Windows backups

Got myself a new USB 3 external disk for taking backups so past few days I’ve been exploring that. My laptop’s about 6 months old now and I have customized it to the way I want and I would hate having to lose all that should anything happen. So apart from a data backup – which is what I usually do – I wanted something that would just “image” the drive and be restore-able easily.

The wannabe geek that I am, my initial impulse was to explore solutions like ImageX or Disk2VHD. ImageX especially appealed to me as it’s a file based image format so if I manage to use it I’ll have a backup in an image format that just backs up the actual files instead of doing a sector based backup. This would mean the backup size is small (if a 100GB partition only has 50GB worth of files, the backup is only 50GB in size as opposed to a sector image backup that would be 100GB in size), I can restore to partitions that aren’t the same size as the original partition, I can mount the backup and fiddle around, I can compress the backup… and in general it just feels pretty cool using ImageX to backup, so why not!?

This forum post talks about using ImageX for backups. Microsoft does not recommend using ImageX for system backups because it has some limitations – mainly to do with extended attributes being lost and sparse files no longer being sparse and junctions possibly getting corrupted – and although I don’t actually use any of these features I am not sure Windows does not use them by default (as a matter of fact I do know Windows uses junctions for the SxS (side-by-side) folder so I could be unaware that it’s using the other features too somewhere by default). Also, while ImageX is cool, there is the additional hassle of having a WinPE (or BartPE) disk ready so I can restore the ImageX backup and reinstall the boot-loader etc.

Disk2VHD was another option I considered but again, it’s a hassle converting the VHD disk to a physical disk. Sure it’s possible, but as I have learnt when actually having to restore files after a problem: you don’t tend to be too appreciative of geeky solutions then, you are probably pissed and irritated and short of time and so just want something that works and gets the job done as quick as possible.

The forum post that talks about ImageX gives many more suggestions. DriveImage XML is a good alternative. I have used it in the past to backup my machine computer and while I am not a fan of its interface it takes an image level backup and is good at what it does. To restore the backup I can use their Linux based recovery CD or create a WinPE disk using Bart’s PE Builder. I tried DriveImage XML and it was fast too.

Windows 7

image.pngAnd then I stumbled upon Windows 7’s in-built backup program. Which is really the subject matter of this post. You see, my mind was still stuck on Windows backup being that old crappy backup software that came with Windows XP – I hadn’t really updated myself to the fact that Windows Backup is now kind of cool. It does regular backups, but it also offers the option to make a System Image backup – which is exactly what I was looking for!

A System Image is essentially a VHD file with a bunch of XML files that contain metadata about the backup. You can take the backup to an external disk or a network path. The backup program creates a folder on path you specify, within which there’s a subfolder with the name of the machine you are trying to backup, with a subfolder containing the date of the backup. As I mentioned above, the System Image backup is a VHD file containing a snapshot of the C: drive and the hidden system drive (so you have two VHD files created). Unlike the regular backup, which is also offered, you can’t restore individual files with a System Image (as it’s a file image after all), but since you can mount these VHD files as a drive letter (Windows 7 and later let you mount VHD files) essentially you can navigate through the backup and just copy and restore files from the System Image if you wish. I find that cool!

Best of all, you can choose to create a System Repair Disc – or if you don’t do that, just use the Windows 7 installation disc and choose the “Repair” option – and then point it to the external disk or network path containing the System Image backup and it will restore the image. Easy!

I am paranoid and like my backups to be encrypted. That too is no problem coz I can use BitLocker to encrypt the disk I will be backing up to and so now the System Image is encrypted. When restoring, the program is smart enough to ask for the BitLocker key after which the System Image is available.

image.pngThe Storage Team blog has four posts ([1], [2]. [3]. and [4]) that introduce the Windows 7 backup features. I recommend everyone reads it, including the comments which answer many questions. They talk not just about the System Image backups, but also the regular backup (where you take a full backup followed by many incrementals, and which you can restore file by file) as well as features like System Restore that let you use Volume Shadow Copy (VSS) to automatically have previous versions of files preserved on a drive. This Paul Thurrott article too talks about Windows 7 backup features and has many screenshots.

I must point out that if the System Image backup is taken to a network path only the latest backup is kept. On external disks it keeps multiple backups but it moves the older backups to the Shadow Copy storage area. Shadow Copy (aka “System Restore”) is disabled by default for non-OS drives, so only one copy o the System Image will be kept even on external disks. And if Shadow Copy is enabled, by default only 30% of the partition size is allocated for Shadow Copy and so only 30% of the partition size will be used for System Image backups. If you use the external disk exclusively for System Image backups you can tweak this via the “System Restore” (click “Configure” in the screenshot).

Last, but not the least, for those who like the command-line there is a wbadmin command. This is useful if you want to script or schedule creation of System Image backups based on other triggers (when you connect to a home network, for instance).

Windows 8

It’s worth pointing out that Windows 8 has a different sort of backup. Windows 8 backups are more like the Mac OS X “Time Machine” backups wherein you specify an external disk and the OS periodically saves snapshots of your files and documents to that disk. You can specify the snapshot intervals and how long you’d like to keep them, and the OS offers you a GUI to go back to previous versions/ deleted files. It is sort of like Windows 7’s “System Restore” feature but with more prominence. And it does not do System Image backups.

However, Windows 8 does have the Windows 7 backup program – in a different name (it’s called Windows 7 File Recovery) – and that lets you do regular backups and System Image backups, so all that was discussed above still applies there.