If you mostly work with configuring the Microsoft Dynamics CRM solutions via the customization UI with its graphical point & click tools instead of writing custom code in Visual Studio, you may not keep such a close eye on the changes introduced in the CRM SDK. After all, the term SDK stands for “software development kit” and you may not consider yourself as the target audience if you don’t actually develop any new software that would interface with Dynamics CRM.
The What’s New page in the CRM SDK documentation is a place that would be very useful for also non-developers to have a look at whenever updates to the product are released. Apart from the end user guidance material published on CRM Customer Center, the SDK is pretty much the official place where changes to the platform functionality are introduced. With the latest CRM 2013 Service Pack 1 release (a.k.a Leo) now available, there’s a long list of new and improved features to review. One new addition that didn’t receive a mention on that page, though, is the Configuration Migration Tool, which is a very handy tool if you need to transfer metadata entities across different CRM organizations.
What Are “Metadata Entities”?
In theory the CRM solution files should contain all of the configuration data about your CRM organization. This is what is often referred to as metadata, which could be described as “data about data” in short. As an example, the list of possible values for the Relationship Type attribute on your account record would be considered metadata, whereas the actual account records referring to one of these values would be “real” data stored in the business entities. To illustrate the difference, a blank CRM organization containing only your customizations would not contain any records for the business entities (accounts, contacts, opportunities), but it would contain all of the records in the metadata entities that would be necessary for executing the customized business processes, since otherwise the configuration of that environment would be incomplete.
In practice there are often valid reasons for why it makes more sense to store this type of metadata in a custom entity of its own, instead of using option sets. This provides a whole different level of flexibility in terms of what type of metadata and how much information you can store. Maintaining the list of values can be done without the need to update the customizations. Filtering available records to the end user can be done via standard security roles and BU’s. Building dependent lists on the form can be achieved via the filtered lookups feature. You can leverage the new Quick View Forms to show data from related parental records. And so on.
One problem with using these type of metadata entities is that the data cannot be packaged into a CRM solution file. While you can easily export any changes to the standard customization components and move them to a different CRM organization, getting the metadata entity records from one org to another requires a bit more effort. As a result, keeping the different development, test and production environments in sync requires specific attention to be paid on these metadata during the release process.
Introducing the Configuration Migration Tool
The CRM 2013 Service Pack 1 release includes the new Unified Service Desk (USD) application that relies heavily on storing its configuration data into these metadata entities. In order to support the systematic deployment of USD solutions configured for the customer’s environment, Microsoft has introduced new tools in the version 6.1 (a.k.a. CRM 2013 SP1) SDK. These are the Configuration Migration Tool and the Package Deployer tool. While the latter one is surely useful in deploying larger ISV solutions, I believe it’s the Configuration Migration Tool that can benefit a far wider audience. Also, since you don’t need to run Visual Studio to work with the tool, I’m personally more comfortable discussing its features in my blog as a non-developer who generally steers clear from anything that isn’t close to point & click.
In short, what the Configuration Migration Tool (from here on referred to as “CMT”) allows you to do is 1) choose the entities that you want to migrate data from, 2) export all the records from those entities as a .zip file and 3) import it into a different CRM organization. There’s a great illustration available in the SDK article describing CMT, presented below:
“Awesome, now we have a built-in tool for CRM data migrations!” Well, actually, no. While CMT can move a set of records from several entities in one package and maintain their relationships, it has not been designed for the purpose of business data migration. For example, you cannot filter out any of the records to be transferred from the source organization, nor are there any guarantees for the tool’s performance when moving very large sets of data. Here’s what the Dynamics CRM product team has to say about the tool:
Check out this CMT feature overview video on YouTube for more information on the above points.
Moving Configuration Data with CMT
Let’s see how the tool works in practice. To test the features, I created two custom entities for storing my configuration data: “Category” and “Subcategory”. A category can have many subcategories (1:N relationship), but in order to make the experiment more interesting, I also added a lookup on the category form that allows selecting the default subcategory to be used. So, we have both a 1:N and N:1 relationship between our entities, as shown on the Category form below. For the purpose of testing I added category A with subcategories 1*, 2, 3 and 4, then category B with subcategories 1 and 2*, with the asterisk determining the chosen default subcategory (notice the duplicate names in the subcategory data, we’ll get to that later on).
After launching CMT, choosing to define the schema (step 1) and entering the connection information to log into my own development CRM 2013 server via IFD (hint: enter the server URL with the org name as “org.domain.com” and the user name as “email@example.com, no other connection option worked for me), we’re presented with a screen for choosing the components to be included in the schema. We can pick from entities included in a specific solution. After selecting the entity, we can either choose which fields we want to transfer data from or just be lazy and add the whole entity into our schema definition. Save and Export will give us an XML file with the contents from the included entities, fields and relationships.
The next step is the data export. Here we’ll choose the schema XML we just created and a target file for the data export. Hitting the Export button will start the process, report the progress for each entity in the CMT app window and finally produce a .zip file containing the data for all the components defined in the schema file.
The last step is to connect to a different organization that already has the same schema. So, if you’ve not yet transferred your solution files into the target organization, now’s the time to do that, since CMT will not modify the organization schema, but rather just assume that it is identical to the source organization as far as the selected entities and fields go. [Read more…]