How to back up Office 365, SharePoint Online and Teams Documents for free

Many businesses, small and large, now use Office 365 (Microsoft 365) and SharePoint Online as a file share in the cloud. We look at two ways to back up those Document Libraries, protecting yourself from data corruption and deletion. Best of all, these two backup methods are completely free… and as a bonus, they can also be used to back up files in Microsoft Teams.

Introduction

Just in case you’re not familiar with why you should back up your SharePoint documents, here’s a brief explanation. 

Microsoft are responsible for the availability and uptime of their service, while you’re responsible for the data on it. It’s like how a mechanic is responsible for keeping your car well serviced and free from breakdowns, but it’s you that will wear the consequences if you crash the car or if a thief steals it. 

Microsoft will help you keep past versions of files with their versioning feature, and there is a recycle bin for deleted files. But anything outside the 93 day recycle bin retention period is lost forever… and Microsoft’s service doesn’t make it easy to do a point-in-time restore or protect against events like your tenant being deleted. 

The good news is that there are free tools that enable you to keep backups. Using these tools correctly will mean you’ll minimize the chance of losing data in the event of a cyber-attack or user accident. 

We’ll examine two tools and give you a step-by-step guide on getting your SharePoint documents safely backed up. 

TL; DR Comparison of Free SharePoint Backup Options

OneDrive client appBackupAssist 365
VendorMicrosoftCortex Cyber
MethodSync SharePoint documents to a local file systemDownload SharePoint documents to a local file system on schedule
Store backups on local hard driveYesYes
Store backups on network shareNoYes
ReportingNoneDaily reports
Keep historical snapshotsNoYes
Encryption in transitYesYes
Encryption at restNoYes
Security limitationsContains some security issuesSecurity is built-in
Runs unattendedRequires user to be logged inYes

Method 1: Use the OneDrive client app to sync Office 365 and SharePoint Online 

First things first: the OneDrive app provided by Microsoft is not a backup tool, but it can be used in conjunction with other backup tools to provide robust and comprehensive protection for documents in SharePoint. 

The idea is to:

  1. use the OneDrive app to download and sync your cloud-based Document Libraries to a local hard drive, and then 
  2. use your favorite backup software to back up your local hard drive. We recommend doing backups to offline or offsite storage. 

Without doing Step 2, you’re not actually keeping reliable backups. Although you have a 2nd copy of your data offsite, a simple sync doesn’t provide historical snapshots of your data and remember that deletions and corruptions due to ransomware on your local machine will be synced up to the cloud. 

But most businesses will already have an on-premises backup solution, so using the OneDrive app is a free way to get your data down from the cloud so it can be incorporated into your on-premises backups.  

(If you don’t already have an on-premises backup solution, then we recommend you skip directly to Option #2, below, for a free backup solution that gives you historical snapshots of your SharePoint document libraries.) 

How to set up the OneDrive client

  1. If it’s not already installed, download it from here.
  1. Go to the web browser and log into Office 365 / Sharepoint and navigate to your site. 
  1. Click on the document library you want to sync. (The default one is just called “Documents”). Then click “Sync” as shown.
  1. Open the OneDrive app
  1. You’ll then need to sign into the app
  1. Enter the password
  1. Choose where to sync your SharePoint Document Library to. 
  1. Complete the on-boarding and your sync should start.  
  1. Repeat steps 3 to 8 for additional document libraries 
  1. By default, OneDrive app won’t download your files. You’ll need to click on the system tray icon to bring up a popup menu. Then choose “Settings”, and then click the “Settings” tab in the top left. You must uncheck the checkbox that reads “Save space and download files as you use them”. 
  1. Make sure to include the destination directories in your on-premises backup solution 

You can check that your data has synced by looking in Explorer. At first the target will display blue cloud icons, changing to green ticks once syncing is complete.

If you try to choose a network share as your destination, you’ll get a message like this: 

The OneDrive app functions when someone is logged into your computer, so that can be a problem on unattended machines, especially if Windows Update logs out the user and reboots your computer. 

And finally, there are some security issues with this option. 

  1. A corruption on the local machine will be synced to the cloud. 
  2. You need to log in to Office 365 / SharePoint as a licensed user. If you change your password, the sync will break, and you’ll need to log in again. 
  3. You’ll need to manually grant access rights to the user that’s logging into the OneDrive app. This means if you have a SharePoint site that has restricted access, you’ll need to grant rights to the OneDrive app user, which may breach security policies that you’re trying to enforce. 

