What is a Microapp: An Emerging Trend

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The microapp trend is on the rise! In the approximately two years since joining the DreamFactory team, I’d estimate I’ve conversed with more than one thousand companies about their API-based projects. These conversations provide a great opportunity to peer inside the IT operations of organizations large and small, not to mention pick up on emerging technology trends. Regarding the latter, over the course of the past year or so two trends have become strikingly clear: the first is that companies of all sizes are gravitating to identity and access management service provider Okta. Second, a titanic migration to Microsoft Azure is under way. Microapps are small, purpose-built applications designed to perform specific tasks efficiently within larger systems, enhancing user productivity and simplifying complex processes.

Speculative reasoning behind both of these trends is probably worth a blog post unto itself, however there is a third and arguably far more profound trend that could have major reverberations across the enterprise software industry: growing interest in microapps.

Here's the key things to know about microapps:

  • Microapps are small, focused applications designed specifically to perform a narrow set of functions efficiently, usually within an existing larger system or platform.
  • They are typically composed of an authentication layer that integrates with existing identity management services (like Okta or Active Directory), a CRUD interface to interact with databases and APIs, and a notification layer to alert users about specific events or conditions.
  • UI-responsive by design, microapps provide a streamlined user experience that is effective across various devices, ensuring functionality whether users are at a desk or on mobile.
  • These applications are tailored to simplify complex processes into manageable tasks that require minimal interaction time, usually less than a minute, often triggered by notifications.
  • Microapps are important as they allow organizations to enhance productivity by reducing the complexity and overhead associated with large, monolithic enterprise software systems.

What is a Microapp?

Techies are renowned (although reviled might be a better descriptor) for our ability to churn out new industry jargon. Therefore, it is entirely possible you’ve never heard of the term “microapp”. In a nutshell, a micro app is an application that does precisely what a particular employee or department requires. They perform custom and specific tasks without having to enter a monolith application. It typically consists of three components:

  • An authentication layer that plugs into the organization’s identity and access management service provider (e.g. Okta, Auth0, Active Directory, etc.)
  • A CRUD (create, read, update, delete) interface that interacts with a data source, typically a database, and one or more other available APIs hailing from SaaS, legacy, and homegrown applications, such as employee time tracking software.
  • A notification layer that alerts one or more members of a designated team whenever a certain criteria has been met. One example of such a notification might be alerting a manager about an expense that requires approval.
Figure 1. Microapp architecture

Further, these applications are UI-responsive. This is paves the way for convenient interactions whether the employee is seated at the desk or walking through the airport with phone in hand. Also, interactions with microapps tend to require less than one minute of an employee’s time. A typical interaction often initiating as a result of the employee being alerted to a pending task.

Why Are Microapps Important?

This trend towards microapps seems to be driven from two ends of the software spectrum:

  • Employees’ disdain for monolithic enterprise software. This has caused IT departments to consider alternative approaches to empowering employee productivity.
  • Departments seem to finally be coming around to the facts.  - Excel spreadsheets aren’t always an ideal solution for tracking company metrics.

Benefits of Microapps

Microapps are small, focused applications designed to perform specific tasks or functions within a larger software ecosystem. One of the key benefits of microapps is their ability to enhance user experience by streamlining workflows and simplifying interactions. As they are task-oriented, microapps can be easily integrated into various platforms, allowing users to access and complete tasks without needing to navigate through multiple applications or systems. This integration improves efficiency and reduces the cognitive load on users, allowing them to focus on their core tasks and objectives. Moreover, the modular nature of microapps enables organizations to customize and adapt the software to their specific needs, ensuring that the tools provided are relevant and effective for their users.

Microapps Don’t Need as Much Storage Space

As the trend towards remote work persists, employees may find themselves lacking the same processing capabilities they enjoyed in office settings. This discrepancy can lead to decreased productivity, as workers' personal laptops and devices struggle to keep pace with the demands of their tasks.

The rise of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies has also posed challenges for companies, as the use of mobile apps becomes increasingly prevalent in the workplace. On average, iOS apps require 37.9 MB of storage space, while Android apps are slightly less resource-intensive, occupying 14.6 MB on employee devices. The storage and processing demands of these apps can put additional strain on workers' devices, potentially impacting their performance.

