Kieran Jacobsen

Kieran Jacobsen

He/Him. Microsoft MVP and GitKraken Ambassador. 🌏 🏳‍🌈 Gay. 🐱 Cat owner.

Affordable Office 365 Backups with Synology Active Backup

When it comes to backups and Office 365, there are plenty of misconceptions in the industry. Yes, you do need to backup Office 365 data; No, it doesn’t have to cost you an arm and a leg. Synology’s Active Backup for Office 365 gives you backups without breaking your budget.

Synology reached to me and asked if I would be interested in reviewing their Active Backup suite. To help, they have supplied me with one of their latest generation devices a DiskStation DS920+. This is not a sponsored post and the thoughts within are my own.

Why Backup Your Office 365

Too many organisations and IT professionals believe that you do not need to perform backups of Office 365 data. The truth is, just like any other production system, you need to have a backup plan for this data.

Typically, backups are described as a copy of data that is taken and stored away from the original. A backup can be used to restore the original after a data-loss event. To be clear, backups are independent copies; they should be stored separately of the original data.

Microsoft doesn’t provide any services as part of Office 365 that fit this description. If you don’t believe me, just checkout their Office 365 compliance documentation (Microsoft O365 Mapping of CSA CMM v3.0.1):

Microsoft O365 Mapping of CSA CMM v3.0.1

Microsoft O365 Mapping of CSA CMM v3.0.1

People confuse backups for redundancy, particularly geo-redundancy that Microsoft provides with Office 365. Geo-redundancy involves replicating data between multiple sites, with the aim of ensuring that access to data is always available, even in the event of hardware or site failures. With replication, data deletion requests or data corruption will be replicated to each site. Replication doesn’t stop deletion or corruption; it doesn’t let you go back in time as there are no separate copies of the data.

People also confuse litigation holds and retention policies with backups. These controls allow you to specify how long data is held or retained by Office 365 even after a user deletes it. There are no separately stored copies of the data, for later restoration. If a file or message is corrupted, retention policies will simply define how long Office 365 keeps a copy of that corrupted piece of data.

Another consideration is compliance – everyone’s favourite topic. Most level and regulatory frameworks define a backup requirement or the ability to retrieve past data. Retention policies can help here, but backups are the only tool to ensure you truly meet your compliance requirements.

Synology Active Backup for Office 365

When you talk about backup products, Synology might not be the first vendor you think about. I am here to tell you needs to change. Synology’s Active Backup Suite is here to challenge the status-quo.

The Active Backup Suite comes as free packages that can be installed on any compatible Synology hardware. It offers a wide range of protection, including:

The focus of this review is Active Backup for Office 365, but I encourage you to check out the rest of the Active Backup Suite.

Cost Effective Backups

I am impressed with how Synology has positioned itself in what could be considered a crowded solution space. They have positioned themselves as being cost-effective, by ditching the per-user licensing model of their competitors. All you need is a compatible Synology NAS and enough storage, and you are good to go.

I will admit, the licensing model grabbed my attention when Synology first contacted me. No per-user licensing, they must be crazy. As the Head of Information Technology at Telstra Purple, I spend a significant portion of my time navigating vendor licensing models. Most products in the Office 365 backup space make use of a per-user monthly or yearly subscription model, something that looks low cost for small user counts, but as you scale out, the cost can get out of hand.

I wanted to get a rough idea of the cost difference between Synology and one of its competitors. As I said, this is a rough estimate, but helps to show how Synology are positioning Active Backup for Office 365. In this example, I will be working with an Office 365 tenant that has 500 users, and I want to retain the backups for 7 years. Below are my estimates (in AUD).

Active Backup for Office 365 Competitor's Product
User licensing $0 $10,000/year
Server Synology DiskStation DS3617xs @ $3900 Azure D4v3 @ $500/month
Storage 12 NAS rated 10TB Disks @ $550/each Azure Storage @ $2000/month
Total Costs
Yearly cost $10,500 $40,000
Total cost over 7 years $10,500 $280,000

I realise this this isn’t the fairest of comparisons, with power, cooling and replacement hard disks have not factored into the Synology estimate. I have also assumed a fixed amount of Azure Storage consumption for the competitor. What should be clear is that the biggest factor on overall cost is the yearly per user licensing.

