NAV Techdays 2018 Recap

I started to write this post while flying across the Atlantic Ocean on the second of a three leg journey home, a BA flight from London to Phoenix. It has been a very long trip that started when I traveled to Holland for Directions EMEA in Den Haag at the end of October. Since Directions and NAV Techdays were relatively close together, I decided to just stay with my family in Holland for those 4 weeks rather than fly back and forth twice in less than a month. This has been the longest that I’ve ever been away from home, and I was SO ready to be back in my own house.

NAV Techdays ended last Friday, and it’s been another fantastic week, as we’ve come to expect. As far as I can tell, the attendees in my pre-conference workshop were happy with the content, I can’t wait to get the feedback and see what I can improve for next time.

As per usual, Luc has posted the videos in record time, less than a week after the event. The whole playlist can be found here, and I wanted to highlight some of my favorite sessions. One of the most important developments in current technology is machine learning and AI. Dmitry Katson and Steven Renders put together an awesome session to introduce machine learning to us. The award for most entertaining session goes to Waldo and Vjeko, who put on a concert and wowed the audience with some really cool content. I also want to point out the session about CI/CD, which is going to be one of the most important things for everyone that is serious about implementing a professional development practice. Of course, I have to also mention the Docker session, which is the technology that makes it all possible.

Furtunately, next year’s event is not scheduled on Thanksgiving, which is a national holiday here in the US, one that typically involves lots of friends and family, and lots of food. I’ve had to miss it the past couple of years, and each time I’ve been bummed to hear the stories of all the great meals and gatherings that my family got to have without me. Next year I’ll be home for Turkey Day!

Thanks for another super event, it’s one of my favorite weeks of the year.

Extensible Enums

The AL language has an object type called ‘enum’. This object type defines a list of possible values in the form of a set of key/value pairs, plus captions. You can then create a field in a table or table extension enum as its data type, and the field will provide the user with a drop down list of those values. Just like option fields, the database stores the numerical values of the enum in the field.

To define a new enum, you create a new .al file in which you define the enum as an object, and you list the options of the enum as follows:

Note that the ‘Extensible’ property is set to true, so it will be possible to extend the enum with additional options when the enum is used in other extensions.

To link a field in a table or a table extension, you define the field as an enum type field, and specify the enum name as part of the field definition. In the following screenshot we’re adding an enum type field to the Customer table in a new tableextension:

Now, in order for this enum to be extended, you would have the app that includes the enum as a dependency (which puts the original enum into the current app’s symbol references), and then you would create a new object called an ‘enumextension’, in which you define additional values.

Now when you look at the Customer Card, you can see all the values in the dropdown for the new field:

It is also possible to link an option field in C/SIDE to an enum in AL, as shown in the following screenshot:

When I learned about the extensible enum type, I was salivating at the thought that it would be possible to extend the available options in a ton of tables (type in sales/purchase line, account type in journals, entry type in ledgers to name just a few of them). It IS possible to do just that, and eventually the goal is to replace all option type fields in Business Central with enum type fields, it’s just that it comes with a crap ton of refactoring of existing code.

There is a lot of code that checks for all available option values, with an ELSE leg in the CASE statement for ‘other values’. All of that code will need to be refactored to allow for extended enums instead of just raising an error with an unrecognized value.

Now you know about enums, start using them instead of option type fields, and make them as extensible as possible.

Source Code Management for Business Central

So you’re getting your feet wet with Visual Studio Code, and you’re starting to get the hang of how developing extensions for Business Central works. You’re getting comfortable with all the elements of a VSCode workspace and how to connect your workspace to your Docker container. Now is the time to dive into source code management.

One thing that makes it easy to get started is that Visual Studio Code supports source code management as a built-in feature of the program itself, through integrating with the GIT source control management protocol. You have to install this separately, but once you have all the right bits in place, VSCode will keep track of the changes that you make to your objects, and you can take action based on that, right inside VSCode.

Install the right bits

From what I understand, the reason why Git itself is not installed as part of VSCode is because of the open source license that comes with Git. As a result, you have to install the protocol separately. The installer can be found on the Git website at https://git-scm.com/. Click on the download button and just accept all the prompts in the installer (hit ‘next’ about 9 times). All you need to do now is restart VSCode, and now VSCode is integrated with Git. It will issue all the commands that you want as if they were features of VSCode itself.

Tell Git who you are

Basically, source control management is a system that keeps track of who made what changes to which files at what point in time. It is the ultimate CYA tool, and it also can and will be used against you :). You have to tell Git who you are by setting two global system parameters, the user’s name and email address. Enter these parameters in the Terminal window in VSCode.

Sign up for GitHub and create a repository

Go to https://github.com/, sign up for an account, using the same email that you entered in VSCode as the Git user email. This is a super easy thing to do, I’m sure you can figure that part out yourself.

