Thursday, 8 July 2021

Using RPA to control my ISP settings for kids gaming - Power Automate Desktop for web automation - part 2

In the last post I talked about how I automated my home wi-fi/ISP settings with Power Automate Desktop so that my kids can only use gaming websites like Roblox at permitted times. Since the scheduler in the portal doesn't support what I need, I had been manually visiting the site many times each week to block and unblock sites, which was a huge pain to both me and the kids. Enter Robotic Process Automation - RPA technologies are designed to "automate what cannot be automated", in other words applications without APIs, applications which run on the desktop and other legacy systems. By driving the keyboard and mouse directly, RPA opens the door to wider automation since it simply replicates how a human would interact with the application. Power Automate Desktop is now free with Windows 10 and Windows 11 - Microsoft's move to bring RPA technology to the masses and gain market share as RPA moves from exotic and niche to democratised and commonplace.

In this follow-up post I want to cover a few things:

  • Turning a Power Automate Desktop flow into a cloud flow which can run on a schedule
  • Sending a mobile notification once the flow has run
  • Licensing considerations for Power Automate Desktop
  • Authentication challenges and solutions - working around Captcha requests

In the last post I walked through how I got Power Automate Desktop to open a browser, navigate to my ISP's portal, find the page with the URL blocking, enter the two gaming URLs I want to block into a textbox and then click 'Apply' - with the final step being an announcement to Alexa. This now runs like clockwork every day once the kids have had their prescribed hour of fun. To give you a sense of what that looks like, the portal looks like this:


Where we got to in the last post is that my process was automated, but only in the sense that I have to click a button manually to trigger all the steps to execute. At this point I have a couple of "desktop flows" (one to block the URLs and one to unblock), and they show up in the relevant area in the Power Automate portal:

Of course, what I really want is for this to run in a 100% automated way and on a schedule - with no manual intervention involved. For that I need a cloud flow, so from our points above let's start there. 

Calling a Power Automate Desktop flow from a cloud flow for full automation

Once you have an RPA Flow it can be "wrapped" in a standard cloud flow - a cloud flow being the type of flow that you've been using all along if you've been working with Power Automate previously. Of course, a cloud flow can be triggered in a huge number of ways including when some data is changed in Microsoft 365, SQL or Dataverse or perhaps when something has happened in Salesforce, Workday or another cloud service, or even when an e-mail is received. In my case I just need a simple schedule. 

To get started I go into Flow and create a new scheduled cloud flow:

I then give my flow a name and define the schedule:

Once in the flow I can use the 'Desktop flows' connector to call the flow on my machine - this is the critical thing that links a cloud flow to a desktop flow:



This action allows me to select from a few Microsoft RPA options - note that all are premium actions (more on licensing later):


This action allows me to select from desktop flows I've already created - they are detected because of the connection previously established, which links my Microsoft 365 identity with my physical laptop:


Once I select one of my desktop flows, the action is intelligent enough to recognise any input parameters to that flow. In my case I parameterised the following to avoid them being hard-coded into my desktop flow:
  • RobloxUrl
  • ScratchUrl
  • AlexaAccessCode
The UI adapts to provide a way for me to enter these:






 
Take note of the "Run Mode" parameter above which is used to specify whether the desktop flow should run in attended or unattended mode - this is important for usage and licensing. We'll come to this later. 

Once things are saved, that's all I need to schedule and fully automate my desktop flow.

However, there's one more thing - the kids hear about the fact that gaming is either open or closed through the automated Alexa announcement I talked about last time. But I'd like to know that everything happened as expected too, so I add a Flow mobile notification:

...and specify the message:

Now wherever I am the notification comes through on my phone each time one of my flows run:

So now everything is fully automated and I have confidence that my automated process is behaving properly. 

Choosing between attended and unattended mode 

When we were creating a cloud flow to "wrap" our desktop flow earlier, we chose "Attended" for the run mode. When working with Power Automate Desktop and RPA in general, attended vs unattended mode is is an important decision to plan for - on the surface, unattended might seem sensible because you can't guarantee that a user will be at the machine when the flow runs, especially for a process that runs a few times through the day. However, an unattended flow can only run under the following circumstances:
  • All users are completely signed out
  • The screen is locked
  • The gateway connection between the cloud flow and the desktop flow has user sign-in information
In fact, a common use case for unattended flows is for a virtual machine to be used - thus giving you more control around guaranteeing these stipulations can be met. Unattended flows can also run concurrently on the same device if different user accounts are used, and this is useful with long-running processes or doing RPA at scale. 

