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What’s New in SharePoint 2013 Workflows

Written by Craig Butler on March 19, 2013

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By SharePointKG – Kenny Gordon

Workflow in SharePoint 2010

The workflow in SharePoint 2010 was somewhat clunky and cumbersome leading some organizations to adopt robust third party tools in order to automate their complex business processes. These tools often require a substantial investment. The workflow experience in SharePoint 2013 is much improved and features several enhancements that may very well reduce the use of these third party workflow tools.

Architectural Changes

SharePoint 2013 Azure Workflow engine now resides outside of SharePoint, whereas 2010 stored in the engine inside of SharePoint. The diagram below displays the general workflow architecture for SharePoint 2013. Notice that the SharePoint 2010 workflow host is still supported.

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Improved Logic

Workflow logic in SharePoint 2010 required linear logic. Workflow authors generally used SharePoint Designer (SPD) to create the logic that defined their workflows. And while SPD was a desirable tool because of its low cost (free!) and intuitive interface, the tool did not allow recurring, iterative, or looping logic that is commonly required by standard business processes. Implementing this type of logic is a space where the third party workflow tools shined, however this will change with SharePoint 2013. This new version of the Microsoft’s industry leading business collaboration platform brings new forms of logic to workflows including stages, loops, and app steps.

Improved Integration with Visio

SharePoint 2010 offered some integration with Microsoft Visio. Sure, it was helpful to see the Visio visualization at the top of the workflow status page. But in my view the description of this Visio integration was somewhat embellished. My experience using Visio, SharePoint Designer, and Visual Studio together was awkward – at least when it came to more complex workflows. Exporting a workflow from SPD and into Visual Studio resulted in the generation of extraneous logic and one monster of a designer view. In contrast, the Visio integration with SharePoint 2013 is much more intuitive and functions well inside of the SPD’s Visual Designer view. SharePoint Designer 2013 offers three workflow views:

· Text-Based Designer· Visual Designer· Stage View image

The Visual Designer view allows workflow authors to create workflows within a drag and drop, no-code environment. Users can select from several actions, components, and conditions in the left pane then drop them into the design surface on the right. Of course, Visio 2013 (Professional) must be installed on the same machine as SPD 2013 in order to take advantage of this experience.

New Workflow Actions

Workflow authors also have new or enhanced workflow actions from which to choose. Most of these actions were not available in SharePoint 2010.

Action Description
Start another workflow (list or site) List Workflow – start a list workflow using Association Name, Inputs, and ItemSite Workflow – start a site workflow using Association name and Parameters
Call HTTP Web Service A method call to an anonymous HTTP web service using string parameters and return types; returns data with JSON; supports ASMX only
Count Items Counts the number of items
Wait for Event in List Item Enhanced version of 2010 action; pauses workflow and waits for specific list item event; listens for two events (ItemUpdated and ItemAdded)

Workflow Manager

In addition to those listed above, SharePoint 2013 includes other improvements including Workflow Manager. This new server hosts workflows in a highly scalable, high density environment that allows for multiple tenants. Microsoft introduces new capabilities with Workflow Manager, but some are still in the works such as using a REST API to monitor and manage running workflows. Additional capabilities include artifact management, instance management, fully declarative authoring, and REST & Service Bus messaging.

Best Practice Analyzer

Microsoft offers a diagnostic tool which can be useful in configuring and/or troubleshooting Workflow Manager. Workflow Manager Best Practice Analyzer 1.0 can gather information related to the host machine and compare settings to those. The result is a report that offer potential problems and recommended solutions.

PowerShell for Workflow Management

SharePoint 2013 also brings new functionality related to managing, configuring, and monitoring workflows. Specifically, users can query and configure workflow settings using new PowerShell cmdlets.

The Bottom Line

As an engineer who frequently creates and maintains SharePoint workflows, I am excited to use these new features. When it comes to workflow Microsoft appears to have listened to its customers and user community, providing enhancements that are frequently identified as shortcomings. Workflow has incrementally improved with each version of SharePoint, however this version boasts some especially useful features from which many users and organizations will benefit. Features such as stages, loops, and web service calls have the potential to reduce dependence on third party workflow tools.

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