Once you’re in your Github account, create a repository there. Either click on ‘new repository’ from the dropdown button right next to your avatar, or click on ‘repositories’ and then on ‘new’. Give it a name, and if you want to be adventurous add a .gitignore and/or a license. You will figure out about all the details as you learn to use this.

The repository on Github is your ‘remote’. The image shows a new empty repository called ‘Kerplunk’ in my GitHub account. I set it to private because there’s really nothing to share in there at this point.

Initialize your first repository

As you probably already know, the VSCode ‘workspace’ is nothing more than a folder on your local drive. By some lucky coincidence, Git also works with folders, only in SCM terms, a folder is called a ‘repository’. You will have to learn to call these ‘repos’ if you want to look like you know what you’re talking about. A ‘folder’, a ‘workspace’, a ‘repository’, they are really all the same thing.

In order to make this happen, you need to initialize the folder as a repo. The easiest way to do this is to copy the repo from github into VSCode. As you may have noticed, in Github there was a big green button called ‘clone or download’. When you click on that button, it will drop down a little box where you can copy the link to your repo.

Now go back to VSCode, open the command palette and issue the ‘Git: Clone’ command. It will now prompt you for a link (paste in the clone link) and a folder. VSCode will then download the content of the repo from Github. Just some terms that you have to know: the repo on Github is the ‘Remote’, the copy of that repo on your hard drive is called the ‘local repo’ and the process of downloading the remote to local is  called a ‘cloning’.

All Set

You are now ready to rock and roll with source code management. Open Windows Explorer and VSCode at the same time, and note that the content of the workspace in VSCode hides the Git folder. VSCode now knows that the workspace is also a repo, and to track all changes in there. Copy the files of a brand new AL project into the repo and see what happens. VSCode will notice that there are a few new files in the repo.

Note how the files in the workspace  get a green color, and there is a badge with the number 3 on the source control tab.

Stage, Commit and Sync

Remember, you are always working on a LOCAL copy of the repo, you never work directly in the remote repo. To get your changes into the remote is a two step process. First you have to save the changes to the LOCAL repo, which is called ‘Committing’ the changes. You get to decide which files you want to commit by way of a process called ‘staging’.

Click on the Source Control button in VSCode, and note that all changed files are listed under a heading called ‘CHANGES’. When you hover your mouse over either one of the files, it shows a plus sign. When you click on that plus, it will move the file to another heading called ‘STAGED CHANGES’. Those staged changes are the files that will be committed to the local repo. You can select all or some of the files and then hit the checkmark, which is the commit button. This writes the changes into your local repo.

The last step is to send the commits from your local to your remote repo. This is called the ‘Sync’ process. You can either issue the ‘Git: sync’ command from the command palette, or hit the Sync button in the status bar. VSCode will send any new changes to the remote, and it will download any new changes from the remote.

Now check your repo in github and verify that your changes are up there.

Congratulations my friend, are now using source control management 🙂

Update Sep 24, 2018: added YouTube link. As I was writing this post, I was also working on a training video to get started with source code management. You can find it on YouTube here:

Update March 30, 2019 – new screenshots to show current look of VSCode

 

Ready To Go

I’m on my way home from a bucket list kind of trip this past week. This post is more than just a travel log, I’ll get to a good link that you will be able to use to get Ready to Go for Business Central. Bear with me and let me tell the story of my trip 🙂

Through my work I’ve had the opportunity to travel pretty much to the opposite side of the globe to teach the CRS workshop for developing extensions for Business Central with VSCode. The first 2 day workshop was in Hong Kong on Monday and Tuesday, and then Thurday and Friday I hosted the same workshop in Manila. To have some time for sightseeing I arrived in Hong Kong on Saturday early morning. My hotel was on Hong Kong Island, and I spent the day mostly walking around the area near the hotel. It was a very long trip, and I had a looooong night sleep to recover from the journey.

On my flight over, I was a little too vigorous trying to clean the keyboard on my laptop, and it stopped working. As I kind of need a keyboard for the workshop, part of my Sunday sightseeing was to roam the city in search of an external keyboard, which fortunately I found. It’s an unusual souvenir, but I am actually typing this on a keyboard with Chinese characters.

Instead of my original plan to take a ferry across the harbor and find some of the famous food places, I stayed around town on the island. There was an awesome dragon boat race, and I took the trolley up to Victoria Peak, which is where I took the picture at the top of this post. It was fantastic to be in Hong Kong, the people were very hospitable, I really hope I get the chance to go back there some day and spend some serious time exploring the area there.

