Beyond Backup: Creating an image of your hard drive

Last week I started writing an article about my attendance at the Software and Technology Vendor Association (SATVA) meeting. That quickly went by the wayside as my time was gobbled up by the crucial task of restoring my laptop computer to a usable state. On my return from New Orleans at the end of March, it stopped working, a bit at a time until I could not get it to boot in anything but Windows SAFE mode.

Oh no, I can hear you say. She had a computer crash and did not have a backup! But, you see, I did have a backup. I am an avid Windows Live OneCare user. My computers are backed up weekly…and all of the data produced on both machines is backed up daily on our network, which is, in turn, backed up several different ways. I did not lose any data, but I was still faced with the ordeal of getting my computer back to where I need it to be so that I can be productive. So what happened?

I have become the victim of an infamous catch-22. I had complete and incremental Windows Live OneCare backups of my computer…but I could not run Windows Live OneCare in order to restore my backed up files.  Even if I could restore the files backed up by OneCare, chances are that Windows would still be broken to the point of unusability. My computer even has built-in recovery support, so I had a complete backup of the machine stored on the hard drive. But the problem was in the operating system (OS)…Windows itself had become corrupted. And here’s the kicker…I bought the laptop with Windows Vista pre-installed, so I did not have CDs from which I could reinstall the OS, and the built-in recovery program on the hard drive would not run.

Once we had tried all the restore options we thought we had in place here locally with no success, I called Lenovo for support. They determined that I needed to reinstall Windows and sent me CDs with which to accomplish that task. Before getting to this point, I had easily spent three days trying to recover from the fatal problem; Seth had spent two additional days of his weekend trying to do the same. This was just the beginning.

The CDs from Lenovo arrived while I was at the SATVA meeting and Seth started the installation process for me while I was away. When I returned, I spent another day monitoring the computer while it completed all the necessary updates. Then I began the time-consuming process of re-installing the software I use on the machine. That was last Monday. I got Microsoft Office installed along with a couple of smaller programs I use all the time. 

Next I performed what we have decided is a crucial step to keep this total waste of time from happening again in the future…I created an “image” of the hard drive including all the programs and registry settings for everything I had installed up to this point. An image backup differs from the usual file backup in that it is a bit for bit copy of the hard drive, a snap-shot of the entire hard drive at a specific point in time. It can be restored without the need to install Windows first.

While we used an inexpensive “techy” Linux-based program to do this image, there are many excellent products on the market. Some traditional backup programs, such as current versions of NovaBackup, also include image backup capability. I had not yet installed all the programs I use, but we were still uncertain about the stability of my computer, so we wanted to be sure to have an image of the hard drive sooner rather than later. I will repeat this step when I have completed installation of all of the programs I use and do not want to have to reinstall the next time something like this happens.

Twenty days later, I am almost back to where I started. Today I am installing the last of my frequently-used software. I cannot even imagine where I would be if most of my data were not stored daily to our network and backed up each night. At least I have been able to access most of my data files once reinstalling the program that created the files. I am fortunate that I also run a desktop computer from which I can operate most of my critical computer functions. The original purpose of this dual computer capability at my desk was multi-tasking and minimizing wait times, but during recovery I have been able to keep up with email and customer contacts and bookkeeping because all of that is done on my desktop computer. I will create an image of that machine tonight! I did that immediately after we originally setup the computer, but the image has not been updated since then. As I have learned, that is a disaster waiting to happen!

It does not matter what you use your computer for. If you do mental health billing or medical billing; if you use the system for a behavioral health EMR or for a psychiatric clinical record; if you are the bookkeeper and maintain the financial records for your organization; if you are a home user who maintains emails and pays bills and shops on the Internet…you need more than a backup. If your computer is used for crucial functions of any kind, or if your time is limited and you don’t want to spend days rebuilding your machine’s contents, you need more than just regular backup of your data. You need an image of your hard drive and you need it somewhere other than on the hard drive of your computer!

The lesson learned from this experience is that we cannot afford the down-time and rebuilding time that it takes to get a machine functioning again after a crash. Data backups are not enough. We are now developing a schedule for regular imaging of each computer in the SOS network. Perhaps you will do the same without needing to go through this experience first hand.

Feel free to share your experiences with computer crashes and restorations. Do you have particular image and/or backup software to recommend? Let us know what you think. Just click on the title of this article and enter your comment in the box at the bottom of the page.

0 thoughts on “Beyond Backup: Creating an image of your hard drive

  • Great post, I’m just recovering from a system crash and it’s taken me a week to get back up and running. At the same time I decided to upgrade my old machine, added complexity but very doable if you have the patience.
    Now I’m searching for effective ways to back-up my machines.

