Introducing Microsoft’s Dataflex low-code data platform

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Microsoft’s family of low-code and no-code application tools is one of its fastest growing developer platforms. Building on top of technologies from the Dynamics line-of-business applications and from Office, is perhaps best thought of as the spiritual successor to familiar tools such as Visual Basic for Applications: a quick way of building those little applications to solve problems that don’t merit diverting limited developer resources.

Until recently much of the Power Platform tools focused on building and managing workflows using Power Automate for basic business process automation and , with a focus on constructing forms and queries. Much like Visual Basic did for client-server computing, they’re a translation for general audiences of the API and message foundations of modern, cloud-centric, distributed computing.

Linking the Power Platform to business data

Drill down into the Power Platform architecture and (CDM), Microsoft’s extensible business object storage layer. Preconfigured with a set of standard business entities, the CDM is an attempt to give a standard foundation to the apps built by users around the world, allowing them to be shared both inside and outside a business without revealing critical intellectual property. Microsoft regularly expands the core Common Data Model entity model, adding new data types to support different business processes.

There’s a lot of focus on application development partners with tools such as this, since they’re key to implementing large-scale ERP and CRM applications in Dynamics. Microsoft used its recent Inspire partner event to rename . At the same time, it unveiled a new set of tools for working with Dataflex Pro in Power Apps, in Power Virtual Agents, and in the Teams collaboration tool. Branded as , it’s intended to let anyone . Using Dataflex, anyone who can write an Excel macro should be able to build and share applications that can query, display, and update Dataflex Pro records.

Using Dataflex in Teams

Dataflex apps are built inside Teams, using a grid to select items from your business’s Dataflex Pro environment to create an application. Once you’ve built that application, , with the option of choosing Instant, Scheduled, or Automated flows. This should allow you to trigger workflows inside Teams by, say, updating an order field to automatically update a machine-learning-driven predictive dashboard running in Power BI.

The combination of Teams, Dataflex, and Power Automate points to an interesting future for Teams. It’s clear that collaboration tools such as Teams are key to effective remote working, and with no sign of an end to employees working from home, building automation around them should help to reduce cognitive overload and keep context switching to a minimum.

that can then be used in Dataflex applications. Entities can have multiple fields, and unlike familiar freeform databases, you can restrict the content of fields to predetermined selections. That makes it easier to build applications around them. For example, an entity holding data about a field service appointment can include fields that indicate the reason for an appointment and its time, with to an address entity for a customer that comes from a CRM application.

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The structure of a Dataflex Pro entity can help construct forms and other views in Dataflex or in Power Apps. Once a form has been generated you can customize the layout and add other entities as required, quickly building a form-view application for queries, updates, and new data. Once that data is in Dataflex Pro, it’s accessible by any other application that can work with that data, whether it’s a custom app in Teams or one of the Dynamics applications.

Perhaps the most important aspect of working with both Dataflex and Dataflex Pro is that the underlying entity model takes us away from using specialized query languages. Queries are now searches, with predefined entity relationships encoding more information about the structure of our data and how it’s intended to be used. There’s still a need for specialized skills in constructing those relationships, but once they’re in place, anyone can start to build applications that can use them, either with or without code.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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