Getting to grips with how to use Dynamics CRM/365 for Enterprise (D365E) is no easy feat. You can imagine just how difficult it is for an end user to get to grips with how the application works and functions; with more detailed knowledge around customisation and development being an entirely different ball game altogether. Compounding this problem further is the fact that the product has evolved at an increasingly more rapid pace over recent years, to the point where it is literally impossible to become a master of everything that you can do within CRM/D365E. Those venturing into the product for the first time may find their learning journey significantly simplified if they already have a good general knowledge about some of the underlying technology that powers CRM/D365E. This was certainly true in my case; I had a good background already in managing Office 365, writing SQL queries/reports and some experience with C#. This is all incredibly useful knowledge to have in your arsenal and is all directly applicable towards CRM/D365E in some way. For those who are getting to grips with the product for the first time, either without this previous experience or as part of an apprentice/graduate type role, your journey may not be as swift and issue-free. With this in mind, here’s my list of essential knowledge that you can add to your own “swiss army knife” of personal knowledge. Experience and good knowledge of these technologies will not only help you greatly in working with CRM/D365E, but present an excellent learning opportunity for Microsoft technologies more generally and something that you can add to your CV with pride:
What is it? : SQL Server is Microsoft’s proprietary database knowledge, based on the ANSI standard. SQL stands for Structured Query Language and is one the most widely used database programming languages on the planet.
Why Knowing It Is Useful: The underlying database technology that CRM/D365E uses is SQL Server, so having a general awareness of relational database systems work and how SQL Server differs from the standard goes a long way in understanding what is capable from a customisation/development viewpoint. For example, you can very quickly grasp which data types the application supports, as they will all ultimately be based on a supported SQL Server column data type. If you are running on-premise versions of CRM/D365E, then knowledge of SQL Server immediately moves from being a nice bonus to an essential requirement. This is because administrators will need to have good knowledge of how to manage their Dynamics CRM database instance, perform backups and also, potentially, write transact-SQL (T-SQL) queries against your database for reporting or diagnostic work.
Recommended Area of Study: Focusing your attention towards SQL Server Reporting Services (SSRS) report writing will benefit you the most. Through this, you can begin to establish good knowledge of how SQL Server databases work generally, and be in a position to write FetchXML for Online/On-Premise deployments of the application or Transact-SQL (T-SQL) based reports for On-Premise only. Having a good awareness of what is capable via a standard SQL query will also hold your good stead when working with FetchXML, as you can immediately make a number of assumptions about what is possible with FetchXML (for example, filtering results using an IN block containing multiple values and performing grouping/aggregate actions on datasets)
What is it? : Office 365 is Microsofts primary - and perhaps most popular - cloud offering for businesses, individuals or home users. Through a wide array of different subscription offers, home and business users can “pick ‘n’ mix” the range of solutions they require - from Exchange-based email accounts to licenses for Microsoft Visio/Project, through to PowerBI.
Why Knowing It Is Useful: Although it is arguable that knowledge of Office 365 is not essential if you anticipate working with on-premises versions of the application, you may be doing yourself a disservice in the long term. Microsoft is increasingly incentivising organisations to move towards the equivalent cloud versions of their on-premise applications, meaning that as much knowledge as possible of how CRM/D365E Online works in the context of Office 365 is going to become increasingly more mandatory. If you are looking to secure a career change in the near future, and have not had much experience with Office 365, then this is definitely an area that you should focus on for future learning. From a day-to-day management point of view for the Online version of the product, some basic awareness of how to navigate around and use Office 365 is pretty much essential if you are going to succeed working with the product on a day-to-day basis.
Recommended Area of Study: Spin up a D365E trial, and you can very quickly start getting to grips with how the product sits within the Office 365 “ecosystem”. Practice licensing users, configuring security group level access to your D365E trial tenant and modify the details on Office 365 user accounts to see how these details are synced through into D365E. The Microsoft Virtual Academy also has a number of general courses related to Office 365 however, due to the frequent updates, it may not always be in-line with the current version. The official curriculum/certification paths for Office 365 may also suffer the same from this but are worthwhile in demonstrating your experience and ability to integrate D365E with the various related Office 365 services.
What is it? : For the rookie, intermediate and experienced IT admins, Active Directory needs no introduction. It is essentially Microsoft’s implementation of the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP), having first being introduced in Windows Server 2000, providing a means of managing user, security and access rights for domain objects. There are now two distinct versions of Active Directory that are available - the more traditional, Windows server based, on-premise Active Directory and Azure Active Directory, which is utilised primarily by Office 365.
Why Knowing It Is Useful: User account records for both On-Premise and Online versions of CRM/D365E use Active Directory objects, with a number of important information synchronised between an Active Directory user and the equivalent User entity record. For example, as indicated in this MSDN article, the only way in which you can synchronise a user’s Job Title through to CRM/D365E is by updating the equivalent field on the Azure Active Directory. Active Directory objects are also the only way in which you can authenticate with the application via the Web Interface or other means, with no option to create a database user or other kind of authenticated user type.
Recommended Area of Study: It’s free to set up your own Azure Active Directory, so this is an excellent starting point for getting to grips with the technology. There’s also nothing preventing you from downloading a trial of Windows Server and installing the Active Directory server role on this machine. Once configured, you can then start to create users, update attributes, configure permissions and setup roles that contain collections of privileges. If you already have an Office 365 tenant with CRM/D365E Online, then you can use the Office 365 portal to manage your user accounts and test the synchronisation of attribute values from the Active Directory through to the application.
What is it? : A good way to remember what PowerShell is that it is essentially a blue command prompt window :) . Traditionally only being relevant and important for those working extensively with Windows Server or Exchange, PowerShell is now increasingly important as part of administrating on-premise CRM/D365E, Office 365 and Azure, to name a few. Indeed, one of the major shock announcements this year was that PowerShell became open sourced and can be installed on Linux; representing the increasing demand and importance of Linux-based resources within the Microsoft cloud.
Why Knowing It is Useful: Similar to SQL Server, PowerShell is something that is instantly more applicable for on-premise CRM/D365E deployments. For example, the only way to modify the default number of Dashboard items is via executing the Get-CRMSetting cmdlet against your on-premise organisation. I would also, again, argue having a general awareness of PowerShell can help greatly when performing administration work against an Office 365 tenant that contains a CRM/D365E organisation, such as user provisioning or license assignment. If you are utilising the Azure Service Bus to integrate CRM/D365E for Azure-based applications, then PowerShell immediately becomes a desirable skill to have in your arsenal, allowing you to remotely administer, deploy or update Azure resources programmatically.
Recommended Area of Study: The fact that PowerShell is now open sourced means that there is a plethora of online tools and guides to refer to, and you can be assured that you can get it working on your platform of choice. The GitHub page for PowerShell is a great place to get started. Beyond that, you have a few options about how you can practice further. If you have spun up a D365E trial, then you can choose to hook up PowerShell to Office 365 to see what you can do from a remote management perspective (such as granting Send On Behalf permissions for a shared mailbox). Alternatively, you can run it from your local Windows machine, connect it up to a Windows Server instance or attempt to create new services in Azure and experiment that way.