How to Get Started with Nintex

As an active Nintex partner, we frequently work with organizations to get started using the Nintex platforms for SharePoint Server, Office 365 and the Nintex Workflow Cloud.  We help these customers through their trial period, or after the sales get started so that they can make the most from their technology investment.  Our interests here are less on selling software and more about evangelizing Workflow & Content Automation concepts and practices so that people can improve their work life. We are regularly asked “How should we get started?” so this post is our standard answer to that question. 

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Getting Started with Nintex

 

Getting Started with Nintex 101

This section is going to be short and sweet.  The team at Nintex has done a fantastic job building relevant content through their Community site.  If you haven’t registered already and are at all interested in Nintex, please register now. 

Secondly, they provide many great sections to address the specifics such as:

Once the software is installed and configured, you really need to get your hands on it and start working through creating a solution.  There are some step-by-step guides to support you there and it is a good place to start. 

Hands-On Workshops

Depending on the number of people you want to train and what the participants hope to gain we offer a few hands-on workshop options. 

2-3 Day Quick Start Workshop

If there are only a few people that need training and the customer is focused on a specific solution, B&R will typically start with a 2-3 day Quick Start Workshop.  This workshop is used to get the team going with their first solution as we work to rough out the major areas of the form and workflow.  We focus on the foundation of the solution first and then focus on some of the more difficult problems or features so that we can pass along the wisdom of why certain decisions were made, as well as the technical details about how to address the requirements.  This is a hands-on session and upon completion of the workshop, the team should have a good start to the solution with actionable steps to take to complete the project. 

1 Day Workshop

For groups that either have more people to train, or in cases where the organization is looking to enable users outside of IT, we position a 1 Day Workshop that acts as an immersion experience introducing people to both the process concepts as well as the technology.  One of the great things about Nintex is that it really is a tool anyone can use to build solutions.  However, everyone typically needs some orientation before they can create useful solutions.  The 1 Day Workshop will orient participants and enable them to create their first end-to-end Nintex solution!

Our standard agenda for the 1 Day Workshop is below:

  • Nintex Overview:  Forms, Workflow, Mobile, Doc Gen, Hawkeye (45 minutes)
  • Process Mapping Overview (45 minutes)
  • Technical Overview (60 minutes)
    • Form Concepts
    • Workflow Concepts and Key Actions
  • Build a Form (90 minutes)
  • Build a Workflow (2.5 hours)
  • Wrap-up and Next Steps

Alternatively, for users that are either familiar with workflow tools or modern development, we can provide a tailored Workshop that supports more advanced topics such as:

  • Integrating your solution with other content platforms (Salesforce, Dynamics, Box)
  • Xtending the Nintex Platform with REST Services
  • Integrating Hawkeye for deeper insights into your process portfolio
  • Advanced scenarios for external start of workflows

Ad-Hoc Developer Support

B&R can support its customers in a variety of ways, but one way many of our customers take advantage of is through standing support agreements that can cover ad-hoc or as-needed work.  Under this scenario, we can facilitate a design kickoff where B&R consultants will review your form and workflow requirements and discuss approaches for implementing them.  The advantage here is that the overall project decisions should be better informed and the solution will be delivered significantly faster.  Secondly, we can provide as-needed developer support when your developers are stuck on a problem.  While the Nintex Community, also can provide great support options; sometimes what you really need is to get somebody on a screen share session to talk through the hurdle and the possible solutions. 

Ready to Get Started with Nintex?

Can B&R help you get more out of your Nintex investment?  Reach out today to setup a consultation to discuss how these options can help improve your team’s ability to deliver world-class solutions!

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Planning for Hybrid Integration with O365

This article is a continuation of Planning for Hybrid Cloud Deployments.

Working through provisioning of a new Office 365 tenant doesn’t take much effort. The real effort is in the planning of the key components of your O365 tenancy. In this blog series, we are going to cover the important items to take into consideration when planning your O365 tenancy, particularly when it comes to hybrid environments. We will briefly cover hybrid O365 scenarios and what components to be aware of. Late in the series, I will dive a bit deeper into specific hybrid scenarios. As usual, along the way I will be sure to highlight the lessons learned and pitfalls to be aware of.

In most cases, it’s safe to say that organizations will not need more than one O365 tenant. There are some special cases where this is a requirement. This article will not cover multi-tenant O365 scenarios. If multiple O365 tenants are required, there will need to be some additional planning around domains, synchronizing users into multiple tenancies, and the impact on other O365 services. The TechNet article found here covers the pros and cons of single and multiple tenant O365 deployments.

