Driving value, lowering costs, and building your organization’s future with Microsoft’s next great business technology

Lately, I’ve been helping folks understand the Microsoft Power Platform (MPP) by sharing two simple diagrams.

The first one is below and is my stab (others have made theirs) at contextualizing the platform’s various components in relation to one another.

The Common Data Service (CDS) is the real magic, I tell people. No matter which app you are using, the data lives there in that one CDS across your entire environment. (And no, folks outside your organization don’t get to use it.) This means that data available to one of your apps can be re-used and re-purposed by your other apps, no wizardry or custom integration required. I promise, it just works. Think expansively about the power of this in your organization, and you’ll come up with some cockamamie/brilliant ideas about what you can do.

These are the types of data-driving-business-function that geeks like me always dreamed of.

A diagram of Microsoft Power Platform components

Then there’s PowerApps, in purple. Most folks think of this as a low-code/no-code app development tool. It is, but it’s more. Imagine that there are three flavors of PowerApps:

  1. Dynamics 365, which in the end is a set of really big PowerApps developed by Microsoft
  2. COTS apps developed by Microsoft partners (including AIS), available for organizations to license and use
  3. Custom apps you build yourself

Point Microsoft PowerBI at all of this, then mash it up with data from outside of your CDS that you get to via hundreds of out-of-the-box connectors, automate it all together with workflows in Flow…and you’ve got Power Platform in a nutshell.

When I’m presenting this to a group, I turn to my next slide pretty quickly at this point.

A rearranged look at Microsoft Power Platform

Here I’ve essentially re-arranged the pieces to make my broader point: When we think about the Power Platform, the emphasis needs to be on the Platform bit. When your organization invests in this technology, say via working with an implementation partner such as AIS or purchasing PowerApps P1/P2 licenses, you’re not just getting a product or a one-off app solution.

What you’re getting is a platform on which to build your modern business. You’re not just extending Office 365. Instead, you’re creating a future where your organization’s data and business processes are deeply integrated with, driving, and learning intelligently from one another.

The more you leverage the platform, the higher the ROI and the lower the marginal costs of those licenses become. A central goal of any implementing partner ought to be guiding organizations on the journey of migrating legacy systems onto the platform (i.e., retiring legacy licensing + O&M costs) and empowering workers to make the platform even more valuable.

We don’t invest in one-off apps anymore, i.e. a CRM in one corner of your network where you run your sales, something in another where you manage your delivery, clunky Human Resources Management off over there where you take care of your people, etc.. No, what we care about here is the platform where you integrate all of the above — not through monolithic one-size-fits-all ERP — but rather through elegant app experiences across all your users’ devices that tie back to that magical Common Data Service.

This is what I mean when I tell folks sky’s the limit, and thinking about your entire business is what’s called for here. It’s because Power Platform gives us the ability to learn and grow with our customers, constituents, vendors, employees, and other stakeholders like never before.

That’s what has everyone at Microsoft so excited. I am as well.

I want to learn from you. How do you make Power Platform understandable to those who haven’t thought about it too deeply? How does your organization make it valuable as a platform rather than just a product? I love to build beautiful things, so inspire me!


If you didn’t catch the first two parts of this series, you can do that here and here.  In this part, we’ll get a little more technical and use Microsoft Flow to do some pretty cool things. 

Remember when we talked about the size and quality of the images we take with our PowerApp and store as the entity image? When saved as the Entity Image for a CDS/D365 item, the image loses quality and is no longer good for an advertisement photo.  This is done automatically and as far as I can tell, the high-res image is gone once this conversion takes place (someone please correct me if I’m wrong on that!).  On the flip side of that, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to put all this tech together only to have my end users be required to take two pictures of an item, one for hi-res and one for low-res.  We don’t want to store a high-res in a relational database for 10,000 plus items because the database could bloat immensely.

Microsoft Flow and SharePoint to the rescue!  

