UPDATE 2020-08-11: Microsoft has pulled the name “Dataflex” presumably due to a trademark dispute and is now reverting their communication to reference codename “Microsoft Project Oakdale” instead.
Today Microsoft announced a new service called Dataflex. In short, it is a data platform for low-code apps that can be built right within Microsoft Teams. This is a brand new commercial offering and it comes bundled with every subscription of Office 365 / Microsoft 365 that includes the right to use Teams.
At the same time, Dataflex Pro became the new name for what used to be called Common Data Service (CDS). For those who are more familiar with Power Platform technology, you’ll know that CDS has served as the foundation for building your custom Power Apps as well as leveraging the many Dynamics 365 app products built by Microsoft.
So, what is actually new, what is just rebranding, and why is the arrival of Dataflex into Microsoft Teams such a big deal?
One platform for many app types
Let’s look at how Dataflex is positioned and licensed for different scenarios. Starting from the left, the new capability announced at Microsoft Inspire 2020 can be seen as the entry point into app creation on top of Dataflex. Its license is seeded within Microsoft Teams, just like the Office 365 / Microsoft 365 plans already come with seeded rights to use Power Apps & Power Automate to extend the various business productivity apps found within the realm of Office. It’s important to understand that the non-pro edition of Dataflex only allows the creation and usage of apps from within the Teams clients. Technically these are not the same as the official Teams custom apps built by pro developers, but for the sake of this discussion let’s call them “Teams apps” that happen to be powered by Dataflex and Power Apps.
When the needs for building a low-code business app can no longer fit within the Teams app usage scenario, customers can upgrade the Dataflex environment to Dataflex Pro. Essentially this means moving into the existing licensing model of Power Apps, where you can either license a single application at a time ($10 Per App) or purchase the “platform SKU” that allows an unlimited number of apps ($40 Per User). This unlocks the full feature set of what the Common Data Service used to provide, meaning advanced data types, environment management, security & compliance tools, integration options and ALM tools.
Continuing further on this journey, customers could also choose to purchase a license to the readymade business apps from Microsoft, branded as Dynamics 365. Many of these (but not all) are built on top of the same Dataflex Pro platform that powers the Power Apps solutions created in-house by citizen developers working within the business teams. Underneath the surface, a sophisticated enterprise system like Dynamics 365 Connected Field Service with signals coming in from IoT sensors and the information presented to field technicians wearing a Hololens device in front of their eyes is actually assembled from many of the same building blocks that any Teams user now has at their disposal via Dataflex.
Microsoft low-code aPaaS evolution
Looking back at how the business application platform technology (aPaaS) from Microsoft has evolved over the years, we can trace the origins of Dataflex back to the launch of MS CRM in 2003. The platform capabilities for creating customer-specific business apps with a custom data model were added in 2005 when the concept of XRM (eXtended Relationship Management) emerged. The application layer on top of this platform evolved from Dynamics CRM to Dynamics 365, until in 2018 the XRM platform merged with Power Apps and XRM became CDS. The great thing about this long journey has been that the fundamentals of customer specific data management have been carried over to new generations of apps, thus ensuring that my first XRM custom entity created in 2007 would still be supported in Dataflex Pro today, had there been a need to keep the same application running through 13 years.
The citizen developer focused layer of app maker capabilities sold as Power Apps is now further expanding in 2020 when Microsoft Teams is becoming an even more lightweight app platform on top of the existing technology stack. Using Dataflex from within Teams does not offer app makers all the advanced functionality that the full Dataflex Pro platform contains, thanks to its roots in enterprise grade applications like CRM. Instead it is a simplified experience that is removing much of the complexity in areas like data models, security roles and environments. Microsoft wants to optimize the app creation experience in Teams to be in line with what the original collaborative purpose of the teams and channels is – so that the citizen developers can use suitable tools for their application back-end right from the start.
The obvious reason for lowering the barrier to start using the ex-CDS features in new app creation is because of the fact that the earlier default option has been suboptimal for everyone. I’m of course talking about SharePoint Lists, which have been the Power Apps data storage option not requiring any additional licenses beyond the O365 / M365 plans all users have already had. Even though there are concurrent investments being made into the newly announced Microsoft Lists, too, the path for low-code custom app creation has now been pointed towards Dataflex. It is the platform designed specifically for this purpose, whereas Lists doesn’t offer the same “no cliffs” development story from citizen developer apps to pro developer & IT managed systems.
Microsoft Teams is becoming a true app platform
Thanks to in part the strange times we’re living in 2020 righ now and the WFH trend that’s made all teamwork remote first, Microsoft Teams has skyrocketed into a true mainstream service with its 75 million daily active users. As more and more work outside just meetings and chats happens within the Teams client, it’s a logical place to also introduce new digital tools that can support asynchronous teamwork and potentially reduce the volume of meetings and calls that distract information workers. Presenting structured business data via a modern UI in the context of Teams and automating processes around it is something that organizational teams surely will have many use cases for. With Dataflex now bundled into Teams and the simplified app creation tools if offers, it’s hard to see how we would not see a sharp rise in the number of Power Apps built by business users very soon.
The professional developer story of Teams apps has been a logical model for ISVs to build commercial app products that are to be deployed across many different customer organizations. The low-code tools offered by Dataflex and Power Apps will be the mechanism through which the organization specific digital tools are likely to be developed, then distributed across the various teams within the same organization. Now that both citizen developers as well as commercial app developer companies can soon offer their solutions within the Teams app store, this can present synergies that will drive user adoption of Teams based tools in various more sophisticated and high value business processes.
How customers will be able harness the new powers that the built-in Dataflex support in Microsoft Teams presents to them will be interesting to see. An immediate result from the coming GA launch of Dataflex will likely be the explosive growth of different app environments within the tenant. Just take a look at the total number of teams that your organization has already created, then imagine X % of them getting a dedicated Dataflex environment provisioned when the power users start exploring these new tools. The growth in potential app makers is surely going to put more pressure on building a Power Platform governance model that can scale to meet the rise in environments, apps and Flows where business data is processed.
Microsoft Dataflex is the logical next step in democratizing the app building and process automation tools in Power Platform. The version included with Microsoft Teams is aimed at new app makers who want to solve business problems for their own teams, for whom the organization level admin and development capabilities in the full Dataflex Pro might be overkill. While primarily a subset of the platform capabilities behind current CDS based Power Apps and Dynamics 365 solutions, Dataflex can offer a streamlined experience for Teams users to configure data models and manage security. These new options will introduce additional solution architecture considerations for organizations who are already leveraging CDS and Power Apps today. For new customers, the Teams based entry point into the world of Dataflex will likely become a significant driver of Power Platform usage growth in many, many organizations.