Jul 1, 2024
12 min read

Navigating SharePoint Online Backup and Restore: Protecting Your Critical Business Data

Navigating SharePoint Online Backup and Restore: Protecting Your Critical Business Data

In today's digital workspace, SharePoint Online isn't just another tool; it's the backbone of collaboration for countless organizations. But here's a sobering thought: your SharePoint data isn't as safe as you might think.

SharePoint is becoming one of the most popular Enterprise Content Management (ECM) and collaboration platforms, with more than 200 million users, including 85% of Fortune 500 corporations. At the same time, there are cases such as the Target data breach in November 2013, which resulted from hackers acquiring sensitive information from a third-party provider.  

In this article, we will examine the challenges you might face, the native backup alternatives for Microsoft (Office) 365 SharePoint Online, and all the information and how-to's for your SharePoint Online backup and restore options.

Why Backup SharePoint Online?

You have already heard about Microsoft's Shared Responsibility Model, where Microsoft's responsibility ends with infrastructure security and data availability. This means if a ransomware attack encrypts your SharePoint data, Microsoft will dutifully serve that encrypted data back to you. They won't restore your clean, pre-attack state.

At the same time, common data loss scenarios in Microsoft 365 are becoming more complicated. Human error can lead to accidental deletions, cyberattacks using ransomware and other malware, or insider threats, where disgruntled employees can deliberately erase or corrupt data.

Key Challenges in SharePoint Online Backup

SharePoint does offer some native data retention features, but it's important to understand their limitations when it comes to comprehensive data protection. Recycle bins have time limits, Version History doesn't safeguard against all data loss scenarios, and these native retention tools may not meet stringent compliance requirements for true data protection and recovery.

Finally, many industries require long-term data retention and quick recovery capabilities for compliance reasons. As we will see next, backing up SharePoint Online isn't as straightforward as you might think.  

Data Volume and Complexity

SharePoint Online is more than just a file storage system. It's a complex ecosystem of sites, lists, libraries, and permissions. SharePoint Online sites can contain multiple document libraries, each housing numerous files. A single site might include hundreds of document libraries and thousands of files, all with unique permissions and metadata.

This complexity means a simple file-level backup won't cut it.  

Continuous Changes and Updates

Your SharePoint environment isn't static. It's constantly evolving with new sites being created, documents being edited, permissions changing, and features being added or removed.

How can you keep pace with these changes, capturing new and modified content?

Permission and Sharing Settings

SharePoint's flexible sharing capabilities are great for collaboration but can be a nightmare for backups. Otherwise, you risk restoring data that's inaccessible to the right people.

Integration with Other Microsoft 365 Services

SharePoint doesn't exist in isolation. It's tightly integrated with other Microsoft 365 services like Teams and OneDrive. Your backup strategy needs to account for these interconnections to ensure complete data protection.

Scalability and Performance

As your organization grows, so does your SharePoint environment. Your backup solution must scale effortlessly, handling increasing data volumes without slowing down your SharePoint performance, missing critical data or requiring constant manual intervention.

Compliance and Data Sovereignty

As discussed earlier, depending on your industry and location, you may need to retain data for specific periods or store backups in particular geographic regions and of course Provide detailed audit trails of backup and restore activities.

Meeting these requirements adds another layer of complexity to your SharePoint backup strategy.

How to Backup SharePoint Online

Let's see the options you have at your disposal.

Native Microsoft 365 Features

Microsoft provides several built-in data retention features for SharePoint Online. While these features offer some level of data preservation and can be useful for simple recovery scenarios, it's crucial to understand that data retention is not the same as a comprehensive backup solution.

While useful for day-to-day recovery of recently deleted or changed items, these native retention features collectively fall short of a comprehensive backup and recovery solution. They don't offer the level of granularity, flexibility, or robust protection against various data loss scenarios that many organizations require, especially those with strict compliance needs or complex SharePoint environments.

A true backup solution creates separate, independent copies of your data, offering more comprehensive protection and recovery options beyond what native retention features can provide.

SharePoint Online Backup and Restore Using the Recycle Bin

SharePoint Online includes a two-stage Recycle Bin system. The first stage, or user Recycle Bin, allows individual users to recover their own deleted items for up to 93 days. If an item is deleted from the first-stage Recycle Bin, it moves to the second-stage (or site collection) Recycle Bin, where site collection administrators can recover it for the remainder of the 93-day period.

