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: