• Mark Haverty

Introducing Microsoft Power Platform

A framework for low-code, high-productivity business applications The business application landscape is changing dramatically as organisations look to find new ways of working, save costs and remain competitive. When evaluating software solutions, business and IT stakeholders have historically been faced with a simple choice; build or buy:

  • Build – Custom solutions that meet the needs of the business at the moment but are often costly to develop, deploy, maintain and support.

  • Buy – Off-the-shelf applications that are supported by the vendor but difficult to customise and more often than not, don’t satisfy all of the requirements of the business.

In many cases, there isn’t a solution that ticks all the boxes. The result is often a compromise and the “build or buy” gap is filled by a host of disconnected, un-managed and un-supported user-built solutions based on everything from isolated SharePoint sites to Excel spreadsheets and Access databases, along with a myriad of other software.

It’s all too commonly seen; The SharePoint site created ten years ago that still holds sensitive employee data, the cumbersome spreadsheet to track projects; all just one click from oblivion! A generation of information workers has worked around inefficiencies, solving problems but living on the edge of catastrophe with their ad-hoc solutions.

Three trends have converged to fundamentally change the relationship between business users, IT, and the way technology is used to support businesses.

  • Data Connectivity – The new generation of business applications is hyper-connected. They allow for connections between business functions, content and data that were previously considered siloed, unrelated, or simply not feasible or practical.

  • Citizen Developers – Business users long ago settled for spreadsheets and SharePoint, but new “low-code/no-code” tools empower “citizen developers” with the capability to build professional grade apps on their own.

  • Improved Data Visualisation – Business Intelligence and data visualisation tools are more readily available and business users have become adept at harnessing the power of these tools, helping organisations analyse and interpret data and work smarter.

While off-the-shelf and high-cost / high control custom developed applications have a place in an enterprise, both are being eclipsed by a modern, best-of-both-worlds approach known as the Application Platform as a Service (aPaaS); a modern, cloud-based construct that allows organisations to:

  • Build business and mobile applications

  • Connect to business content and data

  • Scale apps on-demand

  • Integrate with other services

Microsoft’s solution to the aPaaS concept is the Microsoft Power Platform, an end-to-end business application platform that enables organisations to:

  • Rapidly create custom, containerised, low-code applications that meet different business and user requirements.

  • Integrate all data natively on the platform and make that data available to other Power Platform applications.

Microsoft Power Platform is a technology framework that allows organisations to build low-code business applications using a common set of tools and technology solutions. Microsoft Power Platform enables businesses to innovate quickly and deliver solutions that help reduce cost and streamline process by connecting people with content and data in both modern web apps and legacy business applications. This briefing paper is part one of a number of articles and white papers ImageFast will publish on the subject of building business applications using Microsoft Power Platform, providing an overview of its core capabilities and setting the stage for more detailed publications to follow. Microsoft Power Platform is a family of four separate applications which can be used individually to leverage their specific strengths and capabilities or combined to deliver anything from tactical departmental solutions to enterprise-wide business applications.

Let’s start with a high-level overview of each of the four applications and their individual capabilities before looking at how they work together to form a powerful framework for building business applications. Power BI Power BI is a user-friendly, self-service and robust data analytics and visualisation tool that can connect to a broad range of data sources including Excel spreadsheets, SharePoint lists, Oracle databases or data in an SAP or Salesforce application. A Power BI desktop application builds data models and transforms your business data into visualisations and reports while the online Power BI service securely delivers the interactive, immersive dashboards and reports to users. Power BI is also available on mobile devices and tablets that facilitate users to make informed decisions from anywhere. Power Apps Power Apps helps businesses build high-productivity business applications quickly for both web and mobile devices with minimal coding, reducing the app-building cycle duration from many months to just a few days or weeks. It can connect to over 200 content and data sources including Microsoft SharePoint, Excel, Azure, SQL Server and social media applications.Power Apps is entirely cloud-based and can leverage mobile device features like microphones, cameras and GPS. Power Apps supports continuous improvement by creating a closed-loop process where the data contained in the Power Apps can be returned to the systems and can be analysed by Power BI. Power Automate Power Automate is an intelligent process automation solution that enables organisations to automate everything from basic tasks to end-to-end business processes. With the capability to connect over 100 data sources, Power Automate can collect data, send notifications and create, use and share workflows. Power Automate processes can be triggered manually at the press of a button, on a scheduled basis or automatically by an event within another application such as SharePoint. Power Virtual Agents Power Virtual Agents empowers teams to easily create bots using a guided, no-code graphical interface without the need for data scientists or developers. It eliminates the gap between the subject matter experts and development teams, and the long latency between teams recognising an issue and updating the bot to address it. The Common Data Service Whilst powerful in their own right, the magic of Power Platform is in the way data integration is managed through the Common Data Service (CDS). The CDS manages all data generated by all applications built on the Power Platform; for example, data associated with an app to track training qualifications can be shared with another app built for project management to ensure employee skills align to a project’s requirements.

This integration of data on the platform happens natively, with no custom components required, and is controlled to a granular application, user, and field level through a suite of proven, native security controls. Integration with Third-Party and Legacy Business Applications Although the CDS is home to data from an incredible array of business use cases, Microsoft has created hundreds of connectors that provide out-of-the-box data integration, not just to Microsoft services (e.g., SharePoint, Microsoft 365, LinkedIn), but to many popular (and some obscure) third-party services as diverse as Twitter, WordPress, Salesforce, Facebook, and Basecamp. In keeping with the no-code / low-code philosophy that underpins the entire platform, these connectors allow users and developers alike to splice together data found in the CDS with data resident throughout third-party solutions and legacy business applications. It then leverages that data as part of the interactive user experience through PowerApps, or to visualise and model it through Power BI. The platform further provides the ability for developers to create custom data connectors to services for which an out-of-the-box connector does not yet exist. Where does SharePoint Fit? For many organisations, SharePoint has been the go-to solution for no-code / low-code business application development in the enterprise and smaller organisations alike. With over a decade of experience implementing SharePoint and developing custom SharePoint solutions for our clients, we are often asked at ImageFast about the use cases in which we’d recommend SharePoint and the different use cases in which we’d advocate for aPaaS in general and the Power Platform specifically. The answer is simple:

  • SharePoint is about documents, files, and content. Use it to collaborate and store your content.

  • Power Platform is about data, intelligent automation, application development, business intelligence, and visualisation. Use it to run your business.

Of course, Microsoft is developing the technology in increasingly complementary ways, establishing strong links between the two and with Microsoft 365 services such as Microsoft Teams. Because all are now running on Azure, the possibilities to extend the capabilities of each into each other are boundless.

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