What is the difference between Backup and System Image?

Users who are just starting to get familiar with backup solutions, may still feel confused about certain terms often used in the industry. System image is one of the terms that you may come across and if you are wondering what it means and what sets it apart from regular backups, you have come to the right place. We’ll go through the differences between backups and system image to help you understand these options better.

System Image

We will start with the concept of system image. System images refer to an exact copy of your hard drive including all the data, hardware drivers, software installed, operating system, settings, add-ons and everything else. In general, they are not created for backup purposes but as a solution to restore the system without the need of starting over from zero. This means that if your system fails, you won’t need to install again the Operating System, or all the applications that you had. You won’t even have to re-adjust the settings because with a system image of your partition or hard drive, it is possible to restore everything from that image. This will save you a lot of time and hassle as you won’t need to do everything from the start. You may still need to spend some time restoring your data, but it will be easier and it won’t take as much time.

The amount of time required to create a system image depends on how much data and applications that you have in your hard drive. The more data there is on your hard drive, the longer the process will take. The speed of your hard drive also plays an important part and you can expect faster results from highly performing technologies. In order to reduce the time required to create system images, the companies that offer software that focuses on this task, support different options. One of the options available to speed up the process is to create an image from scratch, adding changes made on a regular basis in an incremental way, since the last full image was created.

This means that it is possible to create a system image regularly but you can only add changes to the last complete image. These increments can reduce the time needed to update or create an image but installing again these incremental backups takes more time. It is also important to keep in mind that system images copy the entire data, even viruses and files that have been corrupted. This is why the first thing you need is a solid antivirus solution or anti-spyware rootkit that adds protection. If your system was infected by a virus, the antivirus will prevent that you restore the threats that were in your hard drive.

Regular Backups

Generally, backups are created to cover the data that you have created or downloaded. This includes documents, music, photos and videos. Although you can backup pretty much anything that you want, including application files and system files, it is not practical to back up all the data on your hard drive. This would take up a lot of your backup space, which is needed for your personal data. Regular backups as the “regular” part of the term suggests, are more common than system images.

There are solutions that let you schedule backups as often as every hour, or even as you carry out changes on the data. This kind or backups are known as continuous backups or in some cases, syncing. While they may seem practical in some cases, it is important to note that if the backup solution that you have chosen doesn’t support versioning, there is a risk to lose some previous data that you may need. Versioning gives you the possibility of going back to an older version of a document or to a file that was previously deleted. It is also advisable to keep your personal data separated from applications and operating systems to avoid any issues.

What option should you select?

In the end, the decision will depend on your needs and preferences. Creating system images can take longer, but if you choose this option it is important that you don’t include personal data files in your system image. This will only increase the time required to complete the process. In general, it is advisable to create a system image of the operating system, drivers, software and other data, excluding personal data. For your documents, photos, music, videos and other files, you can use regular backups because this type of data is updated almost constantly.

When it comes to Image/Backup solutions, Symantec Ghost and Acronis True Image are highly popular applications. Acronis is particularly useful and it offers powerful performance. If you prefer an open source option that also delivers good performance, you can consider CloneZilla. If online backup sounds like the best option for you, high quality services like Backblaze, CrashPlan and SpiderOak are worth considering.

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