Backups and Disk Cloning

Brian Riley, Vice President of the NNCUG, gave a Membership Meeting presentation on computer backups and cloning of hard drives. Most of his presentation centered on what you can do to get your computer working quickly after a virus infestation or hard drive failure.

He explained that while backing up is necessary, the problem is that you have to have a working operating system and backup software to restore the backup you made. This may entail having to reinstall the operating system and backup software before you can even start to get your computer back.

He then explained the difference between cloning a disk and making a disk image. With cloning a disk, you get an exact copy of the disk, that if inserted into your machine, will allow you to resume work from the point the clone was made. Disk imaging on the other hand, which is how backups work, makes a copy of the contents of the disk in some kind of compressed format (zipped), which then has to be restored by a program that can read that format.

Usually this is done with a “restore” disk, which is a bootable CD or DVD that contains enough of an operating system to run the backup software that can restore your drive, but requires you to make that disk ahead of time. If you haven’t done that (and most backup software, including what comes with Windows 7, has utilities to make one of those disks), you need to restore from the original Operating System Install disks. This is a time consuming process!

Brian showed us what he called a “toaster” drive, which is a USB or ESATA device that allows you to put a regular 3 ½ “ (desktop hard drive) or 2 ½” (laptop drive) in a slot, and run your backup or clone to it.

Tiger Direct has a listing of toaster drives here (NewEgg and Amazon have them also)

He then explained that if you have chosen a computer that has your C: accessible from the outside of the machine, you can take that disk and easily and quickly replace the damaged or infected drive with it.

Brian explained he had made a clone of the laptop drive he was giving the presentation on the night before, he simulated the computer becoming infected with a virus, shut it down, replaced the hard drive, and rebooted continuing the demonstration, all within three minutes.

He pointed out making a clone is not the complete answer to backups: clones do not do versioning of your files for example, and it is still important to do a regular backup.

There are two key questions you have to ask yourself in choosing a backup method:

  • How important is my data? Is merely having a second copy of it enough, or does it have to survive a catastrophic event like a fire? If it is the latter, you must have an offsite backup, if it isn’t then just a backup copy will do.
  • How much important data do I generate in what period of time? If you spend all day working on a project, then you probably want a backup on a daily basis. If redoing everything you have done for a week isn’t a problem, then a weekly one will do. If all you do is play games on your computer and answer e-mails on line, then you probably don’t need more than a clone – your data isn’t changing.

Things that cause data loss come in many forms:  from “happy clicking”, where you accidently overwrite something you have been working on all day with an inappropriate up-date; virus infestation that makes your machine unusable and may scramble the contents of your hard drive; hard drive failure (sooner or later they all fail); or catastrophic event such as a fire or burglary.

Even if you are using anti-virus software, your machine can become infected by a virus that was built to get around that software. Often the first thing these viruses will do if they manage to get a foot-hold on your machine is turn off your anti-virus software.

Brian suggested a simple step: since many viruses work on the account level, you should always create a second account on your machine with administrative privileges.

This may allow you to log in as that other user and run your anti-virus software that has been disabled under your main account.

He also suggested you should hover over any link with your mouse to see where it is sending you. Depending on the application, the address the link is sending you to will be displayed in a tool-tip or on the bottom of the screen. If that address goes somewhere unexpected, don’t click on it!

What backup software should you use?

Windows 7 ships with backup software, and allows you to make a restore disk. It doesn’t do cloning, it isn’t easy to tell what it is backing up, and the backup requires a disk larger, sometimes double the size, of the drive you are using as your C:  In other words you would need a one terabyte drive to back up a 500 gigabyte one.

It was suggested using Macrium Reflect, which is available as either free or paid software. The major difference for the home user between the two is the free version can’t do incremental backups (that is, only backup the files that have changed since your last full backup). You can read more about it on their website:

Along with the free version, the Standard version costs $49.99, and the Pro version costs $58.99. 

There is cloning and backup software available from other vendors also.

Acronis is another backup/cloning program. Brian and Rob stated it is much more

Bloated but not as user friendly as Macrium.

If you are interested, reviews of 10 of the top contenders for can be found here:

Brian emphasized that if your concern is getting your computer up and operating as quickly as possible from a simple hard drive failure or virus infestation, then cloning is the way to go.

He also made the point that one does NOT have a backup UNTIL it is confirmed that the data can be RESTORED from the backu