Notably, licensing is significantly different for unattended vs. attended flows - so this is another reason why planning is required here. Let's turn to licensing now.

Licensing for Power Automate Desktop

I mentioned earlier that Power Automate Desktop is free with Windows 10/11, and that's true. What that gets you is the ability to click a button in Power Automate Desktop client on your machine and have your process run - the further automation that comes with a cloud flow requires pay-for Power Automate licensing however. As usual with Power Automate there are two ways of licensing this - per user and per flow. For per user licensing, you need a specific plan named the "Per-user plan with attended RPA", as shown below on the Microsoft pricing page:

Notice the additional "per bot" consideration if you want to run unattended (the second row). If you're doing per-user licensing you add the "unattended RPA add-on" to the per-user price:

So in summary, the options are:

Mode License approach Base cost Unattended add-on cost Total cost per month
Attended Per user $40 $15 per user per month (until 31 September 2021) - $15 (until 31 September 2021)
Attended Per flow $500 per month - $500
Unattended Per user $40 $15 per user per month (until 31 September 2021) $150 per month $165 (until 31 September 2021)
Unattended Per flow $500 per month $150 per month $650

As ever, you should refer to the official Power Automate licensing page for the current pricing and considerations between per user and per flow licensing.

From Microsoft's pricing you might observe:
  • There's a fairly significant premium for unattended processing. That's because you can automate at scale with this option with many processes running concurrently - if you're using RPA to process 10,000 invoices at month end, this incremental cost is likely to be justified of course.
  • The decision between per user and per flow licensing for Power Automate overall is relevant in this area too - most orgs decide this based on automation strategy and requirements they have in view  
  • Whilst there are some incentives at the time of writing (June/July 2021), it seems that the new pricing applied to Power Apps at this time doesn't carry over to Power Automate in case you're wondering
Overall, you can see this is designed for organizational use rather than anything personal or home-based. In that context of course, if a high value process is being automated the value of this to the organization could be many multiples of the cost - so comparing unattended RPA in Power Automate Desktop with non-enterprise solutions doesn't really make sense. And of course, my scenario of using this business technology to automate my wi-fi settings at home doesn't really make sense either - I created my solution on trial licensing, but if I needed to license this for the long-term the costs (even at $15 per month, which is all I'd need) would be a factor. None of this takes away from the power of the technology however - in a business context Power Automate Desktop is extremely powerful.

And when the trial licensing expires on my solution, I'll just click a single button each day and it will still be less work than going to my ISP portal and entering/removing URLs!

A final challenge for RPA - Captcha prompts

One final topic to address is how to use RPA to automate around visual Captcha challenges like these: 

Of course, the whole point of this kind of check is to ensure there's a human making the request rather than an automated bot - but this is to foil a malicious bot of some kind, rather than our wholesome, legitimate and approved automation. The image above shows the Captcha challenge presented when logging into my ISP's portal.

I suspect it may be possible to use a combination of DOM scraping and image recognition (e.g. Azure Cognitive Services Vision API) to get past something like this - however, reliability could be an issue since these images are small and frankly difficult enough for humans. So, my solution is far less exotic unfortunately:

  • Create a dedicated browser profile and pre-authenticate to the ISP site
  • Ensure the RPA process always uses this browser profile:
  • Enjoy the fact that persistent cookies last a long time with my ISP

So perhaps working around the Captcha problem more than solving it, but since I only need to take action every few weeks when the cookies expire that's good enough in this case. Clearly this could be a challenge for some automation scenarios which target public SaaS services in the enterprise, but wouldn't be common with other targets such as legacy non-cloud applications.

Summary

Over these posts we've seen how effective Power Automate Desktop can be in "automating what cannot be automated". We've discussed the basic "Power Automate Desktop only" approach vs. bringing a desktop flow into a cloud flows to facilitate scheduling or integration with other cloud processes - the latter method requires pay-for licensing in the form of a Power Automate per-user or per-flow license, and unattended processing comes with an extra cost but does enable automation at scale. 

As we noted that the technology is pitched at business automation rather than personal automation. The potential is clear, and it's great to see Microsoft have a strong easy-to-use offering in this space.

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