Posey's Tips & Tricks
Why You Should Back Up Office 365 Before Changing Subscriptions
Upgrading to a higher-level Office 365 subscription plan like E5 should be safe. But downgrading to a less costly subscription plan (for example, going from E5 to F1) is more likely to put your organization's data at risk.
By now, I think it is safe to say that most organizations realize they need to be backing up their Office 365 data. Microsoft does not provide backup and recovery services for Office 365, so it is up to each individual organization to protect its own data.
The most obvious reason for backing up Office 365 is to avoid data loss. After all, there is always a chance that Microsoft could experience a catastrophic failure. Similarly, someone in your own organization could end up accidentally deleting data. Whatever the cause, you need a way to get your data back.
One potential cause of Office 365 data loss that I never hear anyone talk about is changing to a different Office 365 plan. For example, I have an Office 365 Enterprise E3 subscription. In theory, I should be able to upgrade to an E5 subscription without too much trouble. However, there is always the chance that something could go wrong during the upgrade process. As a best practice, you should make sure to back up all of your Office 365 data before changing your subscription plan.
So is there a real need for making a backup just prior to changing subscriptions, or am I just being paranoid? One thing I have learned during my 30 years in IT is that a bit of paranoia can be a healthy thing. After all, it's an IT pro's job to keep bad things from happening. Paranoia can drive IT pros toward taking action that may one day prevent data loss. So in the context of enterprise IT, paranoia can be a good thing if it is followed up with action.
But let's get back to my original question. Am I being paranoid, or is there an actual need to back up Office 365 data prior to changing your subscription plan?
In theory, upgrading to a higher-level subscription plan should be safe. I have never actually tried it myself, but I know of several organizations that upgraded their plan without experiencing any data loss. Even so, why take a chance? It's better to make a backup than to put your organization's data at risk.
The thing that is more likely to put your organization's data at risk is downgrading to a less costly subscription plan. Granted, Microsoft does not maliciously purge your data when you downgrade your Office 365 subscription, but downgrading does carry the potential for data loss.
To give you an example of why this is the case, imagine that an organization has an Office 365 Enterprise E5 subscription but decides to downgrade to an F1 subscription. One of the things that the organization would lose by downgrading is access to Power BI Pro. As such, there is a chance that the organization could lose its Power BI data as a part of the downgrade.
Right about now, you may be wondering what Microsoft has to say about all of this. According to Microsoft, "If a user will be switched to another subscription that has fewer data-related services or a user leaves the organization, a copy of their data that's stored in Office 365 can be downloaded before they are switched to the new subscription."
If you use a reputable third-party backup solution to protect your Office 365 data, then creating a backup just before making a change to your subscription plan will probably be adequate (although it's always a good idea to check to be sure).
If you are only downgrading a limited number of users, then you can manually back up those users' data. In fact, Microsoft provides guidance as to what needs to be protected.
The first step is to export all of the user's outlook data to a .PST file. You have to be at least a little bit careful with this task, however, as it's easy to forget to back up calendar items, contacts and tasks. Additionally, many organizations have policies in place to prohibit the use of .PST files.
Another thing that you will typically need to do is move all of the users' OneDrive for Business data to an alternate location, such as a network share. From there, you should check to see if the user has any data in Yammer. Yammer data can be exported to a .ZIP file.
SharePoint requires a lot more planning than the other Office 365 applications because data can be so widely scattered and diverse. It is worth noting, however, that even if a user is moved into an Office 365 plan that does not include SharePoint, they will still be able to access their SharePoint team sites as long as the new subscription is within the same organization as the old subscription.
Again, though, I always recommend that you don't leave anything to chance. My advice is to always make a backup prior to making any major change.
Brien Posey is a 22-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.