The Future of Business Process Tools with SharePoint
Written by Doug Allen, originally published on the C5insight blog, October, 11, 2016.
You’ve been there, we all have. At one point or another, we loved InfoPath and were disappointed at the news it would be discontinued. We waited with anticipation to see what was going to replace it. It’s been quite the gray unknown for a long time, and in part the Ignite conference this year didn’t make any overwhelm anyone with any big announcements in this regard. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t one.
I admit that may be I am a little late to the party in terms of awareness. I think for awhile there has been conjecture and guessing, with a little mind reading and checking the SharePoint tarot cards. MVP Vlad Catrinescu wrote a nice summary at the time on his blog. Well, there was ONE session (and a smaller repeat) where it was made abundantly clear the future and direction with InfoPath and workflow. InfoPath wasn’t even a product to choose in the schedule builder! Only now those 2 are on demand:
Notice I said workflow as well. I know, every time this has been discussed all people want to know is InfoPath, InfoPath, InfoPath.
If you take a step back and remember the bigger picture, InfoPath is just part of the problem. A business process usually has two main parts:
- Data entry via a form of some kind (form)
- Automated steps to collect information for users throughout the process (workflow)
While they are separate entities and configurations in SharePoint, you usually don’t see an InfoPath form without some form of workflow behind to automate certain tasks. These tasks interact with data from the form for approval, feedback or emails.
A Quick History and Landscape Review
As I’m sure you’re aware, Microsoft made it clear that InfoPath 2013 as implemented in SharePoint 2013 would be the last version of the application and service. It’s included in SharePoint 2016 and SharePoint Online, and will be supported until the year 2026 in its current form (the support lifecycle end of SharePoint 2016). It’s not included in Office 2016, but you can download InfoPath as an add-on free.
Last year they first tried to go down the road of FOSL (Forms on SharePoint Server), but that quickly pulled. The future was very confusing and unclear. Then on the periphery we starting to see early previews of something Project Siena. Looked cool, you could build forms that connected to SharePoint and many other data sources, but there was nothing that really pointed to how it related to our topic.
On another facet there was a new feature for Office.com and OneDrive where you could use Excel and create an “Excel Survey“. If you ever used it, it’s a great way to build a very simple form with basic questions, and the results would be stored in the Excel file as rows. Then I believe this technology was branched out to Microsoft Forms announced in June 2016. Currently Microsoft Forms is targeted and only available to the education space.
Over the past year, we’ve seen Project Siena get it’s official branding to PowerApps. Then a few months ago we saw the preview release of Microsoft Flow (I believe codename Process Simple). It was early and for awhile we weren’t sure where these fit into the landscape of SharePoint. Yes they could interact with SharePoint, but it wasn’t like InfoPath.
With the release of SharePoint 2016, we saw ZERO changes / improvements with SharePoint workflow. That’s odd. I talked to someone at the Microsoft booth at Ignite, and they said well the workflow team was just completely focused on making the workflow platform compatible with new dependencies like Windows and SQL. Umm ok?
Would Microsoft Forms be expanded a ton to replace InfoPath? Would they still introduce something else, or where would PowerApps? What’s happening to workflow?
What Did We Learn?
At Ignite they have answered the question. It might have gotten put out there at a previous SharePoint event I’m not sure. Regardless, they showed this slide for InfoPath:
And the next slide for workflow:
Basically they broke it up like this:
- PowerApps will replace InfoPath, but it won’t have exact feature parity.
- They looked at the primary uses of workflow, and by far it was for approvals. So they decided to build Flow to very simply and easily create an automated business process. This should be used when you have simple to average needs and your data set is from multiple sources, or are not full-blown enterprise wide.
- Flow will NOT be replacing the larger enterprise functions that 3rd-party provide like Nintex, K2, AgilePoint, etc.
You can watch the entire video from Ignite here.
What Does All This Mean? What Do We Do Now?
We already know that InfoPath won’t be patched/upgraded, but it’s a good bet that workflow will also not have any updates. It sounds like it might receive some compatibility fixes to make it work with newer SharePoint and operating systems but not much else. So for those on-premise, I think the story is a little further out and you have more time to adjust.
I believe short term you have no worries. You can keep using InfoPath, but I would try to minimize their spread. I wouldn’t go crazy and build many many custom crazy forms with code behind. You will just be screwing yourself into a corner and making your life much more difficult than it needs to be. I see three options:
- Stay out of the box as much as possible. Simple is better, and if you can stay that way, your upgrades will be easier.
- When you do need to go custom, minimize things like customized display and edit forms, but instead leverage things like JSLink (if you have 2013) or higher to customize things.
- Switch to 3rd-party. You can switch to tools like Nintex, K2, AgilePoint and Claysys. This can go from free to very expensive, so evaluate the options and your requirements.
I will mention that yes, you can also use PowerApps and Flow, but they are both in Preview. I would absolutely recommend to start looking at these tools, sign up and start using them, and see what they can do. Build some proof of concepts for some business requirements and see where they could fit.
If you have InfoPath forms with code behind, Microsoft has some guidance about how to deal with those moving forward.
Obviously we now know the direction, and this will get baked out over time. Once released, this will get more integrated into SharePoint Online new library and list experiences, and features expanded to provide a lot of the same functionality you have today and more.
Definitely let us know if you have any questions or want to discuss your upgrade or migration with SharePoint.
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