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The Pros and Cons of Disk Cloning and Imaging Backups

April 3, 2010

As an admin I find good use for image backups, but I guess it depends how you want to use your backups and whether you are a home user or a professional admin.

I would recommend using disk cloning and imaging backup software:

1. if you need to support a large number of PC users who are likely to run into problems with their PCs. Such as viruses, configuration problems.

2. If you are a home user who wants to protect the system from a hard drive crash or other damage

Advantages of image backups:

1. The entire system is stored  in a single file which you can copy to an external hard drive

2. System can quickly be restored on the same computer after replacing a hard drive.

Disadvantages of image backups and disk cloning:

1. The new hard drive is likely to be bigger than the old one. You end up with some extra space left over and will need another tool to enlarge the partition or create new ones. In Windows 7 you can do that via the disk management console.

2. Strictly speaking, you need a new software license on your new PC if you want to restore a backup from your crashed PC

3. Images are stored in a proprietary format. You can only access your files using that program (which you need to buy in case you don’t have it anymore or in case you want to restore the system elsewhere)

4. Microsoft and other software vendors lock software to the hardware of your PC. If you restore the image on the same PC you will be able to get it to work fine. However, on a new PC the hardware codes and IDs are different and you need to re-activate Windows and all the other software

5. If you restore the image on a new PC, it’s likely that you will get blue screens or worse, intermittent crashes. So either the system won’t boot, or it will be unstable. This is because the drivers don’t match your new PC’s hardware. Most of the time I tried to restore an image to a new system, it didn’t work and couldn’t be made to work either.

6. Image backups take a long time to complete, even in incremental/differential backup mode. If your system is big you’re better off just backing up specific folders using file backup software.

7. Image backup software isn’t that smart yet. It’s all or nothing. Either the image can be created/restored in full or you end up with nothing. For example, if your external drive ends up being too small you won’t know until you have the backup run for hours and then it will stop saying ‘drive is full’. It will complain about the drive being full and leave you with no backup at all. At least with a file backup, you would have most of your files in case of an emergency.

8. On a new computer it is generally recommended if not required to reinstall everything from the beginning. At least then you know you have a clean system running smoothly!

So before you head off and run Acronis or CloneZilla or the like, think of the whole picture and all its implications. Most likely you’re better off with a file backup in your pocket which you can use on all other PCs without a purchase. We use typically Backup Exec and BackupChain at work for that purpose.

However if you want to protect against simple hard drive failure, it’s definitely the way to go because it will save you time restoring the system. Whether you use image backups or file backups, I found external hard drives very convenient and fast. They are way faster and cheaper than DVDs and CDs and last much longer.

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