The Microsoft Power Platform: A Beginner’s Guide

October 1, 2019, was just like any other day for many people – but not for Microsoft. On that specific day, Microsoft’s very own Power Platform finally made its long-awaited entrance onto the world stage. For users, it meant having a tool that could bring together the perks of app development and business intelligence into a single, do-it-all interface.

Everyone was talking about it—developers, Microsoft fanatics, curious competitors, everyone. Some even flocked social media to heap praise on what they termed a revolutionary, mind-bending technology.

Fast forward to 2022, and the Power Platform has quickly become an indispensable part of the Microsoft canon. Before we go any further, though, what is Microsoft Power Platform?

 

You Asked, We Answered: Microsoft Power Platform Defined

In a nutshell, the Power Platform is Microsoft’s attempt to provide an “all in one” ecosystem for building cost-effective end-to-end business solutions faster.

Built purely on Azure, the Microsoft Power Platform is, first, a no-code/low-code development solution, and second, a suite of four independent, fully-fledged Microsoft products.

These flagship Microsoft products include:

  • Power Apps, a simple way to build powerful custom applications
  • Power BI, a set of tools for data analysis and visualization
  • Power Automate, a template-based application for building automated processes and automated workflows
  • Power Virtual Agents, a solution for creating customizable artificial intelligence (AI) chatbots for both employees and customer service

Together, these solutions enable Microsoft users to “analyze, act, and automate” business processes. Put differently, these Microsoft services allow you to turn lifeless ideas into powerful business solutions that support your core offerings, optimize operations, and save you money.

While the Power Platform does a pretty good job of data analysis, automation, and manipulation on its own, it’s also open to third-party integrations. That means it’s possible to use the platform alongside Dynamic 365 and Office 365 (as well as other Microsoft services and third-party apps).

At this point, you’re probably wondering what kind of technology the Power Platform runs on. Well, its name is Common Data Service, popularly abbreviated as CDS. Think of it as a typical database, only that it’s more advanced and complex. On a granular level, the CDS provides a unified and simplified data schema so that Microsoft services and applications (including our incredible quartet above) can inter-operate.

 

Power Platform’s Ultimate Promise: Analyze, Act, and Automate

Whoever said that data is the new oil wasn’t wrong. Today, data is increasingly flowing from everything and from everywhere. And only businesses that understand how to glean insight from this much-accumulated, ever-flowing data stand to create better business results and gain a mile over the competition.

However, building the necessary infrastructure to leverage this data quickly and effectively is far from a cakewalk.

More often than not, a company would need to find experts with the necessary technical know-how and skills. Of course, this would come at a price and a high one at that. That’s where the Power Platform comes in.

The promise of Microsoft Power Platform is just one: to provide a platform that does not aim at technological pros, but rather, the ordinary employee.

It goes without saying that the typical worker sees endless improvement opportunities in the vast seams of data they lay eyes on every day.

However, since they lack the technical expertise to slice through that data and derive business-impacting insight, they let it slide altogether. Not under Power Platform’s watchful eye.

The purpose of Power Platform is to create a loop, of course, that allows Microsoft users to:

  • Gain useful insight into their data (Analyze)
  • Use this insight to drive intelligent business processes through apps (Act)
  • Automate the processes (Automate)

Now that you know more about the Microsoft Power Platform, let’s dig a little deeper into the services that make up this incredible solution.

 

Microsoft Power Apps

Think of a world where you can quickly create powerful business solutions with zero programming skills. A world where all it takes to build custom web and mobile apps is to have a few connectors on hand, and you’re good to go. Now stop thinking; that world is right here with us, thanks to Microsoft PowerApps.

Microsoft defines Power Apps as a “suite of apps, services, connectors and data platform that provides a rapid application development apps for your business needs.” While you can add integrations with other business applications, Power Apps’ key strength is its ability to build apps based on Microsoft 365, Dynamics 365, Microsoft Azure as well as Office 365.

If you have a particular process that leverages different parts of the Microsoft canon (say, Excel, Dynamics 365 Business Central, and SharePoint), then a Microsoft Power App has the potential to bring them all together for your users in one handy, fluid experience.

While it’s true that Power Apps bodes well with a non-technical audience, users might still need to have some technical understanding, training, and appreciation of the tools and data sources they’re working with. In other words, and realistically so, you might still need to bring in Microsoft consultants (like us) to guide users on the more complex functionality.

That said, nothing beats the satisfaction and convenience of building your own app. Besides, with Power Apps, you can wrap your new app around your organization’s unique user needs and the way your employers work.

