Microsoft PowerApps: Software Creation Without Coding - InformationWeek
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12/1/2015
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Microsoft PowerApps: Software Creation Without Coding

Microsoft has introduced PowerApps, designed to bring fast development to business applications and letting users create their own apps without having to write a single line of code.

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Mobile phones are loaded with apps to make consumers' lives easier, but creating easy-to-use enterprise business apps that tap into traditional enterprise applications hasn't been quite as simple. Anyone who has input an expense report into an enterprise application knows there's a big difference. Microsoft describes this as the "innovation gap," and to fix it, the company is rolling out a new service called PowerApps.

Microsoft is previewing the service at its EMEA Convergence 2015 event in Barcelona this week, saying that it enables IT developers and business users to create business apps without needing the ability to code.

So any non-programmer could create a user-friendly app that will enable enterprise workers to connect to systems such as HR time-logging and expense report applications without being forced to access their corporate PC and a VPN, as well as memorize additional login credentials.

"While companies are increasingly turning to SaaS solutions for specific scenarios like CRM, travel and HR, using services like Microsoft Dynamics, Concur or Workday, most business app scenarios still remain locked on premises, dependent on corporate connected PCs," Bill Staples, corporate vice president of Application Platform wrote in a post on the Official Microsoft Blog. "Too often, they're not optimized for mobile, not easily integrated with other services, and not accessible when and where people need them most -- on the device they want to use in that moment. The business app category continues to lag behind consumer app scenarios in terms of richness and ubiquity."

(Image: Nicolas McComber/iStockphoto)

(Image: Nicolas McComber/iStockphoto)

And it's not just about unlocking the data from those on-premises applications. It's also about enabling business users to assemble their own front-end applications for web browsers and mobile devices that tap into the data in those traditional applications.

Microsoft's Staples said that PowerApps is designed to fix the three problems that have caused the so-called innovation gap. First, there aren't enough skilled mobile developers to keep up with the demand for business app creation. Second, business data is being created at a quick pace and in many different systems, making it difficult to connect and consume all the data needed from these silos from within a single user interface or app. Third, Microsoft said "IT agility and app sharing" is an issue.

"Mobile app distribution typically happens through apps stores, or through mobile device management, governed by IT," Staples wrote. "This creates inherent friction in getting apps onto employee phones."

The PowerApps service relies on Azure Active Directory for its security and user access controls, and it uses REST APIs to connect user interfaces to traditional enterprise systems and data such as on-premises SAP and Oracle implementations. The system also works with online applications such as Microsoft Office 365, Dropbox, and others, according to Omar Khan, director of program management on the PowerApps team, who provided an overview in an interview with InformationWeek. In addition to connectors to SaaS-based and on-premises enterprise applications and data, IT developers may also create their own custom connectors that can provide access to proprietary and legacy enterprise applications, exposing data and functions to modern apps.

[Looking for info on the Office 365 update? Read Office 365: Skype For Business, Analytics, Security Updates.]

PowerApps can work with Windows, iOS, and Android, and via web applications, Khan said. SDKs are available that can enable PowerApps to access the native capabilities of iOS and Android devices. For instance, a building inspection app that lets users report the need for repairs can let users photograph the maintenance problem for submission with their survey form, Khan said.

Business users themselves can build such applications without needing to learn how to use code. IT pros who use code can develop APIs and to create more advanced connectors between user interfaces and proprietary enterprise systems, according to Khan.

Microsoft already has a handful of customers who have been using the PowerApps service including Bose, Toro, and Metro Bank. Microsoft said that these customers have built solutions ranging from a recruiting app for an internal team to a mobile app for banking employees that connects their devices to their CRM data.

"PowerApps will dramatically accelerate how business apps are built, reducing time to solution from weeks or months to minutes and empowering a new category of app creators," Staples wrote.

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Jessica Davis has spent a career covering the intersection of business and technology at titles including IDG's Infoworld, Ziff Davis Enterprise's eWeek and Channel Insider, and Penton Technology's MSPmentor. She's passionate about the practical use of business intelligence, ... View Full Bio

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SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
12/9/2015 | 8:23:54 AM
Re: Early criticism
Like everything else tech related there are a few ways to do this.  The one I would recommend is fairly universal and not at all difficult, Amazon calls it AWS Direct Connect.  They will give you a 1 Gbps to 10 Gbps pipe that acts like an MPLS node.  It works with all of their services from EC2 to S3 so what you're doing is moving your infrastructure into Amazon's datacenter. You get your private IP schema without VPN connections and VPN concentrators.  So no slow VPN connections you get the whole pipe that you pay for. 