Microapps, on the other hand, require significantly less storage space and processing power to function effectively. These lightweight applications are designed to accomplish specific tasks efficiently, minimizing the resources needed for their operation. By leveraging microapps in the workplace, organizations can alleviate the burden on employee devices, improving overall productivity and ensuring that remote workers can continue to perform their tasks effectively, even on devices with limited processing power or storage capacity.

Microapps Give You More Flexibility

In traditional monolithic applications, users are often constrained by the rigid processes established by developers, forcing them to navigate through unrelated steps to accomplish their tasks. This approach can be inefficient and cumbersome, hindering productivity and overall user experience.

In contrast, microapps provide significantly greater flexibility by eliminating the need to follow lengthy, predetermined sequences. This modular approach to software development allows professionals to create independent, task-specific applications that can easily interact with one another when required. By embracing microapps, businesses can streamline their workflows, improve user satisfaction, and adapt more rapidly to changing needs.

The microapp development methodology not only fosters enhanced agility and efficiency, but also presents unique opportunities to quickly develop interconnected products tailored to specific use cases. This innovative approach ensures that organizations can respond effectively to evolving market demands while maintaining a competitive edge.

Start a free, 14-day trial to see how DreamFactory makes it easier than ever for all of your apps to communicate through automatically generated APIs.

Increased Security

Large-scale applications often possess numerous security vulnerabilities that can be time-consuming for developers to identify and address. With an extensive codebase to examine, it may take a team several days to pinpoint and remediate potential threats, leaving the application exposed to potential breaches.

Microapps also offer a more secure alternative due to their compact size and focused functionality. By allowing users to keep only essential tools on their devices, microapps reduce the attack surface for cybercriminals, making it more challenging for them to exploit vulnerabilities and conceal their malicious activities.

Moreover, the streamlined nature of microapps makes it easier for developers to monitor and maintain the security of each individual component. By focusing on specific tasks, developers can more efficiently identify potential risks, implement security best practices, and ensure timely updates to address any discovered vulnerabilities. This proactive approach to security not only helps protect sensitive data and systems but also fosters user trust and confidence in the organization's software solutions.

Microapps Help Developers Build Better Products

If you haven’t worked in application development, you might not understand the frustrations that many professionals experience trying to coordinate massive building projects for enterprise apps. It’s a tedious process that includes writing code for infrastructure, monitoring, authentication, testing, and so on.

To make matters worse, every project requires a slightly different approach.

Microapps offer an entirely new approach to development. Developers can place microapps inside a larger application, so they don’t have to rebuild everything from scratch. The application’s infrastructure already contains all the essentials, so developers can add and remove microapps as needed.

Of course, developers can encounter struggles getting microapps to cooperate. The approach doesn’t eliminate all concerns. Still, it works better than trying to overhaul a monolithic app with features that don’t communicate with each other well.

Replacing Excel

This struggle to replace the timeless Excel-as-a-database solution was made apparent during a recent visit to one of our customers, a global chemical manufacturer. This particular company really seems to be on the forefront of micro app development. They use DreamFactory (more on this later) to build and manage a microapp generation framework. One of the first microapps they created was for the network operations department. Company policy requires that network engineers formally sign in and out of the NOCs (network operations centers). For years this was done using an Excel Spreadsheet hosted on a network drive.

Finding a Microapp Solution

Using a spreadsheet for this purpose is a simple yet painful solution. Data input wasn’t uniform, and network engineers often neglected to update the spreadsheet. This happens because it requires them to remember to open their laptop both upon entering and departing the facilities. Reporting was difficult and required manual effort (the manager’s background is after all in networking and not Excel wrangling). So upon learning of the microapp generation framework they quickly migrated to a simple mobile application. The app authenticates employees using Active Directory, and allows for NOC checkin and checkout with a push of a button.

The data is managed in a Microsoft SQL Server database, and a simple dashboard allows the manager to review weekly reports in an instant. This microapp is apparently working so well that the networking department is currently working on a similar solution for streamlining another aspect of their operations.

