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The first new component of the upcoming Dynamics 365 platform that has reached a stage of public preview is the Microsoft Common Data Model (CDM). Available via PowerApps, CDM can be provisioned in your Office 365 tenant with only a few clicks, so there’s little reason for not having a look an early look at it. In fact, you only need to sit back and relax while watching CRM MVP Scott Durow walk you through a first look at the Common Data Model:
So, there you have it! That’s what CDM looks like when accessed via the PowerApps web management UI. Any questions?
Yeah, I actually do have a couple.
How will this work with CRM and AX?
What we have available in the preview is pretty much the most straightforward part of the very big puzzle to put together, meaning a database on Azure with some preconfigured tables and data model management tools. We do not yet know much about how the Dynamics CRM and Dynamics AX functionality will be linked to CDM as part of the Dynamics 365 cloud platform, so there’s plenty room for speculation, which honestly is mostly what I’m about to do here. In a way I’m just continuing on the theme of my previous post about Dynamics 365 and its potential implications for XRM, to pass the time as we wait for Microsoft’s plans to be revealed in more detail.
Right now the only way to push data into CDM is a Flow. If you’ve ever played with automation tools like IFTTT or Zapier, then you’ll quickly grasp the idea of Microsoft Flow. The application itself shouldn’t be underestimated just because of its current simplistic demo scenarios that usually are along the lines of “when a new row is added to a SharePoint list, send an email to this address”. Built on top of Azure Logic Apps, there’s actually a next generation BizTalk type of cloud integration platform under the hood, which should provide plenty of future potential for advanced messaging solutions to orchestrate business processes across a number of different systems.
Once Dynamics 365 Enterprise arrives and gives us the features of CRM and AX in one seamless cloud environment, there’s naturally going to be a need for something a lot more than a “build your own” type of Flow integration. Keeping the Sales and Operations apps of D365 in sync with the customer and transaction data managed in the process of making an delivering a sale involves a fair amount of business logic. If you’ve ever designed and developed a custom integration for this type of a scenario, you’ll know the requirements can quickly grow a bit hairy. Assuming Microsoft can come along and say “we’ll take care of that hairy part, don’t you worry about it” then who could resist it?
The reason CDM exists is that there will be more than one physical database in the Dynamics 365 suite. It’s not all XRM, which means you can’t find the Operations app entities inside your CRM solution files. For the business processes to work seamlessly, someone needs to keep those database closely in sync with one another. From reading through the Common Data Model tutorials, we can see that at least as of now, Flow is not the system that can handle it:
“Today, when you use Microsoft Flow to import data or export data, it is not a full synchronization service. Whenever an object is added to one service, it will be imported into the other system. However, that means if an object is deleted from one system it will not be deleted in the other system.”
So, the sync part is still in the “To Be Implemented” bucket. So is security, since the passing of a record from CRM to CDM via Flow will not carry over any details about who should have the rights to do some CRUD work on it. Again, it may not sound like such a mission impossible to build. However, if you’ve ever faced the requirement in a Dynamics CRM project to implement SharePoint document library integration with account records that includes not just linking the folders but also enforcing the account access rights on the documents, you’ll know the struggle is real. Sure, a collaboration solution like SharePoint has very different security concepts than a system designed for structured business records management like CRM or ERP. But if Microsoft hasn’t been able to offer OoB synchronization of access rights across Dynamics CRM and SharePoint despite of the clear business demand for it, maybe we’d be foolish to expect that it will all be seamless inside the Dynamics 365 world either.
The thing here is that unless the solution provided by Microsoft is going to be fairly advanced, it might not be an actual solution. It’s like the old saying from the dawn of the internet:
Some people, when confronted with a problem, think “I know, I’ll use regular expressions.” Now they have two problems.
When confronted with the need to integrate processes across two different cloud business applications, there’s always the danger of someone rushing into thinking “I know, I’ll build a database in the middle to unify the process data”. So we end up with three cloud business applications… Now, I’m not saying that Microsoft wouldn’t have the type of application architecture masterminds working on the Dynamics 365 platform that can solve these complex problems when developing a new product. I’m just afraid that things may still turn out a bit more complex in reality than the marketing pitch for the new product launch might lead people to believe.
What limitations will this impose on customization?
