Portals have come a long way since Adxstudio’s xRM Framework

In case you haven’t heard, the Microsoft October 2019 Release plan has some pretty huge news when it comes to Portals – They are going to be put on center stage as a first-class app type along with Canvas Apps and Model-Driven Apps.

Starting soon, when you go to web.powerapps.com and go to create a new app, in addition to Model-driven apps and Canvas apps there will be a third type of app: Portal!

These Portals will be exactly the same as the previous portals, but you don’t need dynamics CE anymore. These Portals run off of the Common Data Model (just like before, really). In fact, you’ve been able to see the CDS portal in action for a while now. Now, Dynamics CE is still an important vertical to consider, so in a future post we’ll look at when you should skip CE and when you should still include it in your solution.

Portals are going to now be open to a much bigger audience as people jump onboard the power platform. With PowerApps, you can built out purpose-driven applications to suit your business needs – no longer are we modifying a CRM system to implement a system that doesn’t really have anything to do with CRM. Naturally, Portals are a key part of that story and the technology used to build Dynamics portals is being brought forward as the missing part of the puzzle. This feels so rewarding as all the work that my colleagues and I did at Adxstudio back in Regina, Saskatchewan at the old park street office building Portals has really come to full fruition.

Let’s rewind to 2009. I had just completed my Master’s Degree – well, scratch that – I was close to completing my degree and decided to start working full-time while I finished up the last “month or two” of my thesis. Actually finishing and defending my thesis would take well over an additional year, but that’s another story.

You see, I had accepted a fantastic offer for a brand-new developer from a local company in Regina, SK called Adxstudio. I started off right out of the Gate as a Developer on the Product Team working on little product called the xRM framework, which was nearing completion of version 2.2 when I came on board.

Most of Adxstudio’s business came via it’s other product, a Content Management System (which was a big deal at the time) simply called Adxstudio CMS. It was a fine piece of software, but most of our investment was in Microsoft Dynamics CRM, which had recently released version 4. We believed that Microsoft Dynamics was the future – and we were all in. What we had developed was a framework which allowed developers to interface easily with Dynamics CRM without interfacing with the SQL database directly. The primary use case for this was to integrate a website withe Dynamics 365, so that records such as contacts from CRM could be surfaced in some way on the website. Sound familiar?

Included was an authentication model that allowed you to log in and have your user associated to a Contact in CRM. It also had a fully functional CMS allowing you to manage the website via Web pages, Web Links, Content Snippets and so on. We developed a few different websites too – we didn’t call them portals yet – such as the Company Website, branded Wireframe Industries – boy I wish screenshots from back then survived – the Conference Website, which used the amazing technology of Silverlight, and Community Website, which added some baked in features such as Blogs, Ideas and Forums.

Well as Dynamics CRM 2011 came out the door, we made the decision to give the xRM framework base code to Microsoft. It became part of the official Microsoft CRM SDK. This was rewarding it it’s own way but put us at an advantage because now the best way to surface data from CRM onto a website was to use a Portal using our framework. You could do some basic stuff for free using Microsoft’s accelerator portals, or starting from scratch using the framework that came with the SDK, but if you really wanted to play with power, you could use our product, which we kept adding features such as Web Forms, and later Entity Forms, Entity Lists, and finally Entity Permissions to. This product was finally named Adxstudio Portals (v4 of the xRM framework).

As Dynamics went through releases over the years so did Portals. With version 5 the solution layering was completely redone from scratch – manually, by me at first (!) – while we refined our ALM processes (and eventually came out with a great toolkit called the ALM toolkit to help automate the process ). With version 6 the front-end was completely redone to use bootstrap and Entity Permissions were added. With Version 7, we added liquid support which radically changed how customization of the Portals was done. It was now ready for the cloud.

And with that, Microsoft announced the acquisition of Portals (and the Adxstudio brand). I had the privilege of working with their new Portal product team to help integrate the Portals into their product lineup. Version 8 of Portals, as we called it internally, would soon be released as Dynamics portals – a fully in-the-cloud solution that extended Dynamics 365 for Customer Engagement.

