It was great to have an opportunity to attend (and to get involved with) the virtual Microsoft Ignite 2020 event. Typically, large-scale Microsoft events such as these would necessitate stateside travel to get involved in. But, thanks in no small part to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, Microsoft delivered Ignite as an entirely virtual event for the very first time. With a variety of sessions and announcements covering Microsoft 365, Azure and Power Platform, the event provides a great diving board into some of the new and ongoing capabilities that Microsoft are releasing for their cloud products. Having watched many of the sessions and trawled through the key announcements, I wanted to summarise my top 5 favourite things announced at the event. This list may be biased somewhat towards the Dynamics 365 Online and Power Platform side of things, to please excuse me if I’ve ignored a particularly great new Microsoft 365 feature. 🙂 Anyway, enough chitter chatter – let’s dive in!
Having spent a lot of time recently working with them, I was keen to see what changes (if any) the Azure product team announced relating to Logic Apps. Microsoft has not disappointed in this regard and, via this detailed post from Jon Fancey, there are two particular changes worth mentioning:
- New Workflow Designer: As indicated in this image, Microsoft will soon launch a new visual design experience for building out Logic Apps. The key touted benefits of this include providing a more modern experience and greater ease when modifying complex Logic Apps, that contain multiple steps, conditions and branches. Anything that can help to address the latter is incredibly welcome, so I’m looking forward to playing around with this as Microsoft starts to roll out the new experience.
- Stateless Workflows: In public preview as of now, these new types of Logic Apps will help to address scenarios where you require faster execution time for your particular workflows, but not necessarily all of the logging capability available via a traditional, stateful Logic App. The development experience for these new types of Logic Apps has been integrated rather nicely alongside Visual Studio Code, and they also leverage the updated designer experience mentioned earlier. Another essential thing to highlight with them is that they are not intended for situations where you wish to trigger your workflow, based on an action in an external system (e.g. on Create of a new record in the Common Data Service). Instead, developers must use one of the currently available built-in triggers to execute a stateless workflow. This limitation may, as a consequence, prevent them from being suitable for specific scenarios. You can find out more about them over on the Microsoft Docs site.
Paying attention to what happens with Logic Apps is not just important if you are solely Azure minded. Power Platform and, in particular, Power Automate fans should be taking notes, given that Logic Apps is one of the underlying tools powering them. These two changes, in particular, could have a significant bearing on the functionality within Power Automate as we move into 2021. Almost certainly, I would anticipate the Power Automate team to gradually replace the design experience to mirror the new experience presented in Logic Apps. We may also see some additional functionality exposed to support stateless Power Automate flows, with the same capabilities listed above. All I can say for now is, watch this space. 😉
Power Automate Desktop
Speaking of Power Automate flows, it would be remiss not to mention the launch of a new solution to assist in the development of robotic process automation (RPA) flows. In this blog post from Stephen Siciliano, we learn about the new Microsoft Power Automate Desktop application, which will allow us to build out RPA flows from within Windows 10, as opposed to in-cloud. This route may be more beneficial from a design experience, depending on the type of workflow you are trying to automate. I haven’t had much opportunity to work with the RPA capabilities within Power Automate, but the stuff on offer here sounds impressive. For example, they can allow for fully attended or unattended automation of tasks such as filling out a web form, copying files from one directory to another, querying a database or even sending an email. You can get started with this functionality by downloading the public preview of the desktop application.
Power BI Premium Per User Plans
This next one, I am REALLY looking forward to. For the longest time, some of the most appealing characteristics available within Power BI online have been locked away behind the prohibitively expensive Power BI Premium offering. The most attractive feature on offer within this version of the product has (for me at least) been paginated reports. For those coming from a SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS) background, they provide a streamlined mechanism to migrate across RDL files built using this solution and to utilise them alongside some of the more modern capabilities within Power BI. Having such a high price entry point to unlock paginated reports has been a longstanding bugbear and frustration for many of the smaller clients I work with.
The announcement on Tuesday, therefore, of some the new capabilities Microsoft will be releasing relating to Power BI was rounded off with a lovely cherry on the cake; namely, the introduction of a new Power Bi Premium Per User license. As outlined in the announcement blog post:
We are also very excited to announce Premium Per User – which provides capabilities of Power BI Premium, now on a per-user license model as a new option for customers. This addresses a key customer and community ask – to provide a lower cost entry price point to get access to Premium capabilities. Premium Per User will be available at no cost during public preview. Premium per user will be uniquely affordable and highly competitive among individual user offerings in the industry.
