The importance of segregated deployment environments for any IT application cannot be understated. Even if this only comprises of a single test/User Acceptance Testing (UAT) environment, there are a plethora of benefits involved, which should easily outweigh any administrative or time effort involved:

  • They provide a safe “sandbox” for any functionality or developmental changes to be carried in sequence and verify the intended outcome.
  • They enable administrators to carry out the above within regular business hours, without risk of disruption to live data or processes.
  • For systems that experience frequent updates/upgrades, these types of environments allow for major releases to be tested in advance of a production environment upgrade.

When it comes Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement (D365CE), Microsoft more recently have realised the importance that dedicated test environments have for their online customers. That’s why, with the changes announced during the transition away from Dynamics CRM, a free Sandbox instance was granted with every subscription. The cost involved in provisioning these can start to add up significantly over time, so this change was and remains most welcome; mainly when it means that any excuse to carrying out the bullet point highlighted above in bold immediately gets thrown off the table.

Anyone who is presently working in the D365CE space will be intently aware of the impending forced upgrade to version 9 of the application that must take place within the next few months. Although this will doubtless cause problems for some organisations, it is understandable why Microsoft is enforcing this so stringently and – if managed correctly – allows for a more seamless update experience in the future, getting new features into the hands of customers much faster. This change can only be a good thing, as I have argued previously on the blog. As a consequence, many businesses may currently have a version 9 Sandbox instance within their Office 365 tenant which they are using to carry out the types of tests I have referenced already, which typically involves testing custom developed or ISV Managed/Unmanaged Solutions. One immediate issue you may find if you are working with solutions containing the Marketing List (list) entity is that your Solution suddenly stops importing successfully, with the following error messages:

The error message on the solution import is a little vague…

…and the brain starts hurting when we look at the underlying error text!

The problem relates to changes to the Marketing List entity in version 9 of the application, specifically the Entity property IsVisibleInMobileClient. This assertion is confirmed by comparing the Value and CanBeChanged properties of these settings in both an 8.2 and 9.0 instance, using the Metadata Browser tool included in the SDK:

Here’s the setting in Version 8.2…

…and how it appears now in Version 9.0

Microsoft has published a support article which lists the steps involved to get this resolved for every new solution file that you find yourself having to ship between 8.2 and 9.0 environments. Be careful when following the suggested workaround steps, as modifications to the Solution file should always be considered a last resort means of fixing issues and can end up causing you no end of hassle if applied incorrectly. There is also no way of fixing this issue at source as well, all thanks to the CanBeChanged property being set to false (this may be a possible route of resolution if you are having this same problem with another Entity that has this value set to true, such as a custom entity). Although Microsoft promises a fix for this issue, I wouldn’t necessarily expect that 8.2 environments will be specially patched to resolve this particular problem. Instead, I would take the fix to mean the forced upgrade of all 8.2 environments to version 9.0/9.1 within the next few months. Indeed, this would seem to be the most business-sensible decision rather than prioritising a specific fix for an issue that is only going to affect a small number of deployments.

Earlier this month, a colleague escalated an issue to me involving Dynamics CRM/365 Customer Engagement (CRM/D365CE), specifically relating to email tracking. This feature is by far one of the most useful and unwieldy within the application, if not configured correctly. In days of yore, the setup steps involved could be tedious to implement, mainly if you were operating within the confines of a hybrid environment (for example, CRM 2015 on-premises and Exchange Server Online). Or, you could have been one of the handful of unfortunate individuals on the planet today that had to rely on the abomination that is the Email Router. We can be thankful today that Server-Side Synchronization is the sole method for pulling in emails from any manner of SMTP or POP3 mail servers; although note that only Exchange mailboxes support Appointment, Contact & Task synchronisation. Lucky though we are to be living in more enlightened times, careful attention and management of Server-Side Synchronization deployments is still an ongoing requirement. This is primarily to ensure all mailboxes operate as intended and – most critically – to ensure that only the most relevant emails are tagged back into the application, and not instead a deluge of unrelated correspondence.

