How Portals fit into the Power Platform

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.

Here’s how portals fit into D365

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).

Sound familiar?

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 Microsoft Power Platform | workingondata

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.

Dynamics 365 and the Power Platform

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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Why it’s a good idea to opt in to early access Power Platform and D365 updates

Managing changes coming from Microsoft and staying on top of the latest updates and deprecated can be quite daunting for many. If you let up on it for a couple of months, as many of us are wont to do, myself included, you can quickly find yourself overwhelmed by what’s new out there simply because of the dramatic pace of change.

One quick win would be to opt-in to early access to new features as early access becomes available, so you can start testing, learning, and leveraging them right away. This advice will always apply, but here’s the guide to early access features at the time of this writing.

For each of the various major releases, you can opt in for early access about 2 months prior. So for the features set to release in Apr 2020, you’ve been able to get early access since February. Wave 2 will release in October, so you’ll be able to opt in in August.

Opt-in timeline for 2020

Here are some reasons to opt-in:

  • You will have more time to test and learn new features
  • You will be able to identify potential problems (such as with deprecated features) faster
  • You’ll get a jump start on development
  • You will be ahead of the curve in terms of knowledge and readiness

I have definitely spoken to a few people who express concerns when it comes to opting in to early upgrades, because it might cause instability with production environments. Putting that aside, it’s a no-brainier to start testing out and leveraging early access features if you’ve got multiple environment that you can use to do so. The early access updates are available for all types of environments, including trial, sandbox, and production. So don’t hesitate to do so for your non-production environments.

Here’s how:

  1. Sign in to the Power Platform admin center.
  2. Select the environment to update.
  3. Under Updates, you’ll see that the new release wave is available. Select Manage.Manage opt-in update
  4. Select Update now, and then proceed through the confirmation dialog boxes to enable the new features and capabilities of the release wave.Opt-in update now
  5. After the update is complete, all early access features will be enabled for your model-driven apps in your environment.

Remember, you can’t opt-out of the eventual upgrade – that’s actually the beauty of SaaS; it forces a different dynamic than the “giant upgrade, sit around and wait, fall desperately behind, repeat” one. It’s for that reason that i’d recommend some best practices in terms of your approach to upgrades:

  • Download the release plans when they become available: Reading these will give you a good idea of what the next release includes. Essential for members of the community! At the time of this writing, the current release plan is in two waves: wave 1 and wave 2.
  • Stay up to date with the Roadmap: This will give you a sense of what’s coming: https://dynamics.microsoft.com/en-gb/roadmap/overview/
  • Ensure you have sufficient environments: Production, UAT, Test and Development at a minimum. This is separate from “play” environments that you use for learning. This keeps development far away from your live environment so that early opt-in, not to mention your dev work, won’t break production.
  • Opt in to the early access updates from the Power Platform admin center, and test and evaluate new features against your requirements regularly: Begin with your sandbox environment. An update might introduce new functionality that you can leverage in new engagements as a consultant, solve a pain point on an existing system, or even remove the need for a third-party tool and introduce a cost-cutting shift. So many times I’ve consulted with clients who left feeling like “they should have known better” after paying big bugs for a custom solution when they could have used recently-introduced D365 features OOTB to fullfill all the requirements!
  • Leverage both early opt-in and preview features: The most time-consuming task is testing the updates, so the earlier that you start test features you know are coming the longer you have to test. You want to catch issues as early as possible. This would apply to leveraging preview features as well, although preview features can always change, it still gives you a lot of extra time to test features and prepare.

Hopefully, this makes you more comfortable and excited about staying on top of the latest and greatest. Opting-in to early upgrades is one great piece of that puzzle!