These workshops are part of a program called ‘Ready to Go’, which was created to help the Microsoft partner channel build the skills that are necessary to succeed in the new ecosystem for Business Central. I’ll post something with more details probably in a few days, and go into a little more detail then, but the link that you want to jot down is http://aka.ms/ReadyToGo. On this page, you will find a ton of good content, and even more links to other places with even more content. This link can be your starting point for any information that you might need to succeed.

The workshops were a success, and I’ve received lots of positive feedback. It was a pleasure visiting these two places, and I hope to go back there one day. These are people that are Ready to Go!

NAV Techdays 2018 – I’m Speaking!

Registration for NAV Techdays 2018 is open, and this year is going to be SUPER exciting for me, because I am going to teach an all-day pre-conference workshop! Go to the sessions overview page of the NAV Techdays website to see the details of all of the sessions and the pre-conference workshops. Of course I would LOVE it if you sign up for my workshop, but really you can’t go wrong with any of them.

My workshop is called “A Day in the Life of a Business Central Developer”. I still need to put the material together, but the plan is to cover all aspects of what it means to be a developer for Microsoft Dynamics 365 Business Central. Think about the development environment, how to create an app, how to create multiple apps with dependencies (an extension of another extension), how to connect to web services, how to use source control, and even design patterns and Docker.

I realize that it is a very ambitious agenda, but I am sure that we can fill a whole day with great content. I’m not sure if there will be much time to do any extensive lab work, so I might end up just teaching all day and giving you some things to take home and work on after the workshop is done.

Most importantly – go register for NAV Techdays, it is really THE premium event for our industry. Spend an extra couple of days in Antwerpen for the pre-conference workshops, they are all fantastic and worth every penny.

See you in Antwerpen in November!

Signing an App Package File

One of the cool things about my work is that I get to participate in some things very early. This is often really cool, but it also comes with some frustration when things don’t go very smoothly, or when there is little information to work with. One of those things, which I had absolutely NO knowledge of, was signing an app file… I had not a clue what this means, and no clue where to go to get this information.

The page where Microsoft explains how this works can be found here. It looks like a really nice and informative page now, but a few months ago it was confusing as heck, and it was not very helpful to me. At the time, I was working on an app for one of our customers, and one of the steps to get apps into AppSource is to sign the app file before you submit it.

Electronically signing a file is essentially a way to identify the source of the file and certify that the file comes from a known source. The ISV partner that develops an app must register with the signing authorities, and then every time that they release a file, they have to stamp that file with their identifying attributes. The process to do this is to ‘sign’ the file.

I’m not going into the details of how to get this done, the resource in Docs.microsoft is quite good now, so you can read it there. One thing I do want to share is that you should ALWAYS timestamp your signing. If you don’t timestamp the signature, your app will expire the same date as your certificate. If you DO timestamp, the signature will be timestamped with a date that was within the validity of your certification, and your app file will never expire. You do have to keep your certificate valid of course, but at least by timestamping the signature, the files that you sign will not expire.

During the whole process of getting the certificate and the signature, I worked with someone at Microsoft, who helped me get my customer’s app signed, and he also took my feedback to improve the documentation. I noticed something about the documentation that I think should be pointed out.

Documentation for Business Central is now in a new space called ‘docs.microsoft.com‘. In contrast with MSDN, Docs is almost interactive with the community. Maybe you’ve noticed, but each page in Docs has a feedback section. Scroll down on any page in there, and you will see that there is a section where you as a consumer of this information can leave your feedback.

I did this, and to my surprise I got an email. As it happened, the person that was working on the signing page knew my name and knew how to get a hold of me, and we worked together to make the page more informative. It was a coincidence that we knew about each other, but what was no coincidence was that there are actual product group people at Microsoft that are responsible for the documentation. There is a team of documentation people that watch out for issues on Docs, and they pick up issues within days of submission!!

The feedback system links back through GitHub issues, so if you’ve ever submitted something to the AL team, you know that this is pretty direct communication. I am wondering though, if Microsoft will take this a step further, and open up Docs as a public repository where people can make suggested changes. I think yes, but I’m not sure because there’s not really a history of direct collaboration like that. I have good hope though, because the culture at Microsoft is getting more collaborative by the day.

Translations for Business Central Apps

My struggle to get the new translation files right has been real and too long to recount on this blog. When I finally got it right, it felt like it was more of a coincidence than actual skill to finally get it done.

It started with the app submission checklist, where one of the requirements is to “include all translations of countries your extension is supporting”. The app that I was working on was targeted for the US market, so all I needed was a translation file for ‘en-US’. The page on docs that explains translations explained what I needed to do. Or did it?

Turning on the translation feature in the app.json file and replacing all ML captions and such was easy enough. The trouble begins when you run into the details.

As soon as you rebuild the app, VSCode generated the default translation file in a new folder called ‘Translations’, and the translation file will be called “<YourAppname>.g.xlf”. Because the development language is ‘en-US’, this generated translation file is also specified for the ‘en-US’ language.

