Enterprise Apps vs. Microapps: Improving App Interactions

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When it comes to enterprise apps vs. microapps, most distinguish microapps as “tiny processes that perform targeted actions in a larger, more complex enterprise app.” While this definition is mostly true, it doesn’t give you the bigger picture of how microapps improve how your team members interact with enterprise-scale applications.

Microapps can dramatically streamline workflows across an organization. This feature doesn’t just make the lives of your team members easier, but it also reduces costs, boosts productivity, and makes your organization more agile and competitive. 

To fully understand why businesses are using microapps for this purpose — and how they are doing it — you first have to know what enterprise apps are and understand their inherent limitations.

What Are Enterprise Apps? 

An enterprise application is defined as a "software platform designed to operate in a corporate environment such as business or government." 

The long list of enterprise apps that your employees are likely to use daily includes the Microsoft Office suite (Outlook, Word, Excel, and Office 365 online), CRM systems like Salesforce, business intelligence systems like Tableau, and project management tools like Zoho Projects.

Traditional enterprise applications built on monolithic architecture are powered by a complex code base and tend to serve one primary function. To encompass more features, enterprise apps will typically be bundled in a suite with other apps.

For instance, think of a word processor app. This will be a large application that primarily serves one purpose: to allow the end user to write text in documents. The word processor doesn't have numerical or presentation features, so it will be bundled together with a spreadsheet and presentation software to create an office suite. Each component of that suite has its own function, and its interaction with other enterprise applications is limited.

The primary purpose of any enterprise application is to allow a user to accomplish a task, enhancing productivity by streamlining the task. However, over time it's become apparent that the traditional enterprise app can actually have the opposite effect. Users consistently have to switch between different apps. And as each app is likely to have a different interface, time is lost switching contexts. Further context-switching occurs as a user switches between the app on different devices, such as a desktop, a laptop, and a tablet or smartphone.

The issues that arise from so much context-switching in the workplace include:

    • Putting off tasks: Users subconsciously put off specific tasks because they don’t want to break their stride to enter another app. A manager could delay approving an expense request by hours or days — just because it takes an extra step to enter the expense approval system. 

    • Login delays and lost passwords: The constant need to enter passwords and guess and reset forgotten passwords creates a noticeable workflow disruption.

    • Hunting for app features: Users lose time while hunting for the exact feature they need in a specific application.

    • Forgotten work: A user can lose sight of what they previously worked on before switching app environments. 

Over time, developers attempted to address these problems by streamlining the flow of data between enterprise applications. This eventually led to the concept of service-oriented architecture (SOA). Apps developed under this architecture can share services and components with other applications, providing a way to integrate data amongst separate applications.   

The SOA, however, is a large and heavy framework. At its core, it's also a component of monolithic application design. In the modern world of web services and mobile applications, SOA is neither agile nor easily deployed. 

What Are Microservices-Based Enterprise Apps?

Microservices and microservices-based enterprise apps are changing the definitions of "enterprise-grade" and “enterprise apps.” The “pluggability” of microservices-based architectures allows modern developers to build microapps that integrate with enterprise apps quickly. 

In recent years, enterprises have embraced the trend toward microservices-based app architectures. This is due to the tremendous scalability/agility benefits.

Microservices-based apps are more scalable and agile because they differ from traditional monolithic applications. Monolithic apps hold all the code for their services and features within a specific piece of programming. In contrast, microservices-based apps break monoliths into their component services and run each service as its own autonomous mini-application (or microservice). Finally, the individual microservices loosely connect with each other — typically through REST APIs — to form the larger application. 

Here are four ways that microservices-based enterprise apps are more scalable and agile than traditional monolithic apps:

    1. Easier to replicate processes: When workload demands go up, the system only has to replicate the microservices affected by the increase in server traffic and demand. This process is faster and easier than replicating the entire application.

    1. More economical usage of resources: Instead of needing to replicate the whole system, microservices-based architectures only divert additional resources to the parts of the app (or the microservices) that require them. This action saves on processing power, server resources, and the costs of maintaining the system. 

    1. Faster development cycles: Developers can quickly and more cost-effectively create products, services, and enterprise infrastructures in response to changing demands.

    1. Pluggable, flexible design: It’s faster to add, upgrade, or remove individual services and features — including microapps. There is much less chance that a new service or feature will negatively impact other parts of the system.

The pluggability of microservices-based apps makes it easy to quickly develop and integrate new features into an existing enterprise application. In other words, if you have an idea for a new feature — or microapp — you can quickly develop the app or idea and connect it to a microservices-based enterprise app. For example, if you have a microapp idea that could overcome a workflow bottleneck, developing the microapp and integrating it into the enterprise app is fast, inexpensive, and painless. 

What Are Microapps?

