Archiving files is all well and good, but it is only one part of a complete backup plan. What should you do if your hard drive decides to fail? Or if your computer were to be stolen? How do you go about restoring your system right away so that you can actually get back to work? Disaster recovery is a slightly different challenge than file backup and it requires a different tool, the “system image.”
A system image is an exact copy of a drive. It includes all of the Windows files, system settings, programs and program files. And when you restore a computer from a system image, it’s a complete restoration. You usually don’t restore just a few specific files or items, that is what a file back-up is for. (In fact, most system backups don’t even provide the option to restore a single file.)
If you use Time Machine on the Mac, it makes both a backup of your files and a system image at the same time. Windows Vista, however, separates the two tasks. File backup (which we looked at in the previous article), runs separately from “Complete PC Backup,” which creates the system image. This is a disruption in the “set it and forget it” mentality that I am striving for. Worse, the built in Windows Vista tool will only work with an external hard drive and “exclusively” comes in the Windows Vista Business and Ultimate editions. (And while Windows 7 will let you create an image to a network location, it places other artificial limitations on the process.)
You might call me picky, but I know exactly what I want in an backup image: a solution that runs without me thinking about it, which can backup to a network attached storage (NAS) and takes differential snapshots of my system drive. (While using an external hard drive is an “acceptable” solution, it isn’t ideal. It injects an additional step and unnecessary complexity into the process.) Frankly, I want the built-in backup to work exactly the Windows Home Server does.
The astute reader might ask, why not just use Windows Home Server? It appears to work well. (In fact, some users think it is the best thing since sliced bread.) But from where I sit, I see a few downsides: 1) it costs money and 2) it requires me to buy new hardware. In comparison, a Linux based server can be installed on anything that I happen to have lying around, and makes it tremendously easy to to install other programs like Subversion which offer their own advantages.
But that leaves the question, “If the built-in Vista tools aren’t acceptable, what do you use for an image based backup tool?” Well … I’m glad that you asked.
The Big Picture: File Backups Versus System Backups
But first, let’s talk about the big picture. As I reread my introduction, I realize that it sounds a bit negative. So let me be really really clear. A good system backup/image can save a great deal of time, not to mention headaches. They are wonderful things. But they aren’t actually necessary. In contrast, file backups are necessary, mandatory and essential. (And I already have a solid strategy for ensuring that they happen.)
Look at it this way: if I lose my files (writings, data, notes, pictures, or videos), I am in a world of hurt. Important things have been lost that can never be replaced. If I lose my programs or system … well … I can fix that. For starters, reinstalling an operating system and the various programs I use daily isn’t that hard. I can even reconfigure the folder structure and tweak the system so that everything is the way I like it. It just takes time.
Because a good system backup is less necessary, it doesn’t need to happen as frequently. I know a variety of good computer experts who advocate that you really only need a a single image based backup. It should be created right after everything is installed and working correctly, but before any system debris has time to accumulate. This theory postulates that if digital rot should take hold sometime in the future, you can always restore that pristine system image and then add your data later. This is a great strategy … if you have the necessary discipline not to install additional software, mangle the existing system settings, or otherwise tinker with things. As you might suspect, I lack that kind of discipline.
I’m a tinkerer. I’ll read about a cool new task manager, which means that I naturally have to install it and give it a try. Or I’ll hear about a wonderful and lightweight new photo organizer and you can bet that said program will be downloaded, tried, and uninstalled by the end of the day. My system is always in a state of flux. Some of the programs I find are fantastic, and they end up becoming the new default. Some aren’t, and they get sent to the digital scrap heap. Even so, if I want my “recovery image” to keep pace with the actual software I use, I need more recent snapshots.
Picking A Backup Program
Fortunately, there are a bevy of programs that make it easy to create a system image. Even better, most of them and their mind-numbing number of features are free. But, contrary to my usual preference for free (or really cheap things), this is one area where I prefer to pay. Sure, my tool of choice, Macrium Reflect, has a free edition. And that free edition is probably more than sufficient for most people. But the paid edition includes a single feature that I consider essential: incremental and differential backups.
An incremental system backup lets you use the best of many strategies. The first backup you make can be that “pristine and perfect system” and subsequent backups can then capture any tweaks or modifications. Then, when you need to restore, you just have to pick the date of most interest to you. If you want to roll it back to the virgin installation, you can do that. If you want to load a later date, well … you can do that too. The other benefits – faster backups and smaller storage size – are merely fringe benefits in comparison to the freedom that an incremental system provides.
Reflect also meets my other criteria: I can use it to backup to my server, it compresses the image to save space, and (most importantly) the program can be set to run automatically. The goal, after all is, “Set it and forget it.” Remember?
After downloading, installing, and running the program for the first time, you will be greeted with the main window (shown below). Reflect uses XML “definition files” to configure and execute a given task. These definition files include all of the settings for what should be backed up, how often, and where it should be stored.
