By Nicola Wright
In Spring 2018, Microsoft announced a series of updates to its Common Data Service, which forms an integral part of Dynamics 365’s back-end processes.
As part of a wave of improvements being rolled out across the company’s business applications division, users of platforms such as Dynamics 365, Office 365, and Power BI will soon see changes that will make it easier to share information between apps, garner useful insights from their data, and build custom apps to support their business processes.
In light of these coming updates, what better time could there be to take a closer look at Dynamics 365’s Common Data Service, the changes that are being made to it, and exactly how it can benefit Dynamics users?
As part of the early 2018 wave of business application updates, Microsoft rebranded its Common Data Service as the Common Data Service for Apps. The name change is reflective of a wider slew of changes to the way Microsoft delivers its Common Data Services, which going forward will be split according to the functionalities they offer. However, what lies under the Common Data Service’s hood remains largely the same.
Simply put, the Common Data Service for Apps is a platform that allows users to quickly integrate programs, build new custom applications, and create automated workflows.
The CDS for Apps is built on the Common Data Model. Initially rolled out in early 2016 as part the introduction of Microsoft PowerApps, the Common Data Model is the foundation on which all current and future Common Data Services are built and operated.
With the case of legacy business apps, a program’s data is often siloed within that app, and sharing information between software platforms can be difficult, often impossible, without extensive customization.
Microsoft’s vision for the future of business software, however, is a connected, centralized collection of apps; far from the isolated, disparate ERP and CRM apps of old. A platform like the one Microsoft was dreaming of when putting together Dynamics 365 would enable businesses to share information between their apps, helping them be more informed, sync up all areas of their operations, and make better decisions.
Though rolling out Dynamics 365 as an intelligent, cloud-first platform was a start, this data-sharing utopia would not be possible without a space in which this data could be stored, from which it could be accessed by apps across a company’s digital stable; a shared brain, if you like.
That’s where the Common Data Model comes in, and why it was needed. Microsoft created the Common Data Model to act as a secure database, where business information can not only be stored, but standardized, allowing information to be unified across a number of apps.
As Arno Ham, Cheif Product Officer at certified Dynamics partner Sana Commerce, puts it: “The Common Data Service allows data to be managed and stored securely between applications. Data in the CDS is stored within a set of standard and custom ‘entities’ or fields, which can be effortlessly synchronized across multiple applications that are being developed.”
By “pooling” data from across Dynamics 365 apps, as well as information from Office 365, and even third-party sources, organizations are able to stitch together data generated by disparate programs, giving them a more complete picture of their business.
Before the halcyon days of “the cloud”, even getting apps from the same vendor to share information was difficult. This is because, though apps may appear to classify data using similar fields, what two different apps determined to be a “customer” or a “lead”, for example, may have been different. Without a standard definition to agree on, getting data from separate apps to mesh, or to get one program to understand data from another, could be tricky.
Creating a two-way channel of communication between apps had to be done on an app-by-app basis through custom builds, which made integration expensive, challenging, and difficult to maintain in the long-term.
The Common Data Model allows apps to integrate and share data with each other without the need for extensive, custom integration by providing a centralized point where systems can come together and connect, and bridging the gap between repositories of information once divided by a digital language barrier.
It does this by offering a set of standard definitions, or “entities”. Though each app may have a different way of recording, labeling, and structuring data, the regulated entities in the CDM disambiguate data coming from differing sources by mapping it to universally-agreed entities from its library. By using these key-type entities, all apps can recognize, understand, and communicate the information held in the Common Data Model’s “data lake”.
Take Dynamics 365 for Sales and Dynamics 365 for Finance and Operations for instance. Both store and process data in a similar, but not identical, way. Both support the use of many different international currencies, but the way that currency data is recorded on each transaction is different in the two apps. Using the CDM allows the two apps to “match up” this data in a regimented way that is understood by both programs, and thus can be recognized, used, and learned from on both sides of the CRM/ERP divide.
“Whether users are working within the Dynamics 365 landscape or custom applications, the Common Data Service offers a great way to manage data between applications that have overlapping entities,” Ham says. “The Common Data Service can ensure that any change made in an ERP app — for example, Dynamics 365 for Finance and Operations — is seamlessly reflected in other applications, such as Dynamics 365 for Sales.”
