There’s more to Power Platform than low-code/no-code development
Reed Robison reflects on Microsoft’s Power Platform and how low-code/no-code development is only one aspect of the value it provides to Office 365 customers.
As a developer that has been around longer than I care to admit, I’ve seen a lot of low-code/no-code platform come and go. As long as I can remember, there have been products promising the ability to build applications without “writing one line of code.” It’s a compelling sales pitch, but practical development is lot more complicated. I found that most of these tools solved very basic problems but ran into significant limitations with scale, integration, governance, and security. Admittedly, these experiences jaded me from taking new “low code” platforms seriously. Why would Power Platform be any different?
After spending some quality time with Power Platform—using it for my own projects and seeing it take off with some of my customers, I started to realize how much has changed in this productivity space. I’ve also reconsidered the way I think about low code development platforms in the age of cloud computing, where connected services open new doors to make all this work. Power Platform is incredibly powerful and capable. If you are new to Power Platform, there are a lot of great reasons to check it out, but if you are already an organization using Office 365, you may be missing out.
Covering all the features and capabilities of Power Platform is beyond the scope of this post, but I wanted to share a few of the things that made me a fan with the value and productivity of this platform. I should also note as of the time of this post, Power Platform is comprised of Power Automate, Power Apps, Power BI, and Power Virtual Agents.
I mainly refer to Power Automate and Power Apps in the context of this post, but there’s a LOT of capability to dig into.
Power Virtual Agents let you create powerful chatbots that can answer questions posed by your customers, employees, or visitors to your website or service – without the need for data scientists or AI developers.
Power BI lets you easily connect to your data sources, visualize and discover what’s important, and share that with anyone or everyone you want.
I started using Power Automate to handle SharePoint workflows that drive this this blog. It was super easy to build automation around list data, but I didn’t think about it beyond a user productivity tool. As I started working with customers doing 2010 Workflow Migrations, I was challenged to look at it from an organizational platform and how much it had to offer.
Migrating SharePoint workflows to Power Automate
I suspect that like me, many of you may be starting to explore Power Platform as part of your SharePoint modernization strategy. Power Platform is positioned as a path forward for InfoPath Forms and SharePoint Workflows. With the retirement of SharePoint 2010 workflows, this has a lot of customers starting to look at Power Platform and what is involved with moving legacy solutions.
Before you start migrating solutions, it’s important to have your Power Platform environments established and a fundamental understanding of how they work. Taking some basic steps into Power Platform – experimenting with Power Automate, Power Apps, and Power BI is a great way to get started.
Office 365 and Azure Active Directory has made this much easier
One of the biggest challenges with any new technology is just trying to onboard everything you need to get started – environments, hardware, users, security, management, etc.
For customers who already have an Office 365 tenant, everything you need to get started is already in place. Environments are the logical containers used by Power Platform created under your Azure Active Directory (AAD) tenant. As part of your tenant, it builds on everything you already have setup with AAD to manage users, groups, policies, authentication methods, audit logs, and services.
Power Platform manages resource allocation for all underlying services, so there’s no VMs or databases for you to deploy. To start building flows and apps, you just configure an environment under your tenant and assign users/licenses.
If you are a developer with a tenant to work with and just need a place to experiment, it’s super easy get started with the Office 365 Developer Program and get a Developer Subscription to start with.
Simply put, there’s very little to configure to start exploring Power Platform and if you are an organization already in Office 365, it’s basically already there waiting for you to get started.
Effective and Extensible Access to Data
Power Platform provides feature rich cloud-based environments to build workflows and applications, but none of that matters unless it integrates seamlessly with your data. As a developer, I like to spend my time working on business problems — not trying to get APIs to work. Power Platform makes this easy with connectors.
A connector is a proxy or a wrapper around an API that allows any underlying service to talk to Power Platform. It provides a way for users to connect their accounts and leverage a set of pre-built actions and triggers to build apps and workflows. Connectors abstract all the technical details of how to interact with connected services from the solutions you build (e.g. – Flows or Apps).