That said, IF there is a cloud based version of a suite I generally push to use that.  Office 365 being a good example, licensing includes software downloads to run locally if needed but everything moves to the cloud and out of your datacenter.  For something like CAD you would have to weigh the cost of a small EC2 instance versus licensing for the cloud version or even keeping a couple virtual servers in house for small tasks.

The hardware issue is one that I still struggle with at times, I've done a lot of stretching hardware into decades of service.  I find that the ROI on AWS comes when you eliminate down time from patching, over time for techs doing the patching, the speed that you can spin up new EC2 instances and the flexibility of S3 since I can have all the storage I want in a matter of minutes be using it before I could get a PO cut to buy a SAN tray and if storage needs drop I can increase or decrease my S3 account allocation.  It's a different way of doing things but as fast as things move today the flexibility is a great thing to have. 

 
TerryB
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TerryB,
User Rank: Ninja
12/8/2015 | 9:57:29 AM
Re: Early criticism
@SaneIT, thanks so much for taking time to reply on that. Don't get to talk to people often who are doing some of this modern stuff. Our Corp kind of stuck in the 90's. Of course, I'm probably stuck in 80's so it is good match. :-)

One followup question. How do you architect this? Is it still possible to keep a private non routable IP scheme (10.0.0.0) and still hit these servers? Is that done by using VPN tunnels, so it appears these cloud resources are local?

I'm thinking of stuff like AutoDesk CAD, where we use network based licensing. When you configure. it asks for server name where license service running. It doesn't appear to me it could configure credentials to find this server across a WAN? Or is the idea if you go cloud, you commit to stuff like AutoDesk 360 and Office 360, totally change the way you play the game?

I'm still struggling with the cost side of "rent versus own" on this paradigm shift. We get some incredible ROI on stuff we buy, both hardware and software, lasts way longer than vendors would like you to think. Manufacturing just doesn't change that rapidly, at least the products we make. We have no needs for rapid scaling, we are b2b in our customer relationships.

So I'm having a hard time deciding whether, in the long run, it's any different having local servers/hardware with support help from a local partner(s) or cloud hardware with support from a remote partner/vendor. Not asking you for any answers on this, just insight what I'm struggling with as I try and position this company for the future.

But let me know if you have any input on the IP scheme if you get time. It's so hard to get your head around your entire business sitting outside the firewalls like the bad guys are. But if VPN solves that, then just question of whether VPN concentrators kill your bandwidth. We use VPN for remote access now, the performance can range from bad to dialup bad. :-)
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
12/8/2015 | 8:56:01 AM
Re: Early criticism
@TerryB, yes it is possible to have nothing more than your edge router talking to an ISP and your switches as the corporate infrastructure.  That's a big further than most medium sized companies want to go but I have a small company that I support on the side with just under 30 employees who are totally cloud based.  For a small shop it is very easy and incredibly inexpensive, what I did for them was take a $35 Raspberry Pi and set it up as a Google Cloud print server.  Everyone prints to that cloud printer and it handles the actual interfacing with the printer.  No drivers to install, no printers to map, etc.  They only have one larger multifunction copier/printer/fax so it's simple in that regard.  If you're looking for solutions for a much larger company, there are a few players who do printer management without a print server.  I've used PrinterLogic to do this with a few hundred printers spread across multiple sites.  Network drives you hit the nail on the head, Office 365 and OneDrive means you can scrap all the file shares that correlate to mapped network drives.  Using groups, you can create shared directories in OneDrive that act the same way. Or Google Docs and Google Drive work about the same way. You'll have to re-train people a little though because drive letter mapping just doesn't make sense anymore.

 Most companies out there are running with a hybrid approach though, moving the pieces where latency isn't a killer out to the cloud and keeping some services in house.  As for depending on and ISP, this is why BGP and multiple carriers exist, since I'm in an area where storms can make for a really bad day there's always a backup plan.  There is enough competition in the market now that I can pay less for two ISPs to pull fiber into my building and put a small microwave dish on the roof for less than I paid for a single carrier to deliver a quarter of the bandwidth 10 years ago.

 
TerryB
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TerryB,
User Rank: Ninja
12/7/2015 | 9:49:05 AM
Re: Early criticism
@SaneIT, this is way off topic of this article but obvious you have some experience with cloud environments.