Ever heard of Esperanto? Esperanto is an international auxiliary language, created in the late nineteenth century in an attempt to allow speakers of different languages to communicate. Esperanto’s author, L. L. Zamenhof, said that the purpose of constructing Esperanto was to break down social barriers between speakers of disparate languages, and foster communication and unity across the world. In this way, the Common Data Model is a little like Esperanto, but for business apps.
The CDM not only allows Microsoft business applications to communicate with each other, but also with third-party apps and services.
There are currently over 120 pre-set standard entities, with new entries added on a regular basis. Of course, the whole point of the CDM is to have standardized entries that can be eternally and globally understood, so users cannot delete or change pre-set entities within the CDM.
They can, however, extend and create new entities to meet their unique needs, without having to worry about breaking or disrupting pre-existing connections with other apps.
Data from business apps is not automatically uploaded to the CDM by default, so businesses have full control over what data is shared with their other apps and services. When importing data into the CDM, incoming information is mapped so that it aligns with the standard CDM entities, or new entities can be created and mapped to if required. The CDM also provides mapping templates for use when importing data from popular third-party sources such as Salesforce. These mapping templates can be customized and extended as needed.
As we touched on earlier, the Common Data Service for Apps is a service built on the Common Data Model that allows users to build, store and manage apps, and data created and used by those apps.
Using the Common Data Model as a bedrock, the Common Data Service for Apps provides users with a space within which they can store their app data, and then use that data to build custom applications and workflows that will help their organizations be more productive.
The two services that most utilize the CDS for Apps are Microsoft Flow, and PowerApps.
Microsoft Flow is a platform that helps users turn repetitive tasks into automated workflows. Creating a “flow” means that certain events or actions automatically trigger further behaviors — such as sending notifications, collecting data, or tracking events — even across distinct apps and services.
These workflows can help automate time-consuming administrative and organizational functions, leaving you more time to tackle more-significant issues. Flow makes it simple to create a workflow by providing all the building blocks you need; simply specify the trigger and the reaction i.e. if (a) happens in this app, do (b) in that app.
There are already thousands of ready-to-use workflows available through Flow. For example, if you’re a MailChimp user, and you add a new member to a contact list, Flow can automatically copy it to a directory in SharePoint so you have a backup copy. Or, if you’re looking to kick up your social listening strategy, you can use a Flow template to create a new lead in Dynamics CRM if a Twitter user tweets using a defined keyword.
With the Common Data Service for Apps, all of this cross-platform integration takes place behind the scenes, so users never have to worry about infrastructure, or the technicalities of integrating their services.
Another hugely powerful tool available through the CDS for Apps is PowerApps. PowerApps is a platform through which users can build and develop applications, both for web and mobile, using a drag-and-drop interface which requires little-to-no coding knowledge. Slick, branded applications like employee engagement surveys, cost estimators, budget trackers, to-do list, and booking platforms can all be created and launched with a few clicks.
Users can add logic to their PowerApps creations by using Excel-like expressions and equations. Apps built with PowerApps can store data in the Common Data Model, and be published to the web, iOS, Android, and/or Windows 10.
Though obviously a massive boon for non-technical users, there are features for developers to utilize in PowerApps too. The platform’s native extensibility enables developers to extend app capabilities using Azure Functions, Microsoft’s serverless architecture platform, to create custom connectors that allow their apps to sync up with custom or legacy systems.
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Hot on the heels of the Common Data Service for Apps, Power BI users will soon be able to reap similar benefits when the Common Data Service for Analytics is rolled out.
The CDS for Analytics is a new service that aims to help businesses gather, digest, and utilize the enormous swathes of data that they generate and manage every day. The service will make it easier for organizations to derive insights from data found across their apps and other sources, giving them a centralized, comprehensive picture of their business to analyze.
Like the CDS for Apps, the CDS for Analytics will provide users with a connective pool of standardized data pulled from multiple sources to draw on, and allow Power BI to more easily connect to and share data with third-party apps.
These analytical solutions will be set up to read and report on these standardized batches of data to provide comprehensive and consistent analysis. Power BI Sales Insights, for example, will amalgamate sales data and offer coherent, comparable insights — such as which leads and opportunities are at risk, and where salespeople could better spend their time — no matter where the data it’s scrutinizing was originally pulled from.
Previews of the Power BI Insights for Sales and Power BI Insights for Service, the first apps to utilize the CDS for Analytics, are due to go live this Spring. More Power BI Insights apps tailored to areas such as marketing, operations, finance, and talent are scheduled to follow soon.