    Thanks for sharing your experience and advice 🙂

  • Thanks for letting me chime in, Kathy! I certainly understand the balancing act of a solution versus cost. Some solutions sound expensive but are really affordable. Some really are expensive!

  • I found your comment from following Dan Harrington on LinkedIn. I hope you don’t mind me chiming in?
    These two are great examples of keeping a backup of a desktop. We use Acronis for desktops and have had great success. Keeping multiple copies of backups is always best. One may fail and it will fail when you need it most. Most people don’t even worry about backups until they’ve already had a disaster. If you don’t plan for a disaster and you have one it is too late. If the hard drive crashed it may be possible to retrieve the data but it is usually expensive and certainly not guaranteed.

    I thought I’d share what we use for those organizations that use a server. Acronis has a backup for a server but it is not our preferred solution. We use a Backup Disaster Recovery (BDR) server that connects directly to a server. The BDR takes an image of the server (bare metal, which includes the entire server setup, policies, security and users/passwords etc.). After the initial bare metal backup, the BDR can be set up to take incremental backups as often as every 15 minutes forever. The BDR also can be set up to securely (256 AES military encryption) send the backups offsite over the internet to two collocations, one on the East Coast and the other on the West Coast. If the server fails and it’s going to be a while before it is repaired (waiting for part or whatever), then the BDR can be set up as a virtual server within as little as an hour. This allows the office to run while the “real” server is down. Another cool benefit is while the BDR is running the office in virtual server mode, the BDR still takes backups as before and sends them offsite over the internet. If you had a fire or someone breaks in and steals your IT equipment, your backups are still intact offsite. The backups can be sent to you via Fed Ex and restored to a new server even with dissimilar hardware. This can be accomplished within 24 hours.

    I hope this is useful information.

    • Thank very much for your comment, Steve. Please feel free to chime in any time. Your solution is one with which I am not familiar…I am not one of the technical people here at SOS Software…but it certainly sounds like an outstanding one. One challenge a small organization always has is balancing the cost of a solution with the cost of recovering from a disaster. That is just one reason to discuss multiple options. Thans for offering yours!

  • Thomas Pollack says:

    I am an obsessive believer in multiple backups in multiple formats. As you discovered, an actual restore of a backup when the operating system itself is defunct is a particularly nasty nightmare — you think you are covered only to discover that first you have to reinstall the operating system. I use Acronis Echo Workstation (the business version of True Image)to avoid exactly this kind of problem. Following is what I do:

    First, when I set up a new computer and I have everything working exactly how I want it to work — all updates in installed, etc., I create a new partition on the hard drive — and name it “Data”. There are many utilities that can partition the hard drive, I use Partition Magic — which I now think is owned by Norton.

    After partitioning the hard drive, the computer will look as if it has two hard drives — one is already labeled “Data”; the other I name “WinXP”. Next, I move the “My Documents” folder to the “Data” partition (use Google to find out how to move the “My Documents” directory). I also make sure that all data files are on the “Data” directory (e.g. SOS Data, Quick Books, etc)

    Now I use Acronis Echo Workstation to make an image of the “WinXP” partition onto an external hard drive. For added safety Acronis will create the image in a series of “parts” — each part will be the size of a DVD. You can then copy the parts onto separate DVDs.

    There are a variety of strategies for maintaining backups of the Data partition. I use Mozy online backup. I also use an old utility program made by Iomega called QuikSync. When I first setup QuikSync, I tell it to copy every file on “My Documents”, everything on my “Desktop” (C Drive>Document and Settings> “your username”> Desktop), and any other data folders. Once setup, QuikSync will copy, on the fly, every addition or change to My Documents, Desktop, etc, to the my external hard drive. It will also keep copies of previous versions. It will maintain any number of revisions that you tell it to. If some file changes are going to be very big (e.g. SOS Data), you can set up QuikSync to copy once a day rather than on the fly.

    Now if when disaster strikes, I can reinstall the image of the operating system. It takes no more than 30 minutes. If the Data drive was unaffected by the operating system failure, there is nothing more to do other than going on line to get all necessary program updates. If the Data partition too, the backups are on the external hard drive.

    Acronis also has a nifty feature called Universal Restore. This will allow you to install the image on an entirely different computer. This is great if you are replacing a computer. It only makes sense the original image was pristine — otherwise you will be bringing old problems to your new computer.

    Finally, Acronis allows incremental image backups to keep the operating system up to date. I actually don’t use this because I want to make sure that if I have to reinstall the image it is clean and new. This means I will have to get updates after the reinstall. It also means you may have to reinstall programs that were installed after the original image. Typically, I will make a new image if I make a major change.

    • Thank you for your detailed process, Tom! It should certainly help someone who wants to know just what steps to follow to be protected. One of our programmers uses Acronis and is very pleased with it.

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