As the ability to process, analyze and act upon data becomes more vital to enterprises’ lines of business, the demand for hands-on applications and tools is going up. More employees want greater hands-on ability to use tools to help with very specific aspects of their jobs. Enter low-code and no-code tools.
Low-code/no-code tools allow non-programmers to develop business workflow applications via drag-and-drop interfaces. This allows users to craft tools that reflect specific data inquiries and workflow processes; they can also integrate their low-code/no-code-crafted programs into larger business processes.
For example, using a low-code or no-code tool, a marketing professional could set up an app that automatically files a qualified lead in a customer database and then triggers a series of targeted communications if certain events happen.
Several big players in tech are now offering low-code/no-code tools tied into their cloud service offerings. We at ITPro Today will be looking at three of them. First up: Microsoft.
What is their approach?
The Redmond company’s version of low-code/no-code is Microsoft Power Apps. In fact, when you visit the main Power Apps web portal, it is tagged as their low-code approach to app development. They avoid using the moniker no-code to make it clear that some of these processes may require tweaking the underlying code that is created using the low-code approach.
What kind of interface is it?
Like other low-code solutions, Microsoft Power Apps uses a drag and drop visual style interface to initially build out an app. The determination of which data and service elements are accessible will depend on an organization’s Microsoft 365 subscription and associated services.
This will include services such as SharePoint, Excel, Office 365, Dynamics 365 and SQL Server. By connecting a low-code app to these data sources, business data in those services can be easily accessed on the go through a web interface or a mobile app by users inside and external to an organization.
Users can enable access to these data sources and services using the Connectors described below.
Do enterprises need to have existing cloud contracts or subscriptions to access the low-code/no-code tools?
According to Microsoft, Power Apps and Power Automate are included in the following subscriptions with standard connectors at no additional cost:
- Office 365 Business Essentials and Business Premium
- Office 365 Education and Education Plus
- Office 365 Enterprise E1, E3 and E5
Note: The connectors for the subscriptions listed above do not include any premium connectors. Access to those premium connectors requires the purchase of either a paid Power Apps or Power Automate Flow license. These licenses are available on a per app (maximum of two apps costs $10 per month) or per user (unlimited apps costs $40 per month) plan.
See all standard and premium connectors at the Microsoft Power Automate site.
How many app integrations/connectors are available? What are they?
The key link between building out low-code/no-code apps and bringing all that functionality into an app is a collection of more than 250 connectors and the Common Data Service (recently renamed Microsoft Dataflex).
These connectors are used to authenticate and communicate with data sources across a wide range of Microsoft 365 services. This includes sources inside and outside of your organization. Connectors and Microsoft Dataflex come in standard and custom versions that can be configured to provide secure cloud-based storage for an organizations data through Microsoft Power Apps.
Among the popular connectors there are:
- Cloud Storage: These connectors can be used to store an Excel file in any one of these cloud services and then access/update that data through a low-code app. Available cloud storage connectors include Azure blob, Box, Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, and OneDrive for Business.
- Office 365 Outlook: This connector enables a low-code app to show, send, delete and reply to email messages.
- Office 365 Users: This connector enables the viewing of user profiles across an organization using an Office 365/Microsoft 365 account. Options include listing direct reports for a specific user, listing the manager of a specific user, plus searching and retrieving user profiles.
- SharePoint: Auto-generates an app from a custom SharePoint List or displays images and plays video and audio files from a SharePoint Library.
- Twitter: Using this connector, a low-code app can post and retrieve tweets, see a user’s timeline, friends and followers from a user’s Twitter account.
The Microsoft Dataflex service is also a connector for Microsoft’s low-code/no-code platform, but it is built directly into Microsoft Power Apps. This means no need for utilizing a first- or third-party connector to access those data sources. In addition, company data accessed through the data services, the various connectors and the associated data is stored within your organization's data structure and services. Microsoft is working to make the Dataflex service connector more robust and states that it has nearly reached feature parity with the Dynamics 365 connector.
See the full list of connectors and their uses in Microsoft’s Connector Reference Overview documents.
What kind of apps can be made?
There are three broad categories of apps that fall under Microsoft’s Power Apps platform.
- Canvas Apps: These are designed by dragging and dropping elements of the app onto a blank workspace aka a canvas. These canvasses come in blank and template options with layouts for use on phones, tablets and desktops. Potential apps include onboarding tasks, help desk, budget tracking, service desk and leave request trackers.
- Model-driven: These apps start with a focus on the data model being used and by utilizing business data to automatically generate a responsive UI. Best use of this style will focus on modelling business data and defining/measuring business processes.
- Portals: This option is used to build public-facing websites that can be accessed by users inside and outside of the organization. Portals offers multiple identity options, flexible creation and viewing of data by users inside and outside the organization, and options to browse data anonymously. These flexible websites can be built out to present any business-related data that needs to be accessed based on a business or customer-driven scenario. Options in the templates for these sites include the ability to build pages with child links, titles, profiles and search.
Learn more about Microsoft Power Apps low-code/no-code capabilities in their Learning Catalog for Power Apps.
Update (August 11, 2020): Microsoft’s Dataflex service page, which is the previously announced re-branding of the companies Common Data Service (CDS) mentioned in this article, is no longer available. According to reporting by Mary Jo Foley on ZDNet, the Redmond company has run into a trademark issue with a company named DataAccess Worldwide. They currently have Dataflex registered as branding for their software since first use in 1981. With litigation pending around this trademarked name, it looks like Microsoft must do some more research before re-branding their CDS service.