Dynamics 365 – CDS for non-Techies

I happens much more often lately. The Microsoft Business Solutions Team releases a bunch of brand new stuff in a huge wave. As I watch partners, including ourselves, attempt to wrap our heads around these new concepts, I can’t help but wonder… if the top partners are confused, how does the typical customer have any chance of understanding?  CDS is a good, and important, example, so I thought I would take a stab at a layperson’s explanation.

It is What it is

First, you should understand that we are never going back to the good ole days, where software advances seemed slower and more predictable. Moore’s Law is in full effect in our new cloud world. The technology advancement rate has hit the Tesla Ludicrous button, and it can never be disengaged. As a partner you will never be “caught up” again; and as a customer, it’s hopeless. New capabilities that you just deployed last year, are already outdated. Two weeks from now, this post will probably be old news.

Is that Good or Bad?

That depends on you. In the last decade we watched “competitive advantage” shift from an exclusive facet of Enterprise, to something wrestled over by smaller companies who embraced field-leveling technologies like… websites. Sure, that was mostly public-facing marketing level stuff, but in more recent years we have seen actual operational capabilities follow that path. Most of the historical advantages of size alone, are under attack. It is not lost on me; the irony that huge organizations like Microsoft, Amazon and Google, are actually creating the tools to compete with huge organizations.

“I thought this post was going to explain CDS?”

Oh yeah. Sorry about that. I know I can sometimes ramble off on tangents, like for example, I was looking at the new workflow engine… “STEVE!”. Okay, fine, CDS for dummies. But first, I will have to go back a little bit, and you will just have to deal with that.


“Dynamics” is a brand name of Microsoft’s. Similar to “Office”, Dynamics is a category of products, but instead of Word, Excel and PowerPoint, Dynamics includes things like “Customer Engagement” (which we used to call CRM), “Finance and Operations” (which we used to call AX), the new “Business Central” (which we used to call NAV). Also under this umbrella are some newer things like Talent, Marketing, Field Service and Project Service. In addition, there are some old things that still fall under the Dynamics umbrella like GP and SL. Recently, some brand new things like PowerApps have been pulled into the tent. And of course, this entire mish-mosh recently got a new name: “Dynamics 365”.

It is not surprising that partners and customers struggle to follow the balls under all the cups. While partners have long understood that most of these things did not actually talk to each other, at least not without help, customers have long assumed that they did. The introduction of “Dynamics 365” as a unifying brand, further led customers to conclude that Dynamics 365 was one great big thing. But it is not, instead it is a collection of several things, many of which do not talk to each other as assumed. In fact, many of these things are not even built on the same technologies. Partners, who may be very proficient with one thing, have no understanding whatsoever of another thing. Part of Microsoft’s over-arching goal with the unified name, was to push partners to become cross-functional. But partners don’t always behave, or respond to suggestions, even when on the surface, they seem like obvious paths. Customers don’t behave either.

While not giving up on the goal of the “Cross-Functional Partner”, Microsoft has to concede that this effort will take some time. So what are the options? Well, first of all, you have these products that run on different platforms, with different codebases and different ways to extend and customize. As an outsider you might think the answer is obvious. Pick One! In fact, James Phillips, the new leader of Business Solutions for Microsoft, had similar thoughts. But that ship had sailed a long time ago. Each of these products has decades of development behind them and millions of lines of code. Yeah, we’re not tossing all that and starting over. To say nothing about the zillions of customers who are already using them. But something needs to be done…

“Hey, I got an Idea”

So, I have no inside knowledge about how this came about, but my imagination has concocted a possible scenario. In a high-level meeting to discuss options, someone (I assume a woman) says; “So the real issue is that we want these applications to talk to each other easily right? Maybe instead of looking at it from the top down, we should look at it from the bottom up. What do all of these applications have in common? They each run on top of a database. What if that was the same database?” Someone else (I assume a man) says: “That will never work”. To which the woman replies: “Why not”.  Why not indeed. The man says: “We already went down that road with “Project Green” and it didn’t work.” The woman says: “It didn’t work, or we didn’t finish it?”. The man is silenced (Can you tell I’m married yet?). One thing I have learned in my time on this planet, is that women ultimately make all of the decisions, usually as a result of their uncanny ability to make men think it was their idea.

CDS 1.0

CDS is an acronym (no surprise there, it is Microsoft) for Common Data Service. Basically it means a Single Database, hmm, I wonder where that idea came from? Anyway, harkening back to when I first learned about databases, as I’m sure many of us old timers did, it was the file cabinet analogy. You might have three file cabinets along the wall, one for Customer Orders, one for Vendor Purchases and another for say, Workorders. From three feet away, they look the same. Open the drawers, and they each have a row of folders in them… still the same. Pull out a folder and they each have a bunch of forms in them… still the same. Look at the forms and they share a lot of the same information, Customer name, etc. It isn’t until you look across the forms that you see the differences. One way to have solved this would be to make one long form that includes everything that is on each form. But 6′ wide file cabinets are not available. In a database, we do not have the same physical restriction. A record in a database could be a virtual mile long. In this mile could be everything that the CRM system is doing, as well as everything an ERP system is doing. And interestingly, a lot of these things are the same, so they can both just share those parts. So CDS 1.0 was this idea of a new mile-long database, a common database that the products could share.

CDS 2.0

So, again, I am imaging this scenario. The team is feverishly working on creating this brand new unifying database. And someone (Again, I am sure it was a woman) says: “Is there some reason that we are building a brand new database, instead of just picking one of the existing ones, and extending that?” Someone else (I assume a man) says: “That will never work”. To which the woman replies: “Why not”. So, of course, they survey their existing databases for these platforms, and one in particular stands out… the one under CRM. Again, databases are essentially all the same thing, so why pick the CRM one? Mainly because that one had a platform on top of it that was more flexible than the others… the XrM platform. What the hell does that mean? That’s going to require a whole other post, but take my word for it, it was a good choice.

What does it all Meeaan?

Well, basically what it means is that the assumptions that many customers have had, are about to become a reality. The products will not just talk to each other, they will share the same data. A customer record in your CRM, is the same one that the ERP will use. There is no synchronizing two different databases, it’s just the same one. You don’t have to be a developer to understand the value in that. But Microsoft is not stopping there. This whole “single database” idea changes everything, and opens the door to a whole slew of new possibilities.

In a future post, I will talk about one of those new possibilities, PowerApps. But for now, my wife was told me that I need to stop writing and go to the mall with her… and I think that’s a great idea! Wait… what?

One Comment

  1. Jens Glathe

    Well, the details on CDS are still pretty scarce to say the least. It could be a be-all, end-all solution. It could be a never-ending nightmare, too. As of now, I’m just watching what happens next. I’ve seen too much of the shape-shifting of functionality in the core application vs. lots of logic in interfaces (that nobody cares to write, because doing it right is the hard part, especially when the base is still shape-shifting… agile and all that) in recent years. It seems to be a constant tale of overpromise, underdeliver, and it is tiresome.

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