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Newsletter: Perspectives on Power Platform

Company: Niiranen Advisory Oy

Year 2021 in Power Platform

Wrapping up the year in Microsoft's low-code business apps: what were the biggest themes of 2021?

Time to start wrapping up another eventful year in the Microsoft Power Platform ecosystem. Here are the highlights that came to my mind when reflecting on 2021, looking at my own articles and social media posts.

Power Fx: a programming language for low-code

This is an announcement from 2021 that will grow up to be a much bigger deal in the years to come. When Microsoft launched Power Fx in March, the only thing we initially had was a new name for the formulas that Canvas app makers had already been working with for years.

The more impactful side of Power Fx is the grand vision of an open source language built specifically for the low-code app makers and solution developers. Power Fx is a sign of things to come: a world where the concept of code is democratized and any unnecessary barriers for people to act as developers are actively torn down by the platform providers.

Building Power Fx based command bar buttons was the most fun topic I had to blog about in 2021 (see posts one, two and three). Much of the functionality in modern commanding is still way too early for production use, yet the progress that’s going to happen on this front is inevitable. This is how the business logic that goes beyond the options available via a GUI will largely be written in the near-ish future.

CoE Starter Kit: the admin product on top of the platform

It never ceases to amaze me how something like the Center of Excellence Starter Kit can be built purely on top of the Power Platform – to administer and govern that very same platform. In 2021 CoE was updated to be compatible with Dataverse for Teams, which is a small miracle on its own. All you now need is one premium license to unlock the vast feature set of The Kit.

Officially it of course still isn’t a Microsoft product, rather the CoE Starter Kit is delivered as a template on GitHub that is actively maintained by the Power CAT team. Yet in many ways this is a much better model than what “real” Microsoft software products have. There’s a public backlog of potential and upcoming features, you can get notified of the monthly releases, plus the team is incredibly responsive on triaging the reported issues. This level of transparency gained via working through open source tools and methods is something you can only dream of having for the commercial MS products for Power Platform or Dynamics 365.

Teams as an application platform

Dataverse for Teams was launched in late 2020, so 2021 was its first year for us to see the impact from empowering every Microsoft Teams user to build Power Apps with a Dataverse back-end.

Today there are 10 sample apps from Microsoft that any team member can easily provision from the Teams app store. They’ll end up creating a new Dataverse for Teams environment in that process, which is certainly going to put some governance pressure on your Power Platform environments in general.

I don’t think we’ve yet seen a huge explosion in more advanced apps being built on top of Dataverse for Teams. However, due to its attractive price point (“free!!!”), it has definitely become an option we always need to evaluate before deciding on full Dataverse or (*gasp*) SharePoint Microsoft Lists.

With Microsoft Teams being the hub for teamwork in most organizations using MS tools, there’s growing pressure for all business app developers to understand how their solutions should exist and operate within the Teams context. The very least you should do is to consider how Teams can be leveraged for publishing your apps to end users.

As for the Teams + Power Platform story on a commercial level, we didn’t yet reach a point in 2021 where partners could distribute their Power Apps based products via the public Teams app store. In fact, it is explicitly called out that you shouldn’t submit any such apps to the Teams team to evaluate. Let’s keep an eye on this in 2022 and see how the Teams app store will align with the traditional AppSource channel (that didn’t receive much love in 2021).

Pay-as-you-go licensing

You asked for it – you got it! There have been constant demands coming especially from people working on Azure based app development that we should have a way to pay for Power Platform resources on the same Azure bill. The announcement of PAYG for Power Apps app passes and Power Platform capacity was therefore the biggest news that came from November 2021 Ignite event.

Is the PAYG model going to replace the earlier prepaid licensing options in real life, though? Probably not on a wider scale, since committing to a certain number of Power Apps seats upfront is naturally going to give you a better price point in your Microsoft licensing negotiations. The 100% premium in the Per App price when using PAYG highlights that this model is aimed at serving those app scenarios where the actual consumption volume isn’t well known yet. Great for new experiments, maybe not so great for established app usage patterns.

With the 30 day minimum duration for the once activated Per App passes, PAYG as it stands today isn’t yet very close to a pure consumption based pricing model like raw Azure services are using. Still, it may be flexible enough to convince customers that the licensing risks in building Power Platform based apps aren’t that high anymore, compared to the more rigid MS Business Apps based model that used to be the only option.

50% price cut for Power Apps

As if the PAYG model wasn’t enough, in 2021 we also saw a rare moment when Microsoft slashed the price of Power Apps Per User and Per App licenses in half. In that process, the latter was also redefined to mean “Per 1 App” and not “1+1+1 Apps”, but that just made perfect sense in order to clarify the terminology. You could say in most scenarios the list price for running premium apps got reduced by 50%.