It is early days yet on all of this. We don’t even know, pricing-wise, how it will compare – all I know is that it will be “very competitive” compared with a Professional license. But, in terms of the key things we know for now, from this post and a follow-up Q&A article:
- Premium per user plans will include paginated reports as standard. 😁
- Total size capacity for models will be 100GB.
- There is broad feature parity between the per user and existing capacity model. The prominent absences within the new offering include multi-geo support, access to the on-premise version of Power BI, unlimited distributed and “Bring Your Own Key” (BYOK) encryption key capability. In my books, none of these would appear to be significant limitations or degradation in functionality.
So all-in-all, assuming the price point is as stated, adopting Power BI premium becomes a far easier conversation to have. The public preview for paginated reports will launch in November so, if you are interested in playing around with it yourself, sign up to the preview using this form.
Power BI Deployment Pipelines
Anyone who has spent time trying to integrate a Power BI solution alongside a Continuous Deployment / Continuous Integration (CD/CI) process will share my frustration at how complicated this process can be. Microsoft, recognising this, launched some new preview functionality a few months back, that would allow developers to manage the deployment of their solution across multiple environments efficiently. These capabilities have now gone into general availability, as announced by Nimrod Shalit on this blog post. This directly addresses a longstanding ask within the Power BI Community and sets the stage for further innovations in the months ahead. In particular and, as Nimrod notes himself, integration between tools such as Azure DevOps is currently missing; this is a feature gap Microsoft will address in future. For now, I would urge you to familiarise yourself with Power BI deployment pipelines, particularly if you are finding yourself plagued with setting up a reliable deployment process for your Power BI solution.
Microsoft Teams and Project Oakdale`
This time around, it was evident from the outset how vital Microsoft Teams would be when it came to Ignite. As the COVID-19 crisis continues unabated, tools such as this become increasingly important for remote teams to work together in a connected way. Ensuring, therefore, that applications like Teams integrate neatly alongside the other tools we use each day and support the ability for small and large teams to collaborate is vital. Thankfully, Microsoft has recognised this reality early on and have been investing heavily In Teams since the pandemic began; culminating in a raft of new feature announcements at Ignite. Some of the Teams specific functionality announced, which I’m looking forward to, include:
- New Together Mode capabilities that may help to address a lot of the video-call fatigue that a lot of us may be feeling at the moment.
- Breakout rooms for meetings, allowing organisers to set up separate “rooms” for individuals to work within, under the banner of a unified event. I can foresee this being particularly useful for conferences or training courses that will be delivered virtually for the next six months and more. This new feature should start rolling out into Teams in the next month or so.
- New meeting recap capabilities, which will consolidate all content from a meeting – it’s recording, transcript and any associated notes – into a single view, for easy access in the future. So no more trying to claim something was said at a meeting that wasn’t, as you’ll be found out very quickly. 🤣
Aside from these major announcements, it would be remiss of me not to mention the importance of the Power Platform alongside this. Regular followers of this blog should already be aware of Project Oakdale, a new low-code, application development tool, integrated alongside Microsoft Teams and utilising the core capabilities within the Common Data Service. At Microsoft Ignite, we were not only greeted to a full demonstration of this capability from Charles Lamanna but also given access to the public preview of this capability as well. To summarise, the functionality on offer is very much a “lite” version of the Common Data Service, with full support to upgrade into the “full” version, if you need to. So, for example, capabilities such as API support or the ability to use Project Oakdale apps outside of Teams will not be available. To get started with Project Oakdale, there a few steps that you need to follow:
- First, make sure that you have a qualifying Microsoft 365 Subscription and be aware of some of the general restrictions of the service.
- Within Microsoft Teams, install the Power Apps app.
- Once installed, create your first app. At this point, Microsoft Teams will provision a Project Oakdale database for you, if not already existing. Administrators can view and manage this from within the Power Platform Admin Center.
- Teams will then greet you with a designer experience similar to the online Power Apps Studio. From within here, you can model out your various Project Oakdale entities, by creating new entities, modifying them, adding new fields and creating relationships, all from within the Teams application. The experience here is very similar to how you would customise a Common Data Service entity, and this should present little difficulty in getting to grips with.
All in all, there is some nicely integrated functionality on offer here. However, take care to avoid any potential governance issues and fully understand the impact that deploying such functionality will have when it sits alongside your existing Common Data Service deployments.