As someone who is responsible for maintaining an IT budget, I must admit, it would be hard to choose the more expensive option.

Easy to Configure Backups

From personal experience, enterprise backup solutions were always complicated to configure and maintain. I still have nightmares about troubleshooting backups on Exchange 2010! Due to this experience, I allocated plenty of time to setup Active Backup for Office 365, only to be surprised when it took all of 10 to 15 minutes. I was also impressed to see support for multiple Office 365 tenants.

Currently, Active Backup offers protection for OneDrive, Exchange Online (mail, contacts, calendar and online archive) and SharePoint sites. In the beta release, there is addition support for Office 365 groups. The only thing I really would like to see is support for Microsoft Teams chat and conversation history.

I really liked how you can specify if newly created Office 365 user accounts are automatically included in each backup tasks. This is a great touch as it reduces the amount of work required when onboarding new users, awesome for those forgetful system administrators.

My only disappointment when configuring backup tasks was how you specify data retention. Active Backup for Office 365 provides two options: keep all versions or specify how many days a copy should be kept. Every vendor has their own approach for specifying retention policies, and Synology isn’t alone with the all or number of days approach. I personally prefer how retention policies are specified in Azure Recovery Vaults. This issue isn’t a showstopper, but more fine-grained policies might allow for better storage efficiency.

Easy to Restore Content

Synology haven’t just made running backups easy, they also made it easy to restore content with an end-user accessible self-service portal. From the Active Backup for Office 365 Portal, users can choose to restore data that may have been deleted or corrupted, without the need for administrator involvement.

Providing self-service options to your users is a critical aspect to the success of any IT team. The simple option of allowing users to perform tasks, like restoring Office 365 files and content makes them feel empowered and most importantly, frees up your IT team to work on more important tasks. Self-service will make you and your users happy.

Unfortunately, I found the portal a little bit difficult to navigate. I wish the interface more closely resembled the Office 365 user interface, as that would have felt more intuitive. I felt the mechanism to switch between viewing mail, OneDrive, contacts and calendar items wasn’t obvious at first.

Synology recommends enabling single sign-on (SSO) with Azure Active Directory. This will allow users to connect to the portal using their Office 365 credentials, no need for separate accounts. This isn’t required, but I would expect this to be setup for production environments. If you wish to use accounts created on the Synology, just ensure that the email address matches between the Synology account and the Office 365 account.

Synology currently only supports one SSO provider, so if you are performing multi-tenant backups, you will need to consider which Azure AD you federate with. SSO is configured via Azure AD application registration, so you will not need Azure AD Premium licenses.

Overall Thoughts

Setup is simple.
Support for user self-service data restoration.
Support for multiple Office 365 tenancies.
No per user licensing, subscriptions or renewals.
No support for Teams conversation history. Currently supports OneDrive, Exchange (mail, contacts, calendar and online archives) and SharePoint sites.
Retention policies are someone limited.
Requires the purchase of hardware.

I am really impressed by Active Backup for Office 365. Setting up Synology appliances and applications has always been very user friendly. The setup and restore experience are well designed and when integrated with Azure AD sign-on, provide end-users with self-service content restoration.

I believe the licensing model will be highly attractive to many organisations, even large enterprises; however the misconception that Synology’s market is home users, hobbyists and small businesses may result in many IT professionals to not thoroughly consider Active Backup for Office 365. Don’t fall for this misconception.

As someone who leads the internal IT team for a cloud first organisation, I can see the requirement to purchase Synology hardware a drawback. This could be a real blocker. Synology have some cloud offerings, perhaps their next step would be to offer Active Backup as a SaaS product.

I recommend that anyone supporting Office 365 environments to look at Active Backup for Office 365. It allows you to meet your organisations backup and data protection requirements as a cost-effective price point. I am and will recommend Active Backup for Office 365 to customers, clients, friends.

Active Backup for Office 365 is under active development, there are additional features and fixes already available in the public beta release.

I want to thank Synology for giving me the opportunity to work with DiskStation DS920+, it is a remarkable device that is very suited for IT professional and hobbyist use.

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