Microsoft is commited to making Common Data Service the flagship data source for Power Apps scenarios, as well as delivering advanced enterprise application lifecycle management (ALM) features via CDS. What can make the role of CDS somewhat difficult to approach for app makers is the fact that it hasn’t originally been built for Power Apps, like CDS “v1.0” was. The current CDS “v2.0” is based on XRM, the business appliciation platform that was born alongside the Microsoft Dynamics CRM product.
I’ve been working with this plaform technology for close to 15 years now, whereas the world of Power Apps Canvas apps (and Power Automate) is a much more recent acquaintance of mine. To put my experience into good use and to also learn to see things from outside the XRM walls, I decided to share answers to a few questions that I’ve heard from #PowerAddicts that are exploring the CDS world.
Q1: Why should I use CDS as my data source instead of SharePoint or SQL Server?
Because it is not just a data source. Yes, in Power Apps Canvas apps you do connect to it just like any other data source in the app Studio, but this is misleading. CDS is the complete platform that can orchestrate how your app works when it comes to business logic, security model, integration, administration, governance and many more areas. Compared to raw SQL Azure, the SQL relational data is actually just one of the storage types that CDS leverages behind the scenes. Ultimately it’s a bundle of the latest Microsoft cloud technology for compute, storage and eventing/extensibility – offered as a single service that you don’t have to configure nor manage. You consume it either via built-in integrations to Power Platform, Dynamics 365 and Office 365, or alternatively via an API that is automatically generated to match your customized schema.
The topic of “why CDS” would easily warrant a whole series of extensive blog posts on its own, which I may well do later on, but not inside an FAQ like this. For now, I recommend that you watch this Ignite 2019 session from Ryan Jones to understand the big picture of Common Data Service:
Q2: What’s the difference between the 2 connectors for Common Data Service?
The current environment connector is a native connection. This is the misleading part. It’s not a real Connector at all, rather every Power App knows how to talk with the environment that hosts it, which essentially is the current CDS environment. This leads to numerous benefits in performance and available features, as the technical implementation behind the scenes is quite different. I haven’t come across a Power Apps specific comparison yet, but MVP Sara Lagerquist has done a thorough analysis of the two CDS Connectors in the Power Automate context.
Q3: Is there any reason to use the non-current environment CDS connector then?
Yes, if you want to connect to a CDS environment that’s not the one which is hosting your app configuration. Meaning, if there is busness data out there in another CDS database and you need to reference it in addition to the “native” data in your app’s environment, the old CDS Connector might well do the trick. However, this is an area to keep a close eye on for the detailed functionality over time, as MS is very much wanting everyone to “go current” and some issues might arise from remaining on the old Connector.
Q4: Why should I use solutions for building my app functionality in CDS?
Even if you’re working in just a single environment, building a simple app directly in production (which is what a citizen developer often might do), solutions offer you the logical grouping of elements that are part of your project. In fact, at some point MS experimented with changing the Maker UI to read “projects” instead of “solutions”, but luckily that change was reverted back. It can stil be a helpful concept to illustrate the purpose of solutions for those who aren’t familiar with CDS. The act of building an app needs to manifest itself somehow within the environment, so always start by creating at least one solution for your project. (Real life projects may well have more than one solution, thouh.)
What solutions really are designed for is shipping the elements of applications into other environments, in a process that is easy to manage and possible to automate. Microsoft is aiming to make solutions the packaging story across all of Power Platform, which means it’s not an optional concept. It’s how things are built within this business application platform.
Q5: I’ve read about this thing called “managed solutions”. When should I use them?
There’s the saying “if you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it”. In my opinion, this fits perfectly with managed solutions, too. Unless you are really, really well educated with how the solution system in CDS works (meaning you’ll probably have an XRM developer background), don’t touch managed solutions – yet.
When delivering complex enterprise CRM systems with multiple full time developers writing custom code and leveraging Azure DevOps for automated CI/CD pipelines, managed solutions are the way to go. Similarly if you’re building an ISV app for many different customer organizations and hope to publish it on AppSource, you simply have to go managed. We’ll most likely see Microsoft making the managed solution concept more approachable for other audiences in the future, too, so please do educate yourself on their possibilities and get ready for building more complex apps at scale.