Have you heard about this brand new thing called “Dynamics 365” yet? If you attended or followed the WPC 2016 conference, I bet you have, since it was the big headline news for Microsoft’s partners and corporate customers that kicked off their FY17. Satya Nadella spent a significant part of the WPC keynote explaining how Dynamics 365 is the service through which his vision of reinventing business processes comes to life. So, obviously there’s got to be some big things packaged into this new offering. But putting the visions aside for a moment, what exactly does this service contain in practice?
In short, Microsoft Dynamics 365 is both the same old and brand new when it comes to the underlying components. As presented by many of the tech news sites, essentially Dynamics 365 is about taking the previous Dynamics CRM & ERP products and bundling them into a single cloud service. Comparing it to “the other 365”, meaning Office, it’s not an entirely different approach than taking established server applications like SharePoint & Exchange and making them easier to purchase via a single Office 365 plan. While the name is different and the tools to administer the applications are specific to the subscription service, beneath the portal there are many of the same bits as you could have on your own servers, too. In the case of Dynamics 365, you’ll be mostly getting the latest versions of CRM and AX/NAV from the Microsoft cloud.
“Ok, so we’ll have a new SKU to purchase Dynamics products from the cloud. A bit like the earlier bundles for Sales Productivity then, where you bought CRM, Office 365 and Power BI for a discounted price. Got it, can I now go back to chasing nearby Pokémons with my phone ’cause I’d really want to catch them all?” Well, if you ask me, I think you should look a bit deeper into the Dynamics 365 story to understand how it really will impact CRM as a product as well as the ecosystem around it. I too was initially a bit skeptical about this whole thing when reading the first press release from Microsoft, but the more I’ve investigated the pieces of information available at this early stage, the more I’ve started to believe that what we have here isn’t a mere product marketing stunt but rather the next major chapter in the story of Microsoft Dynamics applications.
One year ago when Microsoft announced that they were going to tear down the silo of MBS (Microsoft Business Solutions) and merge Dynamics product teams into C+E (Cloud and Enterprise), Nadella said he wanted to “enable the company to accelerate ERP and CRM work and bring it into the mainstream C+E engineering and innovation efforts.” It took a while before saw what this “mainstreaming” really means, but I believe Dynamics 365 is the major output from this process that started with the restructuring. It is elevating the Dynamics product offering from being just an app you can order via the Office 365 portal and turning it into a proper destination of its own.
Back when I was starting my first gig as a Dynamics CRM consultant in 2010, I distinctly remember the day after I had returned home from the Convergence conference in Prague. I was about to sign the contract with my new employer and was riding in a cab with my boss to be, catching up on the latest tweets (with my Windows Mobile 6.0 device and whatever apps we had back then). I came across Microsoft’s announcement of Office 365 and said to him “have you heard about this already, might be kind of a big deal for the business”. Well, the business of my upcoming employer was largely about hosted MS business applications and it turned out to a big deal indeed, as the rationale for offering local CRM or Exchange instances eroded much faster than most service providers were willing to understand – let alone for them to adapt to this new reality.
How I see this relate to the recent Dynamics 365 announcement is that when you stop to think about the tools we work with these days, it’s not just about the cloud as a delivery channel. If it were enough for the customer organizations to just use their business applications via a browser, from a server environment managed by someone other than your own IT department, then we’d still probably be happily working in the BPOS era of application servers hosted by “someone out there”. In reality, it rarely is about the servers or even the server application bits. It’s about services: how they can be consumed and how information flows between them. Sure, someone of course needs to set up the services, but once that problem has been solved (e.g. Dynamics CRM Online removing the need for manually installing customer specific CRM instances) it’s time to start solving problems higher up in the value chain. This, I believe, is what Microsoft is aiming to achieve with Dynamics 365. Making it more than just the sum of its parts, by lowering the barriers between the apps and encouraging customers to build solutions that consist of a network of apps – from MS and ISVs. The new AppSource portal is therefore a very important part of the Dynamics 365 story (even though at launch time it’s not yet that much better than the infamous Dynamics Marketplace).
