How are complex web workflows visualized

Business software

The workflows of all companies have the potential to simplify and automate processes. Workflow systems that also visualize work steps ensure comprehensible, efficient and safe processes. This makes it clear at a glance what, when, why and where happens and what needs to happen next. Workflow systems help to develop work processes in such a way that people work together better and faster. For use in the Windows environment, the different solutions and approaches are compared and the advantages and disadvantages are explained below.

As an obvious solution, automated processes can be integrated into the company's intranet and are therefore accessible to all stakeholders. So let's first take a look at SharePoint, which is still the most frequently used platform for intranet solutions.

SharePoint Designer workflow

Out of the box Designer workflows are included in all SharePoint variants and licenses, i.e. in Standard, Enterprise, On-Premises and Online. There are no additional costs for their use. The tool with which the workflows can be developed, the SharePoint Designer, can also be downloaded free of charge. It goes without saying that these workflows offer close integration in SharePoint. Small workflows can be created with a little practice by experienced SharePoint users without any programming knowledge.

However, the functional scope of the Designer Workflows is severely limited. Even with simple loops, the Designer Workflows do not offer any support. Complex workflows can arise from simple processes. Unfortunately, the handling is not optimally solved either: Several modal dialogues are quickly superimposed, which can cause the overview to be lost.

Some missing operations can be compensated for by calling up web services, which can be a real challenge even for experienced SharePoint users or those with a developer background. In addition, important administrative functions are missing: Workflows cannot be copied, archived or, for example, transferred from the test to the production system.

Nevertheless, workflows with SharePoint Designer should not be ruled out in principle. However, if several non-trivial workflows are planned or if system-critical processes are to be implemented, it makes sense to consider more powerful systems. The rumor that SharePoint Designer workflows cannot be operated with SharePoint 2016 or SharePoint Online is wrong. The workflow engine is still available online and on-premises and has not been discontinued. However, Microsoft has not further developed the SharePoint Designer for version 2016 - however, the SharePoint Designer 2013 can be used unchanged for SharePoint 2016 and SharePoint Online.

Nintex for SharePoint (On-Premises)

Nintex for SharePoint has been available since SharePoint 2007 and is the most frequently used workflow system for SharePoint. Since Nintex is directly integrated into the SharePoint interface and the functions for creating workflows are optimized, workflows can be created more easily and intuitively than with Designer workflows.

Nintex is also based on the SharePoint workflow engine. In contrast to the Designer Workflows, Nintex extends the functionality through a variety of actions. Nintex strictly follows the path of providing solutions for as many requirements as possible and at the same time offering frequent application scenarios quickly and easily. Furthermore, a real application live cycle can be mapped with the management functions, and tracing is available for troubleshooting.

In order to expand Nintex On-Premises, own actions can be developed in .NET. These are installed as a farm solution on the SharePoint server. In return, you get full flexibility. Another benefit of Nintex On-Premises is the form editor. This can implement the usual use cases directly. With extended requirements, it pays off that the Nintex forms can be completely customized with HTML / CSS and JavaScript - even if you need programming knowledge.

However, it should not be concealed that the functionality of Nintex On-Premises has not been significantly expanded in recent years. The stagnation in development is probably due to the focus on the product "Nintex Cloud", which we will look at later.

Nintex for Office 365

Nintex also offers a version for SharePoint Online (Office 365). At first glance, this appears to be identical to the on-premises version, because it is also completely integrated into SharePoint. However, Nintex for Office 365 is based on a different technology. Office 365 only allows integration as a hosted app, which prevents access to the server functionality. This manifests itself in the fact that some actions that are familiar and often used with on-premises are missing in the Office 365 variant or have fewer functions.

In addition, it is not so easy to access another site collection from the Nintex Office 365 app. This also means that individual actions are more complex to use or their functionality is restricted. In particular, an account often has to be specified in the promotion without the option to manage this account centrally. All of this means that Nintex solutions are more complex to implement in Office 365 and cannot be used as flexibly as in the on-premises world. However, the forms do not differ in the on-premises and cloud versions.

It is to be feared that the further development of the Office 365 version will have to fall back on the Nintex Cloud due to the prioritization. If you compare the functionality of the Nintex Cloud and that of the version for Office 365, many scenarios can already be implemented more easily with the Nintex Cloud.

Microsoft Flow / Azure Logic Apps

Microsoft Flow and Azure logic apps are technically identical: While Microsoft Flow is suspended in Office 365, the logic apps are part of Azure. The main difference between the two is that in addition to a graphical user interface, the logic apps also have a text input (JSON notation). The difference between Flow and the logic apps is covered in more detail in the article "Developing components quickly in the cloud".

In contrast to the systems presented so far, Flow provides its own engine and is therefore independent of SharePoint or other systems. This independence is an outstanding feature, because Flow offers the connection to over 160 different cloud systems. However, Flow is currently still missing some functions to implement extensive processes. Rather, flow can be described as a system for relaying events. Calculations within Flow are difficult to implement. For example, it is difficult to compose longer, more complex texts from several variables.

For this and similar functions, own web services can be integrated via a Swagger file (Open API). Since the Azure Functions offer an automatic mechanism for this, so that the connection can be made via a button, calculations can be outsourced without problems.

Although Flow is a cloud product, you can also access your own on-premises data (e.g. SharePoint on-premises server) via a data gateway. The flexibility of Flow to connect other systems can be used in many ways. K2 (see below) explains how K2 workflows can be controlled by other systems with the help of Flow.

Microsoft is developing the Flow product at an astonishing pace. New connectors for other systems and functions are added regularly. Above all, however, the direct integration of Flow in SharePoint Online (Office 365) shows the importance of flow. Like SharePoint workflows, flows can be started directly from SharePoint and, for example, a comment can be entered immediately after approval - this option is not available to other solutions.

The simple possibility of starting flows from smartphones directly as a native app makes it possible to implement application scenarios that are not supported by other providers. All in all, simple business-critical processes can already be implemented. In the future, the possible uses will certainly increase even further. The comparatively low price also contributes to the success of this still very young solution.