System Image Backups

System image backups can save a lot of time and grief if your system goes belly up

A hard drive melting and going down a drainThink of your computer as containing three sorts of file:

  • Windows (or Mac OSX if you are that way inclined)
  • Your programs (eg Microsoft Word or Sage Accounts)
  • Your data (eg photos, documents, accounts data)

For the most part, we think of backups as containing the third of these categories. After all, if your hard drive fails you can find Windows or OSX files (known collectively as the “operating system”) and program files from somewhere else. It is your own data files that are irreplaceable unless you have made copies (backups).

To be honest, I find it difficult enough persuading my IT Support clients that data backups are essential, without making the whole subject bigger and more complicated with system and program files as well.

So why bring up the subject now?

Because of an experience with a client just a few weeks ago. This client has a Dell laptop that is less than a year old. It recently refused to boot up. Windows tried to repair itself but couldn’t. Eventually, we decided that we would need to re-install a fresh copy of the Windows files, a fresh copy of the program files, and restore his latest data backup. It turned out that the hard drive didn’t appear to have a fresh copy of the Windows files so we spent time downloading it from Dell (an easy enough process thanks to their policy of uniquely identifying each computer they sell by a “service tag”). However, the process failed. Dell’s own diagnostic program then told us that it could no longer find any hard drive at all. At this point, we concluded that the hard drive had probably failed and that it was a warranty job (luckily, with John Lewis).

Now, if we’d got a recent backup that contained all of the Windows files, the program files, and the data (plus all the correct configuration files) we wouldn’t have had to spend time finding a fresh copy of Windows (a waste of time, anyway, of course as the drive was failing). More importantly, when the machine comes back from Dell it will have none of his programs on and none of his data. Had the client had a special type of backup called a “system image” then one process would have been all it needed to put his system back exactly the same as it was when the system image was created – Windows, program files, configuration files, data, the lot.

Why don’t we routinely make System Images?

Time is the main reason. It can take many hours to create a system image. The other problem is that system images have to be restored all at once. You can’t just choose to restore a single file that you inadvertently deleted and then emptied from the recycle bin. The fact that it all has to be restored at once also means that it either works or it doesn’t. All or nothing. And there’s no way of knowing whether a system image is going to work until you try it (by which time it’s too late, of course, to do anything about it if it’s broken).

What’s the best plan?

Macrium Reflect logoCreate a system image periodically (say, every six months) and create data backups in-between just as you do now (don’t you?). Keep the last two or three system images that you make so that if one fails you can at least try to restore an older one.

The time problem of taking system images can be reduced by creating them with a program such as Macrium Reflect. This allows you to make full backups and then backups of only the bits that are new or which have changed (known as incremental backups). There is now a method of creating system images in Windows 10, but these are only full backups. You can’t create incremental backups.

Nevertheless, if you use Windows 10 I do urge you to take the occasional system image. You will need an external drive that’s at least as big as the drive you wish to back up. If you need the backup and it doesn’t work then you are not really any worse off. If it did work, then it could save endles hours and endless grief.

Carbon Copy Cloner logoIf you use a Mac, then its inbuilt “Time Machine” software will probably save you, instead of having a system image. However, some of your Time Machine files may have been automatically deleted if the backup drive has filled up (see my blog post “Will Mac’s Time Machine Always Keep Your Files“). Personally, I make system images of my Macs using Carbon Copy Cloner and I use Macrium Reflect for my PCs. Note that Carbon Copy Cloner is not a free program (and it’s also somewhat complicated to use).