• David Moore

My opinion of "image" backups hasn't changed, but...


Over my many, many years in computing I have been involved in many backup systems and strategies.

By far my most loathed method of backing up is the so called "image backup".

This style of backup attempts to take a complete snapshot of your system so that, at some future time (presumably after a major failure), it can put that entire snapshot back onto the machine and you are back where you were - up and running again.

In the early days of image backups we had to use tapes as a storage medium. I don't care what type of tapes they were, they were all f***ing awful.

Tapes were/are slow, unreliable, fragile and just plain terrible.


The main problems with image backups, that remains to a significant extent today, is that:

  1. They are enormous - they include all the operating system, all the junk and all your data.

  2. As a result of being enormous, they are very, very time consuming.

  3. They generally have to go back onto the same machine they came from - not just kinda the same, often exactly the same, or they just don't work.

  4. Even going back onto the same machine they often fail - these days we are dealing with complex disk partition and various security strategies that complicate the deal.

  5. They often don't work the first time, or even the 5th or 6th time. Finding the tool that works for you is a loooong process.

  6. You can't really test them without risking killing the very machine you are supposed to be protecting i.e. you think you've got an OK image backup, but it only goes back onto the machine it was made from. To test it you need to try tom put it back there. What if it isn't a good image?

  7. If the image restore is successful it could well include the problem that lead to the failure...which means you've just re-created yourself a ticking time bomb i.e. you need to be sure your image is good and stable...but how?

  8. If something major changes on your system, you'll have to (read: should) go through the imaging process.

  9. ...and so on and so forth...

I've been through this a lot and just about never had an image backup strategy of any scale or importance work.

NOTE: I won't outline my backup strategy and principles here. I'll link other article on the subject.

And now, in the last few days, for reasons I'll outline below, I've had to go through this horror show again.

You know what? It seems not much has changed.

The first tests I did were with Acronis True Image.

Some time back I was forced to buy Acronis True Image 2016 for the purposes of cloning a hard drive.

It never worked then and it has never worked properly for any sort of backup I've tried since.

It would look like it had worked, but when I tried to re-use the backup set or otherwise amend it, Acronis would shit itself and I'd have to re-create things. I only kept trying because I'd paid for it.

So I tried making an image and a boot thumb drive with Acronis. True to for this was an abysmal failure and a waste of time.

Despite paying for Acronis I have now deleted it.

Strike 1.

The second tests I did were with the Windows 10 built in system image tool.

On one machine it managed to create and image the second time I tried, having not really changed anything because I had nothing I could change.

Make no mistake, this image took a very long time to create. I had to leave it running overnight.

I created the Windows Recovery boot USB drive that took a very, very long time...but it worked when I booted from it and it saw the recovery image.

However, I felt I could not trust that image seeing as it had failed once during creation.

I tried the same process on another machine and the Windows 10 imager just would not even get started.

Strike 2.

The third set of test I did, 2 days into it now, was using Macrium reflect 7 Free.

I'd done some Googling, as you do, and read a review of the "best image backup tools".

After discarding the known offenders in the review, and trying one or 2 at a superficial level i.e. no cloning, I decided Macrium reflect 7 Free was worth a deeper test.

I've got to tell you, being "free" I didn't hold out much hope for it working properly and not being held to ransom i.e. you can make your image but you can't restore it, and strategies of that ilk.

Macrium actually worked, on both machines, quickly and easily.

It rapidly created a recovery thumb drive...that actually worked.

NOTE: I had one screen resolution issue with the Recovery USB but I could work around it and it only happened on one machine. This issue meant that I could not click on the buttons I needed to to kick off the restore. Despite trying described fixes etc. it persisted. In the end I booted on another machine, saw that just pressing ENTER twice would do what I want, and then did that on the machine required.

On my test machine I took a punt and performed a re-image / restore from the Macrium backup and it worked too!!

You can even browse the image for files and other contents without doing a full restore.

To say I was surprised is an understatement. Free, even for business, with no caveats. Actually worked. Actually worked quickly. Miraculous.

Macrium Reflect 7 Free also purports to have the option of restoring the image to a different machine and/or hard disk.

It also includes cloning components but I did not test either of these functions.

Swing and a hit!!!

So, overall, I would have to say that my opinion of image backups has not changed.

Despite Macrium's good showing i won't be switching to an image based backup strategy. Life is too short for all the mucking around.

David.

PS.

I had a chat with the customer for whom I had done this testing.

Without any prompting they decided that if they'd had better recorded business procedures i.e. where to go for things (passwords, drivers, customer support for software, disks, license codes etc.) that the process would not be so painful as to consider image based backups a good idea and worth the upfront expense.

So there you go. ;-)


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