It’s that time of the year again when big announcements have been lined up for Microsoft Inspire, the (virtual) conference for the MSFT partner ecosystem. Last year the Inspire announcements gave us a wealth of changes for the way how the Power Apps, Power Automate and Dynamics 365 licensing model worked, but all the product names remained the same (as far as I recall, at least). This year from Inspire 2020 the Business Applications part of Microsoft’s cloud is getting a bit of both. Say hello to Microsoft Dataflex!
I have written an introductory post over on Forward Forever blog, “What is Microsoft Dataflex and who is it aimed at”, which you can check out to understand the impact from a customer organization perspective. Here on my personal blog I’m exploring the topic when viewed through the eyes of a long-time XRM professional.
Dataflex Pro is the new CDS
Let’s face it: “Common Data Service” wasn’t exactly the finest product name invented at Redmond. Originally it was introduced as Common Data Model, then later this name was switched to reference only the open source schema of CDM whereas the application platform and data management features became a service called CDS. In March 2018 the v1.0 of CDS was effectively put to rest as the far more established platform behind the Dynamics CRM / Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement apps, known as XRM, was rebranded to be “the new” Common Data Service (without the “new” or “v2.0” labels, of course, because why make things
precise complicated). Actually it was called “Common Data Service for Apps” (CDS-T), since there was originally supposed to be a “Common Data Service for Analytics” (CDS-A) alongside the transactional platform. There never was, as CDS-A was rebranded as “Power BI dataflows” before GA, so we only had one Common Data Service left to talk about. Whew!
After these adventures in the great platform shuffle of 2018, we did have some product name related announcement in 2019 as well, like the deprecation of Customer Engagement in the cloud, rebranding Microsoft Flow into Power Automate (where you still create Flows), and finally the “space program” for making PowerApps be spelled as Power Apps instead. In 2020, it had been eerily quiet in the product brand front, so I guess everyone was already expecting to see something once FY21 kicked off. As of today, July 21st, CDS is no more and the Dataflex chapter has begun.
“Microsoft Dataflex” is not perhaps the most exciting name ever, but it’s certainly a better choice than Common Data Service. In part 4 of my series on Power Platform licensing complexity, I wrote that CDS should have rather been called “Power Platform”, due to its central role as the glue that ties the various MS low-code tools into a coherent platform. It’s a very unCommon service and it does a lot more than just host application data. Now, Dataflex on the other hand plays with the words “flexible” and “-plex”. The latter, when used as a noun combining form is described in Wiktionary as having the following origin:
From the Latin past tense of plectere (“to weave, braid, twine, entwine”).
Yes! That’s exactly what this technology does! It’s a platform that allows you to weave a set of processes, interfaces and data together, into an intertwined whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. It offers every developer flexible, no-code/low-code tools for achieving this. That’s how at least I intend to explain the meaning of Dataflex from now on, unless MS product marketing comes up with something even more compelling.
Oh, there is of course one tiny detail to keep in mind: it’s actually Dataflex PRO. What Microsoft announced today at Inspire is a new service called Dataflex that is a subset of what CDS always used to offer. So, everyone who’s using CDS today is already on the Dataflex Pro version, whereas we’re about to get a preview of the non-Pro Dataflex in the coming weeks.
Application platform for the masses: Dataflex (with Teams)
If you’re coming from a Dynamics 365 background, the introduction of a “lite” version alongside the CDS/XRM platform capabilities might not sound so exciting at first. After all, from a pure functionality prespective Microsoft is taking away capabilities from the existing platform, to establish the baseline offering of Dataflex that customers can then upgrade to Dataflex Pro when needed. Some might dismiss it as just another licensing hurdle to worry about when trying to develop apps.
From a commercial perspective, Dataflex is possibly the biggest thing that has ever happened to the platform formerly know as CDS/XRM. Biggest in terms of the number of potential app makers that will now have the possibility to build Power Apps on top of a true relational database instead of the dreaded SharePoint Lists. This is obviously the major immediate benefit from the announcement of Dataflex non-Pro, since in the previous licensing model the lines were drawn in a way that discouraged the use of CDS (or Azure SQL) databases for any Power Apps designed for light use scenarios – unless you had already acquired the full Power Platform license for your entire organization. With Dataflex usage rights bundled into Microsoft Teams at no extra cost, any user (internal or guest) with the necessary Office 365 / Microsoft 365 base license can now access Power Apps that leverage the true powers of a modern low-code application platform.
