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Questions and Answers about Backup

Backups are an oft-discussed topic on Ask Leo!, but options for how best to
perform backups and what tools to use can be both confusing and difficult to

In this video excerpt from an Ask Leo! webinar, I
answer several questions asked by the webinar attendees.


View in HD (1280×720)


If I replace the hard drive after making an image, can I restore the image to the new hard drive? Yes, you can. That’s typically what backup software is all about. In fact, the only time I had a system drive failure on the machine I was using (this was back a couple of years) I was using an older version of Acronis, I was saved by exactly that. The hard drive on my C drive completely melted; I mean it was just, it was just not working and I got a replacement hard drive and if I’m not mistaken, this was a case where Dell actually gave me a replacement hard drive because it was still under warranty and I popped it in and booted from the recovery media; I copied the saved image to the replacement hard drive. I then rebooted my machine and it was working the way it was before the hard drive died.

What if I replace the entire computer? Can I still restore the image to a new computer? Yes and no. The short answer is that yes, you can if it’s the exact same computer. In other words, if the image of, I’m sorry, if the hardware involved: the CPU, the memory, the peripherals involved all that kind of stuff is the same or is identical, ideally identical or differs very little, then yes, quite often that can work. There’s actually an article about it up on AskLeo! The issue is that if the machine is too different from the machine from which the original image was taken, then Windows itself; first of all the restore will work; there’s nothing about the backup software that says this won’t work. The problem is that when Windows first tries to boot up, it will think that all of the hardware has changed and it will basically kinda sorta go nuts depending on how much of the hardware has changed. Sometimes it works; sometimes Windows will be able to actually recover and say ‘ok, fine, it’s not this kind of a USB card it’s that kind of a USB card and I’ve got drivers for that and gee, the hard disk went from 100 GB to 300 GB’ but sometimes the change is just too dramatic and Windows cannot recover and the image from one machine then simply fails to work on another.

Now, I do know that when large organizations are deploying large numbers of machines, one of the approaches that they’ve been known to take is to configure up one machine then take an image, take a system image and then use that image to basically set up a hundred other machines just like it with only minor tweaks then necessary thereafter. But the more common case where people have literally gotten a brand new computer, that is fairly different. The short answer is typically ‘no’. What I usually recommend in a case like that is they restore the image from the older computer to an external or to a second drive because that will allow you then to at least access all of the files and recover all of the files that may have been on that older machine from the newer machine that’s been set up.

Can the hard drive be partitioned before restoring the image so that the image can be installed on a smaller volume? Typically, the answer is no; it really depends on the backup software that’s being used. You’ve noticed, you may notice that a lot of backup software comes from companies that also do partition management software or disk management software. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. What I typically recommend is that instead, you manage your partitions first.

So by that I mean take a full system backup, absolutely, because you’re about to make some large changes to your system; take a partition management tool, I think it’s Easis that is one of the more common ones right now; it’s on my list of tools to evaluate and demonstrate. Change the configuration of your partitions and then backup again. The changing of the configuration of your partitions turns out to be much easier with a dedicated partition management tool than it is to try and finagle it with the backup tool. I do know that I had close to a failure when I had – actually it’s my second time – I had a hard drive on my current desktop machine died, it was a 1.5 TB drive and I decided that I didn’t need 1.5 TB for my C drive, 1 TB would be enough. I tried to restore and the backup program would not because it had a backup for a 1.5 TB drive and it didn’t really matter that I only had a few hundred gig on it; it would not restore it to anything smaller than a 1.5 TB. I had to do a little bit of tap dancing to get that to actually work.

So the short answer is ‘no’; I recommend that you use partition management tools instead.

Is it better to put backups on a CD/DVD or a flash drive? My off the cuff response is to say neither. I strongly recommend an external hard drive typically because you’ll end up with more capacity and in general, my external hard drive is going to last a lot longer than flash drives. Flash drives have limited rights; they do wear out depending on the quality of the flash drive that you have, so I actually strongly recommend having an external hard drive of some sort. Even those aren’t all that expensive anymore. It’s pretty amazing how inexpensive some of those have come. If you search AskLeo! for Seagate Free Agent, I have about 6 or 7 of those things lying around here they’re like half a terabyte a piece and they’re what I use for external backups; they work well.

And CD/DVD, I mean that really is kind of up to you; that is such a hassle factor for backing up any significant amount of data. These example machines that I’m using here are fairly small; it’s a 32 GB virtual hard drive but even that small of drive; I mean you can’t even buy a 32 GB hard drive anymore. If you were to have something like that filled up, already you’re looking at least 3 DVDs and god only knows how many CDs if you’re going to try doing it that way.

Before restoring the image to an infected or new hard drive must the new drive be formatted? Typically, no. If the backup software is doing its job correctly, it’s overriding everything that’s already on that hard drive with the data from your restored image. Now, one caveat I’ll say there of course is that it’s not going to write data on to sectors that are unused which implies that yes, there could be something odd in a sector on your hard disk that you’re not using. There’s no way that I could see that as actually being a true threat. Typically, it’s very safe to simply restore directly from an image to a hard drive.

