Cancel / Unsubscribe GraphQL Subscription

GraphQL is one of my favourite topic to work with. At my work, as a Site Reliability Engineer, I often work on Visualisation products and the backend is powered with GraphQL. When it comes to Visualisation, the real-time data is the user need and the GraphQL has something called Subscription which works on top of Web Sockets protocol.

A subscription is needed when you wanted to publish the data set to all the clients who subscribed / expressed their wish to receive updates. Here the client won’t be polling for the data, rather server will be sending the data to all the subscribed clients whenever new data available.

Problem Statement

We use GraphQL subscriptions for the real-time metrics data and show some graphs. When a user clicks on any graph panel, the modal will open up to perform slices and dices on the data. So the requirement is to cancel the subscription (aka. unsubscribe) when a user opens the modal. And re-subscribe when user closes the modal. Interesting, isn’t it? Let’s see how we can do this.

Creating a GraphQL Subscription server

To demonstrate, I’m going to create a simple GraphQL Subscription server.

Currently I’m on a directory called, graphql-subscription-demo, and I’m going to create a new directory here and setup the required npm packages:

mkdir server
cd server
npm init -y
npm i -S graphql express apollo-server apollo-server-express
touch index.js

And in index.js I’m going to create the following code snippet.

const http = require('http')
const { ApolloServer, PubSub, gql } = require('apollo-server-express')
const express = require('express')

// Required constants
const PORT = 4000

// Express app instance
const app = express()

// Create pubsub instance
const pubsub = new PubSub()

// initiate counter
let count = 1

// Keep incrementing the counter for every 3 seconds
const interval = setInterval(() => {
  count += 1
    // Publish the incremented counter value
  pubsub.publish(COUNT_INCREMENTED, { count })
}, 3000)

const typeDefs = gql`
  type Query {
    Get the current counter value
    count: Int

  type Subscription {
    Publish the count value whenever it increments
    count: Int

// GraphQL Resolver
const resolvers = {
  Query: {
    count: () => count

  Subscription: {
    count: {
      // This is where we listen to an event called COUNT_INCREMENTED and publish when an event triggered
      subscribe: () => pubsub.asyncIterator([COUNT_INCREMENTED])

// Create apollo server
const server = new ApolloServer({ typeDefs, resolvers })
server.applyMiddleware({ app })

const httpServer = http.createServer(app)

// Start the http and websocket server on our port
httpServer.listen(PORT, () => {
  console.log(`Server on http://localhost:${PORT}${server.graphqlPath}`)
    `Subscriptions on ws://localhost:${PORT}${server.subscriptionsPath}`

In this snippet, I do the following things:

  • Importing the required packages
  • Defining constants:
    • COUNT_INCREMENTED - A string constant to use it as a identifier for our event
    • PORT - A port number where our server will run
  • Creating an instance for the express app and the PubSub to manage our GraphQL subscriptions
  • Initialising a counter variable with value as 1
  • Incrementing the counter by 1 for every 3 seconds and also publishing the incremented value using our constant identifier
  • Defined a GraphQL document with Query to get the current count value and Subscription to publish the count value whenever it is incremented
  • Defined a GraphQL resolver
    • In subscribe, we listen to a variable called COUNT_INCREMENTED ****and publishes to subscribed clients if the payload changes
  • Creating a Apollo server and HTTP server with required subscription handlers
  • Starting the HTTP and Websocket server on the defined port

Once you have the above code in place, just run:

node index.js

This will start the server and you can access the GraphQL playground from: http://localhost:4000/graphql. You can play around with the query and subscription here before starting our real client.

Creating a GraphQL Client application

I’m going to use React to create a GraphQL client application. To create a react app and install required packages (remember I was inside server directory),

cd ..
npx create-react-app client --use-npm
cd client
npm i -S graphql @apollo/client subscriptions-transport-ws
npm start

P.S: I’m using the recently announced Apollo Client @ 3.x version. Apart from the package name, the implementation holds same even for Apollo Client @ 2.x version.

