When To Do worlds collide (with OneNote)

For many years in the OneNote desktop client (i.e. 2013, 2016, not “OneNote for Windows 10”) we have a “To Do” tag that appeared in the ribbon:

But what does it do? Not much, just a nice little checkbox:

That checkbox is literally nothing more than a tag that can be used for searching, and a visual queue. The most excitement this little feature gets is when you check the box:

And for many years that’s been just fine, as savvy users of OneNote would use these tags (and others) to filter and find notes across pages, sections, and even notebooks.

Wait, this isn’t the same as Microsoft To Do?

No, it’s not. This is Microsoft To Do:

It’s a task management app, available both free for consumer users of Outlook.com as well as organisational Office 365 users.

To Do differs between the free vs. business/education Office 365 versions. In the latter it can connect to Planner, Microsoft Teams, Outlook email, calendar and tasks.

However, Microsoft To Do has absolutely nothing to do with the “To Do” tag in OneNote despite using the same capitalisation. This is important to note because for many people they would only be discovering OneNote now (despite the fact it’s over 15 years old) as well as Microsoft To Do, and potentially getting confused by this feature that appears not to work properly.

Is there a connection at all?

Yes, like a bizarre love triangle there is a connection between OneNote, Outlook, and To Do.

In the world of Office 365, Microsoft To Do relies on Outlook as its underlying storage service. In fact, tasks in To Do are actually tasks in Outlook. Go on, dust off the tasks button in Outlook and have a look – you’ll see all your tasks from To Do.

When using Outlook on the web, the tasks button has been replaced with both the To Do icon and functionality. The integration is strong, in that flagged emails in Outlook show up in a dedicated folder in To Do. As well as this, users can drag emails into To Do to turn them into tasks and drag tasks into their Outlook calendar to turn them into appointments. Very cool stuff. You can read more about the functionality here.

The connection between Outlook and OneNote has been strong for quite some time (but not the “OneNote for Windows 10” version – that can’t connect to Outlook). In OneNote we can link to Outlook calendar appointments, and from appointments we can link to either our own area of OneNote or a shared location for a meeting. You can read more about this functionality here, and here respectively.

However, there’s another linkage of OneNote that only power users have taken advantage of – and that’s the ability to create Outlook tasks from OneNote. Let’s look back at the ribbon in OneNote and we can see our friend Wally hiding in plain sight:

If we use this button on a line in a OneNote page, we should see a flag show up at the start of that line, as can be seen in the second line of this image:

So where does this task go? If we have a look at the tasks area in Outlook, I can now see this:

The linkage isn’t one way though, if I mark the task as complete in Outlook it will update in OneNote too:

You can read more about this functionality here.

But wait, there’s more!!! The triquetra between OneNote and To Do with Outlook in the middle gives us this:

If we mark this task complete in To Do, it will update in Outlook tasks (because that’s where it’s stored) and therefore update in OneNote!

It’s not all happy endings

If you’re a savvy To Do user, then you probably have multiple task lists – not just the main Tasks folder. So, it seems quite reasonable that you’d want to move the task from this folder into one of your other task lists.

Let’s create a new task in OneNote:

Let’s verify that it’s there in Outlook:

And in To Do:

I’ve moved it into a different task list:

The change is reflected in the “In Folder” column in Outlook tasks:

But something happens in OneNote:

Hey… the colour is different.

It looks a bit pale.

Is it unwell?

Yes, yes it is. Hovering over the pale flag, a message shows up:

Wait what!? This is a little confusing because we confirmed that the task is still visible in Outlook, so why is OneNote saying it can’t see it?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer. All I’ve been able to demonstrate in this blog post is that we can connect between the three apps, and while the changes we make in the To Do and Outlook worlds don’t seem to make much difference, the connection to the origin in OneNote is broken.

Backing up Office 365 to an on-premises server!?

I’ve been working with Office 365 for a loooong time (over 10 years if you include my time with its predecessor, BPOS) and the topic of backups has come up many, many times.

Microsoft sellers will tell you that it’s not required because features such as retention policies and unlimited archives render make the need for backups redundant. I’ve tended to agree, however understand where some organisations have a regulatory requirement to keep backups in a separate environment. This is especially the case in government, however, is becoming less and less enforced.

