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.

Using your lounge room as a pseudo conference room with Microsoft Teams (and an Xbox)

There are plenty of blog posts and videos out there with tips about how to stay health, active, and above all, sane during this strange period in modern history where we are relatively confined to our homes.

There are also plenty of posts and videos out there about how to set your desk up and what tech to use (including some by me).

More so, this post is about being a bit unconventional and using some of the other tech in your house to break out of your daily position.

The challenge

Our new reality of working from home has for many resulted in an increasing amount of calls and meetings. Some of these may have been coffee meetings, some in a meeting room, some by the water cooler, at your desk, wherever. As someone who has already been working from home for most of the past decade, I’ve found that in reality the amount of calls & meetings I have hasn’t really increased, but because I don’t have the option to leave the house and meet people in person I am starting to feel a bit boxed in.

While many people have a decent setup at home with external monitor, webcam, headset, decent chair & desk and the rest, many don’t.

The reality it is that it doesn’t make much of a difference what your WFH setup is, you need a change. And right now, one of the best changes is simply to move to another area of the home.

A relatively uncommon scenario that also applies to me is that I work with my wife on a daily basis, and often we’re in the same meetings together. So, the “solutions” I’ve come up with here make more impact for us.

Method 1: using your TV and webcam as a pseudo conference room

This method is relatively simple. Take your webcam, get a HDMI cable and plug them into your TV. Effectively you’re creating a similar setup to what you may have at the office (hopefully you have a full meeting room system like those from Crestron or Logitech).

In this image below I’m having a call with some colleagues while I sit on the couch, because I didn’t need to necessarily be at my laptop for the duration of this call. Simply select the external camera as the input, the TV as the audio output, and happy days.

The camera I used below was a Jabra PanaCast which is designed for huddle rooms, so worked reasonably well for audio pickup in my lounge room. It wasn’t the best quality because the room is bigger than the average huddle room, but it worked well enough that my colleagues weren’t frustrated by it.

Note, it would be possible to use Miracast to present your screen on the TV, however that still doesn’t address the requirement of having a webcam plugged into your laptop.

Method 2: using your Xbox as a meeting room device

Often in meetings we still want to use our laptops, so sitting right up at the screen like in method 1 is not going to be practical, nor is getting really long HDMI and USB cables so you can sit on the couch but stay plugged in.

This allows you to still use your laptop, as the Xbox becomes the meeting room device itself. Unlike a meeting room system, the Xbox does not have its own account so can’t be invited. All we are doing here is logging into our own account via the Edge browser built into the console. In the screenshots below myself and a couple of colleagues were trying out a game to play together via Microsoft Teams as a way to help with the social cohesion while working remotely.

I was using the same Jabra PanaCast webcam plugged into the Xbox via USB, and in reality any webcam would also work.

If you have a Bluetooth keyboard connected to your Xbox this is easy enough, however using the controller it got a bit tedious. Additionally, in many instances the on-screen keyboard would pop up because it thought I wanted text entry. Given the tediousness of using the controller, I certainly wouldn’t recommend using the Xbox for anything other than joining meetings.

As well as this the resolution of my camera was quite low, despite being capable of 1080p. I suspect this is a limitation of the Xbox drivers for USB cameras.

Some might say that the angle of the camera looking at someone sitting on a couch is not exactly flattering – and they’d be right. I wouldn’t recommend this for important meetings such as those with clients, however with your peers who we have started to become accustomed to seeing in sweatpants or without makeup – it’s perfectly fine.

Additionally, you don’t necessarily need to have a camera at all. In many cases you might just be attending a presentation, live event, or a silent participant in a meeting – so for those you don’t even need a camera.

Given we’re going to be in lockdown for at least a few more weeks (if not months), give it a try!