Front to the Back with Dynamics 365
Once launched later this year, Dynamics 365 will be available as two editions. The Enterprise Edition will be made up of Dynamics CRM modules and Dynamics AX, whereas the Business Edition is being built on top of Project Madeira (brand new cloud version of Dynamics NAV, from what I know). Details about the pricing haven’t yet been disclosed, but at WPC there were slides shown that outline the different plans that the Enterprise Edition will offer. Since the Business Edition is clearly a lot more “work in progress” at this stage, and because it might not even contain any of the Dynamics CRM functionality (if I read the WPC materials correctly), it’s best for us to focus on analyzing the Enterprise Edition.
Looking at it from a CRM perspective, the platform formerly known as Dynamics CRM is being broken down into smaller modules that can be purchased separately. We’ve already seen how the recent CRM Online enhancements like Project Service and Field Service have been introduced as separately licensed modules (and their trials are now distributed via AppSource), but with Dynamics 365 this will be taken even further. A sales user can be assigned only a license to the “Sales app”, rather than needing a “CRM Online Professional” license to manage their opportunity pipeline. Even without knowing the price points for per app licenses in Dynamics 365, it’s easy to see that the barrier for consuming application features from the cloud will be lower when you can only select what you want. In the on-premises world the traditional “all you can eat” model of Dynamics CRM licensing probably made sense, but if Microsoft now has the option to make their cloud service available in various different shapes and sizes, why wouldn’t they?
Even though there will be more individual apps to choose from, the main value proposition of Dynamics 365 is in the possibility of making the whole end to end business process visible to the users. Traditional licensing silos between the front office CRM system and the back office ERP system have often led to scenarios where employees need to ask another employee to check information from a system they can’t access – or needing to work with limited snapshots or static reports rather than the real-time dynamic data from the business application. Microsoft surely recognizes this as a great opportunity to move customers gradually away from using legacy ERP systems by offering a cloud platform where the licensing model is no longer determined by the server application barriers but rather the workloads of the users. The Enterprise Edition contains a “Dynamics 365 for Team Members” plan that covers read rights to each and every application, from marketing to operations (the ERP part), which specifically addresses the information silo issue.
How Can It Actually Work?
Knowing that all the CRM and ERP applications under the Microsoft Dynamics umbrella have been completely separate products with little in common when it comes to architecture, how is Microsoft going to turn these into a single business application platform all of a sudden? Well, that is the billion $ question to which we don’t yet have an exact answer, but let’s speculate a bit while we await for it.
Microsoft has announced that underneath the Dynamics 365 apps there will be a platform layer called Common Data Model. On the official Microsoft Dynamics blog this CDM is described with the following words:
The common data model is a cloud-resident business database, built on years of experience with our enterprise customers. It will come with hundreds of standard business entities spanning both business process (Dynamics 365) and productivity (Office 365). The standardization and consistency of schema enables partners to build innovative applications and to automate business processes spanning the entire business process spectrum with confidence their solutions can be easily deployed and used across Microsoft’s entire customer base.
Hmm, okay, so there’s at least going to be a new database in addition to the application specific databases of CRM and AX, as we can see from the Dynamics 365 architecture image below. The promise of a “standardized, consistent schema” also implies that at least the OoB entities will be connected across CRM and AX without any additional configuration effort required. Now, how exactly the integration of custom entities can be configured, or how the platform will handle the business logic involved in each connected app is something that isn’t very clear at this point.
Surprisingly enough, the most detailed information about CDM was first released not via the Dynamics product blogs but on the Power Apps blog. The post PowerApps and the Microsoft Common Data Model gives us the first practical view into what functionality the CDM part of the platform is expected to deliver. Some examples:
- CDM will encompass not only CRM and AX but also the data model of productivity apps like Outlook.
- CDM will include complex data types like address and auto-numbering.
- CDM will contain features familiar to CRM admins, like field level security and auditing.
Once the CDM Preview arrives in August we’ll hopefully get to explore the contents and functionality of this data model via the PowerApps Studio at least, even though Dynamics 365 itself will probably arrive a bit later. On another PowerApps blog post, it was announced that there will be a Dynamics 365 specific SDK, which should be launched in preview mode before the year ends.
Why does the PowerApps team work so actively in bringing this information available? There’s a simple explanation: PowerApps, Power BI and Flow are a fundamental part of the Dynamics 365 product offering. They are included in the Enterprise Edition plans and they form the new business application platform that supports the 365 apps on top of them – to the extent that there is now even a dedicated site to describe the capabilities of these three products.
