Graphs let you represent things and the relationships between them using vertices and edges, to naturally model knowledge, social networks, cash flows, supply chains, and other information webs, and to extract valuable insights by analyzing this connected data

Graphs are information networks comprised of nodes and relations. Nodes can represent objects, entities, abstract concepts, or ideas. Relations between nodes can represent physical and social connections, temporal and causal relationships, flows of information, energy, and material, interactions and transactions, dependency and hierarchy, as well as similarity and relatedness of any kind.

Node - Relation - Node

For example, you can represent people by nodes and their friendships by relations. This lets you form a graph that is a social network in this case.

Mary - is friend of - John

The specific terms to refer to nodes and relations in a graph vary depending on the field or context, but they are conceptually the same. In computer science and mathematics, the terms vertices (singular: vertex) and edges are commonly used to refer to nodes and relations, respectively. In information science and data analysis, they are referred to as entities and connection. In social sciences, they are often called actors and ties or links. They may also be called points and arcs.

Using graphs with vertices to represent things and edges to define how they relate to one another is a very expressive data model. It lets you represent a wide variety of information in a compact and intuitive way. It lets you model complex relationships and interactions of basically everything.

Mary - bought - Book, is friend of - John

Graphs are commonly directed (digraphs), which means that each edge goes from one vertex to another vertex in a specific direction. This lets you model directional relationships, such as cause and effect or the flow of material, energy, or information. In undirected graphs, edges don’t have a direction and the relationship between two vertices is considered to be the same in both directions. For example, a friendship is a symmetrical relationships. If Mary is a friend of John, then John is equally a friend of Mary. On the other hand, Mary may subscribe to what John posts online, but this does not automatically make John a subscriber of Mary’s posts. It is an asymmetrical relationship in graph terms. These two types of graphs have different properties and different algorithms exist to analyze the data.

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Graph model

Graph database systems like ArangoDB can store graphs and provide means to query the connected data.

ArangoDB’s graph model is that of a property graph. Every record, whether vertex or edge, can have an arbitrary number of properties. Each document is a fully-fledged JSON object and has a unique identifier. This is different to the RDF graph model, where information is broken down into triples of a subject, a predicate, and an object and where each triple is stored separately, without an identifier for each statement.

Furthermore, ArangoDB’s graph model can be classified as a labeled property graph because you can group related edges using edge collections, with the collection name being the label, but you can also use a property to assign one or more types to an edge. You can also organize vertices in different collections based on the types of entities.

Edges can only be stored in edge collections. Vertices are stored in document collections which are also referred to as vertex collections in the context of graphs. You can technically also use edges as vertices but the usefulness is limited.

Edges in ArangoDB are always directed. Every edge document has special _from and _to attributes to reference one other document in each of the two attributes.

Vertices are referenced by their document identifiers. For example, a friendship edge that connects Mary with John could look like {"_from": "Person/Mary", "_to": "Person/John", "_id": "isFriendOf/1234"}. Using this directed graph model means that relations you create with edges are not reciprocal but you may create edges for the reverse direction (another edge from John to Mary), or you can utilize ArangoDB’s ability to follow edges in the opposite direction (inbound instead of outbound) or ignore the direction and follow them in both directions (any) as if it were an undirected graph.

You can query graphs with ArangoDB’s query language, see Graphs in AQL.

Comparison to relational database systems

In relational database management systems (RDBMS), you have the construct of a relation table to store m:n relations between two data tables. An edge collection is somewhat similar to these relation tables. Vertex collections resemble the data tables with the objects to connect.

While simple graph queries with a fixed number of hops via the relation table may be doable in RDBMSes with SQL using several nested joins, graph databases can handle an arbitrary and variable number of these hops over edge collections which is called traversal.

Moreover, edges in one edge collection may point to vertices in different vertex collections. It is common to have attributes attached to edges, like a label naming the type of connection.

Edges have a direction, with their relations stored in the special _from and _to attributes pointing from one document to another document. In queries, you can define in which directions the edge relations may be followed (OUTBOUND: _from_to, INBOUND: _from_to, ANY: _from_to).

Supported graph algorithms

Managed and unmanaged graphs

You can use vertex and edge collections directly, using them as an unmanaged anonymous graph. In queries, you need to specify the involved collections for graph operations like traversals.

You can also create a managed named graph to define a set of vertex and edge collections along with the allowed relations. In queries, you only need to specify the graph instead of the individual vertex and edge collections. There are additional integrity checks when using the named graph interfaces.

