Office 365 Backup and Recovery: An Overview

Microsoft Office 365 is currently the most common business productivity suite. Over 23 million users around the world are now using Office 365. With Office 365, you can work online, share files, spreadsheets, work from your home or mobile devices. It's the perfect business cloud. But how does it fare with backup and recovery, and what are Office 365 retention policies? Below we've made an overview of Office 365 backup and recovery capabilities and what are your options in case you have lost or deleted an Office 365 file or folder.

Microsoft Office 365 Backup and Recovery

From the get-go, it's important to note that Office 365 has built-in data protection capabilities. Microsoft Online Services provides a solid service level agreement (SLA) and has a 99.9 percent guaranteed uptime. Microsoft covers common causes of application downtime like data center outages. With its endless pool of resources, Microsoft boasts multiple datacenters, located all over the world, hosting redundant network architecture. If there is an outage at one datacenter, another can function as backup. Database Availability Group (DAG) technology from Microsoft protects the Exchange Online Mailbox data and ensures you can access your data whenever you need it. Moreover, the enterprise Office 365 packages (E3 to E5) have data loss prevention (DLP) and eDiscovery capabilities to make sure businesses stay in compliance with regulations. Microsoft will offer protection from any incidents that may happen at its data centers. But it is not safe from other incidents:
  • when a user deleted an Office 365 file by mistake and then closed the application;
  • a disgruntled employee purposely destroyed some information that was useful for the company;
  • someone gains unauthorized access to company data and deletes files.
Let’s explore below some of the most widely used features of Office 365 data protection, and see what alternatives exist.

Office 365 Retention Policy

Office 365 leverages Exchange Online for email, and users of the system will have similar capacities for backup and recovery as they did with their own on-prem Exchange backup. Users can go to their mailboxes, look for the "Deleted Items" folder, and there they can check for the messages they want restored.
  1. Check the Deleted Items folder to see if your item is there;
  2. You can sort items by type to find your deleted file;
  3. Choose the "Move" option to move it to the Inbox or another folder.
You cannot find items that have been permanently deleted in your Deleted Items folder. You will be able to find them in the Recoverable Items folder. Also note that there may be rules for saving the Deleted Items folder. Messages may be saved for 30 days or more, depending on how your administrator set it up.

Retention Policy For the Deleted Items Folder

The Deleted Items Folder in Office 365 is subject to Microsoft default retention policy. This means that by default, deleted items will only be saved for 30 days. Administrators however can change this retention policy according to the specific account needs. Your Office 365 administrator can do this by changing the Default MRM policy.
  • Go to Office 365 Admin;
  • Go to the Exchange admin center;
  • Choose compliance management from the menu;
  • Choose to edit the retention policies.
Administrators can change the Default MRM policy to save items for 7 days, or 30 days, one year, five years or other, depending on the organization needs.

Office 365 Recoverable Items Folder

The Exchange Administrator can recover a deleted file from the Outlook account or from the Outlook Web App (OWA). One thing to remember is that only global administrators of Office 365 with eDiscovery permissions have the right to recover deleted items from user's mailboxes. So you'd need to enable eDiscovery permissions first. Even with these permissions, Microsoft warns that recovering items from an Exchange Online Mailbox may take a while (20 to 30 minutes), depending on how many items you're trying to recover. Once you delete a message, it will be saved in the Deleted Items folder - this is like the Recycle Bin for Outlook. But what if the item isn't there anymore? You would need to check in the Recoverable Items folder. This is a hidden folder where all data lives, after it has been removed from the Deleted Items folder.

Recoverable Items Folder Retention Policy for Office 365

However, there are a few things you need to know about the Recoverable Items folder and how its data protection works:
  • you can find deleted emails in Outlook for 14 days by default in the Recoverable Items folder;
  • the Exchange Online administrator can increase this period to 30 days;
  • you can save Office 365 emails for an unlimited period, if the Exchange Online administrator enables Litigation Hold.
As we can see, Office 365 has good backup and recovery capabilities. But all this recovery legwork can become demanding of IT admins time and resources. Statistics show that data loss hinders businesses core operations and takes up precious time from engineers. A 2014 study from the Disaster Recovery Preparedness Council shows that 25 percent of respondents believe recovery efforts consumed staff time and this has impacted the business. This is why companies will often outsource disaster recovery as a service and leave it to professionals. It's one thing to have your team working on a new system to make employee's life easier, and another to have them scouring through Exchange Online mailboxes for lost messages. There's a productivity cost here that will add up over time.

Exchange Online Mailbox Litigation Hold

Office 365 data retention policy makes it possible for admins to recover an email even after the 30 days term. This can be very useful when you need to restore an important message. Litigation Hold mode helps Office 365 users with legal and compliance situations. However, it has proven a good way to save data permanently with Office 365. If you have Office 365 plans E3 and E4, administrators can set retention policies to hold emails indefinitely with this mode. When an account is in Litigation Hold mode, emails will be saved in a hidden folder called Recoverable Items.  Items in the Recoverable Items folder do not count toward the user’s mailbox quota.  It's important to note though, the Recoverable Items folder has its own quota of 100GB. If the Recoverable Items folder is full, Office will start to delete messages from this folder, starting with the oldest. So if the folder is full, hold on to your hats - you may not be able to recover your data. You can place one mailbox on litigation hold or you can place all Office 365 mailboxes on litigation hold. There are a few options on Litigation Hold:
  • Indefinite Hold: this means that items are never deleted. A useful mode if you need to meet eDiscovery requirements.
  • Query-based Hold: the query-based hold means that the organization can set a hold on items based on parameters such as keywords, start and end dates, sender and recipient addresses, and message types.
  • Time-based Hold: The admin can set a time period for saving Office 365 items. The duration of the hold starts from the date you receive or create a mailbox item.



More Options for Cloud Backup, More Peace of Mind. Ultimately, the best protection is employee education, prevention and a solid backup and recovery solution for cloud applications. Third party cloud backup applications will offer set it and forget it solutions that will keep your SaaS data safe from any sort of disaster.