Tap the power of graph databases with IBM Graph


Natural relationships between data contain a gold mine of insights for business users. Unfortunately, traditional databases have long stored data in ways that break these relationships, hiding what could be valuable insight. Although databases that focus on the relational aspect of data analytics abound, few are as effective at revealing the hidden valuable insights as a graph database.

A graph database is designed from the ground up to help the user understand and extrapolate nuanced insight from large, complex networks of interrelated data. Highly visual graph databases represent discrete data points as “vertices” or “nodes.” The relationships between these vertices are depicted as connections called “edges.” Metadata, or “properties” of vertices and edges, are also stored within the graph database to provide more in-depth knowledge of each object. Traversal allows users to move between all the data points and find the specific insights the user seeks.

To better explain how graph databases work, I will use IBM Graph, a technology that I helped to build and am excited to teach new users about. Let’s dive in.

Intro to IBM Graph

Based on the framework for building high-performance graph applications, IBM Graph is built to enable and work with powerful applications through a fully managed graph database service. In turn, the service provides users with simplified HTTP APIs, an Apache TinkerPop v3 compatible API, and the full Apache TinkerPop v3 query language. The goal of this type of database is to make it easier to discover and explore the relationships in a property graph with index-free adjacency using nodes, edges, and properties. In other words, every element in the graph is directly connected to adjoining elements, eliminating the need for index lookups to traverse a graph. 

is available, the is the recommended method for uploading data to the service. This is because you can upload as much data as you want via the Gremlin endpoint. Moreover, the service automatically assigns IDs to graph elements when you use the bulk upload endpoint, preventing connections from being made between nodes and edges from separate bulk uploads. The response to your upload should let you know if there was an error in the Gremlin script and return the last expression on your script. A successful input should result in something like this:


Querying data. IBM Graph provides various API endpoints for querying data. For example, the and endpoints can be used to query graph elements by properties or label. But these endpoints should not be employed for production queries. Instead, go with the , which can work for more complex queries or for performing multiple queries in a single request. Here’s an example of a query that returns the tweets favorited by user Kamal on Twitter:

ibm graph query 1IBM

To improve query performance and prevent Gremlin query code from being compiled every time, use bindings. Bindings allow you to keep the script the same (cached) while varying the data it uses with every call. For example, if there is a query that retrieves a particular group of discrete data points, you can assign a name in a binding. The binding can then reduce the time it takes to run similar queries, as the code only has to be compiled a single time. Below is a modified version of the above query that uses binding:

ibm graph query 2IBM

It is important to note there is no direct access to the Gremlin binary protocol. Instead, you interact with the HTTP API. If you can make a Curl request or an HTTP request, you can still manipulate the graph. You make the request to endpoints.

For running the code examples in this article locally on your own machine, you need bash, curl, and jq.

Configuring applications for IBM Graph

When creating an instance of IBM Graph service, the necessary details for your application to interact with the service are provided in JSON format.

ibm graph jsonIBM

Service instances can typically be used by one or more applications and can be accessed via IBM Bluemix or outside it. If it’s a Bluemix application, the service is tied to the credentials used to create it, which can be found in the VCAP_SERVICES environment variable.

Remember to make sure the application is configured to use:

  • IBM Graph endpoints that are identified by the apiURL value
  • The service instance username that is identified by the username value
  • The service instance password that is identified by the password value

In the documentation, Curl examples use $username, $password, and $apiURL when referring to the fields in the service credentials.

Bluemix and IBM Graph

IBM Graph is a service provided via IBM’s Bluemix—a platform as a service that supports several programming languages and services along with integrated devops to build, run, deploy, and manage cloud-based applications. There are three steps to using a Bluemix service like IBM Graph:

  • Create a service instance in Bluemix by . Alternatively, when using the command-line interface, go with IBM Graph as the service name and Standard as the service plan.
  • (Optional) Identify the application that will use the service. If it’s a Bluemix application, you can identify it when you create a service instance. If external, the service can remain unbound.
  • Write code in your application that .

Ultimately, the best way to learn a new tool like IBM Graph is to build an application that solves a real-world problem. Graph databases are used for social graphs, fraud detection, and recommendation engines, and there are simplified versions of these applications that you can build based on pre-existing data sets that are open for use (like census data). One demonstration that is simple, yet entertaining, is to test a graph with a six-degrees-of-separation-type example. Take a data set that interests you, and explore new ways to find previously hidden connections in your data.

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