Since business process orchestration is fundamentally a cross-application domain, it makes a lot of sense that you don’t only rely on the workflow process engines found inside applications like CRM. Also, if you’ve tried to leverage these three tools with current Dynamics CRM Online application, it soon becomes obvious that working with the relational data and specific data types of CRM is not where Power BI, PowerApps or Flow currently excel. Therefore what CDM as part of Dynamics 365 can offer for the business process orchestration tools to make the interaction easier is surely very welcome.
Farewell to On-prem
All of this you see coming available for Dynamics 365 is exclusive to the Microsoft cloud. Period. While you could of course take many of the individual technologies like Dynamics CRM and build custom integrations to your own servers, a single commercial offering licensed and managed by Microsoft will not become available for that environment.
In the past Microsoft has been using the “power of choice” as an argument on why investing in Dynamics CRM technology is a safer choice than going with a cloud-only platform like Salesforce. Six years ago when CRM Online was launched that certainly was an important benefit of the MS stack. Even though the business world is a lot more “cloud ready” today, there still are many scenarios where a service hosted outside the borders of the customer’s country is not a valid option. Nevertheless, the power of choice isn’t such a clear differentiator anymore if pretty much everyone is making the same choice. For those organizations who are able to move ahead at the speed of cloud, there just has to be a fast track available. Sure, CRM Online has already been developing at a faster release cadence than CRM on-prem, but with Dynamics 365 the ties are officially cut now.
It isn’t a completely new situation, even within the Dynamics product family. From what I know about Dynamics AX, the latest “AX 7” version has been designed not only as a “cloud first” but pretty much “cloud only” approach. The application architecture has been heavily redesigned and now relies on services from Azure, so it’s not something you could ever install on a Windows Server. The strategy for on-premises support is based on the Azure Stack product, which will allow customers to run a version of the same services on their very own servers. (In related news, the Azure Stack release plans have recently been revised: it won’t arrive for another year yet and it will require specific hardware when it finally does.)
Does the announcement of Dynamics 365 mean that no investment will be made to on-premises Dynamics products anymore? No, at least according to the official statement from Microsoft. CRM, AX and NAV, meaning the in-house application layer of Dynamics 365, will continue to be developed, sold and supported. For example, AX 2012 will be supported until 2021 which gives some indication about the expectations Microsoft has on when existing on-prem ERP customers would really be able to adopt the new cloud offering of Dynamics 365. I bet that the hybrid scenarios will be taken into consideration as well when driving the adoption of the 365 cloud service.
Still, if you’re looking for the latest Microsoft product innovations and integrating your business applications with the coolest new services, it’s hard for me to see how remaining in the on-prem land would be a viable option anymore. While new server versions will still keep on coming, having a new product feature that doesn’t require you to be running Dynamics 365 is probably going to become an exception rather than a rule. Already many of the latest CRM Online features have been built on Azure based services (offline sync for mobile, Relevance Search, machine learning in product recommendations) and the 365 cloud platform is going to make it even easier for MS to hook these things up to their business apps. The gap is just going to grow wider and wider.
What Will Happen to XRM?
Looking at the Dynamics CRM application specifically, there’s been a reasonably good parity between the Online and on-premises editions when it comes to the core XRM platform features. With all of these new integration points and platform layers now being developed for weaving together the complete Dynamics 365 service, it raises the question of whether the “core” really is inside XRM anymore or is it being actively replaced by something completely different?
While I don’t think Dynamics 365 signals the death of XRM, it certainly does give a clear indication about how it is positioned in Microsoft’s new business application platform architecture. It’s what the individual apps are still built on (sales, project service, field service, portals, Voice of the Customer and so on) but it may not deliver the full user experience anymore. The users may interact with data through a purpose built PowerApp rather than the standard CRM client apps. The business process automation may jump across different apps via Flow, with CRM workflows handling only a part of it. The process metrics will frequently be monitored and analyzed with Power BI charts and not the CRM dashboards. I don’t think the 365 platform will overnight replace too many of the traditional XRM features, but it will undoubtedly set a boundary for feature development at Microsoft’s end if the new capabilities could be leveraged also outside the XRM apps.