PRO TIP:  Dynamics 365 will crop and resize the image before saving it as the entity image.  All entity images are displayed in a 144 x 144 pixel square.  You can read more about this here.  Make sure to save/retain your original image files.  We’re going to stick ours in a SharePoint Picture Gallery App.

Objective 

Create a Microsoft Flow that handles… 

  • Pulling the original image off the Dynamics record and storing it in SharePoint. 
  • Setting the patch image to the Entity Image for the Dynamics record 
  • Create an advertisement list item for the patch 
  • Save the URLs for the ad and image back to the patch record 

Create the Flow 

We’re going to write this Flow so that it’s triggered by a Note record being created. 

 Flow screenshot with Create from blank highlighted

  • On the next page, click “Search hundreds of connectors and triggers” at the bottom of the page. 
  • Select Dynamics 365 on the All tab for connectors and triggers. 
  • Select the “When a record is created” trigger. 

 Dynamics 365 is highlighted

  • Set the properties for Organization Name and Entity Name.  Entity Name should be “Notes”. 
  • Save the Flow and give it a name. 

Verifying a Few Things 

  • Add a new step and select the Condition item. 
  • The Condition should check to see if the Note has an attachment. We do this using the “Is Document” field.  

 Condition Control is highlighted 

  • In the “Yes” side of the conditional we want to check if the Object Type is a Patch (ogs_patch in this case).  

At this point, if the Flow has made it through both conditionals with a “Yes”, we know we are dealing with a new Note record that has an Attachment and belongs to a Patch record.   

Update the Patch Record 

Now we want to update the batch record’s Entity Image field with the attachment.  First we need to get a handle on the Patch record.  We’ll do that by adding an Action to the Yes branch of our new Conditional. 

  • Add a Dynamics 365 Update a Record Action.
  • Set the Organization Name, Entity Name, and Record identifier accordingly.  For our Patch Record identifier, we’ll use the Regarding field in the Dynamic content window. 

 

  • Click on Show advanced options and find the Picture of Patch field. 
  • For the Picture of Patch field we need to get the document body of the attachment and convert it from Base-64 encoding to binary.  We do this using the “Expression” area again.  Use the “base64ToBinary” function to convert the document body like so. 

 

  • Save your work!  I can’t tell you how many times I had to retype that function. 

Create Our SharePoint Items & Clean-up 

Now that we’ve updated our entity image with the uploaded patch picture we want to do a couple of things, but not necessarily in sequence.  This is where we’ll use a parallel branch in our Flow.   

Dealing with a Parallel Branch 

  • Under the last Update a Record action, add a Conditional.  After adding this Conditional hover over the line between the Update action and the new conditional.  You should see a plus sign that you can hover over and select “Add a parallel branch.” 



  • Select this and add a Compose action.  You may need to search for the Compose action. 

 

PRO TIP:  With Modern Sites in SharePoint, we now have three solid options for displaying images in SharePoint.  The Modern Document Library allows viewing as tiles and thumbnails within a document library, the Picture Library which has often been the place to store images prior to the Modern Document Library, and then we can simply just display an image, or images, on a page directly.

Saving the Attachment as an Image in SharePoint

  • Let’s deal with Compose branch first.  Our compose will have the same function as our Picture of Patch did above for the Input field.  base64ToBinary(triggerBody()?[documentbody’]) 
  • After the Compose, we’ll add a Create File Action for SharePoint and use the name from our Patch record as the name for our image in SharePoint.  I’m using a Picture Gallery App in SharePoint and for now, only using the .JPG file type.  The File Content should use the Output from our Compose Action. 

 

Delete the Note

  • Finally, we want to delete that Note from Dynamics (and the Common Data Service) so that the image attachment is no longer taking up space in our Common Data Service.  Add a Dynamics Delete a Record Action after the SharePoint Create file action.  Set the Organization Name, Entity Name, and use the Dynamics content for Note as the Item identifier.

