The previous blog provided a framework for business to evaluate tools for business process automation. This blog explores some of the popular business process automation (BPA) tools that are popular when working with Microsoft SharePoint technologies and how they fare against the criteria that we defined in our previous blog. Ratings are provided on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being least favorable and 10 being most favorable.

SharePoint Designer Workflows

According to Microsoft, SharePoint Designer (SPD) is a tool for rapid development of SharePoint applications. SPD includes the ability to create workflows native to the SharePoint platform. These are no-code workflow solutions that manage simple to medium complexity business processes in an organization. Forms created for SPD workflows often use HTML and/or InfoPath as their underlying technologies. Please note that since SharePoint 2013, Microsoft has introduced Workflow Manager, where workflows can be designed visually using Visio. For this blog, we refer to both these technologies under the SPD moniker.

Microsoft PowerApps & Flow

Microsoft defines Flow as “a cloud-based service that enables business users to automate business tasks and processes across applications and services”. PowerApps is defined as “an enterprise service for innovators everywhere to connect, create and share business apps on any device in minutes”. PowerApps & Flow are in many ways Microsoft’s successors to InfoPath & SharePoint Designer. They are included as part of most of Microsoft’s cloud offerings (premium versions are chargeable separately) and are geared towards regular business users partaking in the automation process.

 

Nintex Workflow & Forms

Nintex is a third-party workflow automation tool, primarily used for SharePoint and Office 365. It leverages SharePoint’s native workflow engine and does not require additional infrastructure or client software. They feature drag-drop user experience for creation and modification of Workflows and Forms along with a plethora of other features that make it seamless to create, manage and monitor business processes in the organization.

The comparison presented below is based on the features that the individual product offers out-of-box or after minimal customization efforts. It does not possibilities that are an outcome of applying for extensions via custom coding.

1 In-House Skillset

Strictly speaking, all three options do not require custom coding. Having said that, SharePoint Designer presents the least visually interactive way of developing workflows. (Visio can be used as a tool to enhance this experience). SPD workflows are created using the SharePoint Designer tool and provide basic workflow capabilities. There are a limited set of built-in actions and anything more will require custom coding. The forms built for SPD workflows face the same issue as these are designed using either HTML/javascript or using InfoPath, which requires considerable skills and understanding to get anything more than the basics accomplished.

SharePoint Designer Workflows

Microsoft PowerApps & Flow

Nintex Workflow & Forms

4.0

6.0

8.5

Both other options provide intuitive drag-drop interfaces along with a gamut of other techniques that make it easier for users to implement business process automation. Most vendors portray BPA tools as easy for end users to make changes. While this is true to some extent, implementing BPA does require a sense of logic programming and is really geared towards power users.

2 Form Complexity

When using SPD to create forms for data collection there are two solutions available (SharePoint out-of-box forms and InfoPath forms). InfoPath provides the ability to develop forms with multiple input elements: text boxes, radio boxes, drop-downs as well as repeating groups/sections of controls. However, InfoPath is not intuitive to use and deployment of the forms require administrative access once you go beyond the basics. The alternative is SharePoint ‘out-of-box’ forms which can be used to create simple forms.

With PowerApps it is possible to create forms by writing Excel type functions for the business logic. It also supports HTML coding for branding but does not allow JavaScript which limits the ability of Power Users. However, PowerApps provides a bunch of starter templates that maybe a good place to get started.

Nintex forms allow for different layouts depending on the users’ device. Furthermore, complex forms with repeating sections, two-way automatic data binding and easy access to SharePoint APIs (to name a few) can be built.

SharePoint Designer Workflows

Microsoft PowerApps & Flow

Nintex Workflow & Forms

3.5

8.0

9.0

 

3 Process Complexity

SharePoint Designer provides multiple pre-built actions that can be configured to create simple to medium complexity workflows. SharePoint Designer workflow is sequential which means that it only allows the creation of workflows that have a forward-only path.

 

Microsoft Flow is targeted towards actions performed by individual end users. It also has

many pre-built templates using which one can create simple to complex workflows. Flow does not directly support state machine workflows which allow for non-sequential execution of processes. While Flow provides many connectors and templates, it requires multiple actions to accomplish a single task, which can often be frustrating, especially for new users and an encumbering task for large complex workflows.

 

Nintex provides a drag and drops user interface to quickly create and edit workflows. The enterprise version has more than 200 workflow actions pre-built. Unlike other options listed here, Nintex allows you to create State Machine workflow (capable of flowing in any sequence and through any amount of iterations).

