Posted on 15. May 2017

Continuous Integration using spkl Task Runner

This is the third video in a series showing you how to quickly setup VSTS Continuous Integration with spkl.

Watch in youtube

1. Learn more about the spkl task runner

2. Learn how to deploy plugins with the spkl task runnner

3. Learn how to deploy webresources with the spkl task runnner

Posted on 15. May 2017

Deploying Webresources using spkl Task Runner

This is the second video in a series showing you how get up and running with spkl with no fuss!

Watch in youtube

1. Learn more about the spkl task runner

2. Learn how to deploy plugins with the spkl task runnner

Posted on 12. May 2017

Deploying Plugins using spkl Task Runner

Following from my last blog post on the spkl Task Runner, this is the first video in a series showing you how get up and running with spkl with no fuss!


Posted on 3. May 2017

Simple, No fuss, Dynamics 365 Deployment Task Runner


I've used the Dynamics Developer Toolkit since it was first released by MCS for CRM4! I love the functionality it brings however the latest version is still in beta, it isn't supported on VS2017 and there isn't a date when it's likely to be either (yes, you can hack it to make it work but that's not the point J).

Rather than using an add-in Visual Studio project type, I've been attracted by the VS Code style simple project approach and so I decided to create a 'no-frills' alternative that uses a simple json config file (and that can be used in VS2017).


  1. Deploy Plugins & Workflow Activities - Uses reflection to read plugin registration information directly from the assembly. This has the advantage that the plugin configuration is in the same file as the code. You can use the 'instrument' task to pull down the plugin configuration from Dynamics and add the metadata to your classes if you already have an existing project.
  2. Deploy Web Resources – deploy webresources from file locations defined in the spkl.json configuration. You can use the 'get-webresources' task to create the spkl.json if you already have webresources deployed.
  3. Generate Early Bound Types – Uses the spkl.json to define the entities to generate each time the task is run to make the process repeatable.
  4. Profile management – An optional profile can be supplied to select a different set of configuration from spkl.json. E.g. debug and release build profiles.


Let's assume you have a project in the following structure:

    |    |-html
    |    |    |-HtmlPage.htm
    |    |-js
    |    |    |-Somefile.js
    |    |-MyPlugin.cs
    |    |-MyWorkflowActivity.cs

On both the Plugin and Workflows project, Run the following from the Nuget Console:

Import-Package spkl

This will add the spkl to the packages folder and the metadata CrmPluginConfigurationAttribute.cs that is used to mark up your classes so that spkl can deploy them. Some simple batch files are also included that you can use to get started.

If you already have plugins deployed, you can run the following command line in the context of the Plugins folder:

spkl instrument

This will prompt you for a Dynamics Connection, and then search for any deployed plugins and their matching .cs file. If the MyPlugin.cs plugin is already deployed it might end up with the following Attribute metadata:

    "name,address1_line1", "Create Step",1,IsolationModeEnum.Sandbox,
    Description ="Description",
    UnSecureConfiguration = "Some config")]

A spkl.json file will be created in the project directly similar to:

  "plugins": [
      "solution": "Test",
      "assemblypath": "bin\\Debug"

If you now build your plugins, you can then run the following to deploy

spkl plugins

You can run instrument for the workflow project using the same technique which will result in code similar to the following being added to your workflow activity classes:

        "WorkflowActivity", "FriendlyName","Description",
        "Group Name",IsolationModeEnum.Sandbox)]

…and then run the following to deploy:

spkl workflow			

To get any currently deployed webresources matched to your project files you can run the following from the Webresource project folder:

spkl get-webresources /s:new			

    Where new is the solution prefix you've used

This will create a spkl.json similar to the following:

  "webresources": [
      "root": "",
      "files": [
          "uniquename": "new_/js/somefile.js",
          "file": "js\\somefile.js",
          "description": ""
          "uniquename": "new_/html/HtmlPage.htm",
          "file": "html\\HtmlPage.htm",
          "description": ""

You can then deploy using:

spkl webresources


For Debug/Release builds you can define multiple profiles that can be triggered using the /p:<profilename> parameter.

  "plugins": [
      "profile": "default,debug",
      "assemblypath": "bin\\Debug"
      "profile": "release",
      "solution": "Test",
      "assemblypath": " bin\\Release"

The default profile will be used if no /p: parameter is supplied. You can specify a profile using:

spkl plugins /p:release			

Referencing a specific assembly rather than searching the folder

If you have multiple plugins in a single deployment folder and you just want to deploy one, you can explicitly provide the path rather than using the folder search. E.g.

