As a systems integrator in the Microsoft SharePoint space I often get asked comparative analysis questions on forms and workflow products. Due to the announced end of life of InfoPath, one of the more common comparisons I see is on Nintex Workflow and Forms compared to PowerApps and Flow. Since I’ve had a number of meetings on this topic with multiple clients, as well as discussions with folks at Nintex, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned.
It may seem obvious but I always find it important to be very clear about our argument for comparison. The primary reason I hear from client is:
“We got InfoPath for free and now we’re going to get PowerApps and Flow free with our E3 licenses, why would we pay for Nintex?”
No surprises here, cost is the primary driver.
My comparison below will cover a lot of feature differences as to why you would pay for Nintex, and what you get for that extra cost. Some of the elements, like ease of use and learning curve are touched on and I've seen executives use these as the driving financial factor as to why to invest in Nintex. Making the business case for the cost of Nintex is a case by case thing that is typically better done on the phone. See the end of this article for my contact information and I'm happy to discuss it with you.
Before we dive into our comparison I think it’s worth mentioning a few things:
Most of the information below is based on facts, however I do also offer my opinion on these products. You may be wondering, why should I care about Owen’s opinion? Well, you certainly don’t have to but to give you some background, I’ve been developing solutions for Fortune 500 companies for over 7 years and in that time, I have designed and built over 100 complex workflow solutions in Nintex, SharePoint Designer, and Flow. I also have extensive experience working with IBM BPM, K2 and other lesser known workflow tools. I’m a big fan of process automation and after many years working intimately with these products I like to think I’m a bit of an expert. In the end, my opinions are mine alone so it’s important for you to form yours as well.
In 2014 Microsoft announced the discontinuance of InfoPath. This was immediately followed with fear and anxiety from many enterprise customers who had, for over a decade, been using the tool to create simple to extremely complex forms and applications. Microsoft’s announcement did state support for the client application until 2026 (originally 2023), however the biggest fears arose around the uncertainty of InfoPath Forms Services (the engine in SharePoint that would serve up InfoPath forms as web based forms inside of a SharePoint site, list or library) and how long that would be supported. To this date, Microsoft has only said that it would be fully supported in Office 365 “until further notice”. That being said, I’ve already run into cases where it is no longer fully functional.
In 2015 at the Microsoft Ignite conference, Microsoft announced the SharePoint Designer’s (SPD) latest release (2013) was it’s last. They did state that SPD 2013 would work when connecting to 2016 (which it does), but that they wouldn’t be releasing a new version. In reading between the lines, this was the first indication of the future, yet to be announced, death of SharePoint Workflow.
In April of 2016 Microsoft officially released PowerApps and Flow. They discussed a roadmap that would position PowerApps as their recommended replacement for the space InfoPath filled, an intuitive forms designer, and Flow as the future replacement for SharePoint Workflow. Both products have unique pricing models (Flow, PowerApps) but are included in Enterprise licensing for Office365.
PowerApps and Flow are almost 1.5 years from their GA release date and they’ve come quite far in that time. New features are being released each quarter and there is an obvious dedication from Microsoft to make them a powerful addition to the suite of tools in the Office365 and Azure space.
Nintex has provided a workflow solution for SharePoint since its inception in 2006. In 2012 Nintex released their first Forms product for SharePoint. In 2016 they released an independent workflow platform called Nintex Workflow Cloud (NWC), making it their first non-SharePoint related product. They also have a business intelligence tool to analyze your workflows called Hawkeye, a document generation tool through their acquisition of Drawloop in 2015 and most recently they announced a new workflow platform for Box.
In the SharePoint space Nintex has positioned itself as a leading workflow and forms add on and has focused on the ease of use and additional functionality of their products over what Microsoft offers.
Let’s start with comparing the forms tools. Both are powerful ways to create forms, however there are some significant differences that should lead you to choose over the other based on your need:
PowerApps is being positioned by Microsoft as a tool for business users, however in my experience it has a bit higher of a learning curve than may be marketed. Though the tool allows you to write Excel type functions for your business logic the concepts of data objects, properties and accessing those properties can quickly confuse a business user who doesn’t have at least some light coding exposure. For me this places PowerApps primarily as a IT Pro/Power User tool.
With PowerApps, all forms are owned by a single user, typically the designer. The current advice from Microsoft is that when deploying a form to production you would use a production service account (yes it would require a license) that would own all forms in production.
Nintex’s Forms are owned by the List, Library or Workflow. Users have the rights to create or edit forms, but any other user who has rights can go in and update or publish those forms. In my opinion it makes Nintex a much more enterprise ready solution at this time.