While useful for quick restorations, it's not a true backup solution.  

  • It doesn't protect against data corruption or malicious deletions that bypass the Recycle Bin.
  • Once the 93-day period expires, items are permanently deleted and unrecoverable.
  • It doesn't maintain the full context of the deleted items, such as metadata or permissions.

SharePoint Online Backup and Restore Using the Version History

SharePoint's version history feature allows you to view and restore previous versions of documents, list items, and even entire lists or libraries. By default, SharePoint Online keeps 500 major versions of documents, though this can be configured. Version history is excellent for:  

  • Tracking changes over time
  • Reverting to a previous version if unwanted changes are made
  • Comparing different versions of a document

However, it has significant limitations as a backup solution as it doesn't help if an entire file or site is deleted.

SharePoint Online Backup and Restore Using the SharePoint Admin Center

The SharePoint Admin Center provides a feature called "Restore deleted sites," which allows global or SharePoint administrators to restore entire site collections (including OneDrive sites) that have been deleted. This feature:  

  • Provides a 93-day window to restore deleted sites
  • Allows restoration of multiple sites at once
  • Restores the site with its content, settings, and permissions

However, this feature also has limitations:  

  • It only works for entire site collections, not individual subsites, or items.
  • The 93-day recovery window may not be sufficient for all compliance or business needs.
  • It doesn't offer granular, item-level restoration options.
  • It can't help with data corruption or changes within a site that hasn't been deleted.

SharePoint Online Backup and Restore Using the Microsoft 365 Admin Center  

The Microsoft 365 Admin Center provides some basic recovery options for SharePoint and other Microsoft 365 services. These include:  

  • The ability to restore deleted users and their associated OneDrive content
  • Options to manage and extend retention for deleted items
  • Access to service-wide settings that can impact data protection

While these features can be helpful in specific scenarios, they fall short in several ways:  

  • They don't provide comprehensive, point-in-time recovery options.
  • They lack the granularity needed for complex restoration scenarios.
  • They don't offer protection against data corruption or ransomware attacks.
  • They may not meet stringent compliance requirements for data retention and recovery.

Backup SharePoint Online to Local Storage and Manual Exports

For smaller organizations or as a temporary measure, manual export methods can be used to create local copies of SharePoint content. These "manual" methods look like a "solution" as they are accessible, but they're time-consuming, requiring constant attention and management. They're also prone to human error, especially when dealing with large amounts of data and don't scale well.  

You may get away in a pinch for a small project or a temporary solution but they will fall woefully short as a comprehensive data protection strategy for any organization serious about safeguarding its SharePoint data.

SharePoint Online Backup and Restore Using the SharePoint Migration Tool  

Microsoft's SharePoint Migration Tool is a free utility designed primarily for migrating content to SharePoint Online. However, it can also be used to download SharePoint content to your local machine. Here's what you need to know:

  • It's a straightforward tool that doesn't require extensive technical knowledge.
  • The tool can handle large volumes of data and supports bulk downloads.
  • It maintains folder structures, making it easier to organize downloaded content.

But there's a catch. The SharePoint Migration Tool requires manual intervention for each export operation. It doesn't maintain all metadata, which can be crucial for certain types of content. Additionally, it lacks scheduling capabilities, making it impractical for regular backups.

Archive SharePoint Online Data Using OneDrive Sync

Another manual method is using OneDrive Sync to create local copies of SharePoint libraries. This approach leverages the built-in synchronization capabilities of SharePoint and OneDrive. It's simple to set up and provides real-time updates to your local copies. However, OneDrive Sync has serious limitations as a backup solution:

  • It's not a true backup. Changes made locally are immediately synced to SharePoint, potentially overwriting important data.
  • For large libraries, syncing can be resource-intensive, impacting your local machine's performance.
  • There's no version control beyond what SharePoint natively offers.
  • Sync errors can occur, leading to incomplete or inconsistent local copies.

SharePoint Online Backup and Restore by Manually Copying Files

The most basic form of "backup" is manually downloading files from SharePoint to local devices. Apparently, this has significant drawbacks and it is not a viable solution for comprehensive SharePoint backup.

