Microsoft Business Applications – Breaking Down the Landscape


From my blog analytics I am able to see the search terms that led readers to my blog. Several of these are along the lines of “What is PowerApps?”, “Difference between F&O and CE?”, “Difference between Power Platform and Dynamics 365?”, etc. I have written about some of these individually, but it seems that an overview of where they “fit” together would be helpful.

Who Are You?

This conversation would be different depending on where you are coming from. If you are an existing Dynamics 365 user, you may be trying to wrap your head around what is going on. If you are new to Microsoft Business Applications, you may just be trying to make sense of the offerings. I’ll try and cover both ends below.

Legacy

For existing customers, there is a lot of “new” that you are hearing about. Depending on how long you have been an existing customer, some of this will sound scarier than if you recently on-boarded, but change is happening fast, and either case will be impacted. Lucky for you, I won’t be going all the way back to the beginning, but we do have to step back a couple of years to understand where we are today, and why.

The Monolith

Dynamics 365, formerly known as Dynamics CRM Online, Navision and AX, is a collection of different products, each one its own monolithic construct of a business application. Since my background is on the CRM side, I will dive deeper into that, but similar things can be said for the other products. Microsoft threw all of us a curveball, when they decided to combine these three separate products into a single brand “Dynamics 365”. This change led to a lot of confusion about, “Which Dynamics 365 are you talking about? CRM or ERP?, And if ERP, which one?” The product formerly known as CRM, became “Customer Engagement”, the one formerly known as Navision, or NAV, became “Business Central”, and lastly AX became “Finance and Operations”, or F&O for short. Each of these renamed products still fell under the Dynamics 365 brand, so the confusion did not go away. You might say Microsoft jumped the gun on the renaming, but we are now seeing things come together.

The Artist formerly known as CRM

Up until very recently, within the last two years, CRM was a single product. It included Sales, Service and “Marketing” capabilities. I put Marketing in quotes as that was a fairly light capability. These three workloads were baked into a single product, built on a dedicated relational database. On top of this database was a development capability called XRM, you may not have heard the term, but this is what customers and partners used to customize and extend CRM. It is also what ISVs used to built their extensions to CRM. The launch of the new Dynamics 365 brand was more than just a name change, it heralded a new effort to separate these three workloads, from each other, and their underlying XRM platform. Why? Well, at the time it probably felt like a scheme to charge customers more, by charging them by the piece… which did happen. But that was not the long-range plan. With Version 9, this was all moved from the previous dedicated database, over to Azure. Many of you did not even feel that switch, but it was significant.

Parallel Path

While the above was going on, another effort was underway to create what is now called the Common Data Service (CDS). I’ll spare you the history on this, and fast-forward to after the decision was made to use the newly updated XRM Platform, now running on Azure, as the foundation of the Common Data Service (CDS). Why do you care? For most, CDS was another invisible thing that happened, but it was even more significant than the move to Azure. Essentially, the house you were living in got a new foundation, and new plumbing, without your even knowing it had happened. So what? Most of the rest of this, and most conversations you will hear from Microsoft today, have to do with what this new foundation and plumbing enables today.

Level-Set

Today, on the Customer Engagement (CRM) side we have what I am calling the First-party apps. You might recognize them as “Enterprise Sales”, or “Sales Professional”, or “Enterprise Service”, or “Field Service”, or “Project Service Automation”, or “Dynamics 365 for Marketing”. On the F&O side you might know them as “F&O” or “Talent”, and on the NAV side, you might know that as “Business Central”. Each of these items is an “App”. App is the new name for a “Software Program”, so don’t be intimidated, or confused by the term App, it doesn’t mean the same thing as it does on your phone. But “App” is what the cool kids are calling software today, and Microsoft is just keeping up with the cool kids terminology. I’ll get into the other meanings of Apps, in a minute. So when you hear someone refer to the “Enterprise Sales App”, they are referring to what you used to know of as the Sales capabilities of CRM: Leads, Opportunities, Contacts, Accounts, etc.. See… not scary.

Now for Scary

You have probably been hearing a lot of noise about this “Power Platform” thing. WTF is that? Is it Dynamics, or CDS, or something else? The answer is yes, yes and yes. The “Power Platform” is a new name that refers to three products: Power BI, PowerApps and Microsoft Flow. I can feel you squirming a little, so let’s break this down and see how they fit in. Let’s start with CDS. The Common Data Service, is the dream of every platform company, coming to life. The idea that all of you business data sits in a single place, accessible from any, or all of your applications. Not just Microsoft applications, but any application, even Salesforce, for example. It is still coming together, but already is making huge changes in how we think about business and other applications. Let’s crack them open one by one so you see how they fit.

CDS

The Holy Grail is within reach. Imagine a single database… I can probably stop right there as that is amazing itself. But this particular database ingested data from more than just one application in a silo. Instead, it was the central repository for data, from potentially hundreds of sources, all things that you use today. CRM data? Sure, but also ERP data, and also data from many other potential sources, like Buffer, or Facebook or any other source in this growing list. That not only would be amazing, but it is amazing today, and it’s only the beginning. CDS sits underneath your CRM application (Sales App) for example, by default, if that is all you do, you are good to go, no real changes there. Not Scary. But now you have the plumbing to do much more, at your own pace, as you see value.

Power BI

Power BI has been around longer than PowerApps or Microsoft Flow, so many people will be familiar with it. Power BI is the Business Intelligence engine that can be used to create highly targeted interactive visualizations of the data that you have accumulated in CDS. This can also be mashed up with data from other sources. Imagine your Sales Dashboard on steroids. Again, optional, you don’t have to use it, but you can. So… not scary.

PowerApps

This one is a little complicated, but is the most valuable to everyone. PowerApps originally launched as a mobile app building application for what are called “Canvas Apps”. They are called “Canvas” because a user with no code knowledge, could build a mobile app by dragging and dropping things onto a “Canvas”, similar to PowerPoint. If Microsoft had stopped right there, the PowerApps story would have been pretty simple to understand… but they did not. A new capability was added to PowerApps called the Model-Driven PowerApp. What the hell is that? Read this one closely as the ball moves from cup to cup pretty quickly.

Model-Driven PowerApps

So, if you recall from above, I referred to the XRM platform as the tool used to customize CRM, and build extensions or ISV solutions on it. This is Model-Driven PowerApps! If you have used the customize button in Dynamics 365 for Customer Engagement, you have used what is now called Model-Driven PowerApps. You may have even noticed “PowerApps” in the header of the solution explorer. Another way to look at it, is the Enterprise Sales App for example, as a big ole PowerApp. See… not scary.

Some More Scary

There is where Microsoft Business Solutions were, where they are today, and where they are heading. Parts of the road are finished, and parts are still under construction, and you may see some of that as you work with the products. The Solution Explorer is one area that is undergoing a shift, as well as a transformation. I know, scary. But so far, I have not seen anything new, that had me pining for the old tools. Like everything new, there is a learning curve, but it is not steep. So… not too scary.

Why Do All of This?

I am sure that many of you are thinking, “I was fine with what it was”. But, what it was, was not only a legacy application, it was not positioned for the future. At one time in the past, what you are using today was considered the future, from where you were at the time. We’re back there again… back to the future. No software product, or business for that matter, can stand still in one position for long. Those that tried, were overtaken. Microsoft has no interest in being “that guy”. While trying their best to accommodate your appetite for change, and not forcing it on you, there will be scenarios where there is no choice. “For the Good of the Many” and all. However, if you have an appetite to advance beyond your peers, Microsoft Business Applications today is an “all-you-can-eat” buffet.

Let me know in the comments, if I helped clear things up, or if I now have you thoroughly confused.

Steve Mordue MVP

Steve Mordue, a Microsoft Business Applications MVP, is the CEO of Forceworks, a 2014 Microsoft Partner of the Year. Steve started his business applications consulting career in 2001, originally supporting Salesforce.com as a Certified Consultant. Steve transitioned his consulting practice to Dynamics CRM, (now Dynamics 365) in 2011. Steve has been engaged in hundreds of deployments over the course of his career. As one of the leading Microsoft Business Application Consultants, recognized by Microsoft as an expert, Steve has provided training, on behalf of Microsoft, to other Microsoft Partners globally on how to launch and build successful practices. Steve is a member of the Worldwide Dynamics Partner Advisory Council, and is a frequent presenter and panelist at global Microsoft events. The opinions shared in this blog are Steve's alone. If you are looking for Microsoft confidential information, you will not find any here.

3 Responses

  1. Laura says:

    Thanks Steve, this article helps me to understand all the jargon I’ve read lately. Where does Flow seats in the Power Apps picture?

  2. Christian Kaefer says:

    Great write-up and very helpful in understanding the MS “platform”.

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