Union Graph

How can we generate a simple view over the statements in a collection of named graphs?


The Named Graph pattern describes an approach for managing RDF statements as a collection of graphs. The Graph Annotation pattern illustrates how to capture information about these graphs. However for many use cases, a consuming application may need to ignore the graph structure of a dataset and instead work on a single consistent view of the data. In other circumstances we may only want to query a certain set of graphs (e.g. just the data, or just the annotations). So how do we gain the benefits of named graphs without having to teach all applications about the internal structure of our triple store?


Write queries against a "union graph" that provides a simple view over a collection of named graphs by relying on RDFs data merging rules.


See below


Named graphs are a useful way to structure a store to simplify the compilation and maintenance of a dataset. But we might consider that the graph structure of a dataset -- i.e. how it is composed of a number of named graphs -- to be an implementation detail that needn't concern applications built on that data.

The RDF data model provides rules for merging of RDF statements into a set. Those rules can be applied to create a simple synthetic view over a collection of named graphs that ignores the graph structure completely. A union graph is the RDF merge of one or more named graphs.

Most RDF triple stores offer the ability to create or use union graphs in some form. SPARQL also provides some options for creating additional "union graphs" (otherwise known as "synthetic" or "view" graphs).

We can think of a quad store as a set of named graphs, each of which has an identifier. All triples are therefore associated with a specific named graph. However when applying some pattern matching, e.g. in a query, or inferencing rules, we can safely ignore the graph URI component of the quad, this result in a simple triple based view of the data. This is a simple union over all the graphs. Some stores allow this union to be referenced in a query or application code, in order to allow graph-agnostic processing.

In SPARQL a dataset consists of a default graph, which doesn't have an identifier, plus zero or more named graphs which each have a URI. Triple stores that are geared towards SPARQL may similarly offer a default graph in which triples can be stored and the ability to store data in additional named graphs. TDB (part of Apache Jena) provides such a facility. Triples may be added to a dataset and these are then stored in the default, unnamed graph. In a SPARQL query, triples patterns are matched only against this graph. However TDB also offers a way to address the union graph of the store: i.e a view over all of the named graphs in the store (plus the default). TDB may also be configured to not allow updates to the default graph. In this case the default graph is automatically constructed from the union graph.

Other triple stores do not support an default unnamed graph, requiring all triples to be associated with some graph. In this case when executing a SPARQL query the default graph will be selected based on some system wide default (e.g. the union of all graphs) or by the query itself using a FROM clause.

The SPARQL FROM clause provide another way to define custom union graphs. The FROM clause is used to identify the default graph for a query. The most typical use is to identify a single RDF graph. However if multiple FROM clauses are specified in a query then the contents of those graphs are merged (typically in-memory) to provide a union graph that will form the default graph for the query. This feature of SPARQL can therefore provide another way to assemble a useful graph-agnostic view of a dataset.

The options here are on the surface confusing. But they offer some useful further options for managing and querying datasets. The important part is to understand that some options are provided by the underlying storage, whereas others are a function of the SPARQL query language:

  • a triple store may manage data either as a collection of named graphs, or directly as a SPARQL dataset, i.e. a default graph plus zero or more named graphs. In the latter case triples can be added/removed from the default graph
  • a triple store may provide a view over its entire contents, regardless of the partitioning into graphs. This is the most common form of union graph. It is also likely to be efficient for pattern matching, etc. This union graph may be in addition to whatever basic storage options the store provides
  • a triple store may offer options for how a sparql dataset is created for a given query, or it may enforce a specific structure. E.g. a store may enforce that the default graph is a specific stored graph, or that it is a union graph providing a view of all of its contents
  • a triple store may offer some additional flexibility for a sparql query to define its dataset including specifying a single graph as the default, the store-wide union graph, or a query specific union graph which is populated by merging together a number of named graphs identified in the FROM clause of the query

Not all triple stores offer this kind of flexibility but many offer at least some options for querying the whole store as a union graph.

There is scope here for further innovation on the part of store implementors, e.g. to offer additional ways to either statically or dynamically create union graphs over a store. For example an application may want to identifier the most recently updated graphs; graphs with a particular kind of content; public and "private" graphs, etc.


Further Reading