Microsoft Flow and the Common Data Model: A New Era in Integration?
Integration is traditionally one of the most difficult tasks in any CRM or ERP project. To get data from one system to another, data will need to be extracted, stored, transformed and then imported, taking hundreds of hours of development to get right for more complex processes. This has historically ruled out any possibility of individual users specifying integration processes that fit their individual needs.
As of the 1st of November, this is no longer the case, with the General Availability of Microsoft Flow and the Common Data Model, both of which have spent the last several months in preview.
What are Microsoft Flow and the Common Data Model?
Microsoft Flow is essentially a visual workflow builder, allowing users to specify triggers in one application that kick off actions in another, including moving data between applications. This is made possible by a set of standardised connections to 58 applications, the majority of which are third-party – as well as connecting to Dynamics 365, Outlook and OneDrive, Microsoft Flow can connect to Mailchimp, Salesforce, Google applications and major social networks such as Twitter and Facebook.
This takes the ability to automate processes across multiple applications and puts it in the hands of the individuals who know best what their business and productivity needs are. For Enterprise-scale integrations, Microsoft has LogicApps, which uses a similar interface and the same connectors, but designed for processing much larger amounts of data.
This is underpinned by the Common Data Model (CDM), an Azure-hosted database designed to be easy to map Microsoft application data to, as well as to add new type of data to the model. This is useful as a middle step in workflows, as well as the primary source of data for apps designed with PowerApps.
What were Microsoft Flow and the CDM like in preview?
The preview was a great chance to see the potential Flow has to change how integrations are created, managed and run. Flow has a large library of templates uploaded by users, providing turnkey flows where all a user needs to do log in to the necessary services and start the flow running. This made getting started very easy, and it wasn’t long before I was creating my own flows: including one to copy appointments across from my Outlook Calendar to Google Calendar, a useful integration which would have been extremely time-consuming to replicate manually.
Performance was poor early in the preview (as is the point of previews!) but steadily increased as time went on. Something else that caught my attention were the connections to Microsoft Language and Cognitive Services, allowing you to send data to have language identified, text translated, or sentiment analysis performed. This flips Flow from “handy” to “cutting edge” – giving users a gateway to Machine Learning-supported platforms – want your emails automatically translated, or customer feedback automatically scored for positive or negative sentiment? This is now within your reach.
What has General Availability brought?
General availability has brought with it four levels of pricing: Flow Free, Flow for Office 365 and Dynamics 365 (included in O365 and D365 plans), Flow Plan 1 and Flow Plan 2. All plans have access to the connectors, with a couple of exceptions. As we look from Free to Plan 2, we see an increasing level of flow runs per month, and a smaller interval between checking for triggers. Most importantly, however, all plans except for Free have a 99.9% SLA, demonstrating Microsoft’s confidence that Flow is ready for market.
Another new feature with GA is the ability to carry out Enterprise-level Administration of Microsoft Flow, meaning that administrators can configure what type of flows and functionality users can leverage in their organisation. This is crucial for organisations that need to adhere to certain standards – for example, ensuring that customer passwords can’t be extracted from a CRM database and sent as an email outside the organisation.
In conclusion, the release of Microsoft Flow is exciting, and very much in line with Microsoft’s recent approach to their Business and Productivity apps. This approach involves taking decisions and functionality which used to only be specified top-down, and giving them to users, another example of which is the ability in Dynamics 365 to use apps to customise how functionality is pulled together and presented. Microsoft Flow and the CDM will allow customers to create workflows which pull together disparate applications, and create something greater than the sum of its parts.