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MJFChat: Dynamics 365: What IT Pros Need to Know About Its Past, Present and Future

 

We’re doing a twice-monthly interview show on Petri.com that is dedicated to covering topics of interest to our tech-professional audience. We have branded this show “MJFChat.”

In my role as Petri’s Community Magnate, I will be interviewing a variety of IT-savvy technology folks. Some of these will be Petri contributors; some will be tech-company employees; some will be IT pros. We will be tackling various subject areas in the form of 30-minute audio interviews. I will be asking the questions, the bulk of which we’re hoping will come from you, our Petri.com community of readers.

Readers can submit questions via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and/or LinkedIn using the #AskMJF hashtag. Once the interviews are completed, we will post the audio and associated transcript in the forums for readers to digest at their leisure. (By the way, did you know MJFChats are now available in podcast form? Go here for MJF Chat on Spotify; here for Apple Podcasts on iTunes; and here for Google Play.)

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Our latest MJFChat is all about Dynamics 365 and the Power Platform. My special guest is Jukka Niiranen, Power Platform Advisor with Forward Forever, and one of my go-to experts on all things D365/Power Platform-related.

Jukka has been part of the Microsoft CRM space for years and is active on Twitter. He has done a lot to help me — and, I’m sure, many others — try to make sense of the ever-changing D365 arena. We chat about the history, present and future of the platform in this episode and Jukka offered a few of his own tips and tricks for those trying to keep up.

If you know someone you’d like to see interviewed on the MJFChat show, including yourself, just Tweet to me or drop me a line. (Let me know why you think this person would be an awesome guest and what topics you’d like to see covered.) We’ll take things from there….

Mary Jo Foley:
Hi, you’re listening to the Petri.com MJF Chat show. I am Mary Jo Foley, AKA your Petri.com community magnate. And I am here to interview tech industry experts about various topics that you, our readers and listeners want to know about. Today’s MJF Chat is all about Dynamics 365 and the Power Platform. Their past, their present, and their future in terms of what it means for IT Pros. And my special guest today is Jukka Niiranen Power Platform advisor with Forward Forever. Hi Jukka, it’s so great to finally talk to you, even virtually and not just go by chat or DM. So I really appreciate you doing this chat today.

Jukka Niiranen:
Sure. Thanks a lot for inviting me, Mary Jo. It’s been a pleasure to follow your stories on the Roadmap and especially when they kind of align with my areas. So Dynamics and the Platform story.

Mary Jo Foley:
Yeah, you’ve helped me on many a story because I’ve covered Microsoft CRM from the early days. Just like you’ve been involved with it since I think 2013. And so whenever I have a product question or a history question, you’re always my go-to guy. So I appreciate it a lot.

Jukka Niiranen:
Yeah, cheers.

Mary Jo Foley:
So let’s start with history because I think it’s important to remind people kind of where Dynamics and Power Platform came from. I mean, I remember the days when Microsoft used to talk about CRM and ERP and they bought a whole bunch of companies in that space and now it’s like, we’ve got a whole different thing going on. So I’m asking you, how do you try to keep up with the branding and the SKU changes and everything else here. And, what do you advise for our readers too? So let’s start with a little history, quick revisit of history and then explain how you keep up.

Jukka Niiranen:
Sure. So I actually started with CRM back in 2005, already on the customer side and with MSCRM Version 3.0. And it was actually even before the Dynamics brand was launched. So that was later attached to the same version there, a few months later. And then of course, I mean, Dynamics became the umbrella for the CRM European products that most ofthe business solutions group then had mostly bought. But for CRM it was actually mostly developed in-house based on their internal teams efforts. And so, of course we gone a long way from that, but the great thing here is that there’s still a lot of the kind of platform functionality that existed there, 2005 is still there that I can still leverage the same capabilities today, working with Power platforms. So a great testament for the kind of, let’s say backward compatibility off Microsof’ts products. But yeah, the branding, for example, you mentioned CRM and that, of course it’s a brand name that Microsoft has been trying to bury for the past four or five years already, but people still of course use it because there has not really been a better replacement name for it.

Jukka Niiranen:
But M365 of course, was then the big let’s say cloud unification vision a few years ago. And also kind of that started the mainstreaming of the products to be, similar to then what of course Office 365 was meant to be. So in that way I think it made sense to kind of invent the Dynamics 365, but then at the same time saying that there would be no differences between the CRM/CRPs has been not maybe the best choice, for kind of building the community and making people understand that what actually, what are the pieces behind that separate offering there. Because I mean, 365 is just an umbrella brand and the apps you have underneath today are just amazing varieties. So actually today I kind of like that there’s 24 different Dynamics products not listed for the cloud alone. So, that’s a crazy number for products compared to what used to be.

Mary Jo Foley:
It is. I mean, and it’s so hard to keep up. I feel like every time I kind of feel like I understand what the product SKUs are and where they’re going, they change up everything. Like they change up the pricing and the SKUs, and then I’m like, Oh wait, now we’re doing something totally different. And I’m sure, you know, I don’t follow it as closely as you, but it feels like even the partner community has been confused by all the changes.

Jukka Niiranen:
Yeah. That’s very true. So there’s so much expansion now in the Dynamics product portfolio. So that like old timers, like me who have started in the days when you just get CRM, then there’s not really a place for them to kind of mentally associate themselves with anymore. But yeah, I mean, there’s certainly been a lot of naming changes during the past few years, and it feels like the speed is only increasing, but there is some logical explanations for why the names do change sometimes. So for example some capabilities actually might then start on a different product group and then cross the boundary over to another side. So for example, the feedback management, it started out as an acquired product on the Dynamics side. Then we got Forms Pro that was actually more the opposite side. And now it’s jumping back into Dynamics side, with the customer voice apps. So and we see similar stuff with the customer data platform features. So they started on the Azure side then became the customer insights product on the Dynamics side. And now actually that has split into two different products. So yeah, there’s usually a reason behind why the names change, but it can be really hard for people who are not to really closely involved with the actual kind of growing of the individual products to understand that why is this necessary, this renaming now.

Mary Jo Foley:
I feel like too, it’s not just the products that are changing, but it’s even the positioning that Microsoft is trying to take with Dynamics and Power Platform. You know, before they would talk about it as a platform for any of their customers. And now they’re really, I feel like pushing it at the business decision-maker the CEO level more. And so they don’t really ever want to get in the weeds of products and strategies anymore. They want to talk about like business goals, you know, so I think it’s because Salesforce is doing that and other competitors of theirs are doing that too. But I think that makes it harder too, to kind of keep track of what’s going on, especially if you’re somebody in the IT Pro space trying to follow along and keep up, you know.

Jukka Niiranen:
Yes, very true. And I’m sure that the success of Salesforce and kind of engaging with the business decision makers has been a key reason why Microsoft is now also following that path. And I think it makes perfect sense because if you look at the kind of offering that they now have there, then there’s no server to be seen, no really like the technology itself is really a combination of so many parts from Azure and Office and all different places. So that’s yeah, it’s the question about how is this built is really relevant for the user who then actually can go and just like sign up for a trial version for 30 days for a very powerful system that is built, for example, to do fraud detection or something very specific for a kind of a business vertical or a specific type of data that you could be using it for. So in a way they are kind of also cutting away a role that the partners used to play there, in like being the kind of those who then take it to the community level and get that customer to actually do a POC or sign up for a product. So, yeah, that’s probably also the big reason why they are kind of differentiating the tech story from the business story.

Mary Jo Foley:
You know, also all my complaints and criticisms aside, I really feel like this year is going to be a big year for Dynamics and the Power Platform. And the reason I say that is on Microsoft’s most recent earnings call. If you go back and look at the transcript, Satya Nadella said several times the phrase business processes, and that to me is kind of like shorthand for what’s going on with Dynamics and the Power Platform. So, I’m curious if you agree if this could be a really big year for Power Platform and Dynamics, and you just touched on this a little bit, but like, what is the role specifically of Power Platform and connecting not just Power Platform to Dynamics, but Power Platform Dynamics and the rest to Office 365 and Azure, it feels like all these lines are blurring almost, right?

Jukka Niiranen:
They are. And yeah, Power Platform is very different from like Office or Dynamics in the way that it doesn’t really come with any apps. It’s really just the platform and sure you could use it as a platform for doing a very specific app that doesn’t really talk with any other services, but it’s not really meant to be that kind of a silo solution, even though technically it could be, and might be competitive in that area as well. But, so yeah, in the earnings call there was a question to Satya from the analysts about their kind of relatively small market share in the enterprise software markets. I think it was like maybe the size is like $200 billion and not sure what the official share for Microsoft Dynamics product is there. But so Satya was very kind of wanting to then expand the horizon a bit there and described that the category definitions for enterprise software are really pretty much out of date.