Fast forward to today, and finally we are able to do the things with Portals that we saw ourselves doing with it way back in the days were we used “xRM” as a buzzword. I can’t wait to work on many more Portals implementations and I’m interested to see where we go from here.

Thanks for reading,

A Closer look at Entity Forms and Entity Lists created by the Create Portal Content Wizard

In my post about the Create Portal Content Wizard, I talked about how easy it is to add content to the portal using point-and-click configuration, and demonstrated that the Wizard creates a whole lot of records in the background for you so that you don’t have to. It’s like magic! It certainly does beat having to spend the time configuring Entity Forms, Lists, Permissions, and web pages all from scratch. However, the Wizard also has its limitations. There are several scenarios that it simply can’t manage, including some fairly basic ones. The Wizard can also leave you with a fair bit of manual work or cleanup to do, depending on what you’re building.

In order to better understand the Wizard, I figure now’s the time to spell out exactly what records actually get created by the wizard. To do this, we’ll go through the different options for configuring a list (we care mostly about displaying organization entities, so that’s the focus of this article) and then see exactly what configurations are created with each and what changes occur with the different settings. If you aren’t familiar with the Wizard, I explain the steps for using it here. Read that first, then come back – this article is more of a deep dive.

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Building the Perfect Portal Team

Recently I participated in a group discussion with Colin Vermander about what it takes to have a successful implementation of Dynamics 365 Portals. Among many other factors that I’m sure we’ll discuss in the future, one that struck me is how to build the perfect Portals Implementation team

I thought it would be fun to take a look at the skillsets that are needed to build that team, and the roles associated with those skillsets. Now let’s make the distinction clear before we get started that many of these roles overlap, and the people who fill these roles simply need to have the skillsets required. Very often, one person might fill multiple roles on a smaller project. For example, the Business Analyst and Functional Consultant might be the same person. Conversely, on large implementations with tight deadlines, you might have a very large team with multiple workstreams. Each workstream might have a team of BAs, its own dedicated functional, solution architect, and development team. The golden rule at the end of the day is to ensure that the project is not understaffed, and that each of the below skillsets is taken into consideration when building your team.

Also note, that this article tries to be methodology-agnostic as much as possible. Some roles might only apply to certain methodologies – for example if you are using scrum you’ll need a scrum master, etc. Alright, without further adieu, let’s get down to it.

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Basic Portal Entity Permissions and the Create Content Wizard

In the last article I wrote on this subject, we talked a bit about the Create Portal Content wizard. In that article, we walked through creating a list of leads that displays on the portal. Anyone can access the list, and it’s read-only. Where can we go from here?

Perhaps we don’t want to allow any anonymous users to see our lead list because we only share this information with partners, for example. In this case, we want the ability to create new leads or edit existing leads from the portal, or to take actions on those leads. In other words, we want a secure list of leads that can be modified by those with the appropriate permissions.

For now, let’s not worry about the realism of this scenario.  In a future post, I’ll show you how to build out an awesome portal, and we’ll look in more detail at a realistic business use case at that time. For now, let’s use this simple example to build our knowledge of how to manage permissions for entities exposed on the portal.

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Embedded Canvas Apps within Model-Driven Forms

Just this past December, Microsoft announced the ability to enrich model-driven forms with embedded canvas apps – and this is really exciting. Since I first started working with the power platform, the fact that canvas apps and model-driven apps don’t really play together has seemed a notable limitation. This enhancement really helps bring everything closer together because we can get the same pixel-perfect purpose-driven UI that we’ve come to love (and we all know we do) about canvas apps but within a fully functional model-driven application. In case you are wondering, yes this does potentially open the door to embedding canvas apps within UCI for Dynamics 365 as well (since UCI for Dynamics is essentially a model-driven app).

First off, it takes only a few clicks to embed a canvas app on a model-driven form. Canvas apps are easy to develop (hence the somewhat-maligned concept of the citizen developer) and you can craft very nice visual layouts with “no coding” required (in fact it’s the same level of coding that you’d be using with custom excel apps for example). Furthermore, to bring in and display data from external services, you can choose from a long list of connectors that PowerApps offers for popular services such as SharePoint and Office365 or they can create custom connectors. Finally – and this is important – you get the context of the model-driven form passed in to the canvas app – including the current record or list of related records.

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