What exactly is possible with cloud environments now? Is it possible to not have ANY servers locally? For example, are people putting file serving and print serving in the cloud? I mean old school file serving, network drives. So much content really doesn't makes sense to keep in Sharepoint with it's SQL storage. And print serving is even more confusing to me, can printers really connect to server queue and driver over internet?

To me, cloud only seems to offer benefits if I could get rid of ALL servers onsite. If I have to have one locally, about the same work to have more. Especially if virtualized on a SAN.

I recently learned IBM is now offering the IBM i5 server in a cloud environment. I haven't really done the cost research yet but will before I just blindly get new hardware in next year or so. As long as I was running i5 locally, didn't really make much sense to worry about putting the SAN in the cloud. But having NO hardware here, that has some appeal.

Still not convinced running shopfloor dependent on internet/ISP is the smartest play (in Green Bay) but I certainly would look deeper if feasible to move everything, at a cost base that is somewhat comparable to inhouse. I'm having to replace a 12 year old UPS in our server room, made me think of a world where I don't have to worry about stuff like that. :-)
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
12/7/2015 | 8:48:18 AM
Re: Early criticism
We agree on the point that this will be mostly IT built applications.  The key is that it will let smaller IT shops with less development experience tie various cloud services together.  I don't see a sales person sitting down and putting together an application but I can see a small IT shop making an app that the sales team can use as a one stop application that collects data from many sources.  There are a few cloud based services that do this now with decent success, Zapier and CloudHQ for example.  This isn't aimed to be a development environment, so the apps you do see will be fairly simple but the simpliciy will be their strength.
batye
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batye,
User Rank: Ninja
12/5/2015 | 9:28:52 PM
Re: Early criticism
@TerryB, also we do need to look at other factors in play... everything takes time to develop...
batye
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batye,
User Rank: Ninja
12/5/2015 | 6:01:10 PM
Re: Early criticism
@SaneIT, I could not agree more with you

I think it an interesting idea....
TerryB
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TerryB,
User Rank: Ninja
12/3/2015 | 9:36:49 AM
Re: Early criticism
@SaneIT, always respect your comments so I'll give you benefit of the doubt on this one. I'll be first to admit I know nothing beyond what I read on sites like InfoWeek on cloud environments.

But I do know a typical MS application, which is usually SQL Server, IIS, AD and then whatever language (.NET, etc) you choose to write app in. Usually that's a Visual Studio thing. I always found MS application building, with it's GUID's and lack of integration between Win o/s and SQL Server to be a pain in rear end anyway. At least compared to the integrated IBM world I develop in. So if you are saying the cloud environment brings even more middleware services into the mix, then I'd agree any new tools like this can only help.

But I'm more likely to believe this will still be used primarily by IT people versus "business users". It's still not even clear to me who architected the REST API's this codeless app builder taps into. I'll keep my eye on this and keep an open mind.

If you do use someday, I'll keep my eye out for any comments from you on the experience. I think I remember from talking with you in past you have some familiarity with the i5/AS400 platform. Since Day 1 back in 1988, that platform has had a utility called Data File Utility (DFU). You point it at a (single) database file and it instantly creates a working CRUD application. But you don't deploy production applications with it. I'm not sure I see this much different at this point but I'll keep watching.
SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
12/3/2015 | 8:18:05 AM
Re: Early criticism
I don't think this is the dumbest idea ever, I can see quite a bit of value in it.  I think you're seeing the hype and bracing for the letdown.  I don't think the intention is to replace coded applications, as I mentioned, I think this is more of a competitor to a service like CloudHQ that will bring cloud based services together.  The fact that you need Azure AD connect means that you won't have random people building apps inside your company.  What I see here is a way for Microsoft to build a bubble around some common services without your IT staff needing specialized training on each system to tie them together. 
TerryB
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TerryB,
User Rank: Ninja
12/2/2015 | 1:04:52 PM
Re: Early criticism
>>creating custom apps for individual use.

I'm not saying you are wrong at all but doesn't this sound like the dumbest idea ever? Meaning, user doesn't like the business edits in place thru the regular application interface so they write their own so they can change whatever they want.

This is not anything new, except maybe from MS. Although you could argue what MS did with Access was very much like this. You didn't really write code to create a Form for an Access database. Maybe what makes it trick is the cloud/mobile thing.

I'm just impressed so many "business users" are considered capable of this, codeless or not. Most of the ones I've known still can't grasp the concept of Excel Autofilter and Pivot Tables, much less use the Microsoft Query feature which has been there forever.

This will be interesting whether gains any traction or not. But as a developer, I'm not going to lose any sleep. :-)
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