Revamping a content management system at Microsoft with Microsoft Power Platform

Jun 24, 2020   |  

Early this year, the Microsoft Inside Track team set out to modernize its content management system.

The decision to overhaul a legacy platform is not one companies enter lightly. Considerations such as time, people, and budget must be weighed before undertaking such a massive shift—even if the original system is outdated and clunky.

The original system ran on an older version of SharePoint. The new content management system uses Microsoft Power Apps with a Microsoft Azure SQL back end, Microsoft Power Automate as the workflow engine, and Microsoft Power BI as the reporting engine.

Head shot photo of Tracey Peyton, a developer vendor working with the IT Showcase team.
Tracey Peyton, lead developer with Microsoft vendor MediaPlant.

“As the previous content management system got used more, it just couldn’t scale—it got slow, very slow,” says Tracey Peyton, a developer vendor from Microsoft and co-leader of the transition. “It was really a no-brainer to go to SQL for the back end and use Power Apps for the UI with Power Automate as the workflow because the scalability and interoperability is there.”

Running legacy systems can come with a host of challenges, including performance and compliance issues. But even with low user satisfaction, modernizing platforms isn’t necessarily where companies want to put their money.

After issues with the previous platform reached a peak, it became abundantly clear that it wasn’t performing how they needed. The Microsoft Inside Track team decided to make the leap, and the results did not disappoint, Peyton says.

The Inside Track team, which sits in Microsoft Digital, creates content that shows IT decision-makers, IT pros, and others how Microsoft uses its own technology and services to support its employees and internal business groups.

Peyton, who is on the team, has been doing web development since 1993 as a pro developer. He says that the move to Microsoft Power Platform (which includes Microsoft Power Apps, Microsoft Power Automate, and Microsoft Power BI) and Microsoft Azure SQL had numerous benefits that couldn’t be ignored.

[Learn how Finance transformed global payroll processes with Microsoft Power Automate. Read about how citizen developers have used Power Apps to build an intelligent launch assistant. Check out the business solutions different groups in Microsoft have built with Power Automate.]

The best of both worlds

On top of Microsoft Power Platform’s increased capability to scale, it’s a system that both pro and citizen developers can agree on and synergize within because of its flexibility and capabilities that accelerate their work.

The Microsoft Power Platform is a no-code or low-code platform for setting up sophisticated systems and is well suited for citizen and professional developers alike, Peyton says. Pro developers don’t want to write more code than is necessary. The ability to set up a workflow that can call a SQL query with no lines of code is a win for everyone.

Peyton led the vanguard for the migration to Microsoft Power Platform with Daniel Cumner, a senior business project manager with Microsoft who recently hit his 24-year mark at the company. Cumner considers himself a citizen developer, which is an employee that creates business applications even though their job doesn’t require it. He credits Microsoft Power Platform for its short ramp-up time and extensive ability to connect with other platforms. As of the writing of this blog post, you can connect to over 350 connectors⁠—and the list continues to grow.

“Almost out of the box, anyone can start building an app—with the wide variety of connectors available and the ability to leverage data and functionality from other systems, it’s straightforward,” Cumner says. “It gives you ease of access for citizen developers.”

Compliance is also an aspect that can easily outrun the abilities of a legacy system.

“Policies change much quicker than tech requirements—our move to Microsoft Power Platform allowed us to respond to policy needs much more quickly,” Cumner says.

 

The graphic shows the old and the new system.
The components of the old system versus the new system.

The migration from the old system to the new included:

  • SharePoint data to Microsoft Azure SQL: The team took the opportunity to move our data from SharePoint and Microsoft Excel to SQL. Most of the static data moved easily. But because the team wanted to keep the new environment in sync while tested, it used Microsoft Power Automate to sync changes and transform any data that needed extra attention.
  • Custom SharePoint UI to Microsoft Power Apps: To ease user transition, the team tried to keep a similar interface with the new UI, but some controls (like multi-select combo boxes and People Pickers) didn’t work the same in Microsoft Power Apps. In these cases, the team built alternatives where needed.

 

This is a screen capture of the new Microsoft Power App UI.
The new Microsoft Power App UI.
  • Microsoft Power Automate for workflow: Because Microsoft Power Automate seamlessly integrates with the platforms the team was using, Cumner and the rest of the team had already been moving their workflows to Microsoft Power Automate. With the ability to invoke stored procedures in SQL, the team has even more options and flexibility to meet its automation needs.
  • Microsoft Power BI for dashboards: This was the heaviest lift of the migration. With plenty of deprecated data in the old system, it was time to rebuild these from scratch. The team moved to shared data sources, making it easy to create multiple reports without rebuilding its datasets each time.

Flipping the switch

The development took place over six months.

Cumner and Peyton embarked on the migration first in an exploratory sense. There was much back and forth about how Microsoft Power Platform could meet the business needs without any functional loss—and with the exploration, a lot of prototyping was involved.

Months later, when it came time to complete the migration, the system only had to go offline for a few hours.

“When it was time to flip the switch, it was scary, and we were both a little nervous at first,” Peyton says, explaining that they need not have worried—everything worked seamlessly. “I was really pleased with the increased performance—things were loading much quicker.”

Microsoft Power Platform enables pro developers like Peyton to accelerate their solutions. Using Microsoft Azure SQL with Microsoft Power Platform meant that Peyton could hook up a SQL database with workflow, reporting, and a powerful front end without writing code. Pro developers don’t want to build more code than necessary.

“Whereas before we had to do some wild data transformations on the previous system (the older SharePoint), we were able to step back and say that we can do this with SQL,” Peyton says. “Because of the interoperability of the Power Platform, we can move to managing data in native environments where you can get much more efficient processing.”

But, he says, there were pain points.

With Microsoft Power Platform, they did initially give up some functionality. One of those, Cumner says, was related to data sheet views.

“We lasted only a week before the people who used data sheet views said ‘nope,’” Cumner says.

The data sheet view offered the ability to make changes to multiple fields across several records directly to the underlying data without using the main form. It was only really for power users. But, within hours, Cumner was able to build a separate Power App that provided the necessary access to the desired fields without compromising the data.

 

This is a screen shot of the Power App version of the data sheet view which allows multiple record edits across multiple fields.
The new Microsoft Power App version of data sheet view allows a quick edit on multiple fields across multiple records.

“We could roll that out without being too concerned about breaking something,” Cumner says.

Microsoft Power Platform allows full customization that can be fitted to the needs of those using it.

“There’s such a breadth of interoperability,” Peyton says. “The system allows you to focus on what you need and offload what you don’t.”

Problem-solving without the burden of technical problems

From a business perspective, Cumner says, Microsoft Power Platform “allows the people who know the business to solve business problems and not have to worry too much about technical problems.”

From being faster, more easily customizable, scalable, fully compliant, and having capabilities that charm both citizen and pro developers, Microsoft Power Platform has become the answer to a legacy system that Inside Track had outgrown.

“We have the agility and flexibility to take this system wherever we want from here,” Cumner says.

The success of Microsoft Power Platform, Peyton says, can ultimately be traced to the system being able to flawlessly integrate—and Microsoft’s willingness to cater to the “next level” of integration.

“Over the last few years, Microsoft has made a great effort to refocus, ensuring they provide tools to developers so that they can interoperate with any environment; it doesn’t matter what you want to integrate with, regardless of platform,” Peyton says. “They are giving developers the tools that they need to do what they need to do.”

Learn how Finance transformed global payroll processes with Microsoft Power Automate.

Read about how citizen developers have used Power Apps to build an intelligent launch assistant.

Check out the business solutions different groups in Microsoft have built with Power Automate.

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