The arrival of a Dynamics 365 SDK means that the wider ecosystem of partners and service providers who wish to connect with customer organizations using Dynamics 365 may well choose to integrate their apps via this new API and not the XRM specific Web API, as modern and RESTful as it might be. Without knowing the exact services available in 365 it’s of course impossible to say yet what functionality would move to the CDM part of the platform, but since the whole point of CDM is to make it easier to connect cloud apps together, that’s where much of the development effort will naturally gravitate towards. Extending a specific 365 app like Sales with new UI level functionality will surely still require XRM developer skills, similarly as modifying the Operations app’s logic requires knowledge of X++ (the programming language for AX). Now, if you’re an XRM developer with no experience of AX, imagine being tasked with building a custom feature that needs to talk with both the Sales and Operations apps. Would you rather dive right in to learning X++ or start by exploring the common 365 platform SDK instead? Exactly. That’s how our solution design practices get disrupted: first gradually, then suddenly.
Honestly, the direction that Microsoft appears to be taking with Dynamics 365 makes perfect sense to me, and I see it as a brighter future for Dynamics CRM to be a part of this cross-application business platform – rather than a self-sustained “any relationship management” toolkit. No matter how awesome it is, XRM can’t do it all. It could certainly use a lil’ help in certain areas where Microsoft has more advanced tools available. If the new platform gives a wider set of options for me when designing solutions for customers then sign me up for it! Even if the administration experience or depth of functionality may not be on quite the same level when working with a set of connected applications sitting on top of CDM rather than a single XRM solution, it’s probably a price worth paying in the long run.
Dynamics 365 explains a lot of the shortcomings with the current pieces of the MS cloud puzzle. Like: why must Power BI try and consume the CRM Online data via the slow OData endpoint when Microsoft could surely open up a shortcut between their two clouds? Well, here you go! The answer is that instead of taking the easy way out, a brand new Azure based architecture has been designed to support the current and future needs of CRM and other cloud business apps. It’s impossible for us outsiders to know all the different dependencies that the Dynamics 365 product strategy has had on the CRM feature roadmap, but it’s easy to imagine quite a few of them. I’m not expecting the floodgates to open with the initial release of Dynamics 365 this fall (more likely it’s a preview than a fully baked V2 platform), but I do expect the pace to pick up as the new strategy is executed on the commercial delivery side.
How we’ll be able to transition an existing organization from Dynamics CRM Online to Dynamics 365 and connect to the Common Data Model is going to be a big question. I’m not worried about the application functionality really, as it might well be just a simple CDU experience of upgrading to the latest version. On the data model side, If there are some “best practices” implemented in CDM that don’t align with the customer specific entity model and attributes, then some refactoring of the existing CRM solutions may well be needed. While there may not be an immediate need to switch over, in the long run I expect there to be a number of services that target CDM specifically which cannot be used with a “legacy” CRM Online environment. As funny as it sounds, we may have indeed reached a point in the Dynamics CRM lifecycle where even the cloud based environments need a bit of a “reboot” to reach the next generation business application platform compatibility.
It’s Always a Journey
If we look at the history of Microsoft’s CRM software starting from 13 years back and analyze how the platform has evolved over time, we can see that up until the past couple of years, the progress made has been fairly product focused. Setting aside the app vs. platform debate on what the product is really about, the core package of what a Dynamics CRM server does has remained the same on a high level since the start, and I’d assume the story on the ERP side isn’t radically different either. It’s the world around it that has transformed into something quite different, and it’s this interface with the outside world of other apps and services where the most exciting stuff is happening.
On the product code base level, Microsoft tried to merge their in-house CRM with the four acquired ERP products already over a decade ago with Project Green. As we now know, this never resulted in any “One Microsoft Dynamics” type of a platform nor new products being brought to market. When Satya Nadella (CVP of MBS at that time) was asked about why the ambitious initiative appeared to have stalled in 2007, his response was “we don’t have the goal of just convergence for convergence’s sake”. I can believe that while technically not an impossible task, there just wasn’t a clear enough business benefit for the customers to make them want to move into a single code base product merged from five existing applications, knowing how disruptive the migration could have been for their day to day operations. Fast forward ten years to the Dynamics 365 announcement and the business case now looks a lot more solid in this cloud era. Although the initial release of Dynamics 365 this fall is likely to be more of a preview than a fully functioning business application platform, it will already be a lot further in terms of visible platform harmonization than what Project Green achieved.
