Low-code at Microsoft Build: thoughts and observations

The annual developer conference Microsoft Build has traditionally been the prime even for all this code. Yet each year there is a growing share of technologies and products showcased at Build where writing code is optional, not required.

What should pro-devs think about when low-code tools from Power Platform are becoming ever more prominent at Build? Is this no longer “their conference”?

As you can imagine, our team at Forward Forever believes that the future of developing business solutions has low-code firmly at its core. To use the phrase from Charles Lamanna (MS Corporate Vice President, Business Apps & Platform), “development is a team sport”. Seeing it as an either/or battle between business users creating apps via graphical tools vs. programmers writing custom code to create something seemingly more complex and sophisticated – that is a road leading nowhere.

Co-existence of no-code, low-code and pro-code will be the reality for basically any enterprise IT landscape. It does not mean that people with programming skills need to close their Visual Studio and start working in Power Apps Maker portal only. It does however require them to start working together with app makers that have built parts of a greater solution without any traditional code (perhaps by using Power Fx instead).

This is what Garter refers to as “fusion teams” in the broader context digital transformation – how it requires multidisciplinary teams that blend technology and business domain expertise. In practical terms, this manifests itself in the various fusion development investments from Microsoft. Creating tooling that helps code-first developers bring new value into the low-code solutions that may have initially been built by citizen developers.

Fusion development = citizen developers + professional developers = Power Apps + Azure

Taken from the Build session “Expedite application delivery with low-code and fusion teams”, the spectrum of app development in Microsoft’s vision is divided into the following three categories:

The first bucket, low-code app development with Power Apps tools exclusively, is what most organizations think about when starting their Power Platform journey. The app maker tools are already accessible via Office 365 to a wide audience of potential citizen developers. As a result, their focus is often on automating processes that already run on Office tools, then presenting in the context of Microsoft Teams, for instance. You can see many examples of such apps in the Forward Forever App Gallery.

The middle tier, fusion development, requires platform thinking that goes beyond individual MS products. We need to understand that it is unlikely for a single individual to be proficient in both the Power Platform app maker tools and numerous Azure services that Power Apps could be connected with. Sure, you can help the citizens go further by creating custom connector to relevant APIs. Yet ultimately what you need is a team that can consist of both low- and pro-coders, with a joint goal that drives their decision making on the architecture. Instead of the “all I have is a hammer so every problem looks like a nail to me” attitude and sticking to just your own tools.

When is low-code not the right choice then? Looking at the last category, code-first use cases, obviously consumer facing applications are currently out of Power Apps scope. This is ensured by the lack of a licensing model and an identity system that would support users who aren’t found in the app hosting organization’s Azure AD tenant and who wouldn’t have a dedicated user license. Even though app store distribution is becoming possible via the wrap feature, this doesn’t change the positioning of Power Apps as a tool for internal users.

What’s more interesting in this regard in the code-first bucket is “external facing website”. Hey, didn’t Microsoft actually talk about those at Build 2022 quite a lot? Yes, websites were indeed front & center in the low-code story this year, thanks to the launch of Power Pages.

One “app” less in the platform: Power Pages as a standalone website product

Earlier Microsoft had bundled many different technologies under one umbrella called Power Apps:

  • Canvas apps: the original PowerApps (NoSpaceInBetween) that kick-started the idea how building business apps could be as easy as drawing PowerPoint slides.
  • Model-driven apps: most often seen underneath Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement apps. Used for quickly generating data-first, CRM style UIs on top of a relational data model.
  • Portals: originated as an ISV product built on top of the XRM framework of Dynamics CRM, then acquired by MS and later fused into Power Platform.

While Microsoft has been working on their “Run One UI” initiative to merge Canvas and Model-driven apps into a single app type, this plan has never covered Portals. The reasons are understandable, given how different it has always been from the other two apps. And I’m not talking just about technology here.

In reality, Portals were never an “app” in the same sense as Canvas apps and Model-driven apps. To start with, I’d say that for every portal within a Power Platform customer tenant you will find roughly 10x Model-driven apps and 100x Canvas apps in use. Professionals who are familiar with the specifics of Portals development on this framework are still quite rare. For the casual app maker, trying to build a working, public facing website that exposes business records from within Dataverse has rarely been a realistic goal.

Does Power Pages now change all this? No, but it makes Microsoft’s low-code product offering more logical on a high level. Website development is now officially recognized as the fifth product in Power Platform. It’s a standalone “thing”, not just one app type.

The design experience for pages, views, forms, security settings has its own dedicated screens in Power Pages. It’s a big contrast to the prior XRM era where Portals were just a very complex app on top of Dataverse and Model-driven apps. We can expect more investments into making Power Pages more independent from the other tools – even if it will always run on the same core platform powered by Dataverse.

Is Power Pages now “Microsoft’s low-code tool for all your website needs”? The answer here is also “no”. It’s still aimed squarely at scenarios where live business data (from Dataverse) needs to be made accessible to external parties. You can avoid costly integration efforts by building the site on top of the same Power Platform that runs the back office processes. However, you’ll pay the price via the per login pricing model (starting at $2 per each login event), meaning the business case still needs to be carefully though out before choosing Power Pages as the technology for your website.

Something for everyone: Power Apps express design

Another way to make low-code more appealing is to reduce the steps needed to get started. Power Apps express design aims to do this via leveraging AI. This new capability launched at Build 2022 is the perfect example of how Microsoft is combining its stack of technologies and catering to very different audiences – all of whom play a part in low-code solution development.