  • It's extremely time-consuming, especially for large amounts of data.
  • Highly prone to human error – files can be missed or copied incorrectly.
  • Doesn't preserve metadata, version history, or permissions.
  • Difficult to keep local copies synchronized with SharePoint content.
  • Lacks scalability – becomes unmanageable as your SharePoint environment grows.

Using Microsoft Office 365 SharePoint Retention Policy and Labels

SharePoint Online offers retention policies and labels as part of its information governance features. Retention policies are valuable for compliance and legal holds, you shouldn't be confused with or used the feature as a replacement for a proper backup strategy.  

  • It doesn't create separate copies of your data – everything is still within SharePoint.
  • Not designed for point-in-time recovery or granular restores.
  • Can be complex to set up and manage, especially for large, diverse SharePoint environments.
  • May impact user experience if not carefully implemented.

Archive SharePoint Online Using an Archive Library

Creating an archive library within SharePoint is a method some organizations use to manage older or less frequently accessed content. Archive libraries are best used as part of a broader information management strategy, not as a backup solution.

  • Doesn't provide protection against site-wide issues or deletions.
  • Still vulnerable to the same threats as your active SharePoint content.
  • Can become difficult to manage as the archive grows.
  • Doesn't offer point-in-time recovery options.

SharePoint Online Backup and Restore Through SharePoint Central Administration

SharePoint Central Administration is a web-based interface for managing SharePoint server farms. It's primarily relevant for on-premises SharePoint deployments, but worth mentioning for organizations with hybrid environments. For organizations fully on SharePoint Online, Central Administration is not a relevant backup option. For those with hybrid deployments, it may play a role in backing up on-premises components but won't address SharePoint Online backup needs.

How to backup SharePoint online with PowerShell

For the technically inclined, custom PowerShell script can be a valuable tool in a SharePoint administrator's toolkit, but it's not a comprehensive or user-friendly backup solution for most organizations.

PowerShell offers powerful scripting capabilities that can be used for some SharePoint Online backup tasks:

  • Allows for customized, automated backup processes.
  • Can interact with SharePoint Online via Microsoft Graph API or SharePoint PnP PowerShell.
  • Useful for specific, targeted backup tasks or as part of a larger backup strategy

However, relying solely on PowerShell for backups has significant drawbacks:

  • Requires extensive PowerShell and SharePoint API knowledge.
  • Scripts need ongoing maintenance as APIs and SharePoint features evolve.
  • May not capture all SharePoint elements consistently.
  • Lacks user-friendly interfaces and advanced features of dedicated backup solutions.

One of the most significant drawbacks of using PowerShell for SharePoint Online backups is the time and effort required for development, testing, and troubleshooting. This process is particularly challenging due to the complexities of working with the Microsoft Graph API:

  • Graph API Throttling: Microsoft implements strict throttling controls on the Graph API to prevent overuse. Developing scripts that can effectively handle these throttling limits is complex and time-consuming.
  • Throttling Mitigation: Scripts must include sophisticated logic to detect throttling responses, implement backoff periods, and retry operations, adding layers of complexity to what might seem like simple backup tasks.
  • Performance Optimization: Balancing backup completeness with API usage limits requires careful optimization, often involving multiple iterations of testing and refinement.
  • Ongoing Adjustments: As Microsoft updates the Graph API and SharePoint features, scripts require constant updates to maintain functionality and efficiency.

For many organizations, the time and resources required to create and maintain an effective PowerShell-based backup solution often outweigh the perceived benefits of this approach.

Microsoft 365 Backup (Preview)

Microsoft has recently introduced a native backup solution for SharePoint, OneDrive, and Exchange. Currently in preview, it aims to address some of the limitations of the built-in features. While this is a step forward, it's important to understand its current capabilities and limitations:

  • Supports OneDrive, SharePoint, and Exchange Online
  • Enables backups for all or a select set of protected resources
  • Allows restoration of entire protected resources with up to 15-minute granularity for two weeks, or weekly granularity for up to a year
  • Lacks granular restore options, focusing instead on large-scale, resource-level recovery
  • Uses a pay-as-you-go billing model based on the amount of protected data, which may be challenging to budget for  

However, it's still evolving and may not yet match the capabilities of dedicated third-party solutions, particularly in areas such as:

  • Granular, item-level restoration
  • Advanced security features like ransomware detection
  • Flexible pricing models
  • Long-term retention options

For a more detailed analysis of Microsoft 365 Backup and how Alcion integrates with and complements this new offering, read our take on Microsoft's 365 Backup.

