Microsoft Power Automate: Putting Automation Within Reach for Mid-Sized Companies
Integrating processes and data between systems has always been a challenge. Historically, to span a process across multiple applications, you needed to build an integration using an ETL (Extract, Transform and Load) tool and write some code to make everything fit together. The ETL tool would need to run on a server, and IT staff would need to maintain it. With all of these requirements, these solutions were usually expensive, both to implement and to manage. This meant they were often out of reach for smaller organizations who didn’t have the available cash to invest and/or the ongoing staff to keep it running.
A few years ago, some cloud-based ETL platforms started appearing and offered better solutions for companies without on-premise servers. These were still somewhat limited in the number of systems they could connect. As closed-source applications, these products frequently relied on the software vendor to create additional connectors, which naturally limited the number of connectors produced.
With the release of Microsoft Flow (now a component within the broader Power Automate), this has changed. Microsoft, within their business application stack, has always put a priority on extensibility, and the Power Platform is no exception. With Flow, the fully documented and open API allows anyone with development skills to create new connectors for additional systems or APIs that Microsoft hasn’t built. Users and partners began building connectors, and now the Power Automate platform has hundreds of connectors available for different software systems. Plus, the capability to create your own is of course still present.
Power Automate is a fully cloud-based solution, so no hardware is needed to run it. (Of course, if you do have on-premise systems, there are options for that also). The method to create automation processes is point-and-click so developers are also not required. These capabilities dramatically lower the cost to integrate and automate, both for initial deployment as well as ongoing maintenance. This brings these features within reach for smaller organizations.
In addition, Power Automate provides some things that traditional ETL tools never offered — Robotic Process Automation, or RPA. Known as “UI Flows” within Power Automate, RPA allows for the scripting and automation of application actions where no API is available. Think of this like macros for any application. You can script a set of actions, for example:
- Click into the “username” field
- Enter data “username”
- Press Tab
- Enter data “password”
- Click “login”
- Click “header 2”
- Enter date, etc.
You essentially are recording and playing back a set of actions. These actions can include clicking on areas, entering static or dynamic values, using keyboard shortcuts, or anything else.
RPA brings the ability for you to automate processes within applications where the API doesn’t support the actions you wish to automate, or where the application has no API or is too old. Consider a mainframe application, where the only access is via keyboard shortcuts. Perhaps this application is critical to the business running such that you cannot replace it easily but new users struggle to learn it. In that case, you could leverage RPA to have users put their data into an easier-to-use application and then enter it automatically in the background via RPA. Other use cases include rote tasks such as logging into a vendor portal monthly to retrieve a report, copy/pasting data between applications or spreadsheets, or other tasks that cannot otherwise be easily automated via code.
All of these features make it much easier than it used to be to move data between applications, as well as make automated processes to improve efficiency and streamline operations. As is the case with other tools in the Power Platform stack, there is a free version that allows you to try out Power Automate solutions without committing to a purchase. If you have any questions or want to learn more about Power Automate, attend our webinar next week or register for the Power Platform Boot Camp!