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. 

A variety of screens displaying Power Platform capabilities
Microsoft recently released a lot of new capabilities in their business applications, including the Microsoft Power Platform, which combines Flow, Power BI, Power Apps, the Common Data Service for apps, and Dynamics 365. To help people gain insights into the power of these applications, the Microsoft Technology Center in Reston, VA offered a Microsoft Business Applications Workshop for Federal Government, which I attended with two AIS colleagues.

As a User Experience (UX) Researcher who joined AIS earlier this year, I am new to Microsoft business applications. In addition, code writing is not my job responsibility and expertise, unlike my two colleagues. However, I found the workshop intriguing and registered for it right away because it was designed to:

  • Help people gain an understanding of the business applications
  • Be “interactive,” with hands-on opportunity for attendees to build a working application
  • Include topics like “solution envisioning and planning” and “no-code business workflow deployment” (Note that the workshop did offer coding exercises for developers on the last day of the workshop, which I did not attend.)

Indeed, attending the workshop allowed me to see the possibilities of these Microsoft applications, which is very relevant to what I do as a UX Researcher. It motivated me to further explore resources on this topic to better meet the needs of our current and future clients.

The User-Centered Design Process

The first project that I worked on after joining AIS was to help a client understand their employees’ needs and collect user requirements for a new intranet to be built on Office 365. In addition, the key stakeholders wanted to:

  • Streamline and automate their business processes, workflows, and document management
  • Drive overall collaboration and communication within the organization

I had extensive experience conducting user research for websites and web applications. To collect employee insights for this new intranet, we followed a user-centered design process:

  1. We started by interviewing stakeholders, content owners, and general employees to understand:
    • Their existing intranet use, areas that worked well, and areas that needed to improve
    • Intranet content that is important to them
    • Existing business processes, workflows, document management, internal collaboration, and communication
  2. Based on the interview findings, we then:
    • Compiled a list of important content pieces that the new intranet should include
    • Set up an online card sorting study for the employees to participate to inform the information architecture (IA) of the new intranet
    • Documented employees’ needs and expectations in other business areas
  3. Proposed a draft IA for the new intranet based on card sorting findings
  4. Developed a wireframe intranet prototype (using Axure), which reflected the draft IA, contained employee desired content, and mimicked the Office 365 structure and capabilities
  5. Conducted remote usability testing sessions with stakeholders and general employees to evaluate the wireframe prototype
  6. Finalized the intranet prototype and documented UX findings and recommendations to help developers build the new intranet using Office 365 in the next phase

As shown above, we made sure that the Intranet would meet the needs and expectations of the stakeholders and general employees, before it was coded and developed. However, as a UX researcher who does not code, I did not develop our solutions using the Microsoft business applications. I was curious to see how my technical colleagues would apply the capabilities of these applications to improve, streamline, and automate business processes and workflows.

Our user research showed that employees experienced a lot of frustration and pain points during their daily work. For example, both managers and general employees complained that their business processes heavily relied on emails, email attachments, and even hand-written notes, which were easy to miss or misplace and hard to locate. They described how difficult it was for them to keep track of project progresses and updates, especially when people from multiple departments were involved. Some of them also mentioned they had to manually enter or re-enter data during a workflow, which was error-prone. All these were real and common business process problems.

The Power of the Power Platform

This workshop provided me with a starting point and a glimpse into the power of the business applications. I’m still learning about their full power, the technical descriptions or details, and the rationale or logic behind each step that we went through when we built the model-driven app during the workshop. However, I was excited to walk away knowing about:

  • The use of a single, connected, and secure application platform to help organizations break down silos and improve their business outcomes
  • The availability of hundreds of out-of-box templates, connectors, and apps, including those that our client can take advantage of and easily customize, such as for onboarding tasks, leave requests, expense reimbursements, and shout-outs to co-workers
  • Building solutions and applications quickly and easily with simple drag-and-drop user interface, without the need to write a single line of code
  • Higher work efficiency of business people and non-developers to achieve what they want to do independently, relying less on IT support or developers, reducing overall cost, and saving time

After the workshop, I found a wealth of online resources and videos on Microsoft Business Applications. Below are some Microsoft webpages that describe the similar content or steps that we went through during the workshop:

I look forward to more in-depth learning about this topic to better understand the power of Microsoft business applications. With this knowledge and together with my colleagues, we will propose and build the best business solutions based on user research, helping our clients achieve desired outcomes by improving their employee experience.

