Getting data into Office 365 is easy; not so straightforward to retrieve

Getting data into Office 365 is easy; not so straightforward to retrieve

Some recent discussions with companies such as Veeam and Mimecast who specialize in different aspects of data backup have convinced me that a concern about the difficulty of being able to get an organization’s information back out of Office 365 might be well founded.

Microsoft is obviously more interested in getting as much data into Office 365 as they can. This is the reason why they have invested in the Office 365 “FastTrack” Onboarding Center to accelerate the migration of user mailboxes to Exchange Online and the introduction of the Office 365 Import Service to ingest PST, SharePoint, files, and other data packages. And of course, the hybrid connectivity between Exchange on-premises and Exchange Online enables tenants to move mailboxes to and from Office 365 very easily.

But hybrid connectivity is the only fully supported method to extract data from Office 365 so that the information flows into an on-premises server in a ready-to-use fashion. Once a mailbox move back to on-premises Exchange is complete, the mailbox owner can use it in exactly the same manner – and with much the same clients – as with Exchange Online.

But Office 365 is not just Exchange and a much wider variety of data types is moved to Office 365 when a transition occurs such as SharePoint documents, lists, and configuration data, the video content that is uploaded into the Office 365 Video Portal, eDiscovery cases, Skype for Business configurations, and the OneDrive for Business sites used by individuals. And then there are applications like Office 365 Groups that don’t exist on-premises. You can move the raw data used by Office 365 Groups but will have to transform them manually into another form thereafter. Tools like those made by Sharegate can help migrate the group libraries back to on-premises servers to become SharePoint team sites and shared mailboxes can be used to take over from group mailboxes, but it’s all manual effort and other factors such as shared notebooks still have to be handled.

What seems to be missing is any sort of automated process to extract all of the data belonging to a tenant in a form that makes it easy to “rehydrate” on-premises. Utilities to handle different parts of the overall picture (like mailbox moves) provide partial answers, but there’s no off-the-shelf utility available that’s capable of scanning a tenant from beginning to end to enumerate all of the data used across Office 365, report its findings, and then move the data.

I suspect that moving won’t be easy because a lack of APIs exist to handle the kind of heavy-duty data transfer that a migration back to on-premises involves. Some APIs are available and are in use, but they aren’t designed to do the kind of mass transfer envisaged here. For instance, Exchange Web Services (EWS) is used by PST migration utilities to move data into Exchange Online and could be used for the reverse, but EWS is slow and inefficient at times because it’s designed for client access rather than data streaming, which is the problem that companies like Spanning encounter when they use EWS to take backups of Exchange Online. The REST-based APIs that Microsoft is now providing for Office 365 are likely to suffer the same kind of performance issues when faced with large quantities of data.

The longer you use Office 365, the harder it becomes to leave. I know that sounds a bit cultish but it’s true because the longer a tenant uses Office 365, the more data is accumulated and the more Office 365 features are used (and might become part of an essential business process). Take Rights Management for instance. It’s a bit of a bear to set up on-premises but easy to enable within Office 365. What will you do with all those protected documents and messages if you decide to move away from Office 365 – keep the tenant going so that you can access the AADRM servers via a hybrid connection?

So even though Microsoft’s Office 365 Trust Center proclaims:

“With Office 365, it’s your data. You own it. You control it. And it is yours to take with you if you decide to leave the service.”

I suspect that the aspiration to leave will founder on the challenge of discovering all the data that has to be moved and then figuring out how to move it. Unless, of course, someone comes up with a method to do the job automatically that delivers high-fidelity results.

I will be debating this issue along with other challenges relating to the adoption of Office 365 by large enterprises with Mimecast CTO Neil Murray on a live webcast on Thursday, 12 November at 9AM PST. Join us then to see whether we can make sense.

Follow Tony @12Knocksinna

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