Q6: Couldn’t I use managed solutions to lock down my app components from other makers?
Yes, but not in the environment you’re probably working in right now. When building apps, you’re always working in unmanaged mode. It’s only when you export your solution from the current environment that you get a choice to make the solution package either managed or unmanaged. Shipping configurations from dev to test & prod is what this mechanism is for. If you only have a single environment for the app makers where the small departmental or personal productivity apps are built by citizen developers, none of this stuff applies to you.
No. Don’t ever re-import the managed solution back to the environment where it came from. That’s locking yourself in and throwing away the key. It’s not what you want.
Q7: Is there any other way to restrict specific entities to be only customizable by certain app makers if we’re working in a shared CDS environment?
No. The metadata of CDS doesn’t have such security mechanism that would allow you to say that “Group A owns the account and contact entities, Group B is responsible for the project, task and resource allocation custom entities”. Within a single environment, there can be only one god, and that is the System Administrator. System Customizer also comes close, as both have the rights to create and delete new entities on a whim.
Records stored within an entity always have an owner. An account is owned by User X, which can be used for determining what other users can do with it. The actual account entity i.e. the table that holds the records doesn’t have this type of ownership construct, as it applies only to data and not metadata. If you need more granluar control over metadata, then the answer is to set up different environments for the different groups.
Q8: How can I see what privleges a particular user has been given in CDS?
Security roles are a central construct in CDS, as everything you attempt to do in the database is verified against two key parameters before execution:
- Do you have rights for the specific action against the entity where the data is stored?
- Who is the owner of specific the record that you are trying to perform the action on and what’s the relationship to the calling user?
The UI for security roles dates back to MS CRM v.X days and is scary both due to the legacy experience as well as the variety of options found in even a blank CDS org. Nevertheless, it is logical and will tell you what you need if you know what you’re searching for. Let’s compare 3 standard roles of Common Data Service User, Environment Maker and System Customizer and their privileges on the Customization tab:
The CDS User has mostly just read access to the metdata, like Entity, Field, Option Set and so on. An Environment Maker is allowed to create new items like Canvas Apps & Model-driven Apps – like a Maker should. To actually create new Entities and Fields, you’ll need to be a System Customizer or Administrator.
This is where the platform aspect of CDS (and its predecessor XRM) comes into play, though. You can create your own security roles, preferably via copying an existing system role that’s close enough. So, you could create a new “Environment Super Maker” that would have the right to create new fields, but not new entities, nor delete any fields. So, security roles are not only the gatekeeper to business data but also metadata.
Q9: Looks like these security roles are environment specific. Do the IT admins really to go and manage the security settings via this
MS CRM Power Apps UI?
Not anymore! Last year Microsoft finally brought Azure AD integration into the system administration features of Dynamics 365 and thus CDS. You can now leverage the Group Teams to assign CDS security roles to an Azure Active Directory group (security or Office group) and the users will inherit the privileges of that role when added to the group.
While Azure AD groups definitely streamline the administration process, please keep in mind that there’s more to CDS security model than just the security role assignment. Business Unit structures, Field Level Security, Hierarchical Security are some aspects that may require admin actions directly within the environment to get them set up properly.
Q10: Why do all these user accounts from across the organization appear in the CDS environment meant for department X only? Can they all access it?
You probably didn’t assign a security group to the CDS environment right at the start when it was created. Therefore every licensed user account in your tenant was copied over to the environment. If you assigned a security group to the environment after its creation, then those user accounts will be automatically disabled. They will forever remain in the database tables as inactive users, though, since user record deletion is not something XRM nor CDS has ever supported.
Just because a user exists inside the CDS environment’t systemuser table doesn’t mean they can do anything in that environment. Not even if they haven’t yet been disabled. Everyone needs a security role to have a chance to read both the metadata and the business data from CDS, so the user record is just a prerequisite to opening the door to the environment but it doesn’t provide the key to the lock.