Since the acquisition of the AdxStudio portal solution by Microsoft, clients and vendors alike have been keen to explore the value of Dynamics Portals, and the additional possibilities of having a solution integrated with a Dynamics 365 for Customer Engagement instance.
This often seems especially appealing considering that there is a ‘free’ production portal instance available to a high number of existing and new Dynamics 365 for Customer Engagement customers.
Most organisations have data that they would like to share with people outside of their organisation, be it customers, vendors or partners. And a web portal or as I prefer to think of it a ‘web experience’ is often a desirable option. For more information on the Portals offering please see Microsoft Docs; here
When we approach portal solutions with Dynamics 365 CE, it is tempting to think of the Dynamics Portal offering as the ‘go-to’ solution. However this is not always the case, and it is important to ensure you are fully prepared for the project ahead. But what kind of things should you consider when making a decision?
Sizing the Fit
As with any Dynamics project is important to identify if Dynamics Portals is a good fit for you or your client. There are a few important things to consider up front;
- Are there broader requirements besides surfacing and interacting with D365 CE data?
- Are the requirements covered in a portal template?*
- Is it a replacement to an existing portal experience?
- What special UI/UX requirements do they have? How will people be accessing the site?
- What authentication type is required? Is it supported?
- How often will the admin’ be making changes/improvements?
- How much customisation is required to meet the required experience (not just styling)?
- Have we considered the number of deployments required and the number of portal instances?
- What is the estimated volume of traffic to the portal? What performance metrics are there?
Now this might seem like quite a list up front, but ensuring you know the answer to these questions will mean you can thank yourself later! And it is important to identify as many answers as you can early, to avoid any unpleasant surprises.
“But what in particular should I look out for?” you might ask, well let’s have a look at some of the key factors that have influenced the items in the above list…
Data Requirements and Portal Templates
When considering if a Dynamics Portal is the right solution from a data perspective, I recommend thinking about the following things;
- The type of data you want to surface and how you want those accessing to interact with that data.
- Where is the data mastered, within your Customer Engagement instance? Other data sources?
- What data is editable and what is read only?
- What type of process is being catered for and do the users have a D365 CE subscription?
The last point on users is important, whilst it is possible that a customer, vendor or partner can view, submit or interact with data through your web experience or an app without consuming a Dynamics 365 CE subscription, you need to be careful of the process and replication of functions that would be performed by a fully subscribed Dynamics 365 user, such as Case Management. It is OK to submit, update and see case details as a portal user outside of your organisation, but for anyone needing to own a case and working through the case resolution process it is likely they will need to have a D365 CE subscription to avoid multiplexing issues.
As for access to the data; Dynamics Portals relies on the use of web roles and entity permissions in order to interact or just read data displayed, so it is important to map these out and understand how they work, (for information on web roles click here).
Portal templates are available as mentioned earlier for Partner, Customer and Employee portals, these can be a great start for your Dynamics Portal experience, particularly for customer self-service, which allows portal users to; submit a new Case, view existing Cases, search the Knowledge Base or contribute to a customer community. With a little configuration this can be a great entry into the world of web experience for your customers, especially for small to medium sized organisations. An overview of getting started with a portal template can be found here.
Configuration lead implementations are often less complex and a much better fit for Dynamics Portals, which leads me on to the next area…
Authentication and User Experience
Access and experience of those interacting with the web experience is a paramount consideration; how will your users be authenticating? What user experience and user interface requirements are there?
All portal users require a Contact in D365 CE. Web Roles and Entity Permissions are applied to a portal users once they are authorised, but to get authorisation portal capabilities for Dynamics 365 for Customer Engagement out of the box provides authentication functionality built on the ASP.Net Identity framework.
The services provided out of the box include;
- Local (username/password) user sign-in
- External (social provider) user sign-in through third-party identity providers
- Two-factor authentication with email
- Email address confirmation
- Password recovery
- Invitation code sign-up for registering pre-generated contact records
However, for other authentication methods, you need to consider the use of another tool like Azure AD B2C, which can be used to authenticate with third parties; https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/services/active-directory-b2c/ this does require some development and an understanding of the underlying technology. So you might require some expert assistance,
For more information on O.O.B. access see Docs resource here.
As for customising the user experience, Dynamics Portals does allow for the use of CSS/Bootstrap to allow for branding of the portal; colour scheme, header and footer, images etc. and dynamic content can be achieved with the use of Liquid Templates and customisation of Web Templates. However it is important to consider the maintenance and change process for any customisation. Small changes can make a big difference and you’ll definitely need that sandbox, which brings me to the next point…
Instances and Deployments
When considering Dynamics Portals as your web experience solution you’ll need to consider how you are supporting the portal and making changes around BAU activity. As part of this discussion you’ll need to consider how many portal instances are required, as mentioned earlier a single instance is provided for most Dynamics 365 CE customers. Additional sandbox instances of the portal are not, they are instead purchased as subscriptions like any other Dynamics 365 CE subscription (the process will vary depending on how you purchase).
At the time of writing each additional portal sandbox instance is approx. $500 USD per month, these costs must be factored into your business case as an ongoing operational expense.
Best practice means most consumers of Dynamics 365 for Customer Engagement have at least three instances, one production or live instance and two sandboxes, for development and testing – some organisations have more. If we assume there are two sandbox instances in use and each of these needs a portal, then that means an approximated $12,000 USD per year. So don’t fall into the trap of thinking Dynamics Portals comes for free!
After you have completed development or configuration of your Dynamics 365 for Customer Engagement Portal instance, you will likely want to migrate your latest configuration from development to testing or the production environments. Migration involves exporting the existing configuration from the source Dynamics 365 for Customer Engagement instance, and then importing it into the target Dynamics 365 for Customer Engagement instance. To aid this there is the Configuration Migration tool, particularly useful as not only are there configuration files but also the data stored in custom entities created for Portals. The only way to move what you have done between Dynamics 365 CE and Portal instances is to ensure that all of the related components are migrated. It is recommended that you consider automated deployments wherever possible.
The degree of fit for your immediate, medium term and long term requirements are important, and whilst Dynamics Portals can be a great entry point for small to medium businesses, it’s not exactly “plug and play”, and so you’ll need to ensure the right governance is in place and gain an understanding of your web experience road map. Where are you now? Where do you want to be? What will make the difference?
As always, there are other solutions that might be a better fit for the scale, complexity or experience you are looking to provide and I recommend finding the right partner to help deliver what you need.
Hopefully this post has provided a prompt for your own considerations and what you need to be successful. What about your own experiences with Dynamics Portals? Reply with comments if you want to share.
Happy UX’ing! 🙂