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Know your Office 365 backup options -- just in case

A move to Exchange Online in the Office 365 platform removes some administrative obligations but does require more work to set up proper email protections.

Exchange administrators who migrate their email to Office 365 reduce their infrastructure responsibilities, but they must not ignore areas related to disaster recovery, security, compliance and email availability.

Different businesses rely on different applications for their day-to-day operations. Healthcare companies use medical records to treat patients or a manufacturing plant needs its ERP system to track production. But generally speaking, most businesses, regardless of their vertical, rely on email to communicate with their co-workers and customers. If the messaging platform goes down for any amount of time, users and the business suffer. A move to Microsoft's cloud-based collaboration platform introduces new administrative challenges, such as determining whether the organization needs an Office 365 backup product.

IT pros tasked with all things related to Exchange Server administration -- managing multiple email services, including system uptime; mailbox recoverability; system performance; maintenance; user setups; and general reactive system issues -- will have to adjust when they move to Office 365. Many of the responsibilities related to system performance, maintenance and uptime become the responsibility of Microsoft. Unfortunately, not all of these outsourced activities meet the expectations of Exchange administrators. Some of them will resort to alternative methods to ensure their systems have the right protections to avoid serious disasters.

A move to Microsoft's cloud-based collaboration platform introduces new administrative challenges, such as determining whether the organization needs an Office 365 backup product.

To keep on-premises Exchange running with high uptime, Exchange admins rely on setting up the environment with adequate redundancies, such as virtualization with high availability, clustering and proper backup if a recovery is required. In a hosted Exchange model with Office 365, email administrators rely heavily on the hosting provider to manage those redundancies and ensure system uptime. However, despite the promised service-level agreements (SLAs) by Microsoft, there are still some gaps that Exchange administrators must plan for to get the same level of system availability and data protection they previously experienced with their legacy on-premises Exchange platform.

Hosted email in Exchange Online, which can be purchased as a stand-alone service or as part of Office 365, has certainly attracted many companies. Microsoft did not provide exact numbers in its most recent quarterly report, but it is estimated to be around 180 million Office 365 commercial seats. Despite the popularity of the platform, one would assume Microsoft would offer an Office 365 backup option at minimum for the email service. Microsoft does, but not in the way Exchange administrators know backup and disaster recovery.

Microsoft does not have backups for Exchange Online

Microsoft provides some level of recoverability with mailboxes stored in Exchange Online. If a user loses email, then the Exchange administrator can restore deleted email by restoring an entire mailbox with PowerShell or through the Outlook recycle bin.

The Undo-SoftDeletedMailbox PowerShell command recovers the deleted mailbox, but there are some limitations. The command is only useful when a significant number of folders have been deleted from a mailbox and the recovery attempt occurs within 30 days. After 30 days, the content is not recoverable.

Due to this limited backup functionality, many administrators look to third-party Office 365 backup vendors such as SkyKick, BitTitan, Datto and Veeam to expand their backup and recovery needs beyond the 30 days that Microsoft offers. At the moment, this is the only way for Exchange administrators to satisfy their organization's back up and disaster recovery requirements.

Microsoft promises 99.9% uptime with email

No cloud provider is immune to outages and Microsoft is no different. Despite instances of service loss, Microsoft guarantees at least 99.9% uptime for Office 365. This SLA translates into no more than nine hours of downtime per year.

For most IT executives, this guarantee does not absolve them of the need to plan for possible downtime. Administrators should investigate the costs and the technical abilities of an email continuity service from vendors, including Mimecast, Barracuda or TitanHQ, to avoid trouble from unplanned outages.

Email retention policies can go a long way for sensitive content

The ability to define different type of data access and retention policies is just as important as backup and disaster recovery for organizations with compliance requirements.

Groups that need to prevent accidental email deletion will need to work with the Office 365 administrator to set up the appropriate on-hold policies or archiving configuration to protect that content. These are native features in Exchange Online that administrators must build their familiarity to ensure they understand how to meet the different legal requirements of the different groups in their organization.

Define backup retention policies to meet business needs

For most backup offerings for on-premises Exchange, storage is always a concern for administrators. Since it is generally the dictating factor behind the retention period of email backup, Exchange admins have to keep disk space in mind when they determine the best backup scheme for their organization. Hourly, daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly backup schedules are influenced by the amount of available storage.

Office 365 backup products for email from vendors such as SkyKick, Dropsuite, Acronis and Datto ease the concerns related to storage space. This gives the administrator a way to develop the best protection scheme for their company without the added worry of wondering when to purchase additional storage hardware to accommodate these backups.

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