Third-Party M365 Backup Solutions

For organizations serious about protecting their SharePoint Online data, a dedicated third-party backup solution is often the most effective choice.

Third-party solutions fall into two categories:

Cloud-to-Cloud Backup Services:  

  • Fully managed SaaS solutions like Alcion
  • No on-premises infrastructure required
  • Typically offer rapid deployment and automatic updates

On-Premises Backup Software with SharePoint Online Connectors:  

When evaluating different Microsoft 365 backup software and backup-as-a-service vendors, the following Key Features should be available:

Automated and Intelligent Scheduling

Manual backups are prone to human error and often neglected. An ideal backup solution automates this process, reducing the risk of missed backups and ensuring consistent data protection.

Look for solutions that offer:

  • Automated, scheduled backups
  • Intelligent scheduling based on predicted user activity patterns
  • The ability to adjust backup frequency

Comprehensive coverage

When evaluating backup solutions for SharePoint Online, consider which elements of your environment need protection. Different solutions offer varying levels of coverage. So, you should choose a solution that will give you robust protection for the most commonly used and critical SharePoint content types. Such a focused approach allows for efficient, streamlined backups and restores of your essential SharePoint data.

Granular Recovery Options

The ability to restore specific items efficiently can significantly reduce downtime and minimize data loss. In your research for backup-as-a-service solutions you will find various restore capabilities, focus on those that provide the level of granularity that matches your organization's needs.  

You should look for a balance of comprehensive recovery options and ease of use, allowing you to quickly and precisely restore the exact data you need, when you need it.  

Scalability and Performance

Your backup solution should grow with your organization. As your SharePoint usage expands, your backup solution shouldn't become a bottleneck. It should handle increasing data volumes without compromising on performance or reliability. Key aspects to consider include:

  • The ability to handle large volumes of data without performance degradation
  • Support for multi-geo SharePoint environments
  • Efficient use of system resources to minimize impact on SharePoint performance

Security and Compliance Measures

Data protection goes beyond just creating copies. In today's threat landscape, ensuring the security of your backups is paramount. Additionally, many organizations must meet specific compliance requirements regarding data protection and retention. Look for:

  • End-to-end encryption (in transit and at rest)
  • Immutable storage options to prevent tampering
  • Compliance with relevant standards (e.g., GDPR, HIPAA)
  • Detailed audit logs for all backup and restore activities

User-Friendly Interface and Reporting

Effective backup management requires clear visibility and easy control. The less time you spend managing backups, the more you can focus on strategic IT initiatives. A user-friendly interface can significantly reduce the learning curve and operational overhead associated with backup management.

Prioritize solutions with:

  • Intuitive dashboards for monitoring backup status
  • Detailed reports on backup health and storage usage
  • Easy-to-use interfaces for configuring backups and performing restores

Alcion: A Modern Approach to SharePoint Online Backup

Alcion as a cloud-native, AI-driven backup-as-a-service platform, is designed to meet the complex needs of modern organizations while simplifying the backup process.

Cloud-Native Architecture for Seamless Integration

Alcion's cloud-native architecture eliminates the need for on-premises infrastructure, providing a truly seamless backup experience. With cloud-native architecture you get a backup solution is as agile and flexible as your SharePoint Online environment:  

  • Rapid deployment with no hardware to install or maintain
  • Automatic scaling to match your SharePoint environment's growth
  • Continuous updates and improvements without downtime

By handling the intricacies of API interactions, including throttling management and performance optimization, Alcion frees IT teams from the burden of script development and maintenance, allowing them to focus on strategic initiatives rather than backup logistics.

AI-Driven Intelligent Backups

Alcion leverages artificial intelligence to optimize your backup strategy through its Intelligent Backup feature. This innovative approach schedules backups based on predicted user activity patterns, offering several key advantages:

  • Increased data capture: By scheduling backups during periods of high user activity, Alcion captures more distinct versions of data, providing a more comprehensive backup history.
  • Improved efficiency: This method avoids scheduling multiple backups during less active periods (such as overnight), optimizing resource usage.
  • Enhanced Recovery Point Objectives (RPOs): By capturing more changes during active periods, Alcion can potentially reduce the time between the last backup and a data loss event, improving RPOs. This approach, combined with our robust retention policy, provides an impressive number of recovery points - up to 180 in the first 90 days alone. Learn more about our comprehensive M365 backup retention scheme.