To configure automated backups is a four step process: 1) create a full system definition file, 2) run that definition file, 3) create an incremental XML definition file, 4) schedule how often we want the incremental file to run.
Steps 1 and 2: Creating a System Definition File and Running the First Backup
The very first thing we need to do is create and run a full system backup file. The incremental backup requires an already existing image to serve as the base. So, start by clicking on the “Create a backup image of an entire disk or selected partitions” option underneath the “Backup Tools” in the left hand pane.
This will launch the “Create Backup Wizard.” Next choose “Full” from the drop-down menu and press “Next.”
Select the disks that you want to in include in the image backup. While it is possible to include all of the disks on the computer, this is unnecessary. Files are already being backed up separately and should include all of the important files. I tend to think about the system image as “disaster insurance.” As a result, I only need to include the drive that has Windows and the various programs installed on it. In this case, Drive C:
Now, specify the backup destination. As noted, Reflect can backup to an external hard drive, or to a network location. Because I would like my system images to be stored on my file server (under the PC-Backup folder), I will select the “Backup to network” option, I can then either navigate to the spot on my server where I want the backups to be made or browse there. After navigating to the correct backup folder, press “Ok” and then “Finish.”
Once you press “Finish,” the first backup will run. Because the program is going to create an exact copy of your hard drive, plan on it taking some time. To image a hard drive with about 150 GB of data on it took about fifteen hours using an Ethernet connection. A similarly sized backup over wireless took about three times as long.
Step 3: Create An Incremental Definition XML Backup File
After the first backup finishes, then we need to create a second XML definition file. This “incremental” file will be used for all subsequent backups. It will only copy the portions of the drive that have changed. As a result, when you run the incremental definition file, it will execute much more swiftly and result in a much smaller “differential” file. To give you an idea of the difference, instead of measuring the backup time in days, the incremental backup typically finishes its run in about 30 to 45 minutes.
The procedure for creating an incremental definition file is similar to that used for creating a full definition file. Begin by clicking on the “Create a backup image of an entire disk or selected partitions” in the left hand pane. This time, instead of choosing “Full” from the drop down list, select “Incremental” and press “Next.”
Another difference between the full and incremental backup is that an incremental backup must be appended to an existing image to work correctly. Because we always want our backup to be as recent as possible, it should be appended to the most recent image. Should you desire to run the full image backup from above, the incremental backup will automatically adjust so that it appends to the more recent full backup rather than continuing to add to the old version.
Finally, review the information to make sure that it is correct. Additional options, including how often backups should be deleted, are available by clicking on the “Advanced” button. When done, click on “Finish.”
Step 4: Set It and Forget It
Congratulations, now you have created a incremental definition file that you can use to automatically backup your system and preferences. With definition file in hand, how do you automate the process?
Start by clicking on the “XML Definition Files” tab in the main window. Then highlight the “Incremental” file you just finished making and click on the “Schedule the selected file to run automatically” button.
This will launch the “Scheduling Wizard.” The scheduling wizard will help you create an entry in the system task manager so that the backup will run unattended. Start by giving the task a name, then press next.
Select how frequently you would like the backup to run. As I noted above, a system backup doesn’t need to be run with the same frequency that a file backup should be run. Where I run my file backup daily, I run the system backup once a month. Even following this plan, should my computer hard drive fail, I can use the old image to restore the computer and then copy the more recent files from my main archive.
If you want, you can further refine the time and frequency of the backup. If you want to give your computer the summer off from backup, that is easily arranged. When finished, press “Next” and then “Finish.”
Restoring From a System Image
Now that you have set-up an incremental image based backup, you are prepared for nearly any disaster that might happen. And should said catastrophe actually occur, you you will use a system restore CD to access your carefully prepared system images.
Reflect requires that you burn a recovery disk from inside of the program. There are three different options available, though they all do exactly the same thing. You can use a recovery CD based on 1) Linux, 2) Bart PE or 3) Windows PE. I prefer to use the Linux restore CD, mostly because it is free and doesn’t require any special license.
Creating the System Rescue Disk
To burn a copy of the system disk, click on “Create a bootable Rescue CD” from the toolbar. Then, select the type of rescue CD that you wish to create, and highlight your CD/DVD burner. If it is more convenient to create an .iso file, that option is also available.
Using the System Rescue CD
To restore your computer, start by booting the rescue CD. If you are using the Linux rescue CD, you will see the Image Restore Wizard shown below. The wizard will guide you through the process of first locating your image, and then restoring it to your hard drive. You can search a network location, or a locally attached drive. If you choose to restore over the network, using an Ethernet connection will be faster than restoring over wireless internet.
Macrium Reflect is a robust system recovery program that helps you prepare for and recover from computing disasters. When used in conjunction with routine file backup, you are prepared for file loss, computing mistakes, or for catastrophe.