What is the difference between canvas and model-driven Power Apps?

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In this article, we explore the differences between model-driven and canvas Power Apps while learning which use cases best suit each app type. 

You have a great idea for an app, and you know you want to build it on the Power Apps development platform. The only problem is, you’re not sure where to start.  Should you build a canvas app, or is model-driven a better approach? What’s the difference between them, and is one type of app better than the other?  

The answers to those questions depend on your specific needs: both canvas and model-driven Power Apps can be effective tools for your business. Understanding how canvas and model-driven Power Apps work can help you decide which approach is right for you. 

Canvas vs. Model-Driven Power Apps

When it comes to canvas apps and model-driven apps, both can lead you to the same destination—that is, to a low-code, custom business application—they take slightly different routes to arrive there. 

What are Microsoft Power Apps and model-driven apps?

To fully comprehend what differentiates canvas apps from model-driven apps, it helps to have an understanding of what Microsoft Power Apps actually is 

Power apps

In addition to being an app development platform, Power Apps is a suite of apps, services, and connectors. Combined, they create a rapid development environment that allows people to build custom business apps without needing the ability to write code.  

But even though Power Apps is designed to be accessible to people who have little to no coding experience, Power Apps it’s also a great tool for professional developers. Developers can alter the apps they build by using custom JavaScript; they’re also able to create integrated solutions, interact with data and metadata, and more. There is even a function called “Developer resources” that allows developers to easily access important information like unique names and IDs as well as links to the API (application programming interface).  

Still, Power Apps is primarily known for its ease of use. By removing barriers to app making, Power Apps has enabled everyone to participate in the app building process, from seasoned programmers and system admins to people who’ve never written a line of code before. 

Model-driven apps

“Begin with the end in mind.” It’s a common piece of advice that applies to a lot of situations, but when it comes to Power Apps, it may be a better approach to start at the beginning.  

That’s because the primary difference between model-driven and canvas apps is the starting point. With model-driven apps, the starting point is a data model. In data modeling, all of the data a business collects and creates is analyzed, and it’s organized in a way that defines the relationships between each piece of data. The resulting data model is then used as the basis from which to create a model-driven app.  

While data models can be built from the ground up, they also come pre-existing in, for instance, Dynamics 365. All data models for model-driven apps are housed in Microsoft Dataverse, a secure location for storing and managing the data used in business applications. This data is stored in a set of tables, and model-driven apps are built by adding various components, such as forms, charts, and dashboards, to these tables.  

As their name implies, the layout and function of model-driven apps are heavily dictated by their underlying data models. If the data model is relatively simple, so is the app; if it’s complex, then the app is equally intricate. And, excluding the components users add to the app, most of the layout is pre-determined in model-driven apps.  

While this makes them ideal for business apps that require more complexity and sophistication, this also means that building a model-driven app requires slightly more technical skill than building a canvas app. And because the app interface is so heavily informed by the relationships between the data, there is also less room for creativity in the building of model-driven apps. Still, these limitations are far outweighed by the use cases of model-driven apps (more on that in a bit). 

What are canvas applications?

Like model-driven apps, canvas applications also take their name from their starting point. Whereas model-driven apps begin with data models that pre-determine the look and feel of the app, canvas apps begin with a practically empty screen—that is, a blank canvas. Picture an empty PowerPoint slide where you can drag and drop different elements to get the design you want, but instead of creating a presentation, you’re building an app.  

App builders can add controls like galleries, screens and forms onto their canvas to create an app that’s as simple or complex as they desire. Unlike model-driven apps, where the form of the app is determined by the data model, canvas apps are led by the creator’s preferences and needs.  

This true low-code approach allows creativity to take the stage and gives users the flexibility to design an interface and user experience that suits their business needs as well as their personal tastes. Once the interface has been created, the app can be connected to a data source using one of more than 200 connectors available from Microsoft and third-party sources.  

Canvas vs. model-driven Power Apps for different use cases  

Now that you have an understanding of how each of these apps work, the next thing to know is when to go for a model-driven app, and when to go for a canvas app. A few things to keep in mind: 

Consider the source. If you have a pre-existing data model or are working in Dynamics 365, you’ll want to build a model-driven app. If you’re starting from scratch, a canvas app may be the better choice. 

Consider the purpose. If your app is simple with a specific purpose, a canvas app may be the better choice. If your app requires a high degree of complexity, a model-driven app is a better choice. 

When to use a model-driven app

Use a model-driven app when… 

  • …the app needs to be complex  
  • … an end-to-end solution is required 
  • …the app be used to design business processes and workflows 
  • …the app be used for processes with multiple stages track sales opportunities 
  • …the app will be focused on customer service 
  • …the app be used to assist with event management 

When to use a Canvas App

If your app is simple with a specific purpose, or if you’re starting from scratch without a data model, choose a canvas app.  Common uses for canvas apps are… 

  • …managing vacation requests and other approvals  
  • …event registration 
  • …ticketing for IT helpdesks 
  • …recording customer information and other types of data 
  • …photo creation 
  • …managing checklists
Built in App designer  Built in Power Apps Studio 
Starts with a data model  Starts with a blank canvas 
Good for complex apps that rely on a lot of data  Better for simple apps with a specific purpose 
Design of the app is primarily informed by the data model  Design of the app is primarily informed by the creator’s creativity and wishes 
Can be customized and adapted with JavaScript  Can be embedded in model-driven apps 

proMX and Microsoft PowerApps in action  

proMX is not only a Microsoft Dynamics 365 expert, we’re also an official Power Apps Partner. Day in and day out, we see firsthand the transformative power low code apps can have on organizations. Over the years, we’ve used our combined expertise in Dynamics 365 and Power Platform to create numerous Power Apps.  

We serve clients in a several different industries, including manufacturing, health care, private equity and more . proMX consultants have expertise in a variety of fields and have used created custom solutions to industry-specific problems. 

Get in touch with us today if you’re interested in Power Apps for your business.  

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