The first step in planning your O365 deployment is to perform some discovery around your current IT infrastructure and enterprise applications. For example, you will want to identify all on-premises applications such as Exchange, SharePoint, and Skype for Business that may have integration points into some of the other O365 services. These integration points could potentially have an impact on the deployment of your O365 tenant. Pay special attention to the authentication approach that is selected for users. User authentication is one of those early planning decision items that needs to consider some of the integration points with other on-premises applications mentioned above. Take inventory and make sure that if you are integrating your on-premises environment with O365 that you meet the O365 requirements for each of the following:

  • Active Directory
  • Network architecture and DNS domains
  • Mail routing
  • Authentication solutions
  • Mail archiving and compliance
  • Network bandwidth
  • Certificates
  • Hardware and software for Azure AD Connect and possibly ADFS deployment
  • Mail archiving and compliance

Here is a great O365 deployment checklist which adds much more detail to the inventory which should be taken of the current environment. The table in the checklist includes inventory tasks and overall questions that should be discussed prior to your organization’s deployment. This is particularly true with organizations who want to leverage on-premises investments in a hybrid scenario.

Organizations who want to continue to leverage their existing on-premises technologies and leverage O365 will require hybrid configuration. One of the single most important decisions to be made early with any hybrid configuration is around identity model authentication. Will users be required to enter their credentials when using any of the O365 services when they are connected to the internal network? Unfortunately, there isn’t a universal answer to this question. The answer to this question depends on your organizational requirements will dictate which Azure AD sign-in option that is chosen.

O365 sign-in options

Choosing an identity model is the foundation for your organization’s O365 implementation. Azure AD is the underpinning directory service used by Office 365 to provide access to services. An Azure AD tenant is attached to a single Office 365 tenant. Here are a couple questions that should be asked when planning your O365 identity implementation:

  1. Will existing users be migrated into Azure AD?
  2. If the organization is currently using Active Directory on-premises will users be synced using Azure AD Connect?
  3. Will new users be created directly in O365 or created in the local AD and synced to O365?
  4. What kind of sign-in experience do we want for users accessing O365 services?
  5. Is single sign on (SSO) required when authenticating to O365 services?

Identity Models

Below is a list of the different identity models that are available for configuration using Azure AD connect. Seamless SSO can be used with the password synchronization and pass-through authentication options below. Seamless SSO automatically signs users in when they are using corporate devices connected to your internal corporate network.

Password synchronization

Hashes of user passwords are synchronized from on-premises AD to Azure AD. Passwords are never sent or stored in Azure AD in clear text. Users accessing Azure AD resources (O365 services) will be able to use their corporate account to access these services.

Pass-through authentication (PTA)

User passwords are not stored in Azure AD in any form. This model uses an agent that is installed on an on-premises domain-joined machine. The agent performs all the heavy lifting and does not require any inbound ports to be open to the internet. You can enable seamless SSO on corporate domain-joined machines on the corporate network.

Federated SSO with Active Directory Federation Services (ADFS)

This option requires ADFS infrastructure for more complex environments with multiple domains authenticating to Azure AD. Users accessing O365 services from the corporate network will not have to enter passwords when switching between applications.

Each identity model has its own benefits and limitations. Pass-through authentication is somewhat of a new capability which provides organizations who do not want to store user passwords in the cloud an option. I am not going to cover how PTA works in-depth but a quick search on your favorite search engine will return some great resources and documentation.

If an organization already has invested in an ADFS infrastructure, federated SSO with ADFS is the way to go. The other two options do not require any additional, potentially redundant infrastructure. Azure AD

Connect can be installed on a domain-joined server in your current on-premises environment. Once the installation has completed the Azure AD Connect tool can be used to configure seamless SSO and user sign-in authentication. Azure AD Connect is also used to connect to Azure AD and synchronize on-premises AD directories.

Once users begin synchronizing to Azure AD and the authentication option has been chosen, the next big planning item is identifying what hybrid capabilities your organization would like to use. For example, a common question that should be asked is: “What applications will be kept and used on-premises and which workloads and applications will be migrated to the cloud?” This blog series will focus on the hybrid SharePoint capabilities with O365 and the questions and decisions that need to be made around the hybrid implementation. In the next article in this series we will dive into the different hybrid deployment options for SharePoint 2013/2016 on-premises. Such topics as authentication topology, hybrid taxonomy, hybrid auditing, and cloud hybrid sites and search.

If you are interested in deploying a hybrid system, but do not know where to start, engage B&R's Architects to help provide a detailed analysis and design supporting your deployment requirements.