If you didn’t catch the first part of this series, you can read that here.  In this part, things should get a little more interesting as we set up a PowerApp and our SharePoint site.

Objectives

  1. Create SharePoint Online Team Site.
  2. Create a PowerApp for team members to collect data with.
  3. Embed this PowerApp into a SharePoint page so we can do more work in a single environment.

Creating Our SharePoint Team Site

Using our existing SharePoint Online instance, I’m going to create a new Team site off of the root site collection.

  1. From the home page of the root site collection, click the “Create site” button.

Create site screenshot

2. Select Team site on the panel that opens.

Create a Site screen with Team Site hightlighted3. Fill in the information on the next page and click Next.

Team Site information input page

4. Add any additional users and click Finish.

Add additional users screenshot

If all went well, you should be redirected to the new site.

Screenshot of new Team Site

Creating the PowerApp

To be clear, we are going to create a “canvas” PowerApp as opposed to a model-driven PowerApp.  To get this going I’ll navigate to my PowerApps environment and create a new app.

Screenshot of PowerApps environment

    1. From your PowerApps home page, click Create.
    2. On this page you can see various templates for making both model-driven and canvas apps. We’re going to use the “Start from data” Canvas app.Screenshot with Start From Data option highlighted
    3. On the next page we see multiple choices for apps that start with our data. I’m going to use the Common Data Service here.Screenshot with Common Data Service hightlighted
    4. With my Common Data Service account instance selected under “Connections,” I scroll to find and select the “Patches” table, then click “Connect.”

Screenshot of Connections

PRO TIP:  If you get to this point and you still don’t see your data, make sure to check the “Environment” at the top right of the window.  You may not have the correct environment selected where your data is stored.  You can read more about Environments in PowerApps here.
Screenshot with Environments highlighted

        1. Once PowerApps is done creating the new app, the app designer will appear.

      Screenshot of App Designer

Let’s pause and look at this screen for a minute.  On the right, we have our properties and some other items, in the middle we have our design canvas, and on the left we have our Screens Explorer.  In our Screens Explorer we see three screens already created for us: the browse, detail, and edit screens.

If you look under each of those screens you’ll see a primary user interface object that is collapsed (meaning it has content/child nodes underneath it), along with some other user interface elements that usually provide some other functionality or a label.  When you select an element in the Screens Explorer it will also be selected on the design canvas.  In the previous screen shot, the Search Icon is selected under the Browse Screen 1 item.  Consequently, the search hourglass on the design canvas is also selected.

We don’t want to change this up much, but I think we can all agree that it would be a lot more helpful to have something other than the created-on date and item id as our main fields for each row.

PRO TIP:  PowerApps provides us with a super fast way of spinning up apps by automatically building things into our apps like navigation and search controls.  Be careful about changing or removing these unless you plan to replace them with a control of your own that provides the same functionality.  Oftentimes if you remove one of these you render a portion of the app unusable or difficult to access.  To see what a given user interface item does, select it in the designer and check out the “OnSelect” Action in the Advanced tab on the right.

Screenshot with OnSelect option highlighted

      1. Select the bolded date field on the row item on the design canvas and make sure the Advanced tab is selected on the right.
      2. In the Data section under the Advanced tab, we can use the Text field to change what we want displayed in each of these user interface elements. I’m going to change the first to name, the second to city, and the last one to state.Screenshot of text field

Once we’re done tweaking the browser display we’ll want to work on the detail and edit forms.  These work a bit differently.

      1. Select the Detail Form under the Detail Screen node. In the right pane under Properties, select the Fields link that indicates the number of fields currently selected.
      2. Check any fields you would like that aren’t currently on the form. Similarly uncheck any fields the system put on the form that you want to remove.  You can also reorder the fields to your liking.

After a little bit of tweaking to both our detail and edit forms we’re ready to publish this PowerApp.  You can preview the app with the “Play” arrow icon near the top right, or just switch over to your File menu to wrap things up.

      1. Click the File menu and under App Settings give your app a name and feel free to play around with the icon and background color. There are other settings you can explore too but for now we’ll just cover the basics.
      2. Click “Save” to save your app to your gallery.

Screenshot of gallery

In this next screen shot I’ve captured our three screens from left to right: display, detail, and edit. Screenshot of app screens.
You might be wondering what the Generate Advertisement switch is for on the edit screen.  We’ll use that to toggle that specific functionality later in our Flow.