  "plugins": [
      "assemblypath": "bin\\Debug\MyPlugin.dll"

Adding to a solution

If you'd like to automatically add the items deployed to a solution after deployment you can use:

  "webresources": [
      "root": "",
      "solution": "Test",

Combining spkl.json

Perhaps you want to have a single spkl.json rather than multiple ones per project. You can simply add them all together:

  "webresources": […],
  "plugins": […]

Multiple project deployments

Since the spkl.json configuration files are searched from the current folder, you can deploy multiple plugins/webresources using a single spkl call from a root folder.

I'll be updating the github documentation page as things move forwards.

Posted on 15. March 2017

Limitations of Calculated Fields and the Data Export Service

You probably already know that I'm a big fan of the Data Export Service. The single fact of having a 'near real time' replica of your data in a SQL Azure Database to query in any way you want is simply amazing.

Today I came across an interesting limitation with Calculated Fields. Although Calculated Fields are created in the Dynamics database as SQL Server Computed Columns, they are output in the Replica Database fields as standard fields.

This has a rather inconvenient side-effect when you have calculated fields that are linked to either date/time or a related record. Since the Azure Replica sync is event based, when a related record is updated there is no corresponding event on the referencing record that contains the calculated field therefore it does not get updated. Likewise, if a calculated field changes depending on the date/time then there is no event that triggers the azure replica to be updated. This means that although calculated fields maybe correct at the time the record was created, subsequent updates can make the field become stale and inaccurate.

Lesson learned - you cannot guarantee the accuracy of calculated fields in the Azure Replica if they contain:

  1. The Now() function
  2. A related record field (e.g.

Interestingly, calculated fields that use data on the same record do get updated, so the event integration must do a compare of any calculated fields to see if they have changed.


Posted on 14. March 2017

There is something rather different about Dynamics 365 Business Process Flows!

The new business process flow designer in Dynamics 365 is lovely! However, I'm not going to talk about that since it's rightly had lots of love by others already.

For me the biggest change in Dynamics 365 is the fact that running Business Process Flows (BPFs) are now stored as entity records. Instance details are no longer held as fields on the associated record. I first visited this topic back in the CRM2013 days with the introductions of Business Process Flows where I described how to programmatically change the process.

Previously when a BPF was started, all of the state about the position was held on the record it was run on was stored in fields on the record itself:

  • Process Id: The ID of the BPF running
  • Stage Id: The ID of the BPF step that was active
  • Traversed Path: A comma separated string listing the GUIDs of current path of steps taken through the BPF. This is to support BPFs with branching logic.

With the new Dynamics 365 BPFs, each process activated is automatically has an entity created that looks just like any other custom entity. The information about the processes running and any record is now stored as instances of this entity with a N:1 relationship to the parent record and any subsequent related entities. This BPF entity has similar attributes that were stored on the parent entity, but with the following additions:

  • Active Stage Id: The ID of the BPF step that is active – replaces the Stage Id attribute.
  • Activate Stage Started On: The Date Time that the current step was started on – this allows calculation of the amount of time it has been active for
  • State & Status: Each BPF Instance has its own state that allows finishing and abandoning before other BPF are run.


In addition to making migration of data with running BPFs a little easier - this approach has the following advantages:

  1. You can control access to BPFs using standard entity role privileges
  2. You can have multiple BPFs running on the same record
  3. You can see how long the current stage has been active for
  4. You can Abandon/Finish a BPF

BPF Privileges

Prior to Dynamics365, you would have controlled which roles could access your BPF using the Business Process Flow Role Check list.     In Dynamics 365 when you click the 'Enable Security Roles' button your BPF you are presented with a list of Roles that you can open up and define access in the 'Business Process Flow' tab:

Multiple BPFs on the same record

Switching BPFs no longer overwrites the previous active step – meaning that you can 'switch' back to a previously started BPF and it will carry on from the same place. This means that BPFs can run in parallel on the same record.

  • If a user does not have access to the running BPF they will see the next running BPF in the list (that they have access to).
  • If the user has no access to any BPF that is active – then no BPF is shown at all.
  • If user has read only access to the BPF that is running, then they can see it, but not change the active step.
  • When a new record is created, the first BPF that the user has create privileges on is automatically started.

When you use the Switch Process dialog, you can now see if the Business Process Flow is already running, who started it and when it was run.