 
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Getting More from Your Microsoft Cloud Hosting

Why Use a Microsoft Cloud Solution Provider (CSP) Such as B&R?

Using a Microsoft Cloud Solution Provider (CSP) can help you get the most out of your cloud hosting experience. More and more, Microsoft is making an effort to drive customers to partners that have the title of ‘Cloud Solution Provider’, or CSP for short. The CSP program is a relatively new (two years old) component of the overall Microsoft partner program that allows partners such as B&R Business Solutions to provide licenses and a variety of services to customers through one of two models:

Direct

The partner has a direct relationship with Microsoft and procures the licenses the customer needs directly from Microsoft and then acts as a trusted adviser for the customer. In this role, the partner provisions any services and licenses needed, bills the customer for the licenses (and any other services bundled with them), monitors the services the customer is using, and provides support for the customer.

Indirect

The partner acts as a reseller and account management is handed off to a distributor who has the relationship with Microsoft. With this approach, the partner is able to leverage the resources of the distributor to provision the licenses and services, and the distributor bills the customer and provides the support and monitoring services.

When B&R became a CSP, we elected to go with the direct model. This means that customers that use B&R can be sure that B&R stays engaged and has the provisioning, support, and billing capabilities that are up to Microsoft standards in-house. Additionally, you can be sure that you are working directly with B&R employees, and not a distributor – ensuring that we build a relationship directly between our customers and our team members.

Let’s break down the benefits of using a Microsoft CSP a bit further:

Savings

If you are purchasing your Office 365 licenses or Azure subscription directly through the office365.com or Azure.com web sites, you are paying the list to Microsoft for the services. With the CSP program, B&R is able to provide discounts on your licenses and consumption that are not available through the ‘web direct’ programs.

Better Terms

When you sign up with B&R for your licenses or Azure consumption, you can pay on NET terms. Additionally, there are no early termination fees for the removal or Office 365 licenses (unlike when you go web direct and you are charged a fee for removing a license prior to its renewal date).

Simplicity

While you may just decide to use B&R for your O365 & Azure subscriptions, if you use B&R for managed services or project-based consulting services, everything appears on one invoice. No more chasing down multiple vendors – you have one place to go for everything and

B&R has a variety of bundles that can further simplify things (and save you money) – check out http://www.bandrsolutions.com/managed-services.

Support

It can be frustrating trying to get the right individuals to support your organization during critical times. With the CSP program, B&R is your trusted partner – and your first line of support to help get you back up and running. The talented team at B&R will work with your on any issues you are experiencing and if needed, B&R has access to ‘Signature Cloud Support’ – which provides a higher level of support to Microsoft CSP partners – and in turn means quick time to resolution and access to excellent Microsoft resources.

Expertise

B&R has been working with Office 365 along with the Azure platform & infrastructure services for many years, and has one of the most talented teams anywhere (the team includes 2 current MVPs and 2 former MVPs). If you want to implement Office 365 and Azure right – the first time – then it makes sense to partner with the best, and that’s exactly what you will get with the B&R Team.

As a CSP, B&R Business Solution is going to ensure that your organization gets the best possible support and works with some of the most experienced individuals in the industry – all while being rewarded with a simplified approach and cost savings.

Interested in the CSP program? Looking to save money? Want to provide your organization with a higher level of support? Then contact B&R Business Solutions today – we can start by taking a look at your current (or proposed) cloud spend and immediately let you know how the CSP program can save you money and make recommendations based on our experience. There’s no charge for this assessment, and we’re confident you will be glad you reached out!

 
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Azure Functions & Office 365

Azure Functions seems to be taking the Azure community by storm in the last few months. Even prior to General Availability (GA) I saw the developer buzz quickly building during the public preview and for good reason!

What are Azure Functions?

Azure functions are small units of code that can be executed based on numerous types of events that are built around a server-less architecture.  That's a bit of a mouthful so let's break that down a bit.

Functions

The functions part should be pretty self-evident.  Functions should ideally be a discreet unit of work not an entire application.  This is not to say that entire application can't be built around groups of Azure Functions, typically referred to as a MicroService architecture. However, the take away is that it should ideally be a discrete unit of work. Let your function do one thing and one thing really well.

Events

Azure functions can be executed based on Events from several different types of resources.  Some of the most popular include:

  • Listening to an Azure Storage Queue
  • Responding to an Http request (think REST service end point)
  • Executing on a predefined schedule.

