Microsoft Flow: First Impressions

Over the last several weeks I’ve had my first experiences using Microsoft Flow in a real-world application. The client has dozens of old 2010-style SharePoint Designer workflows touching a number of business functions: Sales, Procurement, Change Management, and Human Resources, and they were looking for a way to modernize their development process and eliminate some of the quirks and irksome bugs that have been plaguing their users.  Hearing that the client was looking down the road at moving from on-premises SharePoint Server 2013 to the cloud, I recommended re-writing a number of these processes in Flow instead of SPD.

flow

Flow is a part of Microsoft’s new cloud-based platform for process modeling, for lack of a better phrase. The idea is that non-developers can use Flow’s intuitive user interfaces to build robust integrations between their line of business applications with no code anywhere to be found.

At first glance, Flow seems to be a huge improvement over the experience of building workflows in SharePoint Designer. For starters, it’s web-based, so there’s nothing to install. Flow comes with an impressive array of standard integration points (“connectors”), a handful of entry points (“triggers”) and hundreds of pre-defined activities you can configure (“actions”).  By dragging and dropping widgets onto the control surface and setting up some basic properties, power users can create powerful applications without having to rely on developers or IT to set it up for them.

Here are a few quick takeaways from my experiences so far.

Low expectations

SharePoint Designer workflows come with so much baggage it’s difficult to imagine preferring it to any succeeding technology that comes along. So the bar here is low.

Wide range of capability

Flow’s range of out-of-the-box integration points is very impressive, and they keep adding new connectors and actions all the time. There’s even an extension model where you can create your own and submit them for inclusion in the platform.

More of a consumer focus

Many of the integration points, though, don’t seem to make a lot of sense in most enterprise scenarios. Twitter, Facebook, and Gmail are some such connectors. And many of the starter templates are more in the personal productivity realm. For example,

  • Text me when I get an email from my boss
  • Email me when a new item shows up in a SharePoint list
  • Start a simple approval process on a document when it’s posted
  • Save Tweets to an Excel file
  • Send me an email reminder every day

 

Easy to extend

It’s really simple to create extension points in Flow. Suppose you have a need to do something that isn’t supported by a Flow action. If you can code, you can write an API to do what you need, and call it via an HTTP action.  Azure Functions work really well for this. In fact, the HTTP action is the most powerful thing in Flow. You can even use it to trigger other Flows from within a Flow.

Approvals are not fully baked

If you’re building approval workflows and are expecting the way SharePoint Designer works, you’ll be disappointed. An Approval in Flow consists of an email and a two buttons, nothing more. There is no concept of setting a status on an item, no functionality for logging (unless you roll it yourself), and no notion of tasks. It changes the way you think about approvals in general, because the old model just doesn’t apply here.

The Designer does not scale

For a simple two- or three-step flow, the designer works great. Add a couple of nested if/else blocks (‘conditions’), or more than a half-dozen or so actions, and you’ll find that  the design surface is totally unsuited to the task. Scroll bars are in difficult-to-find places and it’s often next to impossible to maintain your context when trying to move around within a Flow.

Sometimes saving a Flow will trigger a phantom validation error, and you’ll have to expand every one of your actions until you find the offending statement, because the Flow team have not seen fit to provide any sort of feedback on where the failure occurred. In addition, sometimes, especially when working with variables, the validation will fail even though the variable is properly configured.

No Code view

As clunky as the designer gets, if you’re a developer you might be more comfortable just coding your Flow the old fashioned way – after all, it’s just JSON under the hood. But alas, code view is not available in Flow. The design view is all you have.

Another implication of this: If you have places in your Flows where there are large blocks of similar functionality, you have no option to copy blocks of code and modify to suit. You’re stuck having to re-create those similar blocks of functionality, manually, in the designer, every single time. Believe me, this gets old really fast.

No versioning

If you make a change to your Flow and somehow break it, well, that’s tough, you’d better figure it out because there’s no rolling back.

Clearly Flow is not the magic bullet in the Enterprise process modeling world. It has is quirks and its pitfalls. But remember, the bar is low due to the legacy application it replaces.  SharePoint Designer workflows share many of the same deficiencies as Flow: a clumsy design experience (check), an inability to edit code directly (for all practical purposes), and no rollback model (technically possible in SPD via version history but janky as hell).

Given that SPD has had its ten-plus years in the limelight, and Flow is a brand-new V1 product with an engaged product team, I’d say the future looks bright for Flow.

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