If you are still new to the whole backup thing, then there are some terminologies that will leave you utterly confused, perplexed and potentially wasting a lot of time by doing the wrong thing. “System image” is one of those terms. What does it mean, “system image”? How does it differ from other regular backups? Does system image also include backups?
I am writing this post to clarify all of these questions. Please note that this will be a tad technical but I will try to use layman’s terms as much as possible.
As the name suggests, system images are an exact copy of your entire partition (or hard drive, if that’s what you are imaging) including every single piece of data, your operating system, hardware drivers, applications you have installed, settings, preferences, add-ons and whatnot. Usually, we create the system images not as a mean of backups, but more for restoring our systems without having to create everything from scratch. Just imagine you have a system crash, and if you have to reinstall the OS, drivers, software you use, change back settings and add-ons and everything, it will take a massive amount of time. If we have a system image of our hard drive (or a partition), then we can easily restore from the image. It will still take time, but not as much as doing everything from scratch and the process is more or less automated.
Creating a system image can take some time, from an hour to several depending on the technology and amount of data involved. The faster your hard drive is, the faster the process will be. But if you have a large amount of data on your hard drive (with so many applications and whatnot), then it will take longer, naturally. So system image software manufacturers usually give you several choices to save time. The most common method is to create an image from scratch, and periodically adding the changes made to that drive/partition in increments since the last full image. So basically, you can create a system image every 3 months but only add changes to the last full image. It will save a lot of time. Using those increments can really shorten the time of updating or creating an image. However, those incremental backups take longer to re-install.
One thing to note is that since system images will copy everything, including corrupted files and viruses, you will want to run a good commercial antivirus and anti-spyware rootkit before making any system image. This will save you from restoring your system to a state where a virus was already in your system. Imagine doing a restore from a system image that contains virus because your computer was destroyed by a virus!
So what about regular backups? One thing for sure is that you can backup ANYTHING you want, including system files and application files. But usually, backups are done for your personal data – the data you created and downloaded. Documents, movies, music, Photoshop files, work data and whatnot. So even though you are free to backup everything onto your hard drive, it doesn’t really make sense to waste all the backup space. So people usually backup their personal data only.
These regular backups are done more often than system images. Some pieces of software do schedule backups, like every 1 hour. Some software will even allow you to backup your data as you make changes. We call it continuous backups. However, continuous backups (otherwise known as syncing, like in Dropbox) can carry some risks if the backup software or online backup provider you are using doesn’t have versioning. Versioning will allow you to go to an older document version or a deleted file a month ago. We change our minds. Heck, we all do.
All said, keep in mind to separate data from operating systems and applications. Losing data is hell.
What do we use then?
If you are creating a system image, then be sure to exclude your personal data files in your system image as it will just make the process take more time. Usually, it is best to create a system image of your OS, software installation, drivers and whatnot, but without your personal data. For personal data, do more regular backups, since you will not be creating a system image everyday, while your documents and other personal data get changes and new additions almost every hour.
There are two most popular and used Image/Backup software: Acronis True Image and Symantec Ghost. I have had used both of them but prefer Acronis True Image. However, if you want to go equally powerful but open source solution, then look for CloneZilla. All three are amazing products. I have friends and colleagues who swear by each product, and personally, I will use either CloneZilla or Acronis.
If you want to go with online backup, then you will want to check out our top 10 online backup providers.