A recent Forrester study found that Power Apps:

  • Reduces the cost of developing and maintaining an application by 74%
  • Frees up valuable IT resources
  • Adds value to other Microsoft 365 products, such as Dynamic 365
  • It helps employees to make decisions faster with easier access to information and processes
  • Speeds up time to market, increasing customer satisfaction, and revenue in the process

As for the features and tools that make Power Apps the popular toolset that is it today, there are plenty of them, including:

  • A library of sample apps you can work from as a starting point and then customize
  • A library of over 200 connectors to integrate data sources and systems, including those in the Office 365 universe
  • An easy drag and drop interface for app creation
  • Good support structures, including an active PowerApps community and accessible expert PowerApps consultants

We’d be remiss if we didn’t tell you of the three different types of applications within the Power Apps ecosystem.

One is the Canvas App, and it’s exactly what it sounds like. PowerApps provides you with a blank canvas onto which you can drag and drop components in any formation. This allows you to design the user interface of your dreams.

Then there’s the model-driven app. Here, the final layout is determined by the elements you add to the app. Also, there are far fewer customization options than Canvas Apps.

Finally, we have Portals. Power App users can create low-code, ultra-responsive portals (websites) for both internal and external uses.

The benefits of Power Apps are there for all to see. It is—we dare say?—the ultimate toolset for anyone who wants to manage their business projects and accelerate growth. There’s no better time to add it to your arsenal than now.

 

Power Platform team

 

Microsoft Power Automate

How much time do your employees waste on repetitive, mundane tasks? The average manager loses 8 hours per week on manual tasks. If this statistic is anything to go by, things are looking pretty bad for the average worker.

Fortunately, there’s a solution to change all that. Primarily a no-code application, Microsoft Power Automate, previously known as Microsoft Flow, allows users to automate repetitive tasks and create highly flexible workflows on the go.

The connectors within this workflow engine are more than 300, all with incredible versatility. You can use them to access and use data across both Microsoft and non-Microsoft apps, such as Twitter, Dropbox, Google Drive, and more.

Once a workflow is set up in Power Automate, the workflow acts in the background to alert you to specific notifications, upload files, and complete desired automated tasks.

In the Power Automate environment, a workflow is quite simply a functional flow. There are five main types of flows:

  • Automated, which only runs when the specified conditions are met.
  • Business Process flows are used to automate tasks on the Web or the desktop.
  • Scheduled flows are ideal for tasks that need to be automated on a schedule and will run based on a set time or date
  • Instant flows allow you to start a flow with a click of a button and can be used across desktop or mobile devices
  • UI flows, which are used to record clicks and keystrokes and automate the execution of tasks

In business, the use cases for Power Automate are virtually endless. You can, for example, use this automation toolkit to:

  • Push notifications when high priority emails come in
  • Notify sales teams of new opportunities and deals in the CRM
  • Remind users to take daily, weekly, or quarterly actions
  • Monitor social media accounts and automate marketing functions
  • Archive and organize documents

Next, we look at the third member of Power Platform’s well-publicized quartet: Power BI.

 

Microsoft Power BI

As we mentioned before, data is the lifeblood of modern businesses. And we’re generating more of it than ever before.

However, amassing mountains of data in our Microsoft dataverse won’t be of much use if we aren’t able to make sense of it. Microsoft had already anticipated this sort of dilemma and, in response, launched a one-of-a-kind business intelligence software way back in 2019 and it’s called Power BI.

At its core, Power BI is an assortment of cloud-based apps and services that help organizations collate, manage, and analyze data from a variety of sources.

Primarily, Power BI pulls together data and processes it, turning it into intelligible insights, often using visually compelling graphs and charts. This allows users like you to generate and share clear, useful, highly-detailed snapshots of what’s happening in their business.

It’s helpful to think of Power BI as an umbrella term for three different formats, namely:

  • Power BI Service: Used to view reports online
  • Power BI Mobile Apps: Used to access reports and dashboards on Android, iOS, and Windows
  • Power BI Desktop: Used to create and share reports

Unlike the other three Power Platform services, Power BI’s user roles are more than one. They are, in fact, two, including:

  • Consumer: An individual who uses Power BI Service in a browser to view reports and perform lightweight editing tasks.
  • Designer: This individual enjoys far more complex roles. Creating and sharing reports using Power BI is their forte.

Here are a few use cases where Power BI dashboards and reports can make a difference in the angle of visualizing data:

  • Financial reporting
  • Resource management
  • Sales scorecard
  • Inventory optimization
  • Claims, billing, and collection report

With that, we usher in the very last one of Power Platform’s majestic quartet: Power Virtual Agents.

 

Microsoft Power Virtual Agents

Modern business is changing; employee and customer expectations are shifting—both from an added-value perspective. Teams want to minimize repeated tasks, and customers want to quickly self-service if they can. Over the last few years, chatbots have become increasingly popular as an answer to these demands.

Enter Power Virtual Agents.

Power Virtual Agents is the newest of all Power Platform standalone tools. Before its addition to the trio in late 2019, Virtual Agents existed as part of Microsoft Dynamics.