Those of us who’ve worked with Power Platform on a daily basis have always known the crazy value for money that you could get from the platform, already before this price cut. When it comes to convincing the customers in large organizations that they should license every user with Power Apps premium, in the same way they’ve bought Microsoft 365 licenses, there’s probably been a need to move the price point a little lower still to make such deals happen.

Looking at the global playing field of low-code application platform vendors, customers’ concerns over pricing and licensing are a common issue listed for all leading vendors in Gartner’s Magic Quadrant. MS may not be able to completely alleviate these concerns, yet it certainly helps to have a list price that isn’t an obstacle for starting the talks with anyone.

Hello Azure Synapse, bye Data Export Service

OK, so this doesn’t actually affect pure Power Apps environments but rather Dynamics 365 customers. However, since DES has been so widely utilized as the mechanism to gain SQL style access to the Dataverse tables for building reports, the announcement of its deprecation has to be considered one major event for the year 2021.

This deprecation will mean many customers need to re-architect their reporting solutions, even when existing reports are happily running in production and possibly meeting all the current business requirements already. Thankfully you can still push the Dataverse data into the same SQL database. Using three Azure products (Synapse, Data Lake, Data Factory) instead of one DES can feel like more complexity to achieve the same results, though.

There’s a bright side to this change, though. The old DES was always just a stop-gap solution that MS had to put in place, to address (primarily) the reporting concerns that CRM customers had when moving to the cloud. The new Azure Synapse Link, on the other hand, is a critical element for Microsoft’s vision of how customers will make better use of their business data via a multitude of new and future services in Azure. The incentives for maintaining and expanding such a service are obviously much higher. This should lead to positive outcomes for both customers and solution developers in the long term.

Fusion Teams story

The term “Fusion Team” in itself doesn’t tell very much at all, but in the context of Power Platform I would categorize pretty much all the integrations between Azure developer tools and Power Platform app maker tools under this umbrella. Much like the PAYG licensing model, this movement is crucial in evolving low-code development techniques beyond the citizen developer domain. People with an XRM background already know the enterprise level capabilities within the platform, but Microsoft needs to convince everyone that also pure Power Apps are credible in this territory.

In 2021 we saw a Microsoft make a big push in promoting the techy side of Power Platform to the traditional software developer audience. Not only did we get the Power Fx programming language in isolation, there were also plenty of examples shown on how this will support source code versioning and manipulation inside VS Code. Screenshots of command-line interfaces became a regular part of product team blog posts. Supporting the pro-dev workflow via CI/CD pipelines in Azure DevOps remained a high priority, with still no signs of any citizen-friendly ALM story.

The role where Microsoft seems to want the professional developers to focus on at the start of their Power Platform journey is in connecting to new data sources and custom APIs. This is what their Fusion Development e-book emphasized at least, which ended up becoming my tweet with most impressions in 2021:

Inevitable complexity of low-code

This leads us into the last topic I wanted to mention, which is more of a top-of-the-mind phenomenon rather than any individual event that happened in 2021. When we put together all these different growth directions of Power Platform (from Teams to Azure) and its expanding capabilities (from governance to software development), one can rightfully ask: at which point will all this spiral out of control?

We have a broad variety of audiences that this platform wants to cater to. In one corner we have those heroic citizen app makers who’ve been empowered by the Power Apps & Automate icons found under the Office 365 menu, allowing them to solve business problems via new digital tools that no one expected them to deliver. In another corner we have the folks actually tasked with delivering enterprise wide software solutions – now looking for ways to keep the amount of custom code somehow manageable, by leveraging low-code alternatives where they’re a good enough replacement. More and more corners of this arena will get populated as ISVs and other players will join Microsoft’s low-code game.

Creating your first apps and flows will remain an easy task. The problem is that the boundaries for what you can’t do and what isn’t supported with Power Platform keep moving further and further out. The rising complexity of apps built on low-code can already be seen everywhere and it will just keep growing in 2022. We need to stop endorsing the misconception that these would be “easy tools for creating simple solutions”. While low-code apps are easy to approach and can delivery quick results, in the end we’ll be faced with the same key task as with any business application landscape – managing the inevitable complexity.

Could we expect to see some new innovation come along to help us address this growing pool of low-code complexity? Following the familiar People-Process-Technology framework, the biggest requirement I see out there in the real world is establishing the right kind of organization structure around low-code. Once we have people with dedicated roles in place, planning the delivery, admin and governance processes will then become possible. Finally, this will allow the new advancements in technological innovation – to bring better visibility into our growing app portfolio, reduce manual/duplicate configuration work, automate the recurring process and alert humans when their attention is required to address new exceptional events.

As an example, by turning the low-code of Power Apps canvas apps into actual source code managed in GitHub repos, Microsoft has a chance to feed all this data to their machine learning algorithms. Things like GPT-3 from OpenAI may one day become smart enough to analyze what on earth all these millions of apps are trying to achieve and then offer suggestions to us mere mortals on what modifications and updates we should apply.

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