Now straightaway go to App.js and remove everything. You follow me from this onwards:

First import the required packages:

import React from 'react'
// I'm a big fan of Ant Design, but you can use any design system
import { Layout, Row, Col, Modal } from 'antd'
import {
} from '@apollo/client'
import { WebSocketLink } from '@apollo/client/link/ws'
import { getMainDefinition } from '@apollo/client/utilities'

Create a http link to send our Query / Mutation using the HTTP Protocol:

const httpLink = new HttpLink({
    // Server GraphQL endpoint
  uri: 'http://localhost:4000/graphql'

Next, create a Websocket link for our subscription handler:

const subscriptionLink = new WebSocketLink({
    // Server GraphQL Subscription endpoint
  uri: 'ws://localhost:4000/graphql',
  options: {
        // Reconnect in case client disconnects and connects again
    reconnect: true

Now merge both the links and create a Apollo client out of the merged link:

const splitLink = split(
  ({ query }) => {
    const definition = getMainDefinition(query)
    return (
      definition.kind === 'OperationDefinition' &&
      definition.operation === 'subscription'

const client = new ApolloClient({
  link: splitLink,
  cache: new InMemoryCache() // In memory cache

Now we define our Query and Subscription:

const COUNT_QUERY = gql`
  query CountQuery {

  subscription CountSubscription {

Let’s define our App functional component:

function App() {
  return (
    <ApolloProvider client={client}>
      <Layout style={{ height: '100vh' }}>
            display: 'flex',
            flexDirection: 'column',
            justifyContent: 'center',
            alignItems: 'center'
            <Col span={24} style={{ textAlign: 'center', padding: '16px 0' }}>
              <Counter />

export default App

Here we’re wrapping everything with ApolloProvider and initiating with the client. It is the React’s context where any changes to the client object will re-render the child components. And also this is very much required, because we will be using the Apollo Client’s hooks in the child components.

If you notice, we have a missing component <Counter />, let’s define that. Create a function called Counter and put the following code:

function Counter() {
  const { loading, error, data } = useQuery(COUNT_QUERY)
  const [modalVisible, setModalVisible] = React.useState(false)

  return (
        style={{ fontSize: 54, cursor: 'pointer' }}
        onClick={() => setModalVisible(!modalVisible)}
        {loading ? 'Loading' : error ? 'Error :(' : data.count}
        title="Drill down"
        onOk={() => setModalVisible(false)}
        onCancel={() => setModalVisible(false)}
        <p>Drill down here</p>

In this component, we trigger a GraphQL query COUNT_QUERY at the time of rendering this component and show the current count value using data.count. If user clicks on the count, it will open up the modal and show some dummy content.

Now head to your browser and see http://localhost:3000. If you notice, even though the count is incremented at the server side, the client is not updating. Reason is we haven’t hooked up the subscription part yet. Let’s do that now!

Add subscribeToMore field in the useQuery hook as follows. The reason I’m using subscribeToMore rather than useSubscription hook is because I want to show the current value once the user loads the page and doesn’t really want to show the loading indicator for the 3 seconds when the subscription has not published the new value yet.

const { loading, error, data, subscribeToMore } = useQuery(COUNT_QUERY)

Then define the useEffect to initiate the subscription during the component rendering. To know more about useEffect, read this.

React.useEffect(() => {
    updateQuery: (prev, { subscriptionData }) => {
      if (! return prev

      return {
}, [subscribeToMore])

Here I’m calling a subscribeToMore method with the COUNT_SUBSCRIPTION graphQL document and client gets subscribed to the stream. Please note that I’ve added a useEffect dependence for subscribeToMore object.

Now look in your browser and you can see the count gets updated every 3 seconds whenever server increments. Voila! Our subscription works.

Small tip: Open Developer console, and head on to Network tab, select WS to see the websocket messages, you should see something like this:


So you can see that the payload is continuously sent to client by the server. Now we’re going to see the real problem. Just click on the counter, and you see the modal and the subscription still receiving data. This is where we have to unsubscribe.

Let’s modify our useEffect method little bit as follows:

React.useEffect(() => {
  let unsubscribe
    // If modal is not visible, run the subscription and store the identifier in the `unsubscribe` variable
  if (!modalVisible) {
    unsubscribe = subscribeToMore({
      document: COUNT_SUBSCRIPTION,
      updateQuery: (prev, { subscriptionData }) => {
        if (! return prev

        return {

    // Unsubscribe here
  if (unsubscribe) return () => unsubscribe()
}, [modalVisible, subscribeToMore])

So if you look at this we’re subscribing to event when the modal is not visible and store that in a variable called unsubscribe. In the clean up method of useEffect, we just call the unsubscribe to cancel our graphql subscription. Also, remember to add modalVisible as another dependency to our hook. This does the magic. Let’s head on to our browser to validate this.


In the browser, when the real time update is happening and your Developer console is opened, just click on the count value and let the modal open. And notice the messages and you see a stop type which means cancel the GraphQL subscription, the client won’t be receiving any updates from the server until we close the modal.

The entire running code is available in Github: (If you have any questions, open up an issue here and also make sure you star the repo if you liked this article).

Last year I talked about Scaling GraphQL Subscriptions @ GraphQL Conf happened in Berlin (in case you’re interested to watch):