Microsoft Build touts Power Apps and Cosmos DB improvements to develop code faster

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At Microsoft’s Build conference this week, CEO Satya Nadella focused on speed. “It all depends on the speed of the developers,” he promised, as the company unveiled tools and services that would allow developers to turn ideas into software stacks faster.

The annual event has something for traditional developers and newer developers who use spreadsheets and other “low-code” tools. Key announcements this week included the integration of AI technologies with the Microsoft Power FX low-code programming language and improvements to Cosmos DB.

Turn data into dashboards

The Microsoft Power platform enables non-technical users to create, automate, and analyze data on their own and not have to wait for developers to build applications and processes for them. Power BI is a collection of low-code and no-code tools that transform complex data into interactive reports and dashboards. Analysts can use Power Apps to build applications and data processes.

Integrating AI into Power FX will make it easier to use natural language input and “like programming” techniques when developing with PowerApps. The fact that Power FX is a formula-based tool built on Microsoft Excel means that people can write custom code without having to learn traditional programming languages.

Power FX is a “low-code programming language for everyone,” said Greg Lindhorst, Microsoft’s program manager.

While this approach offers many benefits, there are limits to the amount of coding the world can handle. Excel enthusiasts who can create elaborate interactive spreadsheets will be happy to write even more complex functions that can trigger more elaborate dashboards. But casual spreadsheet users will find there is still a steep learning curve as they struggle to keep track of the complex syntax and other pitfalls that drive newbies crazy.

It’s low code, not no code, after all.

Teams more than video

Power Apps is natively integrated with all Microsoft cloud offerings, including Microsoft Teams (Office 365), Enterprise Apps (Dynamics 365), and Developer Cloud (Azure). With a built-in app studio, Teams is more than just a place for email and video chat. At Microsoft Build, the company has tried to position the remote collaboration tool as a fully customizable platform for application delivery.

This integration could increase the amount of custom code within an organization. While this feature doesn’t mean much to average users, giving teammates the ability to not only chat but also create code could be amazing. Power users could share their code on Teams, and others could expand it.

A few smart tips can save millions of hours of work.

Improvement of the Cosmos database

Cosmos DB is one of Microsoft’s flagship tools on Azure, and it remains one of the easiest and most flexible ways for developers to store data. Microsoft has focused on cost containment and serverless options for Cosmos DB.

The biggest option may be a custom cache. Previously, Azure users could insert a version of Redis to handle bursts in similar traffic. The new cache is optimized for Cosmos DB.

The price of the cache is calculated as a regular instance based on its computing power and RAM size, the most important parameter in deciding how much data to cache. When the cache arrives, there is no cost to Cosmos DB, effectively swapping the seemingly endless exposure of database queries with the fixed monthly cost of a caching machine.

Caching helps with high loads with large bursts of concentrated activity. The Cosmos DB team is also emphasizing the ability to deploy serverless workloads for intermittent applications and those that may still be under testing. The serverless version became generally available from Microsoft Build.

Cosmos DB users tend to be more serious developers with a larger assignment set than powerful spreadsheet users working with the Power BI platform. The new features aim to make it easier and faster for developers to start storing data in Cosmos DB, and also to help contain (or even reduce) costs.

Software development for everyone

Nadella’s goal is to push software development to all corners of the world. He pointed out that the number of developers in non-tech companies has grown faster than the number in tech companies, which makes low-code tools ideal for these environments.

“In the automotive industry, there were more software engineers than mechanical engineers hired in the past year,” he noted in his opening speech.

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Rosemary C. Kearney