Jukka Niiranen
Now, if you look at how, what the real business apps are that people are interacting with and what they use for running the business processes. So it’s not just the land of SAP and Oracle anymore, but it’s really a combination of these smaller apps and kind of the data platform features from Azure, big data, AI, algorithm stuff, and all that. And so all these pieces coming together is kind of the new enterprise software and you need a kind of connecting layer there. And that’s really what Power Platform is for, it’s kind of the business abstraction layer for much of the tech that is then supplied by the Office cloud and Dynamics cloud, and Azure.

Mary Jo Foley:
You know, that’s a great point because I feel like a lot of times we, journalists and other people, when we talk about Power Platform, we call it the low code, no code development platform, but that kind of omits the role of what you just described, which is more of like the glue between the different enterprise software components.

Jukka Niiranen:
Yeah, because I think that is really, a very unique offering that none of the competing companies in the enterprise software market can really offer from what I’ve seen, because really so much of what Microsoft has now built is really in-house software. I mean, the Platform, isn’t something that’s been acquired from here and there. So they haven’t gone out and bought companies that have been leading in their particular markets, whether they’ve chosen to build themselves. And that really now that gives them the advantage that there is a way to provide an actual platform that talks with all of these services. And with a common tool set. So the fact that you can extend like Office apps the same way as you’re gonna extend Dynamics, or, I mean, plug-in almost any service from any cloud that they have, then it’s not some marketing fluff, it’s a reality, and that is becoming available even to the no-code crowd. So even the business users can I mean, sign up for Azure cognitive services and then start building features for their CRM or whatever is an application. So that really is the kind of revolution that I think is in a way powered by low code, but it’s not just about them building small apps, but also it reaches to the very highest enterprise level on how the kind of future apps for big enterprises are really created, how they are assembled from different pieces.

Mary Jo Foley (12:52):
That’s great. That’s kind of the thing I’m trying to figure out how to cover going forward this year, because I feel feel like Power Platform is the key to a lot of things, but we keep oversimplifying it. Anyway. Okay. This is a super open-ended question I’m going to ask you, and I know this is like what you do in your day job. Like you advise customers about this, but what do you say to people if you just have to give them a very short elevator pitch about how do you decide when you should use software as a service app versus building on something like Power Platform, you know, a low code platform or going the custom code route? Like how do people, how should people think about figuring out which of those things they should do when the occasion arises?

Jukka Niiranen:
Sure. So I think it really comes down to ownership of the tools and the processes that are kind of controlling your own digital destiny. So if you look at the SaaS applications, then they are in a way, both a blessing and a curse. So they give you great speed, agility. You can just sign up in minutes, with credit card and add another app to your portfolio, but then you get data fragmentation and lots of IT governance challenges. And the whole reason why, I mean, enterprises don’t really enjoy having lots of shadow IT set applications used by the employees. And if you then look at the kind of middle ground, the, the platform as a service. So Azure for example, so of course the modern cloud services have also made the custom software development a lot quicker and you can do agile stuff there, but the fact is that the program in those applications still remains a very complex activity and you need professional developers to have a hundred percent focus on what they do there to build the solutions.

Jukka Niiranen:
And that means that you don’t have the business focus come from somewhere else. So there are different personas in play there. And the promise with low code really is that, I mean, you mentioned APU could actually have strong ownership in-house within the business teams to control the tools that you use, how they work, tweak them without involving any external parties, not any consultants or service partners or the IT departments. So what could you build then? I mean, would it be the, because those are things that are probably stopping you right now. The slowness of getting getting projects up and running, acquiring resources to build software, but then what if the people in your team actually could be deciding that this is how we need to change the process now and tomorrow it’s done because it’s all done with local configuration. So I think that is the vision that I want to open up people’s eyes to see that it is a possibility with Power Platform.

Mary Jo Foley (15:50):
Okay. Another very thorny issue here in the next question we had a few people suggest on Twitter that we should talk about licensing. That could be a 10 hour podcast by itself when it comes to Power Platform and Dynamics, like, you know, how does licensing work and what are all the subtleties of the licensing agreements. But I’m curious, how do you, in your job guide customers to figure out what kind of licenses they need around Dynamics and Power Platform? Like, is there some semi-simple solution that people can think about adopting or is it just not, there’s no simple way, and that’s that?

