Concepts Overview

What you need to know to create your own Links.

Apollo Link is designed to be a powerful way to compose actions around data handling with GraphQL. Each link represents a subset of functionality that can be composed with other links to create complex control flows of data.

Apollo GraphQL: concepts overview image

At a basic level, a link is a function that takes an operation and returns an observable. An operation is an object with the following information:

  • query: A DocumentNode (parsed GraphQL Operation) describing the operation taking place.
  • variables: A map of variables being sent with the operation.
  • operationName: A string name of the query if it is named, otherwise it is null.
  • extensions: A map to store extensions data to be sent to the server.
  • getContext: A function to return the context of the request. This context can be used by links to determine which actions to perform.
  • setContext: A function that takes either a new context object, or a function which receives the previous context and returns a new one. It behaves similarly to setState from React.
  • toKey: A function to convert the current operation into a string to be used as a unique identifier.

We can chain these links together so that the first link operates on an operation object and each subsequent link operates on the result of the previous link. This allows us to "compose" actions and implement complex data handling logic in an elegant manner. We can visualize them like this:

Apollo GraphQL: concepts overview image

Note that although we have the terminating link requesting GraphQL results from a server in this figure, this doesn't necessarily have to be the case: your GraphQL results can come from anywhere. For example, apollo-link-state allows to use GraphQL operations to query client state.


At the core of a link is the request method. It takes the following arguments:

  • operation: The operation being passed through the link.
  • forward: (optional) Specifies the next link in the chain of links.

A link's request method is called every time execute is run on that link chain, which typically occurs for every operation passed through the link chain. When the request method is called, the link "receives" an operation and has to return back data of some kind in the form of an Observable. Depending on where the link is in the chain (i.e. whether or not it is at the end of the chain), it will either use the forward, the second parameter specifying the next link in the chain, or return back an ExecutionResult on its own.

The full description of a link's request looks like this:

  • NextLink: A function that takes an Operation and returns an Observable of an ExecutionResult.
  • RequestHandler: A function which receives an Operation and a NextLink and returns an Observable of an ExecutionResult.

As you can see from these types, the next link is a way to continue the chain of events until data is fetched from some data source (typically a server).

Terminating Links

Since link chains have to fetch data at some point, they have the concept of a terminating link and non-terminating links. Simply enough, the terminating link is the one that doesn't use the forward argument, but instead turns the operation into the result directly. Typically, this is done with a network request, but there are endless ways of delivering an ExecutionResult. The terminating link is the last link in the composed chain.


Links are designed to be composed together to form control flow chains to manage a GraphQL operation request. They can be used as middleware to perform side effects, modify the operation, or even just provide developer tools like logging. They can be afterware which process the result of an operation, handle errors, or even save the data to multiple locations. Links can make network requests including HTTP, WebSockets, and even across the react-native bridge to the native thread for resolution of some kind.

When writing a RequestHandler, the second argument is the way to call the next link in the chain. We refer to this argument as forward in the docs for a couple of reasons. First, observers have a next function for sending new results to the subscriber. Second, if you think of composed links like a chain, the request goes forward until it gets data (for example from a server request), then it begins to go back up the chain to any subscriptions. The forward function allows the RequestHandler to continue the process to the next link in the chain.

The helper functions exported from the apollo-link package can be used to perform composition of links. These functions are also conveniently located on the ApolloLink class itself.


Since links are meant to be composed, they need an easy way to send metadata about the request down the chain of links. They also need a way for the operation to send specific information to a link no matter where it was added to the chain. To accomplish this, each Operation has a context object which can be set from the operation while being written and read by each link. The context is read by using operation.getContext() and written using operation.setContext(newContext) or operation.setContext((prevContext) => newContext). The context is not sent to the server, but is used for link to link communication. The API of setContext is meant to be similar to React's setState. For example:

const timeStartLink = new ApolloLink((operation, forward) => {
  operation.setContext({ start: new Date() });
  return forward(operation);
const logTimeLink = new ApolloLink((operation, forward) => {
  return forward(operation).map((data) => {
    // data from a previous link
    const time = new Date() - operation.getContext().start;
    console.log(`operation ${operation.operationName} took ${time} to complete`);
    return data;
const link = timeStartLink.concat(logTimeLink)

Each context can be set by the operation it was started on. For example with Apollo Client:

const link = new ApolloLink((operation, forward) => {
  const { saveOffline } = operation.getContext();
  if (saveOffline) // do offline stuff
  return forward(operation);

const client = new ApolloClient({
  cache: new InMemoryCache()

// send context to the link
const query = client.query({ query: MY_GRAPHQL_QUERY, context: { saveOffline: true }});

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