Server-less

You may be thinking to yourself "how can this not be running on a server!".  Well of course there are servers involved!  Server-less is a natural extension of the concept of PaaS (Platform as a Service). PaaS is intended to abstract away the complexities of managing the underlying OS and the hardware to allow a closer focus on the application.  However, in traditional Azure PaaS offerings, such as Azure Apps there remains a need to still consider server resources such as RAM and CPU. How an application scales in response to need requires additional considerations.  When it comes to Server-less architecture such as Azure Functions the entire server is abstracted away.  Applications simply need to define their performance requirements and the underlying infrastructure, referred generally as dynamic computing, ensures that your requirements are met.  This may sound like a very expensive proposition but Microsoft Azure has implemented this in such a way that in many common scenarios it turns out to be much cheaper than traditional Azure App offerings.

It is important to understand though that the underlying infrastructure of Azure Functions is Azure Apps.  You can choose to you a consumption mode where you only pay for resources that you consume or you can also have Azure Functions run under the resources of a standard Azure Apps.

There are scenarios where running Azure Functions within the context of a dedicated Azure App may make sense so it is fully supported but for the majority of scenarios the Consumption based plans can often be the better choice.

The development experience

It should be mentioned that Azure Functions only recently was released for GA and the development experience hasn't completely caught up.  Until recently all development code was implemented within an online editor within Azure using either C# or JavaScript.  Alternatively,  a GIT repository could also be monitored for deployments.  Recently a preview of a Visual Studio project type was made available which provides development and deployment through Visual Studio and allows for a local instance of Azure Functions for debugging. Only c# is currently supported for debugging but the project type is in a pre-release still and additional support for other languages with debugging is promised.

The development experience for Azure Functions is quickly evolving and quickly improving.  Microsoft has the stated goal of supporting not only C# and JavaScript but also Python, PHP, Bash, Batch, PowerShell, and F#. The entire run-time has been open sourced so technically speaking the run-time for Azure Functions could be self hosted within any environment.

So Azure Functions are awesome - where does Office 365 fit?

With the exceedingly low (and sometimes free) costs of entry associated with Azure Functions, there are many opportunities within Office 365 to very quickly get value.

Timer Job Replacement

Custom Timer Jobs were very common within Traditional SharePoint on-premise development. Needing "x" to occur within SharePoint every "x" days is an exceedingly common scenario.  For obvious reasons, custom Timer Jobs are not available to Office 365 which does not allow the deployment of any kind of custom server code. The security and stability requirements on a multi-tenant SharePoint solution such as Office 365 would not make it feasible.   Sometimes you could find workarounds in the form of SharePoint workflows.  Microsoft Flow may also be an option for re-occurring scheduled tasks.  Many times though you may have requirements that don't fit well within the feature set of either of those tools.  You may have very specific logic that is easier to implement in custom code. With the use of Azure Functions,  custom logic can be executed AND code can access Office 365 data directly through frameworks like SharePoint CSOM or Microsoft Graph.  Because you are only counted for actual executing code this is very economical for infrequently run jobs.

Webhooks

Webhooks are a standard concept used throughout the industry for HTTP based notifications.  Originally available in OneDrive and Outlook in Office 365, Webhooks are now available within SharePoint as well. Webhooks are often compared conceptually to event receivers. Custom code can be executed based on activity with a SharePoint list or library. There are some differences between Webhooks and traditional event receivers or Remote Event Receivers but generally speaking, if you do not need to respond to the "-ing" events such as ItemUpdating then Webhooks may be a good choice for you. They are simpler to implement than the legacy WCF requirements of Remote Event Receivers and also don't have the additional hosting requirements of WCF based web services.  Similar to Timer Jobs you only pay when something is actually executed so it is very economical.

RunWithElevatedPrivileges

RunWithElevatedPrivileges was a common tool for developers in traditional full trust environments to execute server side code that the current user may not normally have permissions to execute. Azure Functions can under the right authentication configuration (and of course the right safeguards in your code) execute logic under elevated permissions.  A common scenario may be something like a site provisioning request.  Azure function have the ability to be accessed through HTTP requests like any other REST based endpoint through JavaScript.

Costs

Azure Functions pricing can be found at https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/pricing/details/functions/ . At the time of this blog post, January 2017,  the first million executions are FREE and additional executions are $.20 per million executions plus any associated storage costs.  The functions themselves are billed based on resource consumption largely based on duration of execution and memory consumption.  Like everything with Azure, there are a lot of cost formulas to work out, so do your homework ahead of time!

Summary

Azure Functions make a lot of sense when it comes to Office 365. For those interested in seeing the development side of how Azure Functions are implemented I have some upcoming blog posts that cover a couple realistic real-world scenarios.

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