NOTE: Because the roles reference the BPF entities – you must also include the system generated BPF entities in any solution you intend to export and import into another system.

Active Step timer

Now that we have the ability to store addition data on the running BPF instance, we have the time that the current step was started on. This also means that when switching between processes, we can see the time spent in each step in parallel running BPFs.


Since each BPF has its own state fields, a business process can be marked as Finished – or Abandoned at which point it becomes greyed out and read only.

When you 'Abandon' or 'Finish' a BPF it is moved into the 'Archived' section of the 'Switch Process' dialog.

NOTE: You might think that this means that you could then run the BPF a second time, but in-fact it can only have a single instance per BPF – and you must 'Reactivate' it to use it again.

  • Reactivating an Abandoned BPF will start at the previously active step
  • Reactivating a Finished BPF will start it from the beginning again.


Imagine your business has a sales process that requires an approval by a Sales Manager. At a specific step in that sales process you could run a workflow to start a parallel BPF that only the Sales Managers have access to. When they view the record, making the Approval BPF higher in the ordered list of BPFS will mean that they will see the Approval BPF instead of the main Sales Process. They can then advance the steps to 'Approved' and mark as Finished. This could then in turn start another Workflow that updates a field on the Opportunity. Using this technique in combination with Field Level Security gives a rather neat solution for custom approval processes.

When I first saw this change I admit I was rather nervous because it was such a big system change. I've now done a number of upgrades to Dynamics 365 and the issues I found have all been resolved.
I'm really starting to like the new possibilities that Parallel BPFs brings to Dynamics 365.


Posted on 11. March 2017

Simplified Connection Management & Thread Safety (Revisited)

There is one certainty in the world and that is that things don't stay the same! In the Dynamics 365 world, this is no exception, with new features and SDK features being released with a pleasing regularity. Writing 'revisited' posts has become somewhat of a regular thing these days.

In my previous post on this subject back in 2013 we looked at how you could use a connection dialog or connection strings to get a service reference from the Microsoft.Xrm.Client library and how it can be used in a thread safe way.


For a while now there has been a replacement for the Microsoft.Xrm.Client library – the Microsoft.Xrm.Tooling library. It can be installed from NuGet using:

Install-Package Microsoft.CrmSdk.XrmTooling.CoreAssembly

When you use the CrmServerLoginControl, the user interface should look very familiar because it's the same that is used in all the SDK tools such that Plugin Registration Tool.

The sample in the SDK shows how to use this WPF control.

The WPF control works slightly differently to the Xrm.Client ShowDialog() method – since it gives you much more flexibility over how the dialog should behave and allows embedding inside your WPF application rather than always having a popup dialog.

Connection Strings

Like the dialog, the Xrm.Tooling also has a new version of the connection string management – the new CrmServiceClient accepts a connection string in the constructor. You can see examples of these connection strings in the SDK.

CrmServiceClient crmSvc = new CrmServiceClient(ConfigurationManager.ConnectionStrings["Xrm"].ConnectionString);

For Dynamics 365 online, the connection would be:

    <add name="Xrm" connectionString="AuthType=Office365;; Password=passcode;Url=" />

Thread Safety

The key to understanding performance and thread safety of calling the Organization Service is the difference between the client proxy and the WCF channel. As described by the 'Improve service channel allocation performance' topic from the best practice entry in the SDK, the channel should be reused because creating it involves time consuming metadata download and user authentication.

The old Microsoft.Xrm.Client was thread safe and would automatically reuse the WCF channel that was already authenticated. The Xrm.Tooling CrmServiceClient is no exception. You can create a new instance of CrmServiceClient and existing service channels will be reused if one is available on that thread. Any calls the same service channel will be locked to prevent thread issues.

To demonstrate this, I first used the following code that ensures that a single CrmServiceClient is created per thread.

Parallel.For(1, numberOfRequests,
    new ParallelOptions() { MaxDegreeOfParallelism = maxDop },
    () =>
        // This is run for each thread
        var client = new CrmServiceClient(username,
               useUniqueInstance: false,
               useSsl: false,
               isOffice365: true);
        return client;
    (index, loopState, client) =>
        // Make a large request that takes a bit of time
        QueryExpression accounts = new QueryExpression("account")
            ColumnSet = new ColumnSet(true)
        return client;
    (client) =>

With a Degree of Parallelism of 4 (the number of threads that can be executing in parallel) and a request count of 200, there will be a single CrmServiceClient created for each thread and the fiddler trace looks like this:

Now to prove that the CrmServiceClient handles thread concurrency automatically, I moved the instantiation into loop so that every request would create a new client:

Parallel.For(1, numberOfRequests,
    new ParallelOptions() { MaxDegreeOfParallelism = maxDop },
    (index) =>
        // This is run for every request
        var client = new CrmServiceClient(username,
               useUniqueInstance: false,
               useSsl: false,
               isOffice365: true);
        // Make a large request that takes a bit of time
        QueryExpression accounts = new QueryExpression("account")
            ColumnSet = new ColumnSet(true)

Running this still shows a very similar trace in fiddler:

This proves that the CrmServiceClient is caching the service channel and returning a pre-authenticated version per thread.

In contrast to this, if we set the useUniqueInstance property to true on the CrmServiceClient constructor, we get the following trace in fiddler:

So now each request is re-running the channel authentication for each query – far from optimal!

The nice thing about the Xrm.Tooling library is that it is used exclusively throughout the SDK – where the old Xrm.Client was an satellite library that came from the legacy ADX portal libraries.

Thanks to my friend and fellow MVP Guido Preite for nudging me to write this post!


Posted on 20. February 2017

How to get assistance without the Relationship Assistant!

Dynamics 365 has brought with it a new and amazing feature called the 'Relationship Assistant'. It is part of a preview feature (unsupported and US only) called 'Relationship Insights' which promises to bring some amazing productivity tools to the Dynamics 365 platform.

Relationship Assistant shows actionable cards in both the web client and mobile client using a mix of both plain old filter conditions and machine learning.

Machine Learning Cards

One of the most exciting part of the Relationship Assistant is the use of machine learning to examine the contents of your emails and predict what you need to do next:

Customer Question Card

Issue Detected Card

'Plain old query' Cards

Whilst the machine learning aspects may be out of our reach to us mere mortals at this time, the cards that are based on simpler filter conditions such as 'Due Today' and 'Meeting Today' are items that can be easily shown in a dashboard without this preview feature. Here are some examples of information that can be gained from simple date queries:

Due Today Card

Meeting Today Card

Missed Close Date Card

(Images taken from the Relationship Assistant Card reference -

Create your own 'Relationship Assistant' Dashboard

The main challenge with producing information shown above is the date aspect to the query. We can easily show a single set of records that use the 'Next X days' type of operator, but you could not easily use 'todays' date in a dashboard chart – at least not until CRM2015 introduced calculated fields. Now it is rather easy to produce a dashboard similar to the following:

  • The key feature of dashboards is that they are can be tailored to show your own data which can be drilled into to show the underlying records. This is comparable to the 'actionable' aspect of the relationship assistant where you could drill into the tasks due to 'today' and open them to work upon.

    Notice the field 'Due' that can have the value 'Completed', 'Due Next 7 Days', 'Due Today', 'Overdue', or 'Scheduled'. This field isn't stored as a persistent field in the database, but instead it is a calculated field so there are no nightly jobs or workflows required to update a field based on the current date.

    Adding a 'Due Status' field to an Activity Entity

    1. Create a solution with the Activity Entity that you want to add the 'Due Status' field to
    2. Create a new field called 'Due Diff' – this will give us a field that shows the number of days before/after the activity due date.
    3. Click 'Edit' and type the expression
      DiffInDays(scheduledstart, Now())
      Note: This assumes that this is an Appointment and you want to use the scheduledstart date to control the due date.
    4. Add a new global Option Set that holds the possible values for the Due status
    5. Create a new Calculated Option Set field called 'Due' on the Activity record. Use the Existing Option Set created above.
    6. Click 'Edit' on the Calculated Field type and add the following logic:
    7. Create a chart something like:
    8. Publish and add the charts to a dashboard!

    Of course other more complex options exist but with all the excitement and awesomeness of Machine Learning it is important to remember that we can achieve great things with just the right kind of queries, charts and dashboards!

    Hope this helps!

    Posted on 15. January 2017

    Smart Buttons in the Ribbon Workbench

    Happy 2017! This new year promises to be really exciting in the world of Dynamics 365. The spring release is going to be a big one for developers and I'm really looking forwards to it.

    In the meantime, I've released a new beta version of the Ribbon Workbench that includes the following features:

    1. Copy and Paste of Commands, Buttons & Enable/Disable Rules
    2. Free text JSON Clipboard – allowing you to see what is on the clipboard and potentially copy/paste between instances and even make text changes before pasting.
    3. Full support for Smart Buttons

    You can grab the latest beta of the Ribbon Workbench that support smart buttons from

    Before I go into more detail about the JSON Clipboard, I wanted to tell you about Smart Buttons because I'm really excited about the possibilities that they may bring.

    So what are Smart Buttons?

    Smart Buttons are a concept I've been toying with since back in the Silverlight days of the Ribbon Workbench. They basically are buttons in the toolbox that add a predefined template of Ribbon Customisations that can be parameterised and contain references to prebuilt JavaScript web resources.

    When you add a standard button using the Ribbon Workbench you get to set the label, image and then reference a command that can in turn reference some JavaScript that you create separately.

    With a smart button, the JavaScript is already built for you and already installed in your Dynamics 365 organisation. Any solution that contains a smart button pre-build JavaScript must also contains a Smart Button manifest file that tells the Ribbon Workbench what's available and defines the templates it exposes.

    A typical uses of Smart Buttons are:


    1. Install a Smart Button solution in Development Org (e.g. the Develop1 Smart Button Solution described later)
    2. Install Ribbon Workbench in Development Org
    3. Add Smart Button to Development Org using Ribbon Workbench
    4. Deploy Smart Button solution to Pre-Production/Production – The Ribbon Workbench would not need to be installed
    5. Deploy solution from Development (containing smart button configuration)

    Lead Developers

    1. Create a standard way of performing certain actions from Ribbon Buttons based on common library code they have created.
    2. Create a smart button manifest webresource and include that in their solution as well.
    3. Instruct Developers to use Smart buttons in the Ribbon Workbench rather than adding ribbon customisations manually.

    Third Party ISV's

    1. Create an ISV solution that allows functionality to be invoked in custom entities (I will be publishing a smart button manifest for my network view solution so you can add visualise buttons to any entity).
    2. Rather than publishing instructions on how to add buttons manually, create a smart button manifest that is picked up by the Ribbon Workbench
    3. When installed on the ISV customer's organisation, the Ribbon Workbench scans the organisation for any smart button manifest files and picks up the ISV's custom buttons that are available for use.

    I have built a simple Smart Button solution as a preview of this feature that provides the following:

    • Run Report – Allows you to select a report and create a short cut on any record form.
    • Run Workflow – Allows you to select a workflow and create a short cut to run it on a record form or sub-grid. You can also specify a call-back function to call when it is completed so that you can refresh the form or perform some other action. This is one of the most requested items on the Ribbon Workbench's uservoice site.
    • Run Dialog – This is similar to the Run Workflow button but starts a Dialog instead. Useful for creating your own custom 'Close Opportunity' forms.    
    • Quick JS – Sometimes you want to run some simple JavaScript (such as setting a drop down value and saving the form) when you click a command bar button. Quick JS allows you to simply create a button and directly specify the JavaScript without creating a separate Webresource to hold the code.

    You can download this preview Smart Button solution and give it a try from github:

    Creating your own Smart Buttons!

    In the next post I will describe the copy and paste JSON clipboard and how to use this to create a smart button manifest for your own solutions.


    Posted on 9. December 2016

    Dynamic365 Data Export Service

    If you've moved to Dynamics CRM/365 Online then the likelihood is that you've come up against the limitation of not being able to query the SQL database directly to perform more complex reporting or for custom integrations. Many on premises deployments rely on querying the backend databases and in the past this has been a blocker to moving to the cloud – or at least it has meant a complex and costly integration to copy the data from Dynamics 365 to a on prem SQL database.

    The introduction of the Data Export Service is a real game changer with the possibility to replicate your data from Dynamics CRM/365 online to an Azure SQL database in your own Azure Subscription. Once you have your data in a SQL Database you can then using PowerBI, integrate with other systems and create a data warehouse. I've found that the speed of the replication is impressive, being minutes/seconds and not hours.

    There are a number of perquisites to enabling this which you can read about in msdn:

    • Azure Active Directory linked to Office 365
    • Azure SQL Database and user with correct permissions
    • Azure KeyVault created (using PowerShell script provided)
    • Dynamics CRM Online 8.1 or later
    • Data Export Service solution installed from App Source
    • Change tracking enabled for custom entities you want to sync
    • You must be a System Administrator to create the export profiles

    The PowerShell script requires that you install the Azure cmdlets – see

    Here is a video that demonstrates this new service and how to set it up