SharePoint Designer Workflows

Microsoft PowerApps & Flow

Nintex Workflow & Forms

3.5

6.5

9.0

 

 

4 Mobile Enabled

SharePoint Designer forms (built using InfoPath) and HTML devices are not automatically optimized for mobile devices. While these forms may render on a mobile screen, the experience is often less than ideal. SharePoint 2013 onwards introduced the concept of device channels, but that requires the creation of mobile-specific master pages for each device channel. Having said that, the new SharePoint Modern Experience provides responsive forms. In either case, access to native mobile capabilities is not present.

 

PowerApps, on the other hand, provides a mobile-first view towards forms. It supports native mobile interfaces such as access to GPS, Camera, Signal Connection, Location, and Accelerometer. The PowerApps app is available from Apple and Google stores and can be installed on users’ devices. It also supports Push Notifications which are a great way to alert users to imminent actions. PowerApps also provide offline capabilities.

 

While Nintex forms are primarily designed for the PC, they provide adequate support for mobility. These forms can be run within a mobile browser or through a fully native mobile application that can leverage some device capabilities such as Camera and GPS signals. The Nintex AppStudio addon allows for the creation of custom-branded native mobile apps that can be mass deployed via your corporate MDM solution. Nintex also provides offline capabilities for the native mobile applications.

SharePoint Designer Workflows

Microsoft PowerApps & Flow

Nintex Workflow & Forms

2.0

8.5

6.0

 

5 Document Generation

SharePoint Designer workflow does not have an out-of-box action to generate a document but using a SharePoint feature called “property promotion-demotion”, it is possible to inject some basic information into a document template. The generated template could then be converted to a PDF using SharePoint Word Automation services (not available for SharePoint Online).

 

Currently, Flow does not provide any specific Document Generation capabilities, much like SharePoint Designer workflows. However, Flow provides built-in connectors for DocuSign and Adobe Sign. Both these products allow for document templates to be defined and for signatures to be triggered on these templates via Flow.

 

Due to Nintex’s acquisition of Drawloop, Nintex now has a document generation feature built right into their workflow tool. The user experience is intuitive and you can quickly create a document template, map properties from the workflow into the document and generate Word or PDFs document.

SharePoint Designer Workflows

Microsoft PowerApps & Flow

Nintex Workflow & Forms

3.0

5.0

8.0

 

6 External System Connectivity

SharePoint Designer Workflows do not have pre-built connectors for any third-party applications, however, a HTTP web service connector is available. In theory, it is possible for a developer to build connectors to other applications and expose these via an HTTP web-service, but this approach is complex, time-consuming and difficult to maintain.

 

Both Nintex and Flow have several prebuilt connectors for popular systems such as Microsoft Dynamics, DocuSign, Twilio, SharePoint, Exchange, Azure, and others. It is worth pointing out that currently, Flow provides many, many more connectors than those available with Nintex (some of these are only available via a Premium subscription to Flow).

SharePoint Designer Workflows

Microsoft PowerApps & Flow

Nintex Workflow & Forms

1.0

8.5

5.5

 

7 Requirement Stability

Business Processes developed using SharePoint Designer Workflows, to a high degree of probability will involve some custom coding via Web Services or other mechanisms. We often find that these have been put together in a hurry to meet business deadlines. Compounding that effect over several iterations leads to a system that is or tending to be unmaintainable. Testing takes longer and there is a high probability of unwanted side effects.

 

Both Microsoft Flow & Nintex offer GUI based drag-drop interfaces, favoring visual paradigms over coded ones. This reduces, if not eliminates the need for custom coding and changes are incorporated with relative ease and stability as compared to those developed with SPD.

 

It is noteworthy that Nintex provides some actions over Microsoft Flow that further reduce steps required to accomplish a specific task. Consider this example, an HR executive creates entries into a list of candidates that are about to join. The system should email these documents to the candidate for review. With Flow, separate steps are required to retrieve the item and the contents of the document and can take several steps to accomplish this; with Nintex this is a two-step process.

SharePoint Designer Workflows

Microsoft PowerApps & Flow

Nintex Workflow & Forms

3.0

7.5

9.0

 

8 On-premise, Cloud or Hybrid

SharePoint Designer Workflows work within SharePoint Online and SharePoint On-premise. There isn’t much difference to these except that the workflows cannot contain server-side code with SharePoint Online. Any custom code should be written and hosted outside of the SharePoint Online environment (say, as a Web Service in Azure). For cross-premise connectivity, SPD workflows will require the use of the “Call HTTP Web Service” action, which will require some level of custom coding and a whole heap of security planning.

