Virtual Entities: Are they a fit for your production environment?
If you were excited about the release of Virtual Entities as part of Microsoft Dynamics 365, you were probably equally puzzled about the limited documentation available. There is virtually (pun intended) no information on integrating Virtual Entities (VE) into a production environment. Many examples online don’t go beyond a “Hello World” integration using the Purdue course API. Fortunately, we have investigated Virtual Entities for a few of our clients and wanted to share our discoveries as to the limitations and benefits.
Virtual Entities (VEs) operate by connecting to any external data source that provides a publicly accessible OData API. We typically suggest VEs when the following requirements are in place:
- Data cannot live in the CRM due to security reasons
- Spending limits exist on CRM storage
- Handling data in two different places will create unnecessary overhead
- Data is read-only
Prior to moving forward, consult the following pros/cons list:
You can find the list above online, but here are 5 things we discovered that help us ascertain if Virtual Entities are truly the ideal solution:
1) Displaying related columns is not supported
This limitation is a show stopper for many of our clients, which is why we bring it up first. You cannot display a related entity’s columns in a view. For instance, if a Course has a lookup to a Subject (Assuming Course, Subject or both are Virtual), you cannot display the Subject’s columns. As in, if a Subject has an abbreviation field and you wanted to see the Course’s Subject’s abbreviation, you cannot do it:
- Abbreviation (Field on Subject)
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Since Course and Subject are two different entities, you cannot display the above, although if they were non-virtual entities this wouldn’t be a problem.
You CAN display the Course’s lookup field for Subject and at least derive the Subject’s name, but that’s due to the lookup technically living on the Course entity. What’s worse, the View builder alludes you can select these related columns, but if you do, you will receive a “Not Implemented” error.
|On a Course view navigate to Record Type||Select ‘Subject’ and add its Abbreviation field to view||You will receive an error|
The “Not Implemented” error is unhelpful, but if you try to build this query via FetchXML and query using the SDK in Visual Studio, you’ll get a clearer error: ‘LinkEntity’ with ColumnSet not supported.
2) Relationships between Virtual and Non-Virtual Entities are allowed 😉
On the bright side, if you have a non-virtual entity (Professor) with a lookup to a virtual entity (Classroom), if Professor returns the right GUID for that Classroom ID, you can interact with it exactly as you would a regular entity. It will even appear in views using the Classroom’s Name field. (The same join limitations from above still apply).
4) You can see the total row count in Views
When Dynamics makes an OData call, it appends the parameter &$count=true to the query to obtain the total row count. This feature is awesome because if a non-virtual entity has more than 5,000 records, the only total you get is the vague “5,000+”. However, with VEs you get the exact number:
5) Workflows are not supported, but there are workarounds
Custom Workflows are not supported with Virtual Entities, however, you can create a custom workflow activity and simply make a call to the OData API directly in your code. If you need help serializing the JSON in your OData call without using Newtonsoft and ILMerge, Scott Durow provides a native alternative.
It’s unclear what the roadmap is for Virtual Entities or if Microsoft will include the features that natively exist in OData (e.g. Joins). Nonetheless, the benefits Virtual Entities provide (e.g., easy integration with an OData API, savings on storage, storing data in one place) are the key reasons we offer them as a solution for our clients. If you’re interested in building an OData API with these Virtual Entities, we’ll be posting another blog titled 4 Tips for Building an OData API with Dynamics Virtual Entities on Thursday. Be sure to check it out!
Sean Astrakhan is an educator by training (and nature). He’s lived and taught in Michigan, Colombia and China, but is happy to call Baltimore “home.” Being an extrovert with penchants for adventure and overanalysis has led Sean to a career in technology consulting where he thrives on meeting new people and remedying their tech hardships.
When Sean isn’t coding or working with clients to make their lives easier, he’s getting schooled by Baltimore youth or falling on his face in adult gymnastics classes. But none of that bothers Sean because he never wants to stop learning and perfecting new skills. To paraphrase one of his favorite Beyoncé lyrics, “He grinds ‘til he owns it.”