By bringing together information from across the full suite of Dynamics 365 apps, and enabling data to be shared with other platforms, the Common Data Model and its various services provide Dynamics 365 users with some of key advantages.
Centralization of data
In the past, even if businesses were using both ERP and CRM apps from the Dynamics family, the data in each product would be isolated. The Common Data Service provides users with a millpond in which they can store their collective Dynamics 365 data, so that their apps can communicate with, and even learn from, each other.
This merging of data solves the age-old integration problem, enabling users to intuitively sync information from across their digital stable. This ensures that data is always accurate and coordinated, and delivers on Microsoft’s vision of an interconnected, complemental business application suite.
“CDS helps to facilitate the movement and synchronization of data between complementary applications, for example transferring customers and contacts from Dynamics 365 Sales to Finance and Operations,” explains Ham. “Now that Microsoft Dynamics 365 suite of specialized products is connected by the Common Data Service, it ensures each individual application is connected by the same source of data.
“New applications can easily be added to Dynamics 365 to cater for requirements as your company grows. This enables the seamless and secure transfer of data between applications for a much simpler and more reliable user experience.”
Ability to build apps and workflows without the need for coding experience
As we mentioned above, the Common Data Model is the foundation for the Common Data Service for Apps, providing the data-based infrastructure on which PowerApps and Flows can be built.
These drag-and-drop-based platforms help users of all skill levels get the most out of their business applications, opening the door to development and automation for everyone, regardless of coding knowledge.
Integration with other services right out of the box
The CDS for Apps not only links up previously disconnected Microsoft apps, but also allows users to connect third-party apps right out of the box.
Widely used apps like Salesforce, Buffer, MailChimp, Facebook, Google Drive, Trello, and Zendesk can all be quickly and easily connected to Microsoft apps with Microsoft Flow, enabling Dynamics 365 users to create workflows across all their cloud services. Users can also create their own connectors and flows without the need for costly and complex integrations.
Access to deeper analytical services
Many Dynamics 365 users also employ tools from the Power BI suite to monitor their business health, and get insights that will help them make better decisions.
The CDS for Analytics provides users with a data lake which is directly integrated into Power BI, making it easier for users to get a complete overview of their business using data pulled from a variety of sources.
Like the CDS for Apps, the CDS for Analytics will come with a vast catalog of pre-built connectors to help collate and digest data from a range of vendors and services. This data can then be turned into in-depth, practical insight, which Power BI can use to suggest actionable next steps.
The new Insights platforms will also enable users to build new reports and customize their apps using little-to-no code in order to meet individual business requirements.
The Common Data Service platforms will be subject to the same stringent security framework as Microsoft’s other cloud-based platforms, with entity-level authorization and role-based security active in the initial release, and field- and row-level security to be added to future releases. These frameworks also apply to any apps or services that utilize Common Data Services, including Microsoft PowerApps, Microsoft Power BI, and Microsoft Flow.
To utilize the Common Data Service for Apps, users need to have access to Microsoft PowerApps and Microsoft Flow. These apps are included when licensing any of the following products:
PowerApps is included with Office 365 Enterprise F1, with which users can run apps and automate workflows. However, users can’t create apps with this plan (as they can with plans such as Office 365 E1, E3, and E5).
Customers wishing to use PowerApps without a Dynamics 365 or Office 365 subscription can license the service through one of two plans.
PowerApps Plan 1
Plan 1 is aimed at businesses, and enables users to create and run custom business apps, as well as automate workflows with Microsoft Flow. Plan 1 subscribers can also use apps that connect to a broader range of data sources, such as Dropbox, Twitter, Facebook, Slack and Salesforce, and use apps built on the Common Data Service.
Flow runs per month (per user): 4,500
Data storage in the Common Data Service (per user): 20 MB
File storage in the Common Data Service (per user): 2 GB
Price: $7 per user, per month
PowerApps Plan 2
Plan 2 is targeted at developers and app makers, and includes everything from Plan 1, plus the ability to model data using the Common Data Service, create and manage instances of the Common Data Service, and use of enterprise-grade administration of environments and user policies.
Flow runs per month (per user): 15,000
Data storage in the Common Data Service (per user): 200 MB
File storage in the Common Data Service (per user): 20 GB
Price: $40 per user, per month
Pricing for the Common Data Service for Analytics is yet to be announced, but the service is likely to be included with Power BI Pro and Premium plans.
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