The translation page on Docs specifies that you need to copy the generated file “to avoid that the file is overwritten next time the extension is built”. Each time that you build the app it will re-create the generated xlf file. What that means is that you need to make a copy of the translation file and use the copy to do your actual translation work.

So I did make that copy, and because I was working on a US only app, I felt I was done with my translation. I had the generated file in my workspace, I had a copy of it for the ‘en-US’ language, I thought I was good to go. Alas, the app submission failed because they could not find any translation file in my app. Something was missing from my translation file.

The generated file only has nodes for “source”, which comes from all of your text strings like labels and captions and comments and such. The translation itself is in a node that is NOT included in the generated xlf file, you have to create that. The name of this node is “target”, and this is where the actual translation goes for each source element.

So, I copied and pasted all of the source nodes, made target nodes out of them, and by this time I had a direct line to the validation person at Microsoft, who was willing to hop on a Skype call and look at my workspace. He was also surprised to see that my workspace DID have the translation file, while the app file that I sent to him did not. As it turns out, the target node needs to have an attribute called “state” with a value “translated”.

In order to get the translation file in its proper state, you should use the proper tool, and I found that the Microsoft Multilingual app toolkit editor is the easiest one to work with. It puts the right elements into the xlf file, and when I used that tool, my app file was finally accepted.

How Do I Videos

My company, Cloud Ready Software, was commissioned late last year to create some short ‘How Do I’ videos on how to accomplish a bunch of simple technical tasks in Business Central. In total we created about a dozen videos, and they were all published on the “Dynamics 365” channel on YouTube. This channel has a TON of video content about all sorts of topics related to Dynamics 365 in general. Business Central is actually not a main topic in this channel, they are mostly focused on Sales, Marketing, Operations.

Anyway, I wanted to put links to the videos that I recorded in a blog post, so it would be easy to find them. As a result of these videos, we’ve been commissioned to create 30 hours of real training material for Business Central. Yes you read that right… THIRTY HOURS!!!! That’s almost a whole week!!!! Unfortunately, these larger videos will be published in the Dynamics Learning Portal, which is a subscription service inside PartnerSource. You have to have PartnerSource access and also pay extra to be able to access those videos.

I’ve already brought up in an internal meeting that it would be really cool if those videos could be public, and I did not get shot down. I doubt that they will be though, but I will make it a mission to mention this at every step of the way. I’ll keep you posted. On to the videos…

The first one is an easy one, how to add a field in an extension:

Next, how to add a field with a foreign key relation to another table:

Next, how to add some AL code to an extension:

Then, how to add upgrade logic to an extension:

And finally, how to connect to a web service:

Install from .vsix

This is a quick blog about installing the AL language for Visual Studio Code from a .vsix file.

When you create a developer preview Azure VM for AL development, you get a landing page to access this VM. The script that creates this VM will put all the components on the VM that you need to do your development, including the correct version of the AL Language extension for VS Code.

If you want to do your development locally, you will need to put the right version of the AL Language extension on your local installation of VS Code. Lucky for you, there is a link on the landing page for your VM that will download the installation package into your downloads folder. The file has the extension .vsix, which is what VS Code needs.

All you need to do is press Ctrl+Shift+P and type ‘vsix’ in the command palette, and VS Code will suggest ‘Extensions: Install from vsix…’. When you select this, you need to browse to the file, and hit the ‘Install’ button. If you already have another version of the AL Language installed, you’ll need to disable that, so that there is no confusion about which one VSCode uses.

Keep Your Data When Developing

One of the most frequent questions I get in our workshops is how can I keep my test data when I am developing in AL. For this, Microsoft has given us a new property that you can set in launch.json, read on to learn the details :).

Up until now, every time you hit F5 in AL to test your app, you have to start from scratch to enter some test data, of put together some data creation code in an install codeunit to populate your tables automatically. The reason is that the default behavior of the AL Language extension was to completely recreate and rebuild the app, every time you hit F5. This means that behind the scenes, your current installed version is completely destroyed, and then VSCode recreates the .app file and publishes/installs the app for you. As a consequence all the test data goes kerblammo, and you are stuck having to enter all the test data again. Not a big deal if it’s a setting or two, but if you added some fields to an existing table that you need some values in, and you need some data in your custom tables, it can get very tedious very quickly.

Microsoft has given us a new property called ‘schemaUpdateMode’ that goes into launch.json. If you leave this property out, the default behavior stays the same, so it recreates the app every time you hit F5. You can of course also add the property and set it to “Recreate” just to make sure. If you want to keep your data though, you can set it to “Synchronize”, which will keep your data intact.

Be aware that if you increase your app version, you will also need to use Powershell to Synch and run the data upgrade.