Above all else, this tool empowers non-IT people throughout your organization to start building relatively sophisticated conversational bots—all with zero programming knowledge.

At the heart of a Microsoft Power Virtual Agent is a powerful authoring canvas that allows you to add more sophisticated functionality at each step, turning a simple conversation into a more complete process. These additions include the ability to add “Calls to Action,” retrieve information from different systems, including SharePoint lists, trigger workflows that leverage Power Automate, and the ability to transfer to another topic within the tool.

Another standout capability of Power Virtual Agents is strong analytics straight of the box that shows how users interact with a certain topic. A well-designed analytics board down to the topic level enables authors to make high-level changes on the go.

The best part? Power Virtual Agents is extensible to Azure Bot Services, allowing you to build out advanced and customized scenarios without having to leave the platform.

Now that we’ve covered Power Platform’s four main toolsets in all their entirety, how about we look at other crucial topics around this topic?

 

Power Platform Certification Path

While all of these tools sound nice from a business improvement point of view, you may have a simple question: “what does it take to be recognized as a specialist of one or all of the new MS Power Platform’s products?”

One word: certifications.

Microsoft Power Platform certifications don’t really cost an arm and a leg. Typically, most certifications start at $165 or thereabout, except for PL-900, which starts at $99 (although it’s subject to change).

Speaking of PL-900—it’s a crucial MS certification that verifies an individual’s abilities and understanding of Power Platform Fundamentals. By fundamentals, we mean Power Platform’s basic business processes, data analysis, and more.

It’s best if you can have a foundational understanding of computer technology, data analytics, cloud computing, and the internet before taking on the course. That way, you’ll increase your chances of acing the PL-900 exam.

The Power Platform certification path, of course, doesn’t end there. If at all you want to become the “master chef in the kitchen,” a rougher certification route awaits—but it’s totally worth it in the end.

At the associate level, there are certifications like:

  • Power Platform App Maker (PL-100)
  • Power Platform Developer (PL-400)
  • Power Platform Functional Consultant Associate (PL-200)
  • Data Analyst Associate (DA-100)

Climb higher up the ladder, and you’ll find an expert-level certification called Power Platform Solution Architect Expert (PL-600). It’s the most advanced Power Platform certification out there, and those who hold it can boast of being true masters of manipulating the ecosystem.

That aside, let’s look at Power Platform pricing (hint: it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg!)

 

Microsoft Power Platforms team

 

Power Platform Pricing

On the outside, it’s easy to perceive Microsoft Power Platform as an expensive solution that’s purely reserved for those with fat pockets. However, Microsoft has recently changed the Power Platform licensing model to make it more accessible to customers. Depending on your organization’s unique needs, you can now enjoy the platform’s full functionality at incredibly competitive prices.

It’s worth noting, though, that the general approach to the Microsoft Power Platform licensing did not change in the October 2021 update. There are still three main buying scenarios:

  • Volume Licensing (VL)
    • Enterprise Agreement (EA)
    • Enterprise Agreement Subscription (EAS)
    • Server and Cloud Enrollment (SCE)
    • Enrollment for Education Solutions (EES)—under Campus and School Agreement
  • Cloud Solution Provider
  • Microsoft Online Subscription Program (MOSP), also known as Web Direct

However, some recent changes may be pertinent to your organization’s current licensing model. Microsoft is no longer offering Select Plus licensing agreements. External users outside of your organization have to be appropriately licensed to access the common data model and apps from the Power Platform.

On a more positive note, the following Microsoft Power Platform apps are available at no extra cost:

  • Both Power BI and Power Apps can be used for free under the community plan (for personal accounts)
  • The free desktop version of Power Automate is now available within existing Windows 10 licenses

Individually, Power BI, Power Automate, Power Apps, and Power Virtual Agents licensing models are different to some extent. For example, with the new licensing system for Power Apps, users can enjoy both per-user and per-app licensing options, something that was unheard of in the older pricing system.

To fully acquaint yourself with the new Power Platform licensing update, start with a primer. Go over our very own Power Apps Pricing and Licensing Guide.

 

Learn More About the Microsoft Power Platform

Microsoft Power Platform is the best way to innovate at scale. By having the ability to create powerful business solutions faster and at only a fraction of the cost, your organization can open itself to new, endless possibilities.

Great things happen when humans delegate manual, time-consuming, energy-sapping tasks to AI. We get more freedom to do the things we love, more flexibility to harness our creative juices, and ultimately more time to focus on the business processes that truly matter.

This is your chance to change your organization’s future outlook for the better. We trust you’ll make the right decision.

If you’d like to get help setting up your Power Platform system, reach out to us at IncWorx. For 21 years now, we have provided industry-leading guidance, support, and essential business technology to help you advance your business workflows. Contact us about our Microsoft consulting services today and start setting yourself apart from the competition.

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