How DreamFactory Enables Microapp Development

DreamFactory is an iPaaS (Integration Platform as a Service) solution that can automate the generation of APIs. It does this for a wide variety of data sources, including databases such as Microsoft SQL Server, MySQL, Oracle, and MongoDB. Additionally, it supports automated API generation for file systems such as AWS S3 and SFTP servers. It can also handle e-mail delivery solutions such as Mailgun and SMTP, and can even convert an Excel spreadsheet into a JSON stream.

Further, DreamFactory supports a wide array of authentication solutions for restricting API access. Naturally API keys are supported.  However, DreamFactory developers can optionally layer additional authentication atop the API infrastructure. You can choose from Active Directory, LDAP, Okta, AWS Cognito, Auth0, OpenID Connect, and many other authentication service providers.

DreamFactory enables microapp development

DreamFactory auto-generates the API and authentication layer. Users can use API orchestration to weave responses from multiple APIs into a single output. Because of this, developers can focus the majority of their time and efforts on building responsive and snappy interfaces. Adding to the productivity are off-the-shelf UI libraries such as Tabulator (https://tabulator.info/). It integrates with DreamFactory APIs in literally minutes:

Building data-driven user interfaces and microapp with DreamFactory is easy

You can view a live demonstration of this interface at https://tabulator.demo.dreamfactory.com/.

Related reading: APIs and JavaScript: Maximizing Development Potential

No-Code Microapp Development

Many enterprise applications now offer user-friendly, point-and-click microapp development tools that simplify the process of creating microapps. These tools often provide pre-built templates that administrators can utilize to rapidly deploy microapp strategies without needing to write any code. Examples of pre-built microapps for popular platforms include:

  • Google G-Suite Directory, Drive, and Calendar
  • SAP Concur, Ariba, and SuccessFactors
  • Tableau
  • Workday
  • Microsoft Power BI
  • Atlassian Jira
  • Zendesk

In addition to out-of-the-box microapps, some contemporary workspace applications feature customization tools that enable the development of bespoke microapp solutions through a codeless, drag-and-drop interface. Developers and administrators can also employ REST API connectors to create microapps that interact with enterprise applications and systems of record (SoRs) not included in the list of pre-built solutions. The REST API connector allows you to read and update data from virtually any application or database that exposes a REST API.

The scope of your microapp capabilities broadens further when you integrate an enterprise application with DreamFactory. DreamFactory's automated REST API generation tools enable you to instantly generate a REST API for almost any enterprise SoR, application, or database. This facilitates rapid connection of your microapps to additional databases and legacy systems by eliminating the need for time-consuming, custom REST API hand-coding. DreamFactory also provides immediate access to APIs for the most sophisticated authentication and authorization solutions available. By minimizing or completely removing coding delays, DreamFactory helps you swiftly build secure microapps that interact with virtually any enterprise application or SoR.

Artificial Intelligence and Microapps

The most advanced microapp strategies harness the power of AI and machine learning to create “smart” notification feeds. In these AI-driven strategies, microapp notifications automatically arrange themselves to deliver the most important tasks and information first, and they automatically expire when no longer needed. This ensures that microapp feeds stay as short and efficient as possible. 

Depending on how administrators configure the notification feeds, the AI system can push the smart notifications directly to the user, or the user can invoke a specific microapp for specific functions. Developers can set up these AI-driven microapp strategies without additional infrastructure. They simply need an API integration platform like DreamFactory to establish the connection with their enterprise app. 

DreamFactory’s native API integration with Citrix Workspace is an excellent tool for building AI-driven microapp feeds. Citrix Workspace includes automated microapp generation tools, plus AI and machine learning features that organize microapp feeds for greater efficiency. 

DreamFactory’s Upcoming Microapp Generators

A forthcoming DreamFactory release will unveil a series of microapp generators that generate UIs for your authentication and data APIs. You’ll select the desired authentication service provider, choose your data set(s), and DreamFactory will generate a fully-functional and responsive CRUD interface. These capabilities will allow your team to deploy microapps with a speed and agility previously impossible.

If you’d like to join the beta group that will have early access to these exciting new capabilities, or if you have questions regarding how microapps can transform your organization, please e-mail us at code@dreamfactory.com

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