View Source Understanding Subscriptions

GraphQL subscriptions are a way to have events in the server push data out to clients in real time. The client submits a subscription document that asks for particular data, and then when events happen that document is run against that event and the resulting data is pushed out.

Like queries and mutations, subscriptions are not intrinsically tied to any particular transport, and they're built within Absinthe itself to be able to operate on many different platforms.

At the moment however the most common and fully featured platform that you can run them on with Elixir is via Phoenix channels, so this guide will walk you through the basics of getting them hooked up to a phoenix application.

Absinthe.Phoenix Setup

Packages you'll need:

{:absinthe, "~> 1.5"},
{:absinthe_phoenix, "~> 1.5"},

You need to have a working Phoenix pubsub configured. Here is what the default looks like if you create a new Phoenix project:

config :my_app, MyAppWeb.Endpoint,
  # ... other config
  pubsub: [name: MyApp.PubSub,
           adapter: Phoenix.PubSub.PG2]

In your application supervisor add a line after your existing endpoint supervision line:

    # List all child processes to be supervised
    children = [
      # Start the Ecto repository
      # Start the endpoint when the application starts
      {Absinthe.Subscription, MyAppWeb.Endpoint}

    # See
    # for other strategies and supported options
    opts = [strategy: :one_for_one, name: MyAppWeb.Supervisor]
    Supervisor.start_link(children, opts)

In older versions of phoenix (pre 1.4) you might see a slightly different syntax, in which case add Absinthe like this:

  # other children ...
  supervisor(MyAppWeb.Endpoint, []), # this line should already exist
  supervisor(Absinthe.Subscription, MyAppWeb.Endpoint), # add this line
  # other children ...

Where MyAppWeb.Endpoint is the name of your application's phoenix endpoint.

In your MyAppWeb.Endpoint module add:

use Absinthe.Phoenix.Endpoint

For your socket, different configurations are used in MyAppWeb.UserSocket depending on what version of Phoenix you're using.

Phoenix 1.3 and 1.4

use Absinthe.Phoenix.Socket,
  schema: MyAppWeb.Schema

Phoenix 1.2

  use Absinthe.Phoenix.Socket
  def connect(_params, socket) do
    socket = Absinthe.Phoenix.Socket.put_schema(socket, MyAppWeb.Schema)
    {:ok, socket}

Where MyAppWeb.Schema is the name of your Absinthe schema module.

GraphiQL (optional)

If you're using the GraphiQL plug, in your MyAppWeb.Router, specify the socket option:

forward "/graphiql",
        schema: MyAppWeb.Schema,
        socket: MyAppWeb.UserSocket

That is all that's required for setup on the server.

Setting Options

Options like the context can be configured in the connect/2 callback in your socket module.

Note: The transport macro is deprecated in phoenix 1.4 and can be omitted.

defmodule MyAppWeb.UserSocket do
  use Phoenix.Socket
  use Absinthe.Phoenix.Socket,
    schema: MyAppWeb.Schema

  # Deprecated in Phoenix v1.4
  transport :websocket, Phoenix.Transports.WebSocket

  def connect(params, socket) do
    current_user = current_user(params)
    socket = Absinthe.Phoenix.Socket.put_options(socket, context: %{
      current_user: current_user
    {:ok, socket}

  defp current_user(%{"user_id" => id}) do
    MyApp.Repo.get(User, id)

  def id(_socket), do: nil


Here's an example schema that lets you use subscriptions to get notified when a comment is submitted to a GitHub repository:

mutation do
  field :submit_comment, :comment do
    arg :repo_name, non_null(:string)
    arg :content, non_null(:string)

    resolve &Github.submit_comment/3

subscription do
  field :comment_added, :comment do
    arg :repo_name, non_null(:string)

    # The topic function is used to determine what topic a given subscription
    # cares about based on its arguments. You can think of it as a way to tell the
    # difference between
    # subscription {
    #   commentAdded(repoName: "absinthe-graphql/absinthe") { content }
    # }
    # and
    # subscription {
    #   commentAdded(repoName: "elixir-lang/elixir") { content }
    # }
    # If needed, you can also provide a list of topics:
    #   {:ok, topic: ["absinthe-graphql/absinthe", "elixir-lang/elixir"]}
    config fn args, _ ->
      {:ok, topic: args.repo_name}

    # this tells Absinthe to run any subscriptions with this field every time
    # the :submit_comment mutation happens.
    # It also has a topic function used to find what subscriptions care about
    # this particular comment
    trigger :submit_comment, topic: fn comment ->

    resolve fn comment, _, _ ->
      # this function is often not actually necessary, as the default resolver
      # for subscription functions will just do what we're doing here.
      # The point is, subscription resolvers receive whatever value triggers
      # the subscription, in our case a comment.
      {:ok, comment}


Concretely, if client A submits a subscription document:

subscription {
  commentAdded(repoName: "absinthe-graphql/absinthe") {

This tells Absinthe to subscribe client A in the :comment_added field on the "absinthe-graphql/absinthe" topic, because that's what comes back from the config function.

Then, if client B submits a mutation:

mutation {
  submitComment(repoName: "absinthe-graphql/absinthe", content: "Great library!") {

Client B will get the normal response to their mutation, and since they just ask for the id that's what they'll get.

Additionally, the :submit_comment mutation is configured as a trigger on the :comment_added subscription field, so the trigger function is called. That function returns "absinthe-graphql/absinthe" because that's the repository name for the comment, and now Absinthe knows it needs to get all subscriptions on the :comment_added field that have the "absinthe-graphql/absinthe" topic, so client A gets back:

{"data":{"commentAdded":{"content":"Great library!"}}}

If you want to publish to this subscription manually (not using triggers in the schema) you can do:

Absinthe.Subscription.publish(MyAppWeb.Endpoint, comment, comment_added: "absinthe-graphql/absinthe")

If you want to subscribe to mutations from within your application, you can do:

{:ok, %{"subscribed" => topic}} =, MyAppWeb.Schema, context: %{pubsub: MyAppWeb.Endpoint})

De-duplicating Updates

By default, Absinthe will resolve each outgoing publish once per individual subscription. This ensures:

  • Different GraphQL documents each receive the different fields they requested
  • User-specific updates are sent out, in case context contains user-specific data

To improve the scale at which your subscriptions operate, you may tell Absinthe when it is safe to de-duplicate updates. Simply return a context_id from your field's config function:

subscription do
  field :news_article_published, :article do
    config fn _, _ ->
      {:ok, topic: "*", context_id: "global"}

Here we return a constant ("global") because our :article type doesn't contain any user-specific fields on it.

Given these three active subscriptions:

# user 1
subscription {
  newsArticlePublished { content }

# user 2
subscription {
  newsArticlePublished { content author }

# user 3
subscription {
  newsArticlePublished { content }

Since we provided a context_id, Absinthe will only run two documents per publish to this field:

  1. Once for user 1 and user 3 because they have the same context ID ("global") and sent the same document.
  2. Once for user 2. While user 2 has the same context ID ("global"), they provided a different document, so it cannot be de-duplicated with the other two.