Our team at TekDog has been working for well over 20 years in the automation space. Whether it’s been custom applications, MS Access, SharePoint, Nintex Workflow or countless other tools in the Microsoft and Open Source stacks, we apply the same fundamental approach to solving business problems using technology. Our approach has always been a “Business First” approach where we want to understand the needs of the business. The technology in a sense is irrelevant and can vary depending on the clients preferred technology and budget. Ultimately, we want to provide a cohesive tool that solves a business problem for the maximum ROI regardless of the technology chosen.
Over the years we have seen many solutions come and go. AS400, Lotus Notes, dumb terminals and MS Access applications once dominated businesses. Today we are inundated with SAAS and cloud-based products like Office 365, Dynamics 365, Salesforce etc. Each of these solutions is competing for a small piece of your pocketbook on a monthly basis. Many of these tools are very reasonably priced, especially if you have just a few users. But as your user base expands, well, so does the bill. So when evaluating a cloud-based product you really need to evaluate the value that the solution provides you for the monthly subscription fee.
Microsoft has done an excellent job in adding value to its Office 365 offering over the past two years. What once started off as simply a hosted version of Exchange, Lync and SharePoint has now boomed to include a complete set of tools to help you run your business while helping to improve efficiencies and collaboration. New tools like Teams and Whiteboard are opening business's eyes on new ways to work together. Two of these tools, PowerApps and Flow, are very interesting to TekDog and our customers. When these tools were initially released they lacked functionality required to complete robust automation required by most businesses. However, these tools have grown up, and we are very impressed with the capabilities of these matured products. And the best part, if you are an Office 365 customer, is that you already have them and can use them at no cost! Sure, if you want to do some more fancy things there is an upsell, but the base products are probably suitable for most internal business operations without incurring any additional fees.
Before we dive into PowerApps and Flow, let’s first define what we view as a complete automation solution. The basic elements for a complete solution include the following:
- Data Storage or “Database”. You can’t have a solution without data.
- User Interface or UI. Users need to be able to add/edit/delete records in an easy to use interface. In today’s world, this also includes desktop and mobile devices.
- Business logic or Workflow. Essentially, these are your automations.
- You need to have the ability to extract data and display the data allowing the business user to make business decisions.
What makes PowerApps and Flow so powerful is that they are surrounded by other Microsoft tools that can fill the gaps not provided by these tools. This means you can now create “complete” solutions leveraging just Microsoft tools. These products will also work with other systems too, but for this article we will just focus on the Microsoft stack. The tools used to create a complete solution are as follows:
- Database- MS SQL, Azure, or SharePoint
- User Interface- PowerApps
- Business Logic- Flow
- Reporting- Power BI
So let’s dive a little deeper into PowerApps and Flow individually:
PowerApps provides the ability to create an “App” from your own data sources like SQL or SharePoint. Essentially, your App is a user interface that you can embed business logic into using formulas and business rules. In the SharePoint space, PowerApps would replace your default out-of-the-box forms or your InfoPath forms. There is definitely a push for “Mobile First” responsive design here, which is great in our opinion. PowerApps is browser-based, but you can also download a desktop client to be used in Windows 10. The interface is straightforward and provides great flexibility in customization of your user interface. If you have worked with Excel formulas you will take to PowerApps very quickly!
Although it has taken some time for Microsoft to come up with a suitable replacement for InfoPath, PowerApps seems to be an excellent replacement well worth the wait. As with Microsoft's other cloud-based products, PowerApps is only getting better with its frequent updates and new features!
Flow is Microsoft’s solution for cloud based workflow. Flow provides the user the ability to create either simple or more complex automations. Flow is also browser-based and provides an excellent interface for designing business processes or “Flows”. If you have worked with other workflow-based tools, the interface is easy enough to get up-and-running fairly quickly for basic flows. Additionally, Flow comes with many flow templates that help you quickly automate routine tasks. Flow also comes with an excellent mobile app that can be used for responding to approvals or even designing a flow! Microsoft has embedded Flow into Office 365 and can be triggered easily from PowerApps or SharePoint online. Additionally, Flow has been designed to work with a multitude of systems including many of the cloud services you use on a daily basis … and the list is only growing. In the SharePoint world, Flow can be used to replace almost any workflow you have created. Flows can be created directly from a list and appear to be quicker than typical SharePoint online workflows.
If you are looking for an alternative to SharePoint workflow or just looking to automate a few routine tasks around the office, Microsoft Flow may be an excellent alternative for your organization.
The pricing for both PowerApps and Flow is available on their respective websites (links below). Both products have a zero cost option for Office 365/Dynamics 365 customers that will meet the needs of “most” users. If your needs extend beyond what is included they have additional paid subscription options.
PowerApps pricing and comparisons https://powerapps.microsoft.com/en-us/pricing/
Flow pricing and comparisons https://us.flow.microsoft.com/en-us/pricing/
We haven’t always been believers in PowerApps or Flow. That being said, we now believe that PowerApps and Flow have evolved into an excellent alternative to building automated solutions on the Microsoft stack. If your organization is looking at automation solutions and are an existing Office 365/Dynamics 365 customer we STRONGLY encourage you to spend a few days working with the products to see if they can meet your needs as well as we believe they will. If you need a helping hand, just give us a call!