Finally, if you click on the ellipsis for the new app in our PowerApps app gallery, you can click “Details” and get additional helpful information for the app such as the app URL.  This will come in handy for what we do next.

Here are some screen shots from my mobile phone as I helped gather inventory for this massive side project!

Screenshots of app data

Embedding the PowerApp in SharePoint

As mentioned, we don’t want to find ourselves jumping back and forth between application instances for managing inventory.  Thankfully we’re able to embed our PowerApp into the SharePoint page we want so we can do a lot of our common work from that one screen.

      1. Open the SharePoint site we created earlier and edit the home page. I’ve tweaked mine so we only have the Documents Library web part and some empty columns.
      2. Click the plus button in the right column to add a new web part. Find the Microsoft PowerApps web part and select it.Screenshot
      3. Paste the link from your PowerApp into the “App web link or ID” field in the right pane that opens. The app should come up in the new web part.Screenshot
      4. Publish the page.

We can now use the same PowerApp that everyone else will be using on their mobile devices, right here in SharePoint.

Screenshot of PowerApp in SharePoint

Tune in next time, when we’ll use Microsoft Flow to move some data around, automatically generate advertisements, and notify team members of important events.

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!

Microsoft Power Platform: Application Development Platform for General Purpose Business Apps

In recent years, with the transition to the cloud, SharePoint teams’ recommendation has been to move custom functionality “down” to the client computer or “over” to a host outside of SharePoint. This change has had a direct impact on enterprises that have long viewed SharePoint as an application development platform.

Today’s best practices show that a grouping of applications, such as case management apps, inventory or issue tracking, and fleet management (depicted in the dotted area of the diagram below) is no longer best suited to be built on top of SharePoint. This is where Microsoft Power Platform comes in for cross-platform app development.

Microsoft Power Platform as an app development platform

What is the Microsoft Power Platform (MPP)?

Microsoft Power Platform (or MPP) is being seen as the aPaaS layer that nicely complements mature Azure IaaS and PaaS offerings. Here are a few reasons we’re excited about MPP:

  • It offers a low-code/no code solution for rapid application development
  • The PowerApps component supports cross-platform app development for mobile and responsive web application solutions
  • Flow within MPP also offers a workflow and rules capability for implementing business processes
  • CDS offers a service for storing business objects

SharePoint as an App Development Platform

On January 30, 2007, we released a paper called “SharePoint as an Application Development Platform” to coincide with the release of Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 or MOSS. We didn’t have the slightest expectation that this paper would be downloaded over half a million times from our website.

Based on the broad themes outlined in this paper, we went on to develop several enterprise-grade applications on the SharePoint platform for commercial as well as public sector enterprises. Of course, anyone who participated in SharePoint development in 2007 and onwards can vouch for the excitement around the amazing adoption of SharePoint.

Features, Add-Ins or “Apps,” and More

A few years later, SharePoint 2010 was announced with even more features that aligned with the application development platform theme. In 2013, the SharePoint team went on to add the notion of apps (now called add-ins) – we even wrote a book on SharePoint Apps. The most recent version of SharePoint is 2019 and it continues the tradition of adding new development capabilities.

All the Ingredients for Unprecedented Success

If you look back, it is easy to see why SharePoint was so successful. SharePoint was probably the first platform that balanced self-service capabilities with IT governance. Even though the underlying SharePoint infrastructure was governed by IT, business users could provision websites, document libraries, lists, and more in a self-service manner.

Compare this to the alternative at that time, which was to develop an ASP.NET application from scratch and then having to worry about operationalizing it including backup, recovery, high availability, etc. Not to mention the content and data silo that may result from yet another application being added to the portfolio.

Furthermore, the “Out of the Box” (OOTB) SharePoint applications constructs including lists, libraries, sites, web parts, structured and unstructured content, granular permissions, and workflows allowed developers to build applications in a productive manner.

With all these ingredients for success, SharePoint went on to become an enterprise platform of choice with close to 200 million licenses sold and, in the process, creating a ten-billion-dollar economy.