You won’t get everything that CDS used to offer with just a Teams license now, of course. For starters, the only place from where you can access these app built on the non-Pro version of Dataflex is from within Microsoft Teams. None of the existing “players” for Power Apps will be supported, neither is embedding the apps to other UIs like SharePoint pages. Data types, security model, business logic, integration points, ALM… All of these will be far more limited on the “free” Dataflex than with the “real” application platform that is Dataflex Pro. For small apps aimed to be used by small-ish teams, though, I bet the Dataflex version will be good enough for a large percentage of use cases. It certainly is more advanced than SharePoint Lists, although the restrictions on app access points is more limited with the Teams based approach.
Limitations can sometimes be a good thing. Dataflex is a simplified version of what CDS was, not just in terms of features but also the maker & admin experience. Do not underestimate how important this aspect can be in getting the citizen developers to make the right choice. Experienced CDS/XRM professionals may have been reluctant to move over to the new Maker Portal that is still missing features from the classic Solution Explorer. The new generation of app makers who have never even heard of these acronyms will most likely be happier within the Teams embedded app creation experience and give a higher NPS score to Power Apps as a result. Less is more, as they say.
There’s going to be one Dataflex environment per Team that you can create, and the users will then map to the members of that Team, with a simplified user security role structure of Owner-Member-Guest (a.k.a. OMG). No business units or custom security role privileges to worry about, nor any complex data types like activities, polymorphic lookups, currencies etc. Yes, I know, most of the apps you’ve built already probably depend on those, but remember that this is not aimed at you! Dataflex Pro will have all of it and the non-Pro environments can be promoted to full capabilites, at which point they will require the same licenses as CDS does today.
This is still a Big Deal. With the “free” Dataflex included in Teams, Model-driven apps can soon be created by an equally large crowd as Canvas apps before. Eventually it might no longer be an awkward moment when you need to talk about “that Power Apps app type that looks like Dynamics, not like all the other apps you have”, since every app maker can generate those beautiful, structured UIs on top of the database tables they’ve added into Dataflex. Since Model-driven apps are so metadata driven, I’d imagine this route would actually be a lot easier for many power users of Excel that haven’t necessarily been comfortable with building pixel-pefect mobile UIs in Canvas apps before.
Despite of everyone having the possibility to store app data inside Dataflex, it’s not by any means imperative that a single database is established as the place for all business data. That is the traditional CRM approach of doing things, but with the modern tools like Power Apps and Power Automate the source and target of data operations could be a number of different systems if needed, thanks to Connectors. However, I’ve understood that Premium Connectors will still not be included with the Teams license, so the options for data connectivity will be more limited here. This may again be perfectly fine for the simple apps that the non-Pro Dataflex is aimed to serve.
One thing the free access to Dataflex should make ubiquitous is the usage of solutions for app packaging and ALM. As the solution framework is a concept from the XRM era, replacing the earlier standalone .zip packaging of apps and Flows required that everyone would get access to this layer in the underlying platform. From an administration perspective it should be a clear step forward to standardize all the work to be done with Dataflex tools. There is also the promise of further deployment options being introduced with the Teams app store and its “single click” app installation, so this is an area for everyone to keep an eye on.
The business impact of Dataflex
The launch of non-Pro Dataflex can be expected to generate a wealth of questions from those professionals who’ve been working with CDS based solutions. What is & isn’t supported in Dataflex, where do the license and capacity limits actually get drawn, how are they enforced, where can apps be created for different Dataflex environment types, what admin controls are available on the tenant level, and so on. It’ll be confusing initially, but in the end I bet it’s gonna be woth it for all parties in this ecosystem.
One year ago I wrote a blog post examining the possible growth directions for Power Platform. This launch of Dataflex + Teams now broadens the scope of the platform both on the Citizen Developer dimension (number of potential app makers) but also in the “Other MS products” axis. Earlier I’ve enjoyed making the joke that one day Microsoft would build the next version of SharePoint on top of CDS. Well, that hasn’t quite happened yet (and most likely never will), but we did see a major step now in Power Platform catching up with the mainstream productivity apps in Office. After all, every time you create a new Teams team, a new SharePoint site is provisioned for it. We’re now at a point where technically each team could also have a Dataflex environment provisioned at the same time. Knowing this, what’s stopping future Teams features from being built on top of
As we can see from Ryan’s example, there are interesting synergies between Power Apps and Teams that are made possible by having Dataflex “on by default”. From a partner ecosystem perspective, over 500.000 organizations around the world who use Microsoft Teams just became a potential target for no-code solutions that could be dropped inside various teams. I’m saying no-code here instead of low-code because presumably the non-Pro Dataflex environment wouldn’t support custom code. Anyway, there’s a lot to investigate here with the Dataflex public preview coming in August and GA planned for September timeframe, so I will definitely be returning to cover the topic more closely once detailed feature lists are publicly available.