 

Creating Our Advertisement

Let’s jump back to the new Conditional we added after the Update a record Action where we set the entity image. 

  • Set the conditional to check for the Generate Advertisement field being set to true. 
  • If this is true, add a SharePoint Create Item Action and let’s set some values.  What we’re doing here is creating a new SharePoint List Item that will contain some starter HTML for a Patch advertisement. 
  • Save our work! 

 

 

Updating Our Patch Record With Our URLs From SharePoint

  • Under the SharePoint Create Item Action for creating the Ad, AND after the SharePoint Create file action for creating the picture in the Picture Gallery, we’re going to add Dynamics Update record Actions that will be identical with one difference. 
  • The Organization Name, Entity Name, Record Identifier (set to Dynamic Content “Regarding”) should be the same. 
  • On the Ad side, the Update record should set the SharePoint Ad for Patch field to “Link to Item”. 

 

  • On the image side, the Update record should set the SharePoint Image for Patch to the “Path” 

 

Seeing It In Action 

Of course, I’ve been saving my work so let’s go ahead and give this a whirl. 

  • At the top right of your Flow you’ll see a Test button.  We’re going to click that and select “I’ll perform the trigger action.” 
  • To make this more interesting, I’m going to run this from SharePoint! I’ll update a patch and kickoff my Flow from the embedded PowerApps Canvas App on my SharePoint home page. 

 

  • I select the patch, then I click the edit button (pencil icon at the top right). 
  • Notice the Attach file link and the Generate Advertisement switch.  We’ll use the first for our image and the second for generating our ad item in SharePoint. 

 

  • Finally, I click the checkmark at the top right to save my changes.  This kicks off our Flow in less than a minute, and when we navigate back over to the Flow we can see that it completed successfully. 

 Verifying the flow

  • I’ll hop back over to SharePoint to make sure that my ad was created and my entity image was set.  I’ll also make sure the high-quality image made it to the SharePoint Picture Library and the Note was deleted from the Patch record in Dynamics.  I also want to make sure the URLs for the ad and image in SharePoint were set back to the Patch record. 

verifying in SharePoint Verifying in SharePoint image

One last thing: When we store the image in a SharePoint Picture Gallery App we can retain the dimensions, size, and quality of the original image, unlike when storing the image as a Dynamics 365 entity image.  Check out the properties in the next screen shot and compare that to the properties on the SharePoint page in the same screen shot.   


Comparing image file sizes

Conclusion 

I hope you are enjoying this series and continue to tune in as the solution for our dad’s beloved patch collection grows.  I constantly see updates and upgrades to the Power Platform so I know Microsoft is working hard on making it even better. 

Part One: Identify, Define, Build, Migrate

An assortment of fire department patchesMy dad passed away in 2015, leaving behind an extensive collection of fire trucks, patches, and other fire department (FD) memorabilia.  Before he passed, he gave us instructions to sell them and some direction on what to do with the money. After a few years of not really wanting to deal with it, my family decided to make a project out of it.  My mom, sister, wife, two daughters, and I are working our way through thousands of patches, hundreds of fire trucks, and who knows how many pendants and other trinket like items, all while working full-time jobs (school for the kiddos) and from different locations.

Dad was great about logging his patches into a Microsoft Access database, but not so good about taking pictures of them, and even worse at logging his fire trucks and other items.  The objective and high-level steps for this project were quickly identified.

The Objective

  1. Help my mom liquidate my dad’s enormous fire department memorabilia collection.

The High-Level Steps

  1. Identify the technologies to be used. Easy!
    1. Microsoft Dynamics 365 & Common Data Service – our foundation.
    2. Microsoft PowerApps – mobile app for inventory capture.
    3. Microsoft Flow – move data and attachments around, auto-create ads.
    4. Microsoft SharePoint – store ads, images. Keep large files out of CDS.
  2. Complete a first-cut of the data schema and migrate the patches data from the Microsoft Access database.
  3. Configure a software solution for the family to use so we can all capture data to a single database. Solution must be user friendly!
  4. Configure processes that streamline the creation of advertisements and other data processing.
  5. Start capturing data and creating ads!