The issue with backing up Office 365 is that there’s too many services that don’t offer API access, and therefore one can never truly back up the platform. So, when vendors claim that they can back up “everything” in Office 365 – it is a categorically false claim.

And while for regulated organisations, being able to back up as much as they can of Office 365 can sometimes be enough, in the case of small businesses – they just want something they can touch. For many years it’s been commonplace for someone in a small business to take the backup tapes home with them on a regular rotation, so doing away with this when moving to the cloud can be a challenge to accept.

Recently I got my hands on the newly-released Synology DS920+ NAS unit and came across the “Active Backup for Office 365” package bundled with the unit and wondered why such a solution exists, especially given there are so many established vendors in the market such as Veritas, AvePoint, CommVault, and others.

The reality is, that as organisations start moving more workloads to the cloud, their on-premises footprint decreases – but sometimes they still need something to provide functionality as well as give them peace of mind. As a person that has had their head in the clouds so long, I didn’t realise that NAS units were more than simply “network attached storage”. They are in fact incredibly versatile servers with a variety of functions and purposes. Whereas small business may previously have had one or more Windows servers providing local services such as authentication, printer management, file storage, and application hosting; NAS units have steadily become a suitable replacement for those on-premises servers. Especially as more and more services move to the cloud, the requirement for on-premises infrastructure decreases, but in some cases can take a long time to it fully goes away. This is because the average small business is not necessarily prepared to go full Microsoft 365 E3 (or above) and implement Endpoint Manager, conditional access, cloud printing, and go completely to the cloud; mainly because it’s not their priority both financially and operationally.

The DS920+ surprised me with the amount of functionality it was able to offer in such a small unit. To be honest I kept thinking it was some form of witchcraft, because when you look at the size of the unit and how much space is taken up by the hard drives and other gear such as fans and circuit boards – there’s no much space left for a platform that can offer so many functions that would historically be delivered by multiple servers.

Putting aside the functionality around running virtual machines, serverless computing with Docker, surveillance & multimedia storage, PC backups, and a bunch of others, I wanted to focus on the Office 365 backup promised.

In my personal Office 365 tenant I run several accounts for myself, my wife, our daughters, as well as having a few Teams and SharePoint sites for various projects and initiatives (an example of this is the recent M365 May event which involved two Teams and a bunch of user accounts). Luckily at my home I have a sizeable Internet connection of 100/40Mb with unlimited downloads, so backing up my tenant was not going to be a challenge.

Configuring the Active Backup for Office 365 solution is relatively straight-forward. Simply connect to your Office 365 tenant with administrative credentials to grant access to the service, then select the content you want to back up.

From a content perspective, it is effectively able to only back up an individual’s Exchange mailbox and OneDrive content. I was a bit confused around the terminology of “Drive” where I would expect it to say “OneDrive”, and why contacts and calendar were considered separate from the mailbox itself. Additionally I was confused as to why “My site” was listed there as this is effectively no longer used in modern Office 365 parlance, and dates back to older SharePoint functionality (while technically “My Site” still exists in SharePoint Online, we really only access the document library functionality which is presented as OneDrive).

What exactly the service backed up in SharePoint was initially a mystery to me, and to be honest I expected it to only be content in the document library of the site, however I was pleasantly surprised when accessing the backup portal that it actually backs up all the content in the site (including hidden libraries and lists).

As you can see in the bottom of the above image, it shows when content was changed in the site – and allows me to view the timeline so I can easily roll back to a previous date.

What I do like about the backup portal is that it can be made available to end users, allowing them to restore their own content – something they would normally need to go through their IT department (or outsourced provider) to get done.

The application itself provides a simple enough glimpse of the backup process and success over time, as well as being able send notifications for those that need to know.

So, the question is why would someone need to use this feature to back up their Office 365 environment? And what’s the point of it given that it only backs up Exchange, OneDrive and SharePoint content.

While the DS920+ can (with expansion units) handle up to 144TB, I would be recommending any organisation be purchasing it as a backup solution alone – because while technically the backup is “offsite” (i.e. separate from the Microsoft cloud), it’s not exactly infallible given it’s a single physical storage environment.

However for small organisations that want to do away with on-premises server infrastructure as they move to the cloud and have some form of backup of some of their content for peace of mind, this type of NAS is an ideal fit.