Going back to the issue mentioned at the start of this post – a user in question was having a problem with certain emails not synchronising automatically back into the application, even though the emails in question had a corresponding Contact record within CRM/D365CE. We were also able to observe that other emails sent from the user to the Contact record(s) in question were being tagged back without issue. When first diagnosing problems like this, you can forgive yourself for not straight away making a beeline to the user’s Mailbox record within the application to verify that:

  • The Mailbox is enabled for Server-Side Synchronization for Incoming/Outgoing Email.
  • No processing errors are occurring that could be preventing emails from being successfully handled by the application.

These options can be accessed from the System Settings area of the application, on the Email tab, and define the default settings for all newly created users.

Likewise, these details can are accessible from the Mailbox record for the user concerned.

Although not likely (more often than not) to be the cause of any mail flow issues, it is worthwhile not to potentially overcomplicate a technical issue at the first juncture by overlooking anything obvious. 🙂

As we can see in this example, there are no problems with the over-arching Server-Side Synchronization configuration, nor are there any problems with the individual mailbox. It is at this point that we must refer to the following screen that all users in the application have access to via the gear icon at the top of the screen – the User Options screen:

The Track option allows users to specify how CRM/D365CE handles automatic email tracking, based on four options:

  • All Email Messages: Does exactly what it says on the tin, and is not recommended to leave on as default, for the reasons I alluded to earlier.
  • Email messages in response to Dynamics 365 Email: Only emails sent from within Dynamics 365 (or tracked accordingly via Outlook) will be stored in the application, alongside any replies that are received.
  • Email messages from Dynamics 365 Leads, Contacts and Accounts: Only emails which match back to the record types listed, based on email address, will be stored within the application.
  • Email messages from Dynamics 365 records that are email enabled: The same as the previous option, but expanded out to include all record types that are configured with the Sending email… option on the Entity configuration page.

For the user who was having email tracking issues, the default setting specified was Email messages in response to Dynamics 365 Email. So, to resolve the issue, it is necessary for the user to update their settings to either the 3rd or 4th option.

Any situation that involves detailed, technical configuration by end-users are generally ones that I like to avoid – for a few simple, business-relevant reasons:

  • IT/Technical teams should be the ones making configuration changes to applications, not end users who have not had training or experience on the steps they are being asked to follow.
  • End-users are busy, and it is always essential that we are conscious of their time and in making any interaction short and positive as opposed to long and arduous.
  • If the above instructions are relayed over the telephone, as opposed to in-person, then the propensity for mistakes to occur rises significantly.

However, from what we have seen so far, it will be necessary to access the application as the user to make the change – either by taking control of their session or by (perish the thought) relaying user credentials to enable someone in IT support to make the configuration change. Don’t EVER do this option by the way! Fortunately, there is a better way of updating user profile settings, using a tool whose importance has been highlighted in no uncertain terms previously on the blogthe XrmToolbox. One of the handiest out of the box tools that this provides is the User Settings Utility which…well…see for yourself:

As a consequence, application administrators can “magically” modify any of the settings contained within the User Options page, including – as we can see below – the Track email messages setting:

With a few clicks, the appropriate changes can be applied not just to a single user, but to everyone within the application – avoiding any potential end-user confusion and making our jobs easier. This simple fact is another reason why you should immediately launch the XrmToolBox whenever you find yourself with a CRM/D365CE issue that stumps you and why the community tools available for the application are top-notch.

I’ve gone on record previously saying how highly I rate the Dynamics CRM/Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement (CRM/D365CE) community. Out of all the groups I have been a part of in the past, you couldn’t ask for a more diverse, highly passionate and – most importantly of all – helpful community. There are a lot of talented individuals out there which put a metric tonne of effort into providing the necessary tools, know-how and support to make our daily journey with CRM/D365CE that much easier to traverse.

An excellent case in point comes from the CRM DevOps extraordinaire himself, Ben Walker, who reached out me regarding my recent post on default SiteMap areas vanishing mysteriously. Now, when you are working with tools like XrmToolbox, day in, day out, the propensity towards generating facepalm moments for not noticing apparent things can increase exponentially over time. With this in mind, Ben has very kindly demonstrated a much more simplistic way of restoring missing SiteMap areas and, as he very rightly points out, the amount of hassle and time-saving the XrmToolbox can provide when you fully understand its capabilities. With this in mind, let’s revisit the scenario discussed in the previous post and go through the insanely better approach to solving this issue:

  1. Download and run XrmToolbox and select the SiteMap Editor app, logging into your CRM/D365CE instance when prompted:

After logging in, you should see a screen similar to the below:

  1. Click on the Load SiteMap button to load the SiteMap definition for the instance you are connected to. It should bear some resemblance to the below when loaded:

  1. Expand the Area (Settings) node. It should resemble the below (i.e. no Group for Process Center):

  1. Right click on the Area (Settings) node and select Add Default SiteMap Area button. Clicking this will launch the SiteMap Component Picker window, which lists all of the sitemap components included by default in the application. Scroll down, select the ProcessCenter option. Then, after ticking the Add child components too checkbox, press OK. The SiteMap Editor will then add on the entire group node for the ProcessCenter, including all child nodes:

  1. When you are ready, click on the Update SiteMap button and wait until the changes upload/publish into the application. You can then log onto CRM/D365CE to verify that the new area has appeared successfully.

I love this alternative solution for a number of reasons. There are fewer steps involved, there is no requirement to resort to messing around with the SiteMap XML files (which has its own set of potential pitfalls, if done incorrectly) and the solution very much looks and feels like a “factory reset”, without any risk of removing other custom SiteMap areas that you may have added for alternate requirements. A huge thanks to Ben for reaching out and sharing this nifty solution and for rightly demonstrating how fantastic the CRM/D365CE community is 🙂

UPDATE 02/09/2018: It turns out that there is a far better way of fixing this problem. Please click here to find out more.

I thought I was losing my mind the other day. This feeling can be a general occurrence in the world of IT, when something completely random and unexplainable happens – emphasised even more so when you have a vivid recollection of something behaving in a particular way. In this specific case, a colleague was asking why they could no longer access the list of Workflows setup within a version 8.2 Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement (D365CE) Online instance via the Settings area of the system. Longstanding CRM or D365CE professionals will recall that this has been a mainstay of the application since Dynamics CRM 2015, accessible via the Settings -> Processes group Sitemap area:

Suffice to say, when I logged on to the affected instance, I was thoroughly stumped, as this area had indeed vanished entirely:

I asked around the relatively small pool of colleagues who a) had access to this instance and b) had knowledge of modifying the sitemap area (more on this shortly). The short answer, I discovered, was that no one had any clue as to why this area had suddenly vanished. It was then that I came upon the following Dynamics 365 Community forum post, which seemed to confirm my initial suspicions; namely, that something must have happened behind the scenes with Microsoft or as part of an update that removed the Processes area from the SiteMap. Based on the timings of the posts, this would appear to be a relatively recent phenomenon and one that can be straightforwardly fixed…if you know how to. 😉

For those who are unfamiliar with how SiteMaps work within the application, these are effectively XML files that sit behind the scenes, defining how the navigation components in CRM/ D365CE operate. They tell the application which of the various Entities, Settings, Dashboards and other custom solution elements that need to be displayed to end users. The great thing is that this XML can be readily exported from the application and modified to suit a wide range of business scenarios, such as:

  • Only make a specific SiteMap area available to users who are part of the Sales Manager Security Role.
  • Override the default label for the Leads SiteMap area to read Sales Prospect instead.
  • Link to external applications, websites or custom developed Web Resources.

What this all means is that there is a way to fix the issue described earlier in the post and, even better, the steps involved are very straightforward. This is all helped by quite possibly the best application that all D365CE professionals should have within their arsenal – the XrmToolBox. With the help of a specific component that this solution provides, alongside a reliable text editor program, the potentially laborious process of fiddling around with XML files and the whole export/import process can become streamlined so that anybody can achieve wizard-like ability in tailoring the applications SiteMap. With all this in mind, let’s take a look on how to fix the above issue, step by step:

  1. Download and run XrmToolbox and select the SiteMap Editor app, logging into your CRM/D365CE instance when prompted:

After logging in, you should be greeted with a screen similar to the below:

  1. Click on the Load SiteMap button to load the SiteMap definition for the instance you are connected to. Once loaded, click on the Save SiteMap button, saving the file with an appropriate name on an accessible location on your local computer.
  2. Open the file using your chosen text editor, applying any relevant formatting settings to assist you in the steps that follow. Use the Find function (CTRL + F) to find the Group with the node value of Customizations. It should look similar to the image below, with the Group System_Setting specified as the next one after it:

  1. Copy and paste the following text just after the </Group> node (i.e. Line 415):
<Group Id="ProcessCenter" IsProfile="false">
    <Titles>
        <Title LCID="1033" Title="Processes" />
    </Titles>
    <SubArea Entity="workflow" GetStartedPanePath="Workflows_Web_User_Visor.html" GetStartedPanePathAdmin="Workflows_Web_Admin_Visor.html" GetStartedPanePathAdminOutlook="Workflows_Outlook_Admin_Visor.html" GetStartedPanePathOutlook="Workflows_Outlook_User_Visor.html" Id="nav_workflow" AvailableOffline="false" PassParams="false">
        <Titles>
          <Title LCID="1033" Title="Workflows" />
        </Titles>
    </SubArea>
</Group>

It should resemble the below if done correctly:

  1. Save a copy of your updated Sitemap XML file and go back to the XrmToolbox, selecting the Open SiteMap button. This will let you import the modified, copied XML file back into the Toolbox, ready for uploading back onto CRM/D365CE. At this stage, you can verify the SiteMap structure of the node by expanding the appropriate area within the main SiteMap window:

When you are ready, click on the Update SiteMap button and wait until the changes are uploaded/published into the application. You can then log onto CRM/D365CE to verify that the new area has appeared successfully. Remember when I said to save a copy of the SiteMap XML? At this stage, if the application throws an error, then you can follow the steps above to reimport the original SiteMap to how it was before the change, thereby allowing you to diagnose any issues with the XML safely.

It is still a bit of mystery precisely what caused the original SiteMap area for Processes to go walkies. The evidence would suggest that some change by Microsoft forced its removal and that this occurred not necessarily as part of a major version update (the instance in our scenario has not been updated to a major release for 18 months at least, and this area was definitely there at some stage last year). One of the accepted truths with any cloud CRM system is that you at the mercy of the solution vendor, ultimately, if they decide to modify things in the background with little or no notice. The great benefit in respect to this situation is that, when you consider the vast array of customisation and development options afforded to us, CRM/D365CE can be very quickly tweaked to resolve cases like this, and you do not find yourself at the mercy of operating a business system where your bespoke development options are severely curtailed.

With two major Microsoft events recently taking place back to back over the last fortnight – Microsoft Inspire & the Business Applications Summit – there is, understandably, a plethora of major new announcements that concern those of us who are working in the Business Applications space today. The critical announcement from my perspective is the October 2018 Business Application Release Notes, which gives us all a nice and early look at what is going to be released soon for Dynamics 365, Microsoft Flow, PowerApps, Power BI and other related services. Unlike previous Spring or Fall releases, the sheer breadth of different features that now sit within the Business Applications space makes it all the more important to consider any new announcement carefully and to ensure that they are adequately factored into any architectural decisions in months ahead. If you are having trouble wading through all 239 pages of the document, then I have been through the notes and picked out what I feel are most relevant highlights from a Dynamics CRM/Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement (D365CE) perspective and their potential impact or applicability to business scenarios.

SharePoint Integration with Portals

This is a biggie and a feature that no doubt many portal administrators have been clamouring for, with the only other option being a complicated SDK solution or a third-party vendor approach. Document management directly within CRM/D365CE has always been a sketchy idea at best when you consider the database size limitations of the application and the cost for additional database storage. That’s why SharePoint has always represented the optimal choice for storing any documents related to a record, facilitating a much more inexpensive route and affording opportunities to take advantage of the vast array of SharePoint features. When you start adding portals into the mix – for example, to enable customers to upload documents relating to a loan application – the whole thing currently falls flat on its face, as documents (to the best of my knowledge) can only be uploaded and stored directly within CRM/D365CE. With the removal of this feature, a significant adoption barrier for CRM Portals will be eliminated, and I am pleased to also see an obligatory Power BI reference included as part of this announcement 🙂

In addition, we are providing the ability to embed Power BI charts within a portal, allowing users to benefit from the interactive visualizations of Power BI.

Portal Configuration Migration

Another process that can regularly feel disjointed and laborious are the steps involved in deploying Portal changes from Dev -> UAT/Test -> Production environments, with no straightforward means of packaging up changes via a Solution or similar for easy transportation. This torment promises to change as part of the release in October, thanks to the following:

To reduce the time and effort required to manage portal configuration across environments, we are publishing schema for configuration migration that works with the Configuration Migration SDK tool.

If you are not aware of the Configuration Migration tool, then you owe it to yourself to find out more about what it can accomplish, as I am sure it will take a lot of headache out of everyday business settings, product catalogue or other non-solution customisation activity that you may be carrying out in multiple environments. The neat thing about this particular announcement is that an existing, well-established tool can be used to achieve these new requirements, as opposed to an entirely new, unfamiliar mechanism. Integration with the current Configuration Migration tool will surely help in adopting this solution more quickly and enable deployment profiles to be put together that contain nearly all required configuration data for migration.

Portal Access Restrictions

In Portal terms, this is a relatively minor one, but a welcome addition nonetheless. When testing and developing any software application, it is always prudent to restrict access to only the users or organisations who require access to it. This option has not been available to Portals to date, but no longer thanks to the following announcement:

This feature would allow administrators to define a list of IP addresses that are allowed to access your portal. The allow list can include individual IP addresses or a range of IP addresses defined by a subnet mask. When a request to the portal is generated from any user, their IP address is evaluated against the allow list. If the IP address is not in the list, the portal replies with an HTTP 403 status code

The capabilities exposed here demonstrate a lot of parity with Azure Web Apps, which is, I understand, what is used to host portals. I would hope that we can see the exposure of more Azure Web App configuration features for portal administrators in the years ahead.

Multi-resource Scheduling

There has been a real drive in getting the Resource Scheduling experience within D365CE looking as visually optimal and feature-rich as possible in recent years. There is a specific reason to explain this – the introduction of Project Service Automation and Field Service capability requires this as an almost mandatory pre-requisite. There is a wide array of new features relating to resource scheduling as part of this update, but the announcement that caught my eye, in particular, was the ability to group related resources on the Resource Scheduler, as predefined “crews”. This new feature is hugely welcome for many reasons:

  • Different types of jobs/work may require resources with a specific set of skills in combination to complete.
  • It may be prudent to group specific resources if, for example, previous experience tells you that they work well together.
  • Location may be a factor as part of all this, meaning that by scheduling a “crew” of resources together within the same locale, you can reduce the unnecessary effort involved in travelling and ensure your resources are utilising their time more effectively.

The release notes give us a teaser of how this will look in practice, and I am eager to see how this works in practice:

Leave and absence management in Dynamics 365 Talent

I have been watching with casual, distant interest how the Dynamics 365 Talent product has been developing since its release, billed as one of the first applications built on top of the new Unified Interface/Common Data Service experience. I have noted its primary utility to date has been more towards the Human Resources hiring and onboarding process, with a significant feature gap that other HR systems on the market today would more than happily fill, by providing central hubs for policy documents, managing personal information and leave requests. I think there may be a recognition of this fact within Microsoft, which explains the range of new features contained within Dynamics 365 Talent as part of the October 2018 release. The new feature that best epitomises the applications maturity is the ability to manage leaves and absences, noted as follows:

Organizations can configure rules and policies related to their leave and absence plans. They can choose how employees accrue their time off, whether it’s by years of service or by hours worked. They also can configure when this time off can be taken and if certain types of time off must be taken before others. If they allow employees to get a pay-out of their time off, this can be configured as well.

Managers can see an all-up calendar view of their team members’ time off as well as company holidays and closures. This view shows them where they may have overlap as well as time-off trends for their team and enables them to drill down to gain a better understanding of an individual’s time off.

This immediately places the system as a possible challenger to other HR systems and represents a natural, and much needed, coming-of-age development for the system. I would undoubtedly say that Dynamics 365 Talent is starting to become something that warrants much closer attention in future.

Develop Microsoft Flows Using Visio

Microsoft Flow is great. This fact should be self-evident to regular followers of the blog. As a regularly developing, relatively young product, though, it is understandable that some aspects of it require further work. An excellent example of this is the ability to manage the deployment of Flows between different environments or stages. While Flows big brother, Microsoft Logic Apps, has this pretty well covered, the ability to deploy development or concepts Flows repeatedly often ends up being a case of manually creating each Flow again from scratch, which isn’t exactly fun.

The October release promises to change this with the introduction of a specific piece of integration with Microsoft Visio:

Microsoft Visio enables enterprises to capture their business processes using its rich modeling capabilities. Anyone who creates flowcharts or SharePoint workflows can now use Visio to design Microsoft Flow workflows. You can use Visio’s sharing and commenting capabilities to collaborate with multiple stakeholders and arrive at a complete workflow in little time. As requested here, you can publish the workflow to Microsoft Flow, then supply parameters to activate it.

This feature will be available to Visio Online Plan 2 subscription users. Office Insiders can expect early access in July 2018. In the future, you’ll also be able to export existing Flows and modify them in Visio.

Now, it’s worth noting, in particular, the requirement for Visio Online Plan 2 to accommodate this neat piece of functionality. But, assuming this is not an issue for your organisation, the potential here to define Flows locally, share them quickly for approval, and deploy them en masse is enormous, bringing a much-needed degree of automation to a product that currently does not support this. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on this in due course.

Custom Fonts in Power BI

Continuing the theme of obligatory Power BI references, my final pick has to be the introduction of Custom Fonts into Power BI, which will be in Public Preview as part of October’s release:

Corporate themes often include specific fonts that are distributed and used throughout the company. You can use those fonts in your Power BI reports.

For any font property, Power BI Desktop will show a complete list of all the fonts installed on your computer. You can choose from these to use in your report. When distributing the report, anyone with the font installed will see it reflected in the report. If the end user doesn’t have it installed, it falls back to the default font.

For those who have particular branding requirements that require accommodation within their Power BI Reports, this new feature completes the puzzle and takes you an additional step further in transforming your reports so that they are almost unrecognisable from a default Power BI Report. Hopefully, the preview period for this new feature will be relatively short and then rolled out as part of general availability.

Conclusions or Wot I Think

The list above is just a flavour of my “choice cuts” of the most exciting features that will be in our hands within the next few months, and I really would urge you to read through the entire document if you have even just a little passing interest in any of the technologies included in these release notes. As you can tell, my list is ever so skewered towards Portals out of everything else. This is for a good reason – ever since Microsoft’s acquisition of ADXStudio a few years back, we have seen some progress in the development of CRM Portals from Microsoft, mainly in the context of integrating the product more tightly for Online users. In my view, this has been the only significant effort we have seen in taking the product forward, with a relatively extensive list of backlog feature requests that looked to have been consigned to the recycling bin. The October Release very much seems to flip this on its head and I am pleased to discover a whole range of new, most clamoured for, features being made available on Portals, which take the product forward in strides and enables organisations to more easily contemplate their introduction.

As you will probably expect based on where things are going in the D365CE space at the moment, the announcements for Flow, PowerApps and the Common Data Service are all very much framed towards the end goal of integrating these and the “old” CRM/D365CE experience together as tightly as possible, a change that should be welcomed. The release notes are also crucial in highlighting the importance of anyone working in this space to be as multi-skilled as possible from a technology standpoint. Microsoft is (quite rightly) encouraging all technology professionals to be fast and reactive to change, and anticipating us to have a diverse range of skills to help the organisations/businesses we work with every day. There is no point in fighting this and, the best way for you to succeed in this climate is to identify the relevant opportunities that you can drive forward from these product announcements and proactively implement as part of the work you are doing each day. In a nutshell, you should know how to deploy a Power BI Dashboard, have familiarity with the type of services that Flow connects to, see the difference between a Canvas and Model-driven PowerApps and – amongst all of this – understand how D365CE solutions operate. Be a Swiss Army Knife as much as possible and deliver as much value and benefit in your role as you possibly can.