Named graphs ensure graph integrity, both when inserting or removing edges or vertices. You won’t encounter dangling edges, even if you use the same vertex collection in several named graphs. This involves more operations inside the database system, which come at a cost. Therefore, anonymous graphs may be faster in many operations. You can choose between no integrity guarantees, additional effort to implement consistency checks in your application code, and server-side integrity checks at a performance cost.

Named Graphs

Named graphs are completely managed by ArangoDB, ensuring data consistency if the named graph interfaces and not the raw document manipulation interfaces are used.

The following types of named graphs exist:

Selecting the optimal type of named graph in ArangoDB can help you achieve the best performance and scalability for your data-intensive applications.

Which collections are used within a named graph is defined via edge definitions. They describe which edge collections connect which vertex collections. This is defined separately for the from and the to per edge collection. A named graph can have one or more edge definitions.

The underlying collections of named graphs are still accessible using the standard collection and document APIs. However, the graph modules add an additional layer on top of these collections to provide integrity guarantees by doing the following:

  • Execute all modifications transactionally
  • Check that vertices references by edges in the _from and _to attributes actually exist
  • Only allow to reference vertices from collections as specified by the definition of the graph
  • Delete edges when a connected vertex is deleted to avoid dangling edges
  • Prohibit to use an edge collections in an edge definition with a different set of from and to vertex collections than an existing edge definition of any graph
  • Depending on the named graph type, there can be additional restrictions to ensure a well-formed graph

Your edge collections will only contain valid edges and you will never have loose ends. These guarantees are lost if you access the collections in any other way than the graph modules. For example, if you delete documents from your vertex collections directly, the edges pointing to them remain in place. Note that existing inconsistencies in your data are not corrected when you create a named graph. Therefore, make sure you start with sound data as otherwise there could be dangling edges after all. The graph modules guarantee to not introduce new inconsistencies only.

You can create and manage named graphs in the following ways:

  • With the web interface in the GRAPHS section
  • In arangosh using the respective graph-related modules of the JavaScript API (see the above links of the named graph types)
  • Using the Gharial HTTP API

When to use General Graphs

The General Graph is the basic graph type in ArangoDB, suitable for small-scale graph use cases. Data in this type is randomly distributed across all configured machines, making it easy to set up. However, this approach may result in suboptimal query performance due to random data distribution.

General graphs are the easiest way to get started, no special configuration required.

General Graph Random Distribution

When to use SmartGraphs

The SmartGraphs further optimize data distribution by allowing you to define a property called smartGraphAttribute. This property leverages your application’s knowledge about the graph’s interconnected communities to improve data organization and query performance.

For the best query performance, especially in highly interconnected graph scenarios, use SmartGraphs. Organize your data efficiently using the smartGraphAttribute.

SmartGraph Distribution

When to use EnterpriseGraphs

The EnterpriseGraphs are designed for large-scale graph use cases in enterprise environments. While data is also randomly sharded, this graph type ensures that all edges adjacent to a vertex are co-located on the same server. This optimization significantly improves query performance by reducing network hops.

If you need improved query execution without manual data distribution, consider using EnterpriseGraphs.

EnterpriseGraph Distribution

When to use SatelliteGraphs

SatelliteGraphs replicate one or more graphs to all machines within a cluster so queries can be executed locally. All vertices and edges are available on every node for maximum data locality, therefore no network hops are required to traverse the graph.

When using SatelliteGraphs, expect slower write performance because the data is replicated across DB-Servers. For a more efficient option that doesn’t replicate all graph data to every server in your cluster, consider SmartGraphs.

Anonymous graphs

An anonymous graph is the graph that your data implicitly defines by edges that reference vertices and that you directly use by defining the vertex and edge collections for graph operations such as traversals and path finding algorithms in queries. You can also work with edges directly.

Anonymous graphs don’t have edge definitions describing which vertex collection is connected by which edge collection. The graph model has to be maintained by the client-side code. This gives you more freedom than the strict named graphs such as the ability to let an edge reference documents from any collections in the current database.