Currently PowerApps’s development experience is very much a mobile first design focus. Though Microsoft is in the process of rolling out PowerApps fully embedded in SharePoint lists (overriding the default form) it still uses a slim portrait view that is mobile ready. This could very well change in the future but there is not enough known about the roadmap at this point.
Nintex also just released a Responsive Design experience, which is even easier to use and is targeted to business users who want to create forms without any knowledge of coding. The resulting form is completely responsive so looks good on a desktop or a phone and it intelligently stacks the fields and labels based on the device’s window size.
This is a small difference, but worth mentioning: Nintex forms will use the native controls for your mobile devices. That means you’ll get the iOS date picker on iOS and the Android date picker on Android. With PowerApps you’ll get the same controls across all devices which can lead to potential usability frustration for some users on mobile devices.
PowerApps requires you to use the cloud based offering. There is no on-premise installation (or plans as of yet) that allows you to run your PowerApps in your own environment. You can connect it to your on-premise data using a data gateway which must be installed and configured on your on-premise servers. Nintex has a SharePoint 2010, 2013 and 2016 version that all install into an on-premise SharePoint environment.
Additionally, offline usage for PowerApps is difficult at this time, though possible. Nintex Mobile handles offline form submission and task completion very efficiently, queuing up data to send once your connection is restored.
Here’s where PowerApps really lives up to its name and has a strong advantage over Nintex. If you’re looking to build a standalone application that maybe doesn’t even connect to SharePoint, PowerApps may be a good fit. It has the ability to connect to a ton of data sources, including the Common Data Service, allowing you to build mobile first, line of business applications a lot faster than you could in the past. You can get Nintex to do this, but it’s not as intuitive as doing so in PowerApps.
In this section I’ll mostly focus on a comparison of Nintex Workflow for SharePoint (online and on-premise) and Flow but I do mention NWC a little bit. I expound on NWC a bit more in the next section.
Since Nintex’s introduction their focus has been on creating an extremely easy to use workflow creation tool. Compared to SharePoint designer it was no competition, Nintex won every time. Flow closes the gap a bit, but Nintex still does have an edge in their user experience.
Neither tools use your standard BPM Notation, so both do require you to think a bit differently about your workflow. Nintex’s recommendation has been to stop diagraming your workflows in Visio and instead just build them directly in Nintex. This way when the flow looks right you just have to make it functional, half the work is already done. I’ve seen this be very successful and the same could be said for building a workflow in Flow.
In my experience, Nintex handles variables and transferring of data from one action to another a bit more intuitively than Flow does. I prefer the action pane Nintex provides for dragging and dropping actions compared to Flow’s add button and search for action model, but I can certainly see others liking Flow’s experience better.
State machines allow you to create a workflow that doesn’t have a single, straight forward path. Imagine a workflow where there is an approval step. If rejected a task gets assigned to the submitter to review and resubmit. This workflow could go through any amount of iterations of this approval cycle. State machines make this easy to define in a workflow process and Nintex wins big here. Currently there is no way to easily create a state machine workflow in Flow, you have to work around the limitation.
Similar to PowerApps, Flow’s are owned by a single individual or account. In Nintex the workflow is owned by that list, library or site. See “Who Owns the Form” above for more details on my opinion here.
Looping is possible in Flow, you can do a For Each and a Do Until. This is much better than what SharePoint Designer provided (even the latest 2013 iteration), however they’re a little clunky to work with. Nintex gives you three looping types, For Each, Loop with Condition and a Loop N Times. Setting them up is pretty intuitive and you can create some complex looping if necessary.
Just like PowerApps, Flow is only cloud based. This means your workflows will only run in the cloud and to access on premise data you need to use a data gateway. Nintex installs into SharePoint on premise or runs in SharePoint Online in the cloud.
Both Flow and Nintex have over 100 actions with 10s of connections to other systems. You’d be hard pressed to do an exact functionality comparison of all innate actions or 3rd party connections (a task for another day). If anything, at a high-level glance it feels like Flow may have surpassed Nintex in their off the shelf 3rd party connections from a quantity perspective. That being said, both have the ability to make REST calls, so any connection that doesn’t already exist can be made through API calls from both.
Due to Nintex’s acquisition of Drawloop, Nintex has a document generation feature built right in to their workflow tool. The user experience is intuitive and you can quickly create a document template, map properties from your workflow into the document and quickly be generating Word or PDFs. Flow has no innate functionality for this (though you could probably build it using REST calls to a 3rd Party Doc Gen company like HotDocs – www.hotdocs.com). For any process where a document needs to be generated, Nintex has a big advantage here.
