Microsoft Flow Overview

Duane OdumPrior to the May 4th event in 2016 there was a blog post by James Phillips titled Power to the people: introducing Microsoft Flow and announcing the public preview of PowerApps.  Microsoft Flow became generally available on October 31st 2016 and although its use case is not restricted to Office 365 or Microsoft products it has certainly started to pick up some steam in the Office 365 community.

At its core Microsoft Flow is really a cloud based “if this then that” (commonly abbreviated to IFTTT) solution that is intended to enable Power Users to create business applications in an easy to use editor.  When used along with Power BI and PowerApps Microsoft Flow can certainly allow non-developers the ability to create some pretty solid applications to solve business problems.  There are numerous Microsoft Flow Templates and services already available to get you started and those numbers are only going to increase as the technology picks up more momentum.

In Microsoft Flow you can connect to the various services available using your own credentials or a service account and use an existing template, modify it or create your own.  Each service has a predefined set of Triggers that you can use to start your Microsoft Flow.  So if I wanted to track all the mentions of Angular 2 on Twitter I could create a Microsoft Flow that searches the text of posts on Twitter for “Angular2” and if it is found then write the User Name and Tweet text to a SharePoint Online list or any of the other available service connections.  Obviously that is something I probably would not want to leave on all the time as I could end up with 10,000 records in a SharePoint Online list pretty quickly but it is really as simple as clicking a button (moving a slider actually) to turn the Microsoft Flow off and on.

Okay, that is all well and good but what if the service that I need to connect with isn’t available?  If there is a RESTful API available, you can create 5 custom connections per Microsoft Flow account.  There are some request restrictions (500 per minute as of typing this) and you will obviously need a developer to create the connection but the process is pretty well documented.  Most web developers should have no issue creating a custom API connection in Microsoft Flow.

On one of the slides from the presentation at SharePoint Saturday in Brussles it was stated that “Flow is the successor to SharePoint Designer workflows for basic automation, with a grow-up story to Logic Apps, API Management, BizTalk.”.  I think that is a pretty accurate synopsis when it comes to how Microsoft Flow fits into the SharePoint development world.  While we still have access to SharePoint 2013 Designer and are able to build our simple workflows through this interface for SharePoint 2013, 2016 and Online Microsoft Flow will likely be the preferred method for these in the future.

All of this goodness does not come without a cost though.  You can do some pretty slick stuff with the free version but you will notice that some of the services listed have “Premium” labels and as you can imagine those have a cost associated.  Feel free to check out the Microsoft Flow pricing at your convenience but just know that with the free model you get 750 runs per month, unlimited flow creation and 15 minute checks.  For more details on restrictions and what actually counts as a run and check please reference the Billing Questions page of the Microsoft Flow site.

As is the case with most of the Power User applications made available as of late Microsoft has created a series of video tutorials to walk through the basics you can find in the following link: Get started with Microsoft Flow. I would highly recommend checking those out, especially if you are not necessarily tech savvy but interested in the capabilities.  These walkthroughs provide a pretty good starting point for anyone wanting to understand Microsoft Flow.

Also it is important to note that you may not care about the Management, Environments or Data Loss Prevention videos but I assure you that your IT folks do (or least they should).  The governance story is still evolving with Microsoft Flow but there are certainly going to be some challenges within an organization around managing applications like PowerBI, PowerApps and Flow. For those of us curious about the governance and administration of Microsoft Flow there is an entire section of the documentation regarding the administration of Microsoft Flow and it does answer some of the most common questions.

So you have read through everything, done a few flows and found that it doesn’t quite fulfill your requirements, what do you do now? This is where the “grow-up” story comes into play and you can look to Logic Apps for more advanced scenarios.  This is where IT Pros and Developers come into play and Power Users will generally (not always) fall back and give the requirements to IT.  If you are curious as to what the differences between Microsoft Flow and Logic Apps are you can find a handy overview in the Azure documentation.

Self-service business solution development is becoming more and more prevalent.  Every year we are adding members to the work force outside of Information Technology that grew up with technology and they are expecting to be able to solve their own business problems.  PowerBI, PowerApps and Flow are just the tools that those folks are asking for.  I don’t believe developers need to be fearful of being replaced anytime in the near future but these types of applications do add an additional paradigm for us to understand and some more tools to the tool belt for us to know.  As GI Joe said “Knowing is half the battle!”.

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