Model data with graphs

Graphs can have different structures, called topologies. The topology describes how the vertices and edges are arranged by classifying the pattern of connections. Some relevant classes are:

  • Cyclic: a graph that contains at least one path that starts and ends at the same node. An edge can also originate from and point to the same vertex.
  • Acyclic: a graph that contains no cycles
  • Tree: a directed acyclic graph (DAG) without cycles and exactly one path between any two vertices in the graph
  • Dense: a graph with edges between most pairs of vertices
  • Sparse: a graph where only few pairs of vertices are connected by edges

The topology for your graphs will vary depending on your data and requirements but you always have a degree of freedom when modeling the data.

What information should be stored in edges and what in vertices

The main objects in your data model, such as users, groups, or articles, are usually considered to be vertices. For each type of object, a document collection should store the individual entities. Entities can be connected by edges to express and classify relations between vertices. It often makes sense to have an edge collection per relation type.

ArangoDB does not require you to store your data in graph structures with edges and vertices. You can also decide to embed attributes such as which groups a user is part of or store _ids of documents in another document instead of connecting the documents with edges. It can be a meaningful performance optimization for 1:n relationships if your data is not focused on relations and you don’t need graph traversal with varying depth. It usually means to introduce some redundancy and possibly inconsistencies if you embed data, but it can be an acceptable tradeoff.

Vertices: Assume you have two vertex collections, Users and Groups. Documents in the Groups collection contain the attributes of the group, i.e. when it was founded, its subject, and so on. Documents in the Users collection contain the data specific to a user, like name, birthday, hobbies, et cetera.

Edges: You can use an edge collection to store relations between users and groups. Since multiple users may be in an arbitrary number of groups, this is an m:n relation. The edge collection can be called UsersInGroups to store edges like with _from pointing to Users/John and _to pointing to Groups/BowlingGroupHappyPin. This makes the user John a member of the group Bowling Group Happy Pin. You can store additional properties in document attributes to qualify the relation further, like the permissions of John in this group, the date when John joined the group, and so on.

User in group example

As a rule of thumb, if you use documents and their attributes in a sentence, nouns would typically be vertices, and the verbs the edges. You can see this in the Knows Graph:

Alice knows Bob, who in term knows Charlie.

The advantages of using graphs is that you are not limited to a fixed number of m:n relations for a document, but you can have an arbitrary number of relations. Edges can be traversed in both directions, so it is easy to determine all groups a user is in, but also to find out which members a certain group has. You can also interconnect users to create a social network.

Using the graph data model, dealing with data that has lots of relations stays manageable and can be queried in very flexible ways, whereas it would hard to handle it in a relational database system.

Multiple edge collections vs. FILTERs on edge document attributes

If you want to only traverse edges of a specific type, there are two ways to achieve this.

The first is to use an attribute in the edge document, e.g. type, where you specify a differentiator for the edge, like "friends", "family", "married", or "workmates", so that you can later use FILTER e.type = "friends" in queries if you only want to follow the friend edges.

Another way, which may be more efficient in some cases, is to use different edge collections for different types of edges. You could have friend_edges, family_edges, married_edges, and workmate_edges as edge collections. You can then limit the query to a subset of the edge and vertex collections. To only follow friend edges, you would specify friend_edges as sole edge collection.

Both approaches have advantages and disadvantages. FILTER operations on edge attributes are more costly at query time because a condition needs to be checked for every traversed edge, which may become a bottleneck. If the set of edges is restricted by only using a certain edge collection, then other types of edges are not traversed in the first place and there is no need to check for a type attribute with FILTER. On the other hand, using a type attribute allows you to update edges more easily and you can even assign multiple types to a single edge.

The multiple edge collections approach is limited by the number of collections that can be used in one query, see Known limitations for AQL queries. Every collection used in a query requires some resources inside of ArangoDB and the number is therefore limited to cap the resource requirements. You may also have constraints on other edge attributes, such as a persistent index with a unique constraint, which requires the documents to be in a single collection for the uniqueness guarantee, and it may thus not be possible to store the different types of edges in multiple edge collections.

In conclusion, if your edges have about a dozen different types, you can choose the approach with multiple edge collections. Otherwise, the FILTER approach is preferred. You can still use FILTER operations on edges as needed if you choose the former approach. It merely removes the need of a FILTER on the type, everything else can stay the same.

Example graphs

For example data that you can use for learning graphs, see Example graphs.

Back up and restore graph

For backups of your graph data, you can use arangodump to create the backup, and arangorestore to restore a backup. However, note the following:

  • You need to include the _graphs system collection if you want to back up named graphs as the graph definitions are stored in this collection.
  • You need to back up all vertex and edge collections your graph consists of. A partial dump/restore may not work.