PostgreSQL Functions

One of the easiest ways to add more capabilities to your PostGraphile schema is with PostgreSQL functions. The three main methods are:

  • Computed Columns enable you to add a computed field to a table type
  • Custom Queries enable you to add a root level Query field which can return a scalar, list, custom type, table row or even a table connection
  • Custom Mutations enable you to add a root level Mutation field which can cause modifications to your database and return nothing (void), a scalar, list, custom type, table row or list of table rows (but not a connection, since you cannot paginate over a mutation)

Understanding Functions

In order to make the most powerful PostGraphile server you can, it's very important to understand PostgreSQL functions. Functions allow you to define business logic in the database using SQL or one of many other scripting languages. Putting your business logic in the database will often be more performant then doing so in the application layer as PostgreSQL is finely tuned for data intensive uses.

For some function examples, you can refer to the forum example SQL schema.

Procedural Languages

Functions in PostgreSQL require you to use either SQL or a procedural language. The most common procedural language in PostgreSQL is PL/pgSQL. SQL is probably the easiest to use as you are most likely already familiar with it. PL/pgSQL is PostgreSQL’s custom procedural language, it's fairly easy to pick up and there are plenty of StackOverflow and other resources for this language. You’ll need to learn PL/pgSQL (or one of the other procedural languages) if you want to write any triggers, because SQL can’t be used for triggers. Don’t worry - you can definitely make awesome applications without a deep knowledge of PL/pgSQL.

A simple function written with LANGUAGE sql looks like this:

CREATE FUNCTION add(a int, b int) RETURNS int AS $$
  select a + b;
$$ LANGUAGE sql IMMUTABLE STRICT;

The same function with LANGUAGE plpgsql could look like this:

CREATE FUNCTION add(a int, b int) RETURNS int AS $$
BEGIN
  RETURN a + b;
END;
$$ LANGUAGE plpgsql IMMUTABLE STRICT;

If you don’t want to use PL/pgSQL or SQL, many popular scripting languages can be used inside PostgreSQL to write your functions! You can see a few of these projects here:

For example, a function defined using JavaScript could look like:

-- This does look the exact same as the PL/pgSQL example…
CREATE FUNCTION add(a int, b int) RETURNS int AS $$
  return a + b;
$$ LANGUAGE plv8 IMMUTABLE STRICT;

-- Here’s a better example from the plv8 repo…
CREATE FUNCTION plv8_test(keys text[], vals text[]) RETURNS text AS $$
  var object = {}
  for (var i = 0; i < keys.length; i++) {
    object[keys[i]] = vals[i]
  }
  return JSON.stringify(object)
$$ LANGUAGE plv8 IMMUTABLE STRICT;

Named Arguments

PostgreSQL allows you to mix named and positional (unnamed) arguments in your functions. However, GraphQL will only allow named arguments. So if you don’t name an argument, PostGraphile will give it a name like arg1, arg2, arg3, and so on. An example of a function with unnamed arguments is as follows:

CREATE FUNCTION add(int, int) RETURNS int AS $$
  SELECT $1 + $2;
$$ LANGUAGE sql IMMUTABLE STRICT;

Whereas named arguments look like:

CREATE FUNCTION add(a int, b int) RETURNS int AS $$
  select a + b;
$$ LANGUAGE sql IMMUTABLE STRICT;

VOLATILE (Mutation) Functions

By default, a function is “volatile”. For example, a function defined as:

CREATE FUNCTION my_function(a int, b int) RETURNS int AS $$ … $$ LANGUAGE sql;

Is equivalent to a function defined as:

CREATE FUNCTION my_function(a int, b int) RETURNS int AS $$ … $$ LANGUAGE sql VOLATILE;

From the PostgreSQL docs:

VOLATILE indicates that the function value can change even within a single table scan, so no optimizations can be made… But note that any function that has side-effects must be classified volatile, even if its result is quite predictable, to prevent calls from being optimized away; an example is setval().

In simpler terms VOLATILE basically means you are changing data or storing state.

Anyone familiar with HTTP could compare a VOLATILE function to “unsafe” HTTP methods like POST, PUT, PATCH, and DELETE.

Certain VOLATILE functions will be exposed by PostGraphile as custom mutations.

STABLE/IMMUTABLE (Query) Functions

If your function does not modify any data or state, you should declare it as STABLE. (If your function depends only on its arguments and does not fetch data from other sources such as tables, then you can declare it as IMMUTABLE which is a stricter form of STABLE.)

By marking your function as STABLE or IMMUTABLE, PostgreSQL knows that it can apply a number of optimisations, including memoization to avoiding calling it multiple times for the same inputs during the same statement.

Here's examples of defining functions as STABLE/IMMUTABLE:

CREATE FUNCTION my_function(a int, b int) RETURNS int AS $$ … $$ LANGUAGE sql STABLE;

-- or…

CREATE FUNCTION my_function(a int, b int) RETURNS int AS $$ … $$ LANGUAGE sql IMMUTABLE;

-- or if you wanted to return a row from a table…

CREATE FUNCTION my_function(a int, b int) RETURNS my_table AS $$ … $$ LANGUAGE sql STABLE;

From the PostgreSQL docs:

IMMUTABLE indicates that the function cannot modify the database and always returns the same result when given the same argument values; that is, it does not do database lookups or otherwise use information not directly present in its argument list. If this option is given, any call of the function with all-constant arguments can be immediately replaced with the function value.

and…

STABLE indicates that the function cannot modify the database, and that within a single table scan it will consistently return the same result for the same argument values, but that its result could change across SQL statements. This is the appropriate selection for functions whose results depend on database lookups, parameter variables (such as the current time zone), etc. (It is inappropriate for AFTER triggers that wish to query rows modified by the current command).

To use the HTTP analogy again, IMMUTABLE and STABLE are comparable to “safe” HTTP methods like GET and HEAD.

Certain STABLE/IMMUTABLE functions will be exposed by PostGraphile as custom queries or computed columns.

SETOF Functions - Connections

As well as scalars, compound types, and arrays of these, PostgreSQL functions can also return sets. Sets emulate tables, and so it's natural for PostGraphile to expose these to GraphQL using connections.

SETOF functions can be a powerful way of exposing data to the user that may be too much for them to handle all at once and require pagination.

To create a function that returns a connection, you could use SQL such as this:

-- Assuming we already have a table named `person`…
CREATE FUNCTION my_function(a int, b int) RETURNS SETOF person AS $$ … $$ LANGUAGE sql;

This function would be recognised as a custom query, and could be queried like this:

{
  myFunction(a: 1, b: 2, first: 2) {
    pageInfo {
      hasNextPage
      hasPrevPage
    }
    edges {
      cursor
      node {
        id
      }
    }
  }
}

More information on constructing advanced queries can be found here.


This article was originally written by Caleb Meredith but has been heavily edited since.