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Restoration options in SharePoint Online

Matt Wade
Matt Wade
Nov 29, 2019 · 7 min read

If you’re using SharePoint Online (part of Office 365) there are some implications when it comes to restoring files, libraries, or sites if something bad happens. In this post, I explain how to recover from when you mistakenly delete stuff, when things go corrupt, or, you know, those inventible times when content seems to grow legs and go hide.

When you’re using SharePoint 2007, 2010, 2013, or 2016, you’re using SharePoint on-premises. That means your organization owns physical servers that IT installed and maintains SharePoint on. IT likely has full control over it. If a site, library, file, or something else gets corrupt or you mistakenly delete it, your IT folks have a lot of power to fix the issue by restoring the content from an earlier point in time, presuming they have a back-up system in place (it would be unwise to not have one).

But SharePoint Online is a cloud solution hosted and maintained by Microsoft, not your IT team. With SPO, you’re renting space and support, which makes it easier for your organization on the administrative and hardware sides, but means you’re giving up some level of control. And the ability to restore sites, libraries, and files is one of those places where you lose a good amount of control.

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What you should do first

Version history

Generally, if a file gets corrupted or has other issues, restoring the file to a previous version can solve the problem. Any user with contribute access or higher can do this.

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This gives you the ability to decide which version is the most appropriate one to restore from. If the most recent version was corrupted, I also suggest deleting it so nobody ever tries to download, open, or restore the corrupted version back.

To make sure this is viable, you need to have version history turned on in your libraries. Luckily, in SharePoint Online, version history is enabled by default, saving up to 500 major versions. A Site Owner can increase that number if necessary.

A couple caveats to note with this method:

  • A potential downside to this option is the fact that Office Online will make versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote files seemingly willy-nilly (though Microsoft claims it’s every 30 minutes, this is quickly proven incorrect in practice). And you have little control over when versions are created because there’s no “Save” button; you could always use check in/out to force versions or the client application to make changes, but admittedly those options may not be the best for you. So you may end up restoring to a version doesn’t exactly meet your expectations. That said, it’s likely better than the alternative.
  • While it’s true that any library created in SPO has version history enabled by default, earlier versions of SharePoint normally do not. If you happen to have a library that was migrated to SPO from an earlier version of SharePoint, its version history settings likely traveled with it. So if version history isn’t enabled to begin with, you won’t have any versions to fall back on. Turn version history on in all libraries when you migrate, and do a double-check on all the libraries your currently use to make sure.

Site Recycle Bin restore

When you delete something in SPO, it’s not actually deleted. At least not at first. That can be a big win for you if you (or, more likely, somebody else) mistakenly deleted something and you want it restored.

The quickest and easiest way is to check the site’s Recycle Bin and restore the content from there. To access the Recycle Bin, go to the Site Contents page, either by clicking the link in the Quick Launch (left-side navigation) or the link under the gear menu in the top-right corner of the site. From there, click the Recycle Bin link underneath the search box.

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In the Recycle Bin, you should see your deleted content, whether it’s a file, folder, item, library, or list. Here you can select the checkbox to the left of the item and click Restore. Below is what it looks like in the modern document library experience (works the same in classic experience).

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When you restore a file that contains version history, all of the versions will also be restored. If you delete a file, then delete the library where it once lived, you have to restore the library first, then the file. However, if you restore a file that was in a deleted folder, it should restore the folder automatically with the file (source).

Items sent to the site Recycle Bin will stay there for 93 days (unsure why such an arbitrary number); at that point it’s sent to the site collection Recycle Bin (see below for more details).

Site collection Second Stage Recycle Bin restore

If you happen to double-delete something from SharePoint, which can only happen if 1) you go into your site’s Recycle Bin and delete the selection from there or 2) you take longer than 93 days to recover the deleted stuff from your site’s Recycle Bin, you still needn’t fret… much.

Each site collection has its own Recycle Bin, which is basically a merger or compilation of the content from every Recycle Bin in all of the sites in that collection, plus any files deleted in the site Recycle Bin (it basically acts as a catch-all).

However, there is a secondary Recycle Bin at the site collection level as well. Anything that gets deleted from a site or site collection Recycle Bin ends up in the site collection’s Second Stage Recycle Bin. Only the Site Collection Administrator (SCA) can access this bin. The SCA is likely a member of the IT team, but not always. Either way, you’ll have to get in contact with that person to access the deleted content and restore it for you.

On their end, they’ll have to browse to the top site in the site collection, go to the site settings, and click Recycle Bin under Site Collection Administration. Near the bottom of the page, click “second stage Recycle Bin”. From there, the SCA can restore those files.

There are a few caveats on what can be restored and how.

It’s very important to note that once an item ends up in a Second Stage Recycle Bin, it will only remain there for 30 days. After that the file is deleted permanently from SharePoint.

So, this means the life cycle of a deleted file can be 123 days max: 93 days (max) in the site Recycle Bin and an additional 30 days (max) in the Site Collection’s Second Stage Recycle Bin. Each Recycle Bin starts its own clock.

Getting a Microsoft restoration

  • Who: Only Microsoft can perform restores and only Office 365 tenant administrators can request a restore through the Microsoft help channels.
  • What: Only complete site collections can be restored. Individual sites, libraries, lists, files, folders, etc. cannot be restored individually or outside of the site collection. If you decide you need to restore one file in a site, the entire site collection will have to be restored with it.
  • Where: Site collections can only be restored over themselves. I don’t see evidence that you can restore a site collection as a new site collection to allow you to grab, say, just that one file and then drag-and-drop it into your actual site collection. (If you know otherwise, please let share.)
  • When: Microsoft takes backups every 12 hours. That’s not a very robust backup schedule and you may not even benefit from the backup if your issue started, say, 11 hours since the last one. You also won’t know when the backup took place until you talk to Microsoft. That, and it will take a few days for Microsoft to schedule the restore process to occur.
  • Why: As far as I can tell, Microsoft doesn’t offer robust restore options because it’s likely difficult to set up and support. But I’m hopeful that at some point tenant admins will gain some more tools to meet what is not an unreasonable functionality request.

There are some serious implications to this method. So for the listed reasons, I strongly suggest not going this route unless you fully understand the consequences. Sometimes it’s a better value to just give up and start over on the lost or corrupted content.



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