 

Microsoft Flow is a cloud-only offering. As of today, there is no on-premise version of Flow and neither has one been announced. However, Microsoft makes cross-premise connectivity much easier using the “on-premises data gateway”, which allows for connecting to on-premise business data without the need to poke holes in the firewall or writing custom services. This gateway currently supports connections to SQL Server, SharePoint, Oracle, Informix, Filesystem and DB2 systems.

 

Nintex provides ‘premise-specific’ flavors of the tool, there is Nintex for SharePoint (on-premise), Nintex for Office 365 (online) and Nintex Workflow Cloud (independent online offering). Despite having such a broad-spectrum product portfolio, cross-premise connectivity with Nintex requires techniques like that of SharePoint Designer Workflows. Nintex provides options for customers on any-premise but does not deliver when it comes to cross-premise connectivity.

SharePoint Designer Workflows

Microsoft PowerApps & Flow

Nintex Workflow & Forms

2.0

9.0

6.5

 

9 Insights

With SharePoint Designer Workflows, logging and data tracks must be manually maintained within the workflow. There are no automated means by which process metrics will be tracked. For consistent reporting, a significant upfront design is required; yet the effectiveness of the reporting will be dependent on the individual authoring the process automation.

 

Microsoft Flow provides basic reporting using Flow Analytics, a premium feature included as part of the P2 license. In its current form, Flow Analytics provides three metrics Total Flow runs by day, Number of flow runs and Flow runs trend. For custom business-specific analytics, Microsoft Flow currently suffers from the same challenges as those of SharePoint Designer Workflows. SLA monitoring and measurement is yet another item that is currently missing from both SPD and Flow.

 

Nintex Hawkeye is the process analytics offering from Nintex. Marketed as “Process Intelligence and Workflow Analytics”, it features the concept of lenses which are perspectives on the process data. There are primarily two types of lenses, Usage lens which provides low-level consumption based metrics and Process lens, which provide information that is specific to a business process. There is some work required on part of the process author to provide effective data for a Process lens, but this is as easy as ensuring certain ‘beacons’ are placed within the workflow (using a drag-drop paradigm).

SharePoint Designer Workflows

Microsoft PowerApps & Flow

Nintex Workflow & Forms

1.0

3.0

8.5

 

10 Budget and Licensing

For organizations with SharePoint on-premise (2010 and later) and/or SharePoint Online, SPD workflows are free to author and run. If the organization chooses to author workflows using the Workflow Manager capabilities, a Visio 2013 Professional license is required for each user that authors the workflow.

There are currently four plans of Microsoft Flow, ranging from Free Plan (no-cost) to Plan 2 ($15/user/month). Each plan offers different maximum runs of Flow per day and different frequencies of the Flow runs (interval between each run of the Flow). There is no SLA for the Free Plan, whereas the other plans offer a 99.9% availability SLA by Microsoft. While the base cost for Flow is per-user, there is an underlying cost associated with Flow Runs – each unit of 50,000 flow runs over and above the allocated quota per plan (aggregated across all users) will cost $40/month. For full details on Flow plans and pricing, please refer to https://us.flow.microsoft.com/en-us/pricing/  

Nintex offers three licensing models, per workflow (authored), per user and per server (on-premise only). There is no additional cost for workflows run. These prices are not public but are available through Nintex Partners. They tend to be higher than Flow on a per-user basis. The per workflow model allows the use of Nintex products across on-premise and online environments simultaneously and is the most flexible option available if the organization has online as well as on-premise environments.

SharePoint Designer Workflows

Microsoft PowerApps & Flow

Nintex Workflow & Forms

8.0

6.5

5.0

 

The table below summarizes the scores for the options against our defined criteria. It is important to note that different organizations will assign different relative importance each criterion which will ultimately result in a choice that is a best-fit for them. To this effect, an excel sheet is attached which provides the option to assign weights to the criteria and provides a weighted average score of the options listed.

 

SharePoint Designer Workflows

Flow & PowerApps

Nintex Workflow and Forms

In-house Skillset

4.0

6.0

8.5

Forms Complexity

3.5

8.0

9.0

Process Complexity

3.5

6.5

9.0

Mobile Enabled

1.0

8.5

6.0

Document Generation

3.0

5.0

8.0

External System Connectivity

1.0

8.5

5.5

Requirement Stability

3.0

7.5

9.0

On-premsie, Cloud or Hybrid

2.0

9.0

6.5

Insights

1.0

3.0

8.5

Budgets & Licensing

8.0

6.5

5.0