There are pre-build connectors available for just about every type of service you might want to interact with and more importantly, the model is extensible, so if you need to work with something that isn’t supported today or custom to your business – you can write your own connector.
Connectors are generally REST API based and depending on the implementation, support a variety of authentication methods (Azure AD, OAuth, SQL Auth, or Windows Auth). Each connector offers a set of operations classified as ‘Actions’ and ‘Triggers’. Actions are changes directed by a user. For example, you would use an action to look up, write, update, or delete data in a SQL database. Triggers notify your app when specific events occur. For example, the FTP connector has the OnUpdatedFile trigger. You can build either a Logic App or a flow that listens to this trigger and performs an action whenever the trigger fires. Triggers can be Push or Poll based.
For O365 services and connectors, the beauty is that whatever security you have in place for users carries over into the solutions. For example, Flows or PowerApps that access SharePoint Online resources use O365 credentials and are limited to the same data a user would normally be able to access. This makes it easy to build solutions that access organizational data in Office 365 without dealing with excessive layers of permissions to manage.
If you need to connect to on-premises resources like SQL Server, you can use an on-premises data gateway to securely control access to all these services,
If the idea of connecting your data to so many different services is a concern, DLP Policies can be configured to control which connectors are enabled in your environments to control the data and services users are allowed to interact with. Combined with tenant level control like Conditional Access policies and exfiltration controls, organizations have extensive control over what employees can and cannot do.
Connectors make it easy to get to data and interact with a variety of services, so it’s trivial to build automation and apps for all kinds of needs while still providing controls to ensure data is protected.
It’s a great way to centralize and govern solutions
Almost every big company has the challenge of Shadow Apps or Shadow IT. Those are apps or scripts that employees build that are not officially supported but find their way into poplar use. It’s a blessing and a curse for any company.
How do you enable Citizen developers and still provide a level of governance to protect the interests of your company?
Employees often have great ideas about what would make them more productive, but it’s also important to make sure apps are built in a way that doesn’t violate company policy or introduce unforeseen risk.
Part of the struggle with Shadow Apps is that you may not know they are out there. They are often developed in isolation and shared many ways within an organization. Power Platform can help solve this. Since it’s part of the O365 tenant, Power Platform admins have visibility to every solution that is developed and shared. You can use something like the Power Platform Center of Excellence Kit to promote standards, consistency, and governance across your organization. You can see apps that employees build, which solutions are being used, who uses them, and setup alerts or mitigation actions for those that violate policy (e.g. – disable Apps or Flows).
Apps that are created and shared across your organization may run in browser or on popular mobile devices but you don’t need to deal with where to find, maintain, or stage them. You can find them in on Office 365 apps page, the Power Apps Mobile App, or even from inside SharePoint or Teams.
Power Platform provides a great way to embrace citizen development with organizational governance and awareness instead of struggling to control Shadow Apps/IT solutions. There are some good resources to help you define a strategy for setting up environments here. This Power Apps and Power Automate admin whitepaper may also be helpful.
Azure and Office 365 establish all the building blocks that enable the productivity of an effective low-code/no-code platform. Power Platform takes advantage of those capabilities to make citizen development easily accessible, highly productive, and extensible for whatever solution you need to build.
Organizations can secure environments and control how their data is used while still enabling innovation across the workforce. Power Platform can also help centralize productivity apps and automation so it can be easily monitored, managed, and governed. If your organization is struggling with how to deal with Shadow Apps/IT, that’s another great reason to check out Power Platform.
Microsoft Premier and Unified Support has several workshops and subject matter experts available to help you get started. Ask your CSAM or support representative about the following workshops:
- Microsoft Power Platform for Administrators
- SharePoint Workflow transformation to Power Automate
- Analytics with Power BI
- Power Platform: AI Builder
- Power Platform: Building a Power App
Additional Resource to help you get started: