In-Depth

Handling Serious SharePoint Workflow in a Post InfoPath Era

The release of SharePoint 2016 means those wedded to InfoPath and SharePoint Designer may need new tools for building or extending workflows into their applications but even this firm's preferred software has limitations.

With Microsoft's marketing machine rediscovering its mojo, the noise around the release of SharePoint Server 2016 is only going to get louder over the summer.

Now reports around the death InfoPath and SharePoint Designer have been greatly exaggerated. The truth is the new SharePoint release supports:

  • InfoPath:  You can use the designer tool offered in SharePoint 2013 but it won't be responsive. So on a mobile interface it'll be as smooth as a brick, will be 'chatty' back out to the data sources and will leave the user with experience of the last decade. Also if you're trying to do anything on a Mac with the form that complex, then test, test and test, before you go live
  • SharePoint Designer 2013: The tool works with SharePoint 2016
  • MOSS 2007: Workflows still work in SharePoint 2016

In short, any company that doing any serious form engine/workflow activity in SharePoint Server 2016 needs to look at the alternatives.

As anyone who attends Microsoft-focused conferences and SharePoint Saturdays knows, there are two main players who hog the booths and are omnipresent -- K2 and Nintex. I have many key rings, pens and a lovely notepad binder from these guys.

If you've been in IT for any decent amount of time, you're certainly familiar with their popular SharePoint tools. But the product that's the contender the land grab of BPM (Business Process Management) space is AgilePoint.

Before I continue, full disclaimer: My employer, Soho Dragon, is a top New York City SharePoint integrator and AgilePoint partner which does a sizeable amount of work with the product with existing and new SharePoint clients.

K2 and Nintex products were both considered for our SharePoint deployments but we concluded that AgilePoint would be a better option, though it too has its flaws. Here's what I like, dislike and share some key pet peeves about the tool.

The UI
The Good:

  • User-friendly development.
  • Easy to deploy and use.
  • Neat mobile friendly forms available.
  • Anonymous forms.
  • Parallel process of two applications possible using sub process using no code.
  • SharePoint workflows in AgilePoint solve most purposes for which event receivers are needed.
  • Wide variety of controls available for various functionalities.
  • Different process models available for different uses (i.e. E-forms, SharePoint Forms, System Integration, etc.)
  • Can add Jquery/ CSS to controls easily through shared/individual files.
  • Apply boat loads of JavaScript behind the buttons for whizzy events.

The Bad:

  • Canvas is designed in a way that plain text cannot be placed on a form. It has to be in controls. If you do not put text in a control it might not be responsive across different form and just plain text can behave differently when rendered in multiple forms. So the design forces a developer to resort to multiple CSS files for different forms. Now at the control level you can easily control that, as there's auto rendering of forms across different layout. I suppose that's the reason why they have heading, label, rich label kind of controls.
  • Controls take up a specific size which cannot be changed in height unless your use CSS. This does give a neater look but desired look is difficult (I may be biased as this is easily possible in MS word/ Infopath).
  • Nesting controls is difficult except in sub forms which in turn do not support a lot of controls. A subform is AgilePoint's repeating container. This mean that right at the beginning of a form project a decision was made that there has to be one standard way of repeating control, i.e. through a subform container. So the requirements need to be a bit clear at the beginning of the project (this proves impossible with most of my clients).   
  • Custom HTML controls rendering is difficult, however there's about 60 OOB controls to ponder with. There's a nice touch of Telerik control, which you can use without a license.   
  • Autosave doesn't happen and the UI becomes unresponsive at time causing loss of data if forms are skyscrapers. So for the idiot end users who don't save a form for two days, this could be a problem.

Runtime
The Good:

  • Detailed information about variables/fields used available at runtime.
  • Multiple data sources can be used at various events.
  • Running applications will continue to run when a new change is published, as a result of which the system doesn't have to be brought down to deploy changes.
  • Can use APIs to access any kind of data from other resources.

The Bad:

  • Lookups take a while to load, but this could be the Office 365 API (the Salesforce and on-premises SharePoint API are noticeably quicker).
  • Offline modification of forms is not possible.

The Ugly:

  • If you are an InfoPath form designer, it can take a bit of time to get your head around the AgilePoint forms design process. 
  • Can't access forms from a physical location as forms are available as tasks and in XML. This is usually a major requirement by the client, but typical of most form designer builds.

Product Features
The Good:

  • Easy to integrate into different systems because SharePoint and Salesforce.com have AgilePoint Dashboards available. This includes the authentication process.
  • Log in using various authorization methods is possible.
  • Very easy to export applications to other tenants and reuse them. Perfect for the cloning process.
  • Globally reusable tokens can be created and exported to multiple application increasing reusability.
  • Individual forms also can be exported and re-used across multiple applications and tenants.

The Bad:

  • Look and feel can't be modified to look like SharePoint to maintain consistency. Although people complain about the SharePoint UI, when it's taken away, they still complain. Maybe this is a user use point. 

Another welcome capability is its ability to support both on-premises and private cloud implementations. In private clouds, multiple tenants are supported and it can access XML-based data and IT managers can gather various reports based on that data.    

AgilePoint, is both a good low code development platform and a nice replacement to InfoPath. For further information on AgilePoint's Forrester report, click here

About the Author

Peter Ward is the co-owner of Soho Dragon, a New York-based Microsoft partner focused on SharePoint, Azure and mobile development and is the organizer-founder of the New York City Enterprise Collaboration Meetup group.

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