Jukka Niiranen:
Well, the reality is that because with low code, you use more kind of purchased services that are licensed per user, rather than just a resource that you spin up in Azure. Then it’s going to be a combination of many services. And that’s really the big challenge with Microsoft’s own license documentation, because they always talk about a specific product silo. And it doesn’t really map into the customer’s with environments because in real life, they’re usually aren’t just, you don’t use a single Microsoft product. You have a variety of them. You have different user groups, some might be internal, some external, some are partners. So all of these attributes are something you have to see the mission’s solution architecture before you can say how much this is going to cost, or should you do this or not? So the fact is that the licensing component has really become a very key part of the solution architecture design in this application.

Jukka Niiranen:
So there’s no way around it. It’s going to be an advanced task for someone to figure out the details. And then of course at the same time, it’s much of this kind of wanting to make it simplified for the business users. So they have the per month price tags there on the public websites and then, well, of course, then there’s the discount games with the enterprise agreements and all that. So no one really knows what you have to pay for it at the end, but they want to kind of paint a more simple picture of it. But you really need to have some scenarios that you then talk through before you can kind of prove that this is a worthy option from a cost perspective for you to consider. Because it’s not always the right answer sometimes it makes more sense to use custom software or SaaS for a particular scenario where low code might not be the ultimate (answer).

Mary Jo Foley:
Do you think we’ll ever see something like a Microsoft 365 SKU that also includes Dynamics. And I asked Microsoft this years ago and they were like, no, no, that doesn’t make any sense. But now that I feel like they’re trying to blur the lines more, I’m like maybe there will be at some point something like I won’t call it E7, but you know, something like a Microsoft 365 SKU that says, and if you happen to be a Dynamics user, you could go with this SKU. Do you think we’ll ever see that?

Jukka Niiranen:
I’m not sure if we’re going to see it for Dynamics, but for Power Platform, I’d be surprised if there wouldn’t be kind of a, like a premium Power Apps SKU, like you have now the premium Power BI as well. So, because that is the end game, they want to have the, also the premium Power Apps and Power Automate features. So kind of embedded in the context of all their enterprise customers, so that there isn’t a question of can you use it or not. And at that point in time, of course, it becomes a very, very big playing field for the Power solutions because the licensing question is such a big barrier at the moment. Of course, they don’t want to grow the market just yet because of the fact that the role of low code value may not really be that well realized by the customer’s yet.

Jukka Niiranen:
So I’m sure they’re not in a big hurry to come up with an all you can eat SKU there. But, I’d be surprised if we were wouldn’t see a simplification like that in the end. And then of course there is a aspect there as well. So, even though it’s mostly per user license like in Office, because that’s what the system that they use for the licensing mechanism in Azure. And there’s also the consumption side for storage and API calls that are going to be then a source of revenue for them as the kind of usage of their publications grows. So it can accommodate that kind of future where the per user would be covered by this kind of all you can eat licensing for the enterprise.

Mary Jo Foley:
Okay. since we’re on a whole bunch of complex topics, let’s keep going CDS, Common Data Service, which then became known as Dataflex and then became known as Dataverse. I think that’s the latest name we have now is Dataverse. Can you describe in a succinct way, why users need to be aware of Dataverse and the thing that’s also called Dataverse in Teams, I guess there’s two different SKUs, basically.

Jukka Niiranen:
Yeah. So in short, the reason for Dataverse for Teams is that ultimately Microsoft wants people to stop using SharePoint Lists for their business data, for their line of business apps as the kind of background system, because it’s not meant for that, but it has been used for that for a variety of reasons, because it’s always been there. First of all, it’s been licensed and it’s been the easy solution to choose, but it’s not right for business apps for many reasons. So versus Dataverse on the other hand. So it dates back to the 2005 CRM versions. So a relational data model that has well been specifically designed for business apps purposes. And it’s again, a great way to abstract the complexity of the underlying data services like SQL and customers DBM. It will spread out to more different use cases than what it has been before. The kind of CDS era is more on the kind of Dynamics use cases.

Jukka Niiranen:
So the vision really that Microsoft has is that with the Dataverse for Teams available for all, basically all Office users than anyone that needs an app or their team, they can go in, I mean, open up the Power Apps app inside Teams, and then create a new table there, create an app on top of the table of data there, and do very simple stuff there in a simple sandbox. But they are doing it right from the start doing it the right way. So you can then take that relational data model and graduate that into the full premium Dataverse that has then all the enterprise features for security management and dev, test, and prod, and other kind of audit features that are necessary then for kind of more widely adopted enterprise applications.