By 2013, Signs of Strain Emerged for SharePoint as an App Development Platform

With the transition to the cloud and lessons learned from early design choices, weaknesses in SharePoint as an app development platform started to show. Here are some examples:

  • Limitations around structured data – Storing large lists has always been challenging, despite the improvements over the years to increased scalability targets for lists. Combine scalability challenges with the query limitations and it makes for a less than ideal construct for general-purpose business application development.
  • Isolation limitations – SharePoint was not designed with isolation models for custom code. As a result, SharePoint farm solutions that run as full-trust solutions on the server side have fallen out of favor. The introduction of sandbox mode didn’t help since isolation/multi-tenancy was not baked in the original SharePoint design. The current recommendation is to build customizations as add-ins that run on the client side or on an external system.
  • External data integration challenges – BDC (Business Data Services) was designed to bring data from external systems into SharePoint. Business Connectivity Services (BCS) extensibility model was designed to allow an ecosystem of third-party and custom connectors to be built. But BCS never gained significant adoption with limited third-party support. Furthermore, BCS is restricted in the online model.
  • Workflow limitations – Workflows inside SharePoint are based on Windows Workflow Foundation (WF). WF was designed before the REST and HTTP became the lingua franca of integration over the web. As a result, even though SharePoint-based workflows work well for a document-centric workflow like approval, they are limited when it comes to integrating with external systems. Additionally, the combination of WF and SharePoint has not been the easiest thing to debug.
  • Lack of native mobile support – SharePoint was not designed for mobile experiences from the ground up. Over the years, SharePoint has improved the mobile experience through the support for device channels. Device channels allow for selection of different master pages and style sheets based on the target device. But device support is limited to publishing pages and even those require non-trivial work to get right. In a mobile-first world, a platform built with mobile in mind is going to be the ideal cross-platform app development tool for enterprises.
  • Access Services (and other similar services) never took off – Access databases are quintessential examples of DIY Line of Business (LOB) Apps. So when SharePoint 2010 introduced a capability to publish Access databases to SharePoint, it sought to offer the best of both worlds, self-service combined with governance (the latter being the bane of access databases). However, that goal proved too good to be true and Access Services never caught on and are now being deprecated.
  • Development “cliffs” – SharePoint was supposed to enable business users to build their own customizations through tools like Visio and SharePoint designer. The idea was that business users would be able to build customizations themselves using SharePoint designer and if they ran into a limitation (or the “cliff”), they could export their artifacts into a professional development tool like Visual Studio. In reality, this dichotomy of tools never worked and you almost always had to start over.
  • State of art in-low / no-code development – If you look at leading high-productivity application development platforms, the state of art seems to be around a declarative model-driven application approach. In other words, using a drag and drop UI, a user can generate a metadata-based configuration that describes the application, flow of application pages, etc. At runtime, the underlying platform interprets this configuration and binds the actions to the built-in database. SharePoint obviously has a rich history of offering no-code solutions, but it is not based on a consistent and common data model and scripting language.
  • Monolith versus micro-services – In many ways, SharePoint has become a “monolith” with tons of features packed into one product — content management, records management, business process, media streaming, app pages — you name it. Like all monoliths, it may make sense to break the functionality into “micro” services.

Note: With all the challenges listed above, SharePoint as a collaboration software continues to grow. In fact, it’s stronger than ever, especially when it comes to building collaboration-centric apps and solutions using the SharePoint framework and add-ins.

Just visit the thriving open source-based development centered around SharePoint Development to see for yourself.

Enter the Microsoft Power Platform (MPP)

The below diagram depicts a high-level view of the Microsoft Power Platform (MPP).

Microsoft Power Platform Infrastructure Overview

The “UI” Layer: Power Apps, Power BI, and Flow

At the highest level, you have the Power Apps, Power BI, and Flow tools.

Power Apps is a low-code platform as a service (PaaS) solution that allows for business app development with very little code. These apps can be built with drag and drop UI elements that work across mobile, tablet, and web form factors. In addition to the visual elements, there’s an Excel-like language called PowerApps Expression Language that’s designed to implement lightweight business logic and binding visual controls to data. Since PowerApps comes with a player for Android and iPhone devices, it doesn’t need to be published or downloaded from app stores.

Additionally, admin functions like publication, versioning, and deployment environments are baked into the PowerApps service. The PaaS solution can be used to build two types of apps:

  1. Canvas apps – as the name suggests, these allow you to start with a canvas and build a highly-tailored app.
  2. Model-driven apps – also as the name suggests, these allow you to auto-generate an app based on a “model” – business and core processes.

You’re likely already familiar with Power BI. It’s a business analytics as a service offering that allows you to create rich and interactive visualizations of sources of data.

Flow is a Platform as a Service (PaaS) capability that allows you to quickly implement business workflows that connect various apps and services.

Working together, PowerApps, Flow and Power BI allow for business users to easily and seamlessly build the UI, business process, and BI visualizations of a cross-platform, responsive business application. These services are integrated together to make the experience even better. As an example, you can embed a Canvas PowerApp inside of Power BI or vice versa.

The “Datastore and Business Rules” Layer

Common Database Service (CDS) allows you to securely store and manage data used by business applications. In contrast to a Database as a service offering like Azure SQL Database, think of CDS as a “business objects as a service”. Azure SQL Database removes the need for physical aspects of the database but as a consumer of Azure SQL, you’re still required to own the logical aspects of the data, such as schema, indexing and query optimization, and permissions.

In CDS all you do is define your business entities and their relationships. All logical and physical aspects of the database are managed for you. In addition, you get auditing, field level security, OData API, and rich metadata for free.

Finally, CDS offers a place to host “server-side” business rules in the form of actions and workflows. It’s important to note that CDS is powered by Dynamics CRM under the covers (see [1] for more information on this). This means that any skills and assets that your team has around Dynamics will seamlessly transition to CDS.

“External Systems Connector” Layer

PowerApps comes with a large collection of connectors that allow you to connect with a wide array of third-party applications and services (like SalesForce and Work Day) and bind the data to PowerApps visual controls. In addition, you can also connect to a custom app of service via Azure API Management and Functions.

How Can MPP Alleviate SharePoint Development Challenges?

MPP is a platform designed from the ground up for building business apps. Here’s how it can help alleviate the challenges users may experience with SharePoint as an app development platform.

Challenge SharePoint as a dev platform Power Platform
Structured Data Limits of items, throttling, and queries Backed by a fully relational model
Isolation No server-side isolation model. Server-based farm solutions are discouraged. Each tenant is isolated and allows for running custom code
External Data Integration BCS – limited third-party support 230+ connectors
Workflow Limitations Document-centric workflow HTTP REST based scalable workflow construct that can leverage OOTB connectors
Mobile Support Limited support in the form of device channels Designed from the ground up for mobile support
Development “Cliffs” Hard to transition from citizen dev to prod dev tools There a single tool for citizen developers and pro dev users. Pro dev users have the ability to use the extensibility to call Azure Functions, Logics Apps etc. for richer and complex functionality.
Low Code Development No common domain model or scripting language Designed from the ground-up as a low code development environment.
Monolith vs micro-services-based approach Monolith Comprised of a collection of “micro” services PowerApps, Flow, Power BI, CDS

Comparing Reference Architectures

The following diagram compares the SharePoint and MPP reference architectures.

SharePoint and MPP Reference Architectures Compared

Power Platform Components Inside SharePoint?

It’s noteworthy that advancements in MPP are available in SharePoint. For example, “standalone” Canvas PowerApps and Flow integrate directly into SharePoint are shown in the table below.

In many ways, this development represents a realignment of SharePoint’s place in the application development space. We believe that MPP is the new “hub”, while SharePoint (and other Office 365 components) represent “spokes” in this model.

PowerApps as a “custom form” for a SharePoint list item.

PowerApps as a custom form for a SharePoint list item example

Flow powering a document-centric workflow

Flow powering a document-centric workflow example

Consider MPP for Your Next Business App Development Project

The Microsoft Power Platform is an aPaaS offering that’s designed from the ground up as a general-purpose business application development platform, which includes native mobile support, first-class low-code environment, business data as a service, a lightweight workflow engine, and rich business analytics all in one. We believe that a category of applications, that were previously built on SharePoint will benefit in moving to the Microsoft Power Platform.

[1] xRM with Dynamics CRM

xRM style applications have been built on Dynamics CRM for years. Unfortunately, the licensing story to support this model was not ideal. For example, customers could not license a “base” version without paying for sales, marketing functionality built OOB.

That’s all changing with CDS. PowerApps licenses, such as P1 and P2, give customers access to what’s referred to as “Application Common” or Base instance of CDS.

CDS Apps Instance vs Dynamics Instance

Learn More About MPP & Your App Development Platform Options

The road to general-purpose business application development can be challenging to navigate with all of the tools and platforms available, as well as the unique pros and cons of each option. Not sure where to start? Start with a conversation!

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See if MPP is a good fit for your orgs app development needs. Contact your partner at AIS today!