Method 2: Use BackupAssist 365 to back up Office 365 and SharePoint Online

An alternative to using the free OneDrive app is the (still free) backup product known as BackupAssist 365. It solves all the limitations of the OneDrive app. 

BackupAssist 365 is a fully fledged backup solution from Cortex Cyber. It provides backups of mailboxes, OneDrive for Business and SharePoint in Office 365. Although backing up Mailboxes and OneDrive for Business requires a paid license, backing up SharePoint is completely free

Highlights include:

  1. Keep historical snapshots of backup data – such as daily snapshots. 
  2. Accurate point-in-time recovery for documents. 
  3. Secure your backup data using encryption. 
  4. Get daily backup reports, so you know that the backup worked. 
  5. Any corruptions or ransomware infections on the local machine will not automatically corrupt your data in the cloud. 
  6. No limit to the size of data backed up – whether 1 MB or 1 TB, it’s not a problem. 

How to set up BackupAssist 365 for backing up Office 365 / SharePoint Online

  1. Download BackupAssist 365 from www.backupassist.com/365/downloads and install the software. 
  2. Activate the 30-day trial mode by entering the evaluation license key that was emailed to you. 
  3. Set up a SharePoint task by clicking “Setup task”, and then clicking on “SharePoint”. 
  4. Follow the steps to set up the SharePoint backup.  
    • Note – when it comes to logging into SharePoint, it can be tempting to use the regular admin login. However, mixing user logins with automated software processes is not a good security practice. 
    • It’s recommended that you create an additional “backup user” login in Office 365. The backup user does not require an Office 365 license but does require “SharePoint admin” and “Application Admin” roles. Further information is available within the software. 
  5. You have some advanced options that must be enabled at the time of setup if you want to use them. 
    • Versioning – this feature keeps a history of backups. Each backup is like a snapshot of your SharePoint document library, and versioning enables you to keep many historical snapshots. This enables you to do point-in-time restores in the future. 
    • Encryption – this will encrypt the contents of every file downloaded, as well as the file and directory names. If you turn on encryption, your data will be inaccessible outside of BackupAssist 365… and of course, you should use a strong encryption password and keep that safe. 
  6. You can set a schedule – it is best to start your backups after the workday finishes. According to Microsoft recommendations, running backups during regular business hours may result in the backups being throttled. However, the developers at BackupAssist 365 say they play well with SharePoint even when backups are run during the day. 
  7. Run the backup. 
  8. You can also set up email reports to receive daily notifications of backup success. We recommend doing this. 

Which option is better for backing up SharePoint? 

Let’s look at the pros and cons of each solution – and then you can see if you form the same conclusions as we do. 

Pros / cons of the OneDrive app approach

OneDrive app prosOneDrive app cons
  1. Free
  2. Easy to set up
  3. Can also be used to sync files in Microsoft Teams
  1. Security problems:
    • The app performs a two-way sync, meaning changes locally will affect cloud data. A true backup is a one-way sync, so it can never modify the original data.
    • The app requires you to log in as a licensed user, which means you need to grant it access rights to each SharePoint site you want to sync.
  2. No reporting so you don’t know if it stops working
  3. Requires someone to be logged in to the machine, or the app won’t run
  4. Requires local storage and another backup system to provide historical snapshots of data.

Pros / cons of the BackupAssist 365 approach

BackupAssist 365 prosBackupAssist 365 cons
  1. Free
  2. Easy to set up
  3. Can also be used to backup files in Microsoft Teams
  4. Provides email reports so you know the backup worked
  5. Provides historical snapshots and versioning, with point-in-time restore
  6. Provides data encryption to secure against data breach – assisting with GDPR, HIPAA, etc.
  7. Set automatic schedules for your backups
  8. No limit to the amount of data backed up
  9. Security issues are handled by allowing you to log in as a special “backup user” that is only used for backing up data.
    • Access rights are automatically granted on the fly.
    • No user privileges are affected, so there is no breach of existing policies.
  10. Any local data corruptions affect only the backups, not the original data.
  1. Requires local storage

Conclusions

With many businesses using SharePoint as a cloud-based file collaboration and sharing platform, backing up SharePoint Document Libraries is a critical part of any cyber risk mitigation plan. 

By using some free tools like the OneDrive app or BackupAssist 365, it’s easy to protect against cyber-attack or human errors.  

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