Ah Portals, our favorite child of Microsoft Dynamics CRM. It’s been around for while and people have gotten used to it as a piece of the D365 picture. However, people are starting to pick up on the fact that the Power Platform has a Portal offering too? Is this the same thing? How do Portals fit into the picture of Power BI, Power Automate, and Power Apps?
Portals and Customer Engagement
Well I suppose the first thing to clear up is how Portals fit into Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement. And to do that, we need to clear up how Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement fits into Dynamics 365.
Well for starters, it’s not Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement anymore. With that out of the way, I’ve got nothing better to call the set of model-driven power apps that are part of the Microsoft Dynamics 365 licensing structure, so to heck with it, I’m going to keep referring to it as CE for this article.
It’s a long story, but the short-short version is that when CRM, NAV and AX all went online, Microsoft decided to market them all as the same thing – just different parts of the same platform. This actually makes perfect sense because in theory they compliment each other very well. NAV / AX (Now Business Central and F&O) handle the accounting / ERP side of things, which allow your business to manage its finances and inventory, while CE handles the sales and customer service side of things. Together they really do represent a complete picture, in theory, if only they integrated together a bit better.
So where does the portal come into play? Essentially, it’s the customer-facing portion of your customer engagement solution. Basically, if you are a business, and you have customers, you need a portal of some kind, and if you have a Dynamics 365 CE implementation, the Dynamics Portal makes a pretty good use case to fill this role. External users interact with your Portal which in turn interfaces with D365 CE.
OK, but what does this have to do with the Power Platform?
So far we’ve been talking about D365 and how the Dynamics Portal fits into CE. However this article is about how the Portal fits into the Power Platform. So perhaps we should be asking ourselves how D365 CE fits into the Power Platform.
Well, it’s a long story. Really I would say that the best explanation ever was provided by MVP Nick Doelman in this blog post. Give it a read – it’s a great story.
Dynamics 365 and the Power Platform
Here’s the short version: Microsoft loves bundling software together into Platforms, and three applications that worked pretty well together were Power BI, Flow, and PowerApps (Now called “Power Apps”, with a space). Power BI is Microsoft’s premiere business intelligence software – it can connect to various data sources, create reports based on that data, and allows for powerful visualizations, data manipulation and forecasting. Flow (Now called Power Automate, in case you missed it) is a next-generation low/no-code workflow engine, also connecting to a variety of data sources and allowing for the automation (power automation!) and streamlining of repetitive tasks. Finally, PowerApps started as a platform to allow customers to easily build unique purpose-driven applications. This would allow “citizen developers” to build custom applications low/no-code. This began with a set of drag-and-drop tools and low-code functions to build pixel-perfect apps that connect with a large variety of different data sources via connectors.
As this was all coming together into the Power Platform, Microsoft realized that what’s missing from this combo of Flow, Canvas PowerApps, and PowerBI is a citizen developer-friendly data store that is easy to set up and customize. A highly extendable relational database -which could be called the Common Data Service (CDS) and a basic schema with some pre-defined entities like contacts, accounts, and activities – which could be called the Common Data Model (CDM).
Turns out Microsoft basically already had such a thing and that was the Dynamics CRM data model and business application layer. For years and years, we in the Dynamics CRM world had learned to adopt the “xRM” mindset and think of CRM as a platform, because of how extendable and robust it is. Dynamics CRM had in fact everything Microsoft was looking for in and therefore CRM formed the basis for this new CDS and CDM. In the spirit of not fixing what isn’t broken, the Unified Client Interface (UCI) was welcomed with open arms and the concept of Model-Driven Apps was born.
The Dynamics data model was re-branded CDM and the different customization tools like the solution editor had a PowerApps (later “Power Apps”) label put on them. The power platform was really ramping up now – a complete platform allowing for all aspects of engagement, functionality, analysis, and automation to come together. What had been the “naked” CRM business application layer had become CDS/CDM. the customization tools and UCI came to form Model-driven Apps. The original pixel-perfect apps and tools because known as “Canvas” apps, and then Flow was renamed Power Automate for some reason.
But exactly where does “Dynamics 365” fit in? Is Dynamics 365 gone now? Or is it just ERP now? after all, CRM is just CDS/CDM and Model-driven apps now. The answer lies in the question of what apps we are talking about. The “CRM” part of Dynamics 365 – D365 CE – is no longer a platform, instead, it’s just a brand name (and licensing structure) for a series of first-party Model-Driven apps, that come pre-loaded with all sorts of features and functions that you can’t get otherwise. It’s still very much built on the Common Data Model and very much part of the Power Platform… Although it’s also still very much part of Dynamics 365 as well, so it’s marketed alongside the ERP side of Dynamics, as if things weren’t confusing enough. Maybe a diagram will help.
Portals and the Power Platform
This brings us back to the Portal. A while back I posted about how finally we get a “blank” Portal that runs off of CDS without needing Dynamics 365 licensing. This is brand new app type, right along Model-Driven and Canvas, known as Portal Apps. The Portal App is identical tech-wise to the Dynamics 365 Portal that we kicked this article off with. Just as Dynamics 365 apps are just first-party model-driven apps that come pre-loaded with features, so are the Dynamics 365 Portal Apps (like the Community Portal, Partner portal, etc.) first-party Portal Apps that use the Dynamics 365 licensing instead of the Power Apps licensing. Or to put it another way, just as CDM + Model-driven apps is a “naked” CRM, so are the Portal Apps, “naked” portals!
So what business value do the Portal Apps add to the Power Platform? Well, just as the portal represented the external “Customer” side of Dynamics Customer Engagement, the Portal Apps allow for external users to interact with your custom line-of-business application. The scenarios are endless just as are the scenarios for Power Apps – the limit is your imagination. Online shopping, profile registrations, service requests, open information, the list goes on – if you are building a line-of-business application with Power Apps and need a way to expose information to or capture interactions or information from external users, Portals is a potential solution.
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