Most enterprise apps are clunky, slow, and bloated, with rarely used features that the average user never interacts with. Users generally interact with only 10% to 15% of the features in an enterprise app regularly — and developers do not always make these few features quick and easy to access.

To make matters worse, business users typically interact with at least a half-dozen (or more) of these clunky enterprise apps on a daily basis. That means users are continually doing the following:

    1. Logging in and out of these apps; 

    1. Trying to remember passwords for different apps; 

    1. Context-switching from one app environment to another; and 

    1. Hunting through drop-down menus for the exact feature they need — if they can even find it. 

However, none of these actions have much to do with the actual “work” that team members need to perform. Microapps are helping enterprises overcome these challenges. 

These tiny, autonomous applications are built for a single purpose. Each microapp performs a focused action within a larger application. In the context of enterprise apps, using a microapp to perform a focused action like this is a powerful way to overcome workflow bottlenecks.

Microapps are ultimately made possible by the pluggability of API-led development strategies. Developers can quickly create microapp solutions that streamline workflows — then “plug” the microapps into the enterprise app via the enterprise app’s API.

Microapps Solve Workflow Bottlenecks

Imagine a workflow problem related to expense approval to understand how this works. In a typical setup, a team member submits an expense request in the system. The manager receives a notification of the expense by email. The manager needs to exit the current work environment, log into the expense approval system, navigate to the expense, and approve it. Next, the expense goes to the next decision-maker in the management chain — and that person completes the same process.

These expense approval steps are workflow disruptions that destroy decision-maker concentration and productivity. To avoid disruption, decision-makers often delay entering the expense approval system until they finish what they’re currently doing. Or, they will wait until several expense requests accrue. This approach slows the entire approval process, making the enterprise less agile. 

Here’s how a simple microapp improves this workflow bottleneck:

    1. A team member submits an expense request in the system.

    1. The manager receives an interactive push notification from the microapp. 

    1. The notification describes the expense and offers two buttons: “Approve” or “Decline.”

    1. The manager clicks “Approve,” and the request moves to the subsequent decision-maker.

The manager does not have to context-switch into a new environment in this microapp workflow. There is no need to log into another system or hunt for the information. The information comes directly to the manager — as a simple yes or no question. This feature is like having an assistant outside your door, asking straightforward questions about scheduling meetings, approving expenses, scheduling e-courses, ordering supplies, etc. The microapp serves you the question and returns your answer to the enterprise app with minimal interruption.

Some modern workspace applications feature customization tools to develop tailored microapp solutions via a codeless, drag-and-drop interface. Developers and administrators can also use REST API connectors to build microapps that interact with enterprise apps and systems of record (SoRs) that aren’t on the list of pre-built solutions. The REST API connector empowers you to read and update data from virtually any application or database that exposes a REST API.

Microapps overcome workflow bottlenecks by simplifying the process of interacting with enterprise apps. Users can rapidly answer a simple question in the microapp without leaving their current work environment. This process minimizes delays, improves team member productivity, and preserves team member concentration. 

Microapps and Mobile Applications

Microapps gained popularity thanks to the rapid rise of mobile applications. If you look back at when smartphones went from a niche product to one of the most popular product categories on the planet, that was when microapps worked their way into everyday life. Many enterprises and their development teams wanted to seize the popularity of simple mobile apps and apply that same type of design to their enterprise applications.

Mobile apps thus inspired the shift away from developing applications with diverse functionality. Developers were also intrigued by not having to maintain the complex code bases required to implement so many features into an app.

By reflecting this simplicity in the development process, the user interfaces for microapps often feature intuitive drag-and-drop tools. At the same time, developers gained cross-platform compatibility, as microapps could be easily deployed to smartphones, personal computers, and tablets.

Microapp development methodology is also cost-effective because IT groups and developer teams don't have to expend as much time and company resources on development and support. If your company emphasizes saving time and money, there is a lot of value to be had from a microapp development state.

The Role of Microapps in Digital Transformation

As companies evolve their business processes for the modern era, microapps play a key role in digital transformation.

Digital transformation is the process of embracing information technology in every aspect of a company’s operations and driving strategy based on business data. Trying to make such a transformation with enterprise applications can be slow and frustrating. Large monolithic applications take considerable time to implement. Training employees then requires even more time.

And, as with traditional enterprise applications, monolithic applications are full of features that most enterprise employees will never use. A better approach is to base your digital transformation on microapps.

Since microapps provide the functionality needed to accomplish any given task, and nothing more, the problems of a long implementation and training cycle are solved. Users get software that is simpler to learn and use every day. 

Sharing information and services in real-time is the primary function of microapps, which is right in line with the goals of any digital transformation. Attempting a comparable information workflow with enterprise apps is likely to be an exercise in frustration, as the monolithic design is not built for easy sharing. The services-oriented architecture is always an option, but SOA development can be equally time-consuming and clunky.

Microapps solve the fundamental issues of adopting new software by having a short development and training cycle. For any business that’s fast-tracking a digital transformation, microapps will fit right into any strategy.

3 Key Attributes of Microapps

Now that you have some context, we can look at the three key attributes of microapps as defined by DreamFactory CTO Jason Gilmore:

    1. Laser-focused: The microapp is hyper-focused on a specific task, such as expense approval, course registration, calendaring, etc.

    1. Responsive: You can interact with a microapp on your desktop, iPad, or mobile phone equally well. 

    1. Notification-driven: You don’t have to look for the information. It comes to you and usually shows up in the activity feed of your workspace environment. You might receive a pop-up notification on your smartphone, tablet, laptop, or desktop device. 

The three key attributes of microapps relate to their laser focus on completing a specific action within a larger app, their responsiveness and ability to be used on any kind of device, and their notification-driven nature. Once the microapp receives your response, you’re done!

“Disposable” Microapps With a Short Lifespan

A fourth attribute that you can apply to some microapps is a short lifespan. For example, you might be working on an event or project and create a microapp that only exists for several months. After preparing for the event or completing the project, the microapp has served its purpose, and you can discard it. 

Years ago, the idea of creating a “disposable” short-lifespan microapp would have been ludicrous because of the tremendous developer time that goes into a single application. However, automated developer tools are making microapp development quick, simple, and codeless. 

Pluggable API-led development, microservices-based systems, and automated low-code/no-code app development tools mean that you can rapidly create microapps for specific use cases and integrate them into your existing systems.

Microapps vs. Microservices

It may seem like microapps and microservices are basically the same thing. To be sure, they share many similarities and have some overlap in function. The primary difference between the two lies in their scale and where they sit within your tech stack.

On a high level, microapps and microservices can be differentiated by a couple of their traits: Microservices are services that communicate with each other via a REST API. They are flexible enough to perform many different functions. Microapps, on the other hand, typically have a single use and feature a user interface (UI) layer to them. That said, there are some overlaps in both function and form in both microapps and microservices.

Microapps reside and operate on the front end of a microservices-based architecture. On the other hand, microservices are primarily found on the backend, performing communication and data retrieval tasks.

Mobile apps may consist of many microapps deployed on the same server or across parts of a cluster. Meanwhile, microservices are part of a software development architecture.

Microapps tend to have a minimal footprint in terms of memory and storage usage. They typically don't handle any storage processes by themselves. That is usually delegated to storage components on both the front-end and backend. Microservices are capable of storing their own data (like transaction history), but it's considered best practice to leave that to other systems, such as a server with exposed APIs.

Microapps are known for their simplicity but are best used as components of a larger project. Therefore, software development teams should work closely to reach a project's goals. Assigning a project's different modules, such as the user experience and feature set, makes sense in these cases. Strong communication and coordination across team members are required for successful development and deployment.

The inherent functionality of microservices necessitates frequent messaging between them. This action can lead to network performance issues if left unchecked. Monitoring microservices activity should be done to measure the overall effect on network throughput and application performance. Admittedly, this is a complex task and will almost always require the use of automated management tools.

Microapps: The Key Points to Remember

As you develop a microapp strategy, you must keep two key points in mind. First, employees only interact with four to five key functions of a typical enterprise app. Second, employees tend to waste a lot of time trying to access and use these functions. 

Microapps eliminate this wasted time by placing key functions from different enterprise apps directly in front of employees. All microapp strategies should be built around this workflow streamlining.

Microapps function via API integrations that connect the microapp to a larger enterprise application. They use the enterprise app's API to read, update, and interact with app functions, services, and data. 

How to Generate Microapps in Minutes 

With DreamFactory’s new Citrix Workspace integration, you can access the Citrix microapp builder, which automates the entire process of developing microapps in an easy-to-use, code-free developer environment. Connecting to Citrix Workspace through DreamFactory allows you to access a powerful point-and-click portal to create all kinds of microapp solutions in minutes without writing a single line of code.

The Citrix microapp builder almost instantly generates microapps with beautiful, modern user interfaces. Plus, DreamFactory lets you connect these microapps to 20 different databases — including Microsoft SQL Server, MongoDB, Oracle, and MySQL.

DreamFactory Helps Make Microapps

As you can imagine, the sky’s the limit when developing microapps that overcome workflow bottlenecks, employee productivity problems, and other enterprise application challenges. In the years ahead, you can expect many interesting developments in how businesses integrate microapps into their existing infrastructures. Do you want to try creating a beautiful microapp with DreamFactory’s Citrix Workspace plug-in in just a few minutes? Sign up for your free 14-day trial today! 

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