The Players

Not everyone in an organization has the same skill level and this will certainly lead to some challenges.  With that in mind, let’s look at the players involved in our project.

  1. Mom – Low technical skill – Capable of using anything “Excel-like” to capture data.
  2. Sister – Low-to-Medium – Arguably more advanced than mom, works on a Mac. Enough said.
  3. Wife – Medium – Works around Excel with ease, understands what I do from a high level.
  4. Kids – Low-to-Medium – two daughters, ages 12 and 10. Both are geniuses on any touch device but have no clue how to work around Excel.
  5. Me – High – developer and technology enthusiast!

I’ve spent the better part of my career as a .Net developer working in SharePoint and Dynamics, among other things, so it was easy for me to decide on a path forward.  Let’s get rolling!

Configure Data Schema and Migrate Microsoft Access Data

Just so no one thinks I’m lying here for the sake of this blog, let’s see what my dad was working with back in the day.  Yes, he was ND alum.

Screenshot of patch entry form in Microsoft AccessPatch data in Microsoft Access

Side note: You see that column named “Patch Locator” highlighted in that last screen shot?  My dad kept his patches in old-school photo albums that he then stored in boxes.  This ‘locator’ field was his way of finding the patch once a box was full and stored away.  Genius dad!

As you can see defining the schema for patches was pretty much done.  If we run into anything along the way, we can certainly add it.

  1. In Dynamics I created an un-managed solution named “Fire Department Items Solution” and added two custom entities, “Patch” and “Fire Truck.”
  2. I added all the fields my dad had in his Access database, and then I made sure that the out of box field “EntityImage” was available for displaying an image of the patch.

PRO TIP:  Dynamics 365 only allows you to have one image field on an entity and it is not configured out of the box.  To use this field, create a new field on your entity and use the data type “Image”.  This will automatically set the name of your field to “EntityImage” and the image you set there will be used as your entity image at the top of the entity form.

Screenshot of PowerAppsPowerApps details

  1. Before we save and publish, we need to enable Notes functionality for our entities. To do this select the entity from the left pane in the solution explorer, then make sure the “Notes (includes attachments)” checkbox is selected.

PRO TIP:  When you save an image to the EntityImage filed it loses a lot of its quality.  Because we are using this data for inventory, including creating ads, we don’t want to lose the quality of our images.  For this reason, we will use the attachments collection for our entity to capture the actual high-quality image.  We will then use Microsoft Flow to take that image and store it as the EntityImage (which will lose quality) but also store the high-quality version in a SharePoint library.

PowerApps note functionality

  1. Finally, be sure to publish your customizations.

Migrating the Data

Now it’s time to migrate the data.  Since this was such a simple schema, I opted to use the out-of-box data import functionality that Dynamics 365 provides.  With that said, however, there are a few different ways to accomplish this migration. For me it was easy to simply export the Microsoft Access database to Excel, then use that file to import into Dynamics 365.

    1. Export your data into an Excel file from Microsoft Access.
      1. Export your data into an Excel file from Microsoft Access.
    2. In Excel you’ll want to Save a Copy and save it as a CSV file.
      Save a copy as a CSV file
    3. Open the Patch View in Dynamics and use the out-of-box Import from Excel functionality to load our data.

3. Open the Patch View in Dynamics and use the out-of-box Import from Excel functionality

    1. Choose the CSV file we just created when we saved the copy in Excel.

Choose your CSV file

    1. On this next screen, let’s click the button to Review our Field Mappings.

Review Field Mappings

    1. Here you’ll see some of my fields are mapped and some aren’t. Let’s get those shored up before we proceed.

Resolve mapped items

    1. Now that I’ve resolved all the field mappings, you’ll see we have green check marks across the board and we’re ready to import. Click the Finish Import button and you’re off.

Finish Import button

    1. You can check out the progress of the import by navigating to Settings à Data Management à

View Import progress

Summary & Next Steps

Let’s look at what we’ve done here.  On the surface it would appear we’ve simply gone into Dynamics 365 and configured a couple of entities.  But as we know, Dynamics 365 v9 was built on the Common Data Service (CDS) and that means our Dynamics data is now available to any other application that can connect to the CDS.  Why is this important for this project you might ask?  That answer will become clear in the next part of this blog.  For now, here are some screen shots on how things look now that we have our patch data migrated.

A look at the imported data

Keep in mind, come end of January 2019 everyone will need to switch over to Microsoft’s Unified Interface and that’s what we’re using here for our patches.  This is an example of a model-driven PowerApp which we’ll discuss in our next entry to this blog.

If you log in to your PowerApps environment using the same credentials as your Dynamics 365 environment, you should see your entities and the data migrated in this environment too.  Remember, once it’s in Dynamics, it’s available through the CDS.

A view of the migrated data

One thing to note, if you have 10,000-plus records like I do for patches, CDS in the browser may freeze trying to display them all.  I would hope MS resolves this at some point so that it handles paging and displaying of data as gracefully as the D365 web client does.

Stay tuned for my next entry where we’ll set up our SharePoint Online site, create a simple canvas PowerApp for inventory management on our mobile devices, and then set up a Flow to help move some things around and automate the creation of our online advertisements.

Thanks for reading!

AIS’ work with the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) was showcased as a Microsoft Featured Case Study. This customer success story was our most recent project with NFLPA, as they’ve sought our help to modernize multiple IT systems and applications over the years. We were proud to tackle the latest challenge: Creating a single, shared player management system, using Dynamics 365, for the NFLPA and all its sister organizations.

The Challenge

This case study was featured on Microsoft. Click here to view the case study.As the nonprofit union for NFL players, the NFLPA constantly looks for ways to better serve its members—current and former NFL players—during and after their football careers. But multiple player management systems across the associated support organizations resulted in poor customer service and missed opportunities for NFLPA members. Valuable data captured by one department wasn’t accessible to another, causing headaches and delays when licensing opportunities arose, and limited the organization’s ability to be proactive about the challenges members face after retirement.

The Solution: A Single Source

We used Microsoft Dynamics 365 to create a single, shared player management system, called PA.NET, for all the NFLPA organizations. We customized Dynamics 365 extensively to meet the unique needs of the NFLPA and integrated it with the organization’s Office 365 applications.

At the same time, we shifted all legacy IT systems (websites, financial applications, and others) to Microsoft Azure, giving NFLPA an entirely cloud-based business.

The Results: More Opportunities, More Time, Fewer Costs

With one master set of player data and powerful reporting tools that employees use to find answers to their own questions, the NFLPA can uncover marketing and licensing opportunities for more players and identify other ways to help its members.

Because PA.NET automates so many previously manual processes, it frees up hours of drudge work each week for NFLPA employees, which they convert to creative problem solving for members. And its IT staff has freed up 30 percent more time by not having to babysit infrastructure, time it uses to come up with new technology innovations.

By moving its business systems to the cloud, the NFLPA can scale its infrastructure instantly when traffic spikes—such as when football season ends and licensing offers heat up. No more over-provisioning servers to meet worst-case needs. In fact, no more servers, period. With cloud-based systems, the NFLPA no longer has to refresh six-figure server and storage systems every few years.

Read the full Microsoft Featured Case Study here to learn more about our work and more about great work the NFLPA does on behalf of its members.

SCORE LIKE NFLPA. WORK WITH AIS. Transformation is on the horizon for your organization. All it takes is the right partner. With the experience, talent, and best practices to lead you to success, AIS is the right partner for you.