Mary Jo Foley:
Okay. speaking of Teams, which I call the everything hub these days. What do you think Microsoft might do this year in terms of more tightly connecting Teams and Dynamics 365 Power Platform? Do you think there’ll be other things beyond what they did last year with Dataverse and Teams?

Jukka Niiranen:
Well, to start off, I mean, at the end of last year, we saw that Salesforce acquired Slack, and I think that will validate the future or the direction of the Teams as a platform story. So the way I see it, I think it’s realistic to think that we are kind of heading towards a Teams as to the new operating system, as the new Windows. So that being the client that offers the UI for applications that employees are using in their workplaces. And if we think about last year, then of course, that was all about COVID and all about the work from home phenomenon. It’s understandable that Microsoft had to prioritize then the kind of core collaboration features and kind of scale them up to meet the huge demand there. But the next logical step is then to know when the users are already there, they’re living in Teams.

Jukka Niiranen:
Now we need to get the apps to live inside Teams as well. So I think definitely this is going to be the year where that Teams as a platform story is going to be front and center. And also then all of that will be built on top of Dataverse and visualized through Power Apps. And at that point in time, the number of monthly active users for low-code is going to skyrocket as well. So I’m sure we’re going to see next time, this year in the earnings call, the figures for Power Platform are going to be on a whole different level, thanks to the alignment with Teams.

Mary Jo Foley:
Hmm. Interesting. Okay. The last question for today is about how you would suggest users try to stay up to date with what’s coming on the Dynamics 365 and Power Platform fronts? Well obviously besides reading your tweets and your blog, but you know, there are these things like the wave 1, wave 2 plans, and the latest of those just came out this week for Dynamics and Power Platform. But there’s a lot of things that aren’t in those plans. I feel like they’re getting less and less detailed, and they’re kind of a recap of things they already announced. So how does somebody try to keep up? Because not everything that’s coming is listed in these plans. So how do you suggest to customers that they keep up with what’s going on and what’s coming next?

Jukka Niiranen:
Yeah. Regarding plans, it’s very true that they don’t cover all of the stuff that’s going to come out in the six month timeframe that they should cover. And still, there are 450 pages in total. It’s crazy. So you cannot really, you should just forget about downloading the PDFs and just use the, kind of docs live version there for checking out the latest version there, because the release plans actually are updated throughout the release waves there. And they look at more detail as we go along. And also features will drop out, but they will also get added there. So the product teams are not hiding the fact that it’s the, work we got now, isn’t going to be all that’s going to be released during the single release wave 1, for this year. But so yeah, it all comes back to the fact that the business application is such a messy combination of apps.

Jukka Niiranen:
I mean, if you have 24 apps on Dynamics side, then a single app could be as deep Commerce for example, covering all point of sales stuff and like e-commerce. Then of course, no one can know it all anymore. So we’re kind of way beyond the point in time where you can be a guidance expert and kind of claim to be, be aware of what’s going on there. So I think my strategy really is or recommendation would be that you shouldn’t really get stuck with the details, but look for these areas where there’s different apps and technologies that are connected with one another. So think about Commerce, for example, there’s now been interesting stuff there in integrating omnichannel and Power Virtual agents and all that stuff. So those are, at least to me, they are the interesting points where you can then kind of envision and assemble a kind of solution for your customers and like, think, okay, this part actually fits here. And that technology is approaching a maturity where we can use this other meta for that, so it’s more like a web of these technologies and not just a list of 200 features for CRM application. That is important. So that’s how I would try to approach it, not by reading this, but thinking about, trying to envision, how to connect the dots there.

Mary Jo Foley:
Yeah. That’s great. Great advice there, I think. Okay, well, we are out of time Jukka, but I wanted to say thank you so much for taking the time and providing a lot of really good insights. I really appreciate it.

Jukka Niiranen:
Thanks for having me, it was a pleasure talking to you.

Mary Jo Foley:
For everyone else listening right now to this or reading the transcript, I’ll be putting up more information soon on Petrie about who my next guest is going to be. Once you see that you can submit questions directly on Twitter for the guests using hashtag M J F chat. And in the meantime, if you know of anyone else or even yourself who might make a good guest for one of these chats, please do not hesitate to drop me a note. Thank you very much.

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Mary Jo Foley has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications, including ZDNet, Redmond Magazine and more. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008). She also is the cohost of the "Windows Weekly" podcast on the TWiT network.

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