The Intelligent Backup feature operates without examining customer data, instead utilizing inputs such as:

  • User time zones
  • Modification times for backup items
  • Patterns of high-frequency or high-volume user activity

Advanced Security Features

In today's threat landscape, backup security is paramount. Alcion incorporates advanced security measures to protect your SharePoint data which work together to provide a multi-layered defense against both external threats and insider risks.

  • Ransomware detection: Alcion uses AI algorithms to analyze backup data for signs of ransomware encryption, alerting you to potential threats before they spread.
  • Malware scanning: Integration with Microsoft Defender allows Alcion to detect and quarantine malware-infected files, ensuring your backups remain clean.
  • End-to-end encryption: All data is encrypted in transit and at rest using AES-256 encryption, with the option for customer-managed keys.

User-Friendly Interface and Simplified Management

Alcion's modern, intuitive interface streamlines backup and restore operations, making it accessible to administrators of all skill levels. Key usability features include:

  • One-click setup process, getting you up and running in minutes
  • Clear, actionable dashboards for monitoring backup status and health
  • Granular restore options with an easy-to-navigate interface

Addressing SharePoint Online Backup Challenges

Alcion directly tackles the unique challenges of SharePoint Online backup:

Automated Discovery and Protection

As your SharePoint environment grows, Alcion automatically detects and protects new document libraries, pages, and lists as they are created or modified. This ensures comprehensive coverage without manual intervention, addressing the challenge of evolving SharePoint content.

Flexible Restore Options

Alcion focuses on key restore capabilities that are designed to meet common recovery scenarios but at the same time provide you with the tools needed to efficiently recover your critical SharePoint data while minimizing downtime and data loss.

  • Granular, item-level restoration: Recover specific items within supported content types, allowing for precise data recovery without disrupting your entire SharePoint environment.
  • Point-in-time recovery: For document libraries, Alcion enables you to restore data to a specific point in time, helping you recover from data loss or corruption events.
  • Flexible restore locations: Choose to restore supported content items either to their original location or to an alternate location, providing adaptability in your recovery process.
  • Permission preservation: During the restore process, Alcion maintains the permissions associated with the recovered items, ensuring that your access controls remain intact.

Integration with Microsoft 365 Ecosystem  

Alcion's deep integration with the Microsoft 365 environment ensures comprehensive protection across related services. This includes:

  • Backup for associated OneDrive accounts
  • Protection for Teams-related SharePoint sites
  • Preservation of links and relationships between SharePoint and other Microsoft 365 services

Cost-Effective SaaS Model

As a true SaaS solution, Alcion offers predictable, scalable pricing without hidden infrastructure costs. The per-seat pricing model aligns with Microsoft's approach, simplifying budgeting and scaling.

What's next for your SharePoint Online data protection?

If you're ready to protect your SharePoint Online data, strengthen your security posture, and experience a truly modern backup solution tailored for SharePoint's unique challenges, it's time to consider Alcion Backup as a Service. With its cloud-native architecture, AI-driven intelligent scheduling, advanced security features, and user-friendly design, Alcion offers comprehensive protection for your critical SharePoint data.

Don't let the complexities of SharePoint's structure or the limitations of traditional backup methods compromise your data security. Alcion's approach ensures the important aspects of your SharePoint environment are comprehensively protected and easily recoverable.

Get in touch with our team or sign up for a free trial to see firsthand how Alcion simplifies SharePoint backup and recovery while providing robust protection for your organization's collaborative hub.

Shilpi Srivastava
Shilpi Srivastava
Head of Corporate and Product Marketing

Shilpi is passionate about all things data, AI, and cloud. She is the Head of Corporate and Product Marketing at Alcion. Her early career as a systems engineer at JP Morgan Chase ignited a passion for data-driven solutions. Since then Shilpi has held marketing leadership positions at Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Pure Storage, bringing to market products and services spanning cloud infrastructure, data management, AI Ops, and cybersecurity. Now, at Alcion, she thrives on delving deeper into AI-driven innovation within the data protection space and sharing these innovations with the world.