Office 365 is sometimes referred to as an ‘ecosystem’. In theory this means that records could be stored anywhere across that ecosystem.
Unlike the ‘old’ on-premise world of standalone servers for each Microsoft application (Exchange, SharePoint, Skype) – and where specific retention policies could apply (including the Exchange Messaging Records Management MRM policy), the various elements that make up Office 365 are interconnected.
The most obvious example of this interconnectivity is Microsoft Teams which stores chat content in Exchange and provides access to content stored in both SharePoint (primarily the SharePoint site of the linked Office 365 Group) and OneDrive, and has links to other elements such as Planner.
Records continue to be created and kept in the various applications but retention policies are set centrally and can apply to any or all of the content across the ecosystem.
Managing records in Office 365, and applying retention rules to those records, requires an understanding of at least the key parts of the ecosystem – Exchange, Teams, SharePoint and OneDrive and how they interrelate, and from there establishing a plan for the implementation of retention.
What types of records are created in Office 365?
Records are defined as ‘evidence of business activity’ and are often associated with some form of metadata.
Evidence of business activity is an overarching term that can include:
- Documents and notebooks (in the sense of text on a page)
- Plans, including both project plans and architectural plans and diagrams
- Images/photographs and video
- Chat and/or messages
- Conversations (audio and/or video based)
- Social media posts
All digital records contain some form of metadata, usually displayed as ‘Properties’.
Where are the records stored in Office 365?
Most records created organisations using Office 365 are likely to be created or stored in the following parts of the ecosystem:
- Exchange/Outlook – for emails and calendars.
- SharePoint and OneDrive – for documents and notebooks (in the sense of text on a page), plans, images/photographs and video.
- Stream – for audio and video recordings.
- MS Teams – for chat and/or messages, conversations (audio and/or video based). Note that 1:1 chats are stored in a hidden folder of the Exchange mailbox of the end-user/s participating in the chat, while Teams channel chat is stored in a hidden folder of the linked Office 365 Group mailbox.
- Yammer – for (internal) social media posts.
It is also possible to import and archive certain external content such as Twitter tweets and Facebook content in Office 365.
The diagram below provides a overview of the main Office 365 applications and locations where records are created or stored. Under SharePoint, the term ‘Sites’ refers to all types of SharePoint sites, including those associated with Office 365 Groups. Libraries are shown separately because of the potential to apply a retention policy to a library – see below.
Note also that this diagram does not include network file shares (NFS) as the assumption is made that (a) NFS content will be migrated to SharePoint and the NFS made read only, and (b) all new content that would previously have been stored on the NFS is instead saved either to OneDrive for Business (for ‘personal’ or working documents) or SharePoint only.
Creating a plan to manage records retention across Office 365
In previous posts I have recommended that organisations implementing Office 365 have the following:
- A basic architecture design model for SharePoint sites, including SharePoint sites linked with Office 365 Groups (and Teams in MS Teams).
- A plan for creating and applying retention policies across the ecosystem.
Because SharePoint is the most likely location for records to be stored (aside from Exchange mailboxes and OneDrive accounts), there should be at least one retention policy for every SharePoint site (or group of sites), as well as policies for specific document libraries if the retention for the content in those libraries may be different from the retention on the overall site.
For example, a ‘Management’ site may contain a range of general content as well as specific content that needs to be retained for longer.
- The site can be covered by a single implicit retention policy of (say) 7 years. This policy will delete content in the background, based on date created or data modified.
- The document library where specific types of records with longer or different retention requirements are stored may have one or more explicit label-based policies applied to those libraries. This content will be retained while the rest of the site content is deleted via the first policy.
Structure of a retention plan for records in Office 365
A basic plan for creating and applying retention policies might look something like the following:
- User mailboxes – one ‘general’ (implicit) retention policy for all mailboxes (say, 7 years after creation) and another more specific retention policy for specific mailboxes that require longer retention.
- SharePoint sites – multiple (implicit) retention policies targeting one or more sites.
- SharePoint libraries – multiple (explicit) label-based retention policies that are applied manually. These policies will usually a retention policy that is longer than any implicit retention policy as any implicit site policy will prevent the deletion of content before it reaches the end of that retention period.
- Office 365 Groups (includes the associated mailbox and SharePoint site) – one ‘general’ (implicit) retention policy. See also below.
- Teams channel chat – one ‘general’ (implicit) retention policy. Note that this content is stored in a special folder of the Office 365 Group mailbox.
- 1:1 chat – one ‘general’ (implicit) retention policy. This content is stored in a special folder of the participant mailboxes.
- OneDrive documents – one ‘general’ (implicit) retention policy for all ODfB accounts, plus the configuration of retention after the account is inactive.
At a high level, the retention policy plan might look something like the following – ‘implicit’ policies are shown in yellow, SharePoint document libraries may be subject to ‘explicit’, label-based policies. The ‘+7 years’ for OneDrive relates to inactive accounts, a setting set in the OneDrive Admin portal.
Regarding Microsoft Office 365 Groups, Microsoft notes the following on this page about managing retention in Office 365:
To retain content for a Microsoft 365 group, you need to use the Microsoft 365 groups location. Even though an Microsoft 365 group has an Exchange mailbox, a retention policy that includes the entire Exchange location won’t include content in Microsoft 365 group mailboxes. A retention policy applied to an Microsoft 365 group includes both the group mailbox and site. A retention policy applied to an Microsoft 365 group protects the resources created by an Microsoft 365 group, which would include Microsoft Teams.
The actual plan should contain more detail and included as part of other recordkeeping documentation (perhaps stored on a ‘Records Management’ SharePoint site). The plan should include details about (a) where the policies have been applied and (b) the expected outcomes or actions for the policies, including automatic deletion or disposition review (for document libraries).
Keep in mind that, unless the organisation decides to acquire this option, there is no default backup for content in Office 365 – once a record had been deleted, it is gone forever and there may be no record of this beyond 90 days.