business logic. Optimising on the trigger level might be useful if you want to subscribe on a frequently updated huge table.
  • from a custom trigger you can send messages on custom topics and also you can add custom metadata to the message
  • resolvers have access to the event, arguments, the context and a pgSql client. With these things a lot of things a possible such as conditionally running different SQL queries based on user identity, caching an many more

Example: building a custom subscription in Postgraphile

Let’s build a simple chat app. We will have a messages table and attach a trigger that listens for UPSERTs. The trigger will put messages on the Postgres pubsub whenever the user sends a message or edits an old one.


First let’s create a migration for trigger. Let’s split the trigger into a function that prepares and sends the message to the Postgres pubsub queue. Use json_build_object if you want to send extra data to your resolvers in Postgraphile. Since the Postgraphile resolvers have access to a pgSql client sometimes the topic alone is enough of them and they can gather the data by executing SQL queries themselves.

1CREATE OR REPLACE FUNCTION notify_messages_upserted()
2    RETURNS trigger AS $notify_messages_upserted$
4    PERFORM pg_notify(
5								-- topic name
6                'messages:upsert:' || NEW."object_id",
7								-- optional extra data
8                json_build_object(
9                        'event', 'upsert',
10                        'objectId', NEW."object_id"
11												-- just an example optional JSON object data
12                    )::text);
15$notify_messages_upserted$ LANGUAGE plpgsql;

Secondly create the trigger and attach it on the messages table. It will run the function above on every UPSERT event.

1DROP TRIGGER IF EXISTS messages_upserted_trigger ON messages;
2CREATE TRIGGER messages_upserted_trigger
5EXECUTE PROCEDURE notify_messages_upserted();

There is no


GraphQL client

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