While it’s easy to label almost anything in the IT business these days as “digital transformation”, there are quite a few signs that Microsoft is serious about aligning their set of different cloud products into a comprehensive toolkit for companies wanting to build and operate those digital business processes. How transformative will the end results be is something that we’ll see in time as the Dynamics 365 platform materializes. Whatever happens, Surviving CRM will be there to report on the progress of this journey!
For a summary of what other community members have shared around the Dynamics 365 announcement and sessions from WPC, please have a look at this Sway presentation I’ve compiled from the #Dynamics365 tweets:
A few weeks ago I launched a demo survey built on Voice of the Customer, the brand new survey tool from Microsoft. The goals I had for this exercise were twofold: 1) see how these type of interactive tools could be used in live events like eXtremeCRM 2016 Warsaw, and 2) gain some experience on what it is actually like to work with incoming survey response data inside Dynamics CRM. In this post I’ll mainly be focusing on the latter one, although the example data we’ll be looking at are the live answers you & other readers of this blog submitted via the eXtreme MVP Survey.
As you may know, Voice of the Customer (or VoC as we’ll refer to it from now on) is a pure XRM solution. Although the actual customer facing survey forms are of course not presented via the Dynamics CRM client UI, everything that you use for configuring the survey questions and logic, as well as the incoming survey responses, is managed with CRM entities and stored into the CRM database. The reason this is such a big deal is that most of you will already possess the skills needed for leveraging such data via views, charts and dashboards as it’s just XRM all the way. Furthermore, you’re free to design business processes around the survey functionality with tools like real-time workflows or business rules. Naturally you’re also able to interact with the survey entities and records via the latest CRM Web API, should you come across some integration scenarios where data needs to either flow in or out to another system.
The flip side of this coin is that VoC is unfortunately very XRM-ish to work with. If you compared it to dedicated survey apps that do nothing but questionnaire design (like SurveyMonkey, Surveypal and the likes), survey publishing and response data analysis, then there’s still quite a big gap for Microsoft to work on bridging when it comes to the end user experience of this tool. In a way this is quite understandable since the value proposition of VoC really is all about the tight integration with your customer data and the ability to send survey invitations automatically as a part of your customer facing processes; such as a survey link being emailed to a customer after a support case is closed in CRM, to gather quick ratings and design automatic escalation paths if the KPI’s are not met. Nevertheless, since VoC does also support creating pretty advanced surveys for collecting quantitative data from a broad target group in more traditional campaign style satisfaction surveys, as well as anonymous survey links presented on website, it’s good to understand what it’s like analyzing such data inside Dynamics CRM.
There are a lot of components in the VoC solution right out of the box. First off, there are four SSRS reports: Survey Summary, Question Summary, Net Promoter Score and Survey Export. The first two are general purpose reports with tables and charts summarizing the data either across a single survey or a specific question, as illustrated in the screenshots shown here. The NPS report is naturally aimed for this particular survey type, whereas the export one is a single huge matrix for dumping out the raw survey response data into Excel for further manipulation.
For more interactive data analysis there are eight dashboards in the VoC solution. However, these may not be all that useful for many real life scenarios, since they suffer from the same limitation as all Dynamics CRM dashboards: there are no global filters you can apply for all the dashboard components. Meaning, unlike with an SSRS report launched from CRM, you can’t set the context of the dashboard to be a specific survey. Yes, with the new “interactive experience dashboards” introduced in CRM 2016 you do get this type of filters, but since right now those features are limited to the Interactive Service Hub only (which in turn has a fair number of limitations for general use), it’s not exactly the kind of solution we’d need right here.
That doesn’t mean we couldn’t build pretty dashboards to summarize our survey responses, though. I had a go at this with the eXtreme MVP Survey and it turned out pretty well. Have a look (click for a larger image):
In the survey form I had three pages full of questions and I constructed the corresponding pages as personal CRM dashboards. This allowed me to both monitor the incoming responses during the survey data collection period as well as present the results to the audience at the MVP Showcase session in eXtremeCRM. It looks good, it appears very familiar to existing CRM users and it gets the job done without having to resort to any complex report development. [Read more…]