Flow uses pre-built 3rd Party connections or a scheduling service to initiate workflows. There are quite a few events from connections already built (169 triggers at time of writing). It’s worth taking a look through them just to see what’s possible, as the list is quite impressive.
Nintex has a few options for initiation. With the SharePoint workflow platform, it’s your standard list/library item created, modified or manual start. There is also a scheduled site workflow option. Nintex Workflow Cloud extends the initiation capability to much more, using the idea of connections similar to the way Flow does. The number of off the shelf connectors are less than Flow, however there are two things to note in NWC
One, is the ability to create a form as the imitation of the flow. This gives you the ability to use the Nintex Responsive Form builder to build a form that can be anonymous and either browsed to directly or embedded in any website.
Two, is the ability to have your flow be externally started. When this is selected and you publish your workflow you are given a REST endpoint with instructions on how to call that endpoint from ANY other system. That means you can start a workflow from any code or system that can call a REST endpoint. I’ve even seen NWC workflows kicked off from a Flow workflow.
When you purchase Nintex using their subscription pricing you get access to Nintex Workflow and Forms for SharePoint (On-Premise & Online), but you also get access to their Nintex Workflow Cloud and, depending on your subscription level, Nintex Hawkeye which provides functionality above and beyond forms and workflow. These are included in the package so it’s important to factor them in when discussing cost justification.
Not all workflows make sense in SharePoint. That’s why Nintex created NWC, for those times you want to automate a process but it doesn’t have anything to do with SharePoint. Comparatively, NWC is much more like Flow than Nintex workflow in SharePoint. Both are cloud based, both use connectors for initiation and interaction with other systems. NWC has their form builder and external start as a differentiator as well as a different user experience that I find to be more intuitive. There is also task assignment and management in NWC, which you don’t get with Flow. All of the differentiators that I discuss above for Nintex for SharePoint vs Flow also apply to NWC vs Flow.
Hawkeye is a business intelligence tool that will help you get a better understanding of what workflow is doing for you and how you can get more out of it. With Hawkeye you can inspect your workflows as a whole (across all Nintex environments cloud and on premise) and see inventory, usage and many other statistics. This allows you to track your ROI, manage the health of your workflows and identify places for process optimization in existing workflows. To help with this latter point, Nintex Workflow contains some Hawkeye actions that let you log information to the Hawkeye database which you can then use for even more granular analysis and optimization. Depending on how much time you want to commit to continuous improvement, this can become very powerful and for the right process help you identify ways to save thousands of dollars.
All the data from Hawkeye is viewable from prebuilt Lenses (which use PowerBI) or can be accessed raw and imported into your favorite data visualization tool like Tableau.
Nintex Enterprise edition allows you to publish Nintex Forms as actual branded apps that can easily be downloaded and installed on mobile devices. Imagine having your company time-off request app on all your employee's phones, giving them the ability to easily submit their requests at any time, and then initiating a workflow. They'd never know it was Nintex that was powering it as you get to completely brand it as yours.
App Studio also gives you the ability to push content to your employees through these apps. For example you could push out the employee handbook or time off policies in the same apps as the time of request form. This puts the information right where it's needed.
Workflow, Forms, Hawkeye, NWC & the App Studio; all of these things are Nintex’s bread and butter. They are an established company with a good vision and they will continue to iterate on these products. PowerApps and Flow are just a small piece of the Microsoft suite. Admittedly Microsoft shows a very strong commitment to these platforms, however at any point in time they could discontinue them and go a different direction (Anyone remember MS Access’ return to fame in SharePoint 2013?).
Hopefully this (longwinded) article helps you to better see the strengths and weaknesses of these products from a features perspective. I do believe that each use case needs to be evaluated on a case by case basis and there are certainly times when PowerApps and Flow are a great fit. The other times you can rely on the Nintex Suite to provide your company great value for automation and form creation. I have personally found with many clients that the above differences are enough to justify the cost of Nintex and when a company adopts the platform, there is always a return on investment that outweighs the cost.
Though I’ve worked with all these products extensively I’m certainly not perfect. Additionally, they are both changing rapidly, so it’s possible this information will go out of date the day after I publish it. Due to these two facts, please feel free to reach out to correct or update any of this information. I hope this can remain a good reference for customers considering Nintex, PowerApps and Flow. I’m also open to discussing any of these topics in more detail so please feel free to reach out to me if you’d like to discuss your particular use case and I can help guide you based on my experience.
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