In practice “express design” is a loose marketing term that was used for describing the following three accelerators for creating a Power Apps canvas app, without starting from a blank canvas.

  • Business users: Image to app. By using computer vision models to recognize UI elements in drawings or screenshots, Power Apps can now generate the form components you’d need in building a working app. Even the underlying Dataverse table for the different field types can be created by the wizard, without having to know what “Dataverse” is to begin with.
  • Designers: Figma to app. Figma is a very popular graphics editor and prototyping tool that many professional UI designers are using on a daily basis. By using the Power Apps Figma UI Kit elements, the design file can be imported (one time) and the corresponding components, images and fonts will be (almost) ready in the Power Apps Maker studio. Data connections and business logic can then be added to move from prototype to a real app.
  • Developers: API to app. Take the specifications of a Power Platform custom connector that a developer has configured as a wrapper on top of a custom, non-Microsoft API. Generate a rough looking yet functional canvas app that allows the developer to test the various API calls through a graphical UI.

How are these AI powered features for app generation changing the daily lives of current Power Apps makers? Probably not in a very significant way. The target seems to be in building an on-ramp that invites new users that haven’t yet touched Power Apps to give it a chance.

On-demand infrastructure: environment provisioning automation from data to bots

A key factor helping the viral spread of no-code/low-code tools has been the ability for citizen developers to do so much just with their own computer and nothing more. This model has been encouraged by Microsoft’s product offering and the free tiers of Power Platform tools. Running Power BI Desktop and creating reports locally costs nothing. Power Automate Desktop is bundled into every Windows 11 license and allows the user to create RPA bots for automating clicks and key presses they’d otherwise have to manually perform.

Once you reach a point where such personal productivity solutions need to grow beyond a single user and support a broader team, the organization needs to make commitments. Not just by purchasing paid licenses but also setting up the required infrastructure for hosting the data, running the bots and so on.

You could say Microsoft is uniquely positioned in the low-code market when it comes to the infrastructure part. Not only are they building the tools for citizen and professional developers to create their own solutions – they also host a significant share of the world’s public cloud in Azure. The other big cloud vendors like Amazon and Google aren’t really anywhere close to Power Platform in their low-code offering.

Making it easier to consume resources required by low-code solutions is therefore an obvious avenue for Microsoft to grow their footprint. At Build 2022 we saw two new services announced for achieving this.

Some claim that Power BI Datamarts is the biggest new feature announcement in three years. Without going into details, this self-service datamart enables business users to essentially provision a fully managed Azure SQL database for their analytics needs. This allows them to go much further in the cloud than what Power BI Dataflows have previously offered, like creating data models and exposing data in T-SQL format – all this without having to involve database administrators.

Power Automate Desktop is a fairly intuitive tool for building RPA bots to automate processes on the UI level. When you need to make that bot run outside your PC, though, things can get really complex. The considerations for setting up the virtual machines, networks and other moving parts needed for unattended RPA to deliver business value is a major hurdle, as illustrated by Microsoft’s current administration and governance guidance for low-code automation.

Hosted RPA bots announced at Build 2022 promises to remove the need for Azure infrastructure configuration. Now you can just define how many concurrent bots you want to be running at max and Microsoft will auto-scale the infrastructure based on actual usage. Preconfigured VM images make things fast to set up, but support for custom images, Azure AD join and VNET for on-premises system access is also coming. “True RPA as a service solution” is now here – or at least that’s what MS slides claim.

Neither of these two new services take away the possibility nor completely remove the need for IT pros to be involved in low-code solution architecture design and administration. They do, however, tear down the earlier hard dependencies. Power Platform based solution development can now again go once step further, even if there would be constraints on the enterprise IT side to allocate resources to support it.

Low-code Trend Report 2022: your best employees would want to use low-code technology

Microsoft published the results of this new survey on the launch day of Build – which probably isn’t accidental. It complements the hard technical factors presented by MS product teams with the even more crucial dimension in low-code: its impact to the professional lives of citizen developers.

What the report results say in short is this:

  • People who get to use low-code to solve their business problems are happier.
  • There is correlation between employees who actively seek learning opportunities at work and those who use low-code tools.
  • Companies making low-code technology available are more likely to retain these smart and proactive employees.
  • Low-code could help in raising the % of women who take part in tech based solution development.
  • Employees need mid-tier decision makers in helping them articulate to the C-suite why investments into low-code make business sense.

These types of factors must be clearly acknowledged when planning the Power Platform adoption journey within the organization. Don’t spend all your energy on thinking about just the different technologies and how they can be aligned in an efficient way. Remember the huge potential that could be unlocked when the people who work in your organization are empowered to solve their business problems via digital tools, created by them personally.

2 comments

  1. Henriikka Åkerman
    2022-06-22 at 13:00

    Kiitos Jukka! Olipas taas erinomainen ja näkemyksellinen yhteenveto. Hyvää kesälukemista koko low-code- ja Power Platform -ekosysteemille!

    1. Jukka Niiranen
      2022-06-22 at 13:52

      Kiitoksia, Henriikka! Toivottavasti kesän kuluessa saadaan lisää kiinnostavia low-code -uutisia, kenties vaikkapa MS Inspire -tapahtumasta 😉

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