When backing up to an external hard drive can we specify a folder on the hard drive or does the backup use the whole external drive? In the examples here that I’ve been showing you, it’s usually a folder. In fact, I typically end up having multiple backups on the same hard drive. A related question is Can you back up multiple machines to the same external hard drive by moving it from machine to machine? And the answer there is typically ‘yes’. Most backup software allows you to specify the location in terms of a full folder.

For rescue disks do you recommend CD, DVD or flash drive? I like CD. Typically the rescue disks are small although if you only have DVDs that’s fine it will work just as well. CDs tend to be a little bit more resilient; tend to boot in more machines so that’s what I do.

Is it typical for a modern Windows 7 dual core system to ever need a single specific file from backup? I’ve not had a system crash in 4 years, and if I did have such a crash I wouldn’t know which file to choose anyway. Have I just been lucky, or are modern PC’s and laptops more crash resilient? No, you’ve just been lucky. Smile There are two things; now I’ll say that there are three things you want to be able to recover from:

The three things you want to be able to recover from: These are the kinds of backups that we’ve been talking about here today.

  1. Hardware failure. Your hard disk can fail. It’s happened to me; if it hasn’t happened to you it will. Hardware failure requires, essentially, if it’s your system drive, you’re gonna want to have a system image to restore to. Otherwise, you’re looking at reinstalling Windows and every application and somehow recovering all of your data as a fairly lengthy and time-consuming process.

  2. Malware. People spend an awful lot of time trying to fix malware. And by that I mean by running anti-malware tools to try and extract remnants of malware that’s somehow got onto our machine. I tell ya, if I had a malware infection on my machine right now, the fastest way for me to recover from it would be to reboot from my backup program’s recovery disk and restore the image that was taken at one o’clock this morning. Because that’s before I was infected and everything is still there: the system data, programs,etc.

  3. Individual file damage. The individual file scenario is really not about system corruption or malware, it’s about, to put it bluntly, user error. More often than not, I still believe, perhaps next to malware, I still believe that the most frequent use of a backup is not to restore your system but it’s to recover a file you deleted accidentally. Or a file that you modified accidentally and you don’t have a way to get back to the original file. Well, then if you’ve been backing up regularly, then you’ve got that file; that file that you just deleted is still on backup. That’s where the individual file scenario comes in and over the years that I’ve been doing this kind of thing, it is by far the most common use of backups both on PCs, on my servers, what have you; it’s the accidentally deleted file. It’s an important aspect of the tool; I’d consider it actually a requirement of the tool that individual files be able to be recovered but it covers scenarios beyond just system failures and hard disk failures.

(In referencing Macrium or Paragon) How do you recommend a backup image be tested? I don’t want to test the validity of my back up by putting the image back on my original hard drive and then have it not work and make the computer unusable. So testing backups. Most of the tools have a verify option that I suggest you at least use a couple of times. Now, all that’s really doing, to be clear, all the verify option really does is to make sure that the data was written properly to the disk. By that I mean there wasn’t a hard disk error on your backup media that kicked in while the backup was happening. The backup verify step is basically the backup program writing your backup and then stepping through the entire process again. Making sure that what it thought it backed up actually did get backed up. That actually doesn’t test the scenario that most people care about which basically says, I want to restore my machine, how do I know that it will work? And unfortunately, there is no good answer for that; there really isn’t. The only thing that will absolutely tell you whether a restore from backup will work is to restore from backup. By the time that you find out that it’s not going to work it’s too late because you’ve just overwritten the working system. The only thing I can suggest if this is truly of concern to you is a.) Obviously keep track of the reputation and experiences of the other people who are using the backup software that you are considering using and if you want to go to an extreme, get a second hard drive. Back up your primary hard drive; pop the machine open, replace the hard drive and restore to it. And if that works, then you know that you’re golden; then you know that things are working well.

If I’m okay using Acronis 2011 is it safe to stick with it? My sense is yes; my primary machine, the machine that is actually hosting everything that we are doing here today is backed up using Acronis, I think it’s 2010 (I’m not sure which version it is). The frustrating thing about the Acronis scenario is that they actually have good back up software, the really do – especially the versions 2010 and prior. 2011, if it’s working for you; I’ve got 2011 on a different machine, and it’s been working fine too, in fact I think that might be on my wife’s machine and if you understand how that works, that’s even more important because for me, I can explain to myself a failure but not necessarily to my wife!

The problems with Acronis are less about their technology it seems than it is about their support and their support for let’s say, for new machines, new hardware. If you’ve got something that’s working, about the only thing I might suggest…just for the fun of it…open up one of the Acronis backups and browse it; make sure all of the files that you think are there, are there and if they are you can be reasonably certain that what you have backed up is what you’ll need.

The only other thing I might throw, and this actually would be true for any of the backup programs that we’ve discussed here today including Acronis, including Windows, Paragon, Macrium. Once you make that recovery disk that CD that you would boot from, try it out; boot from it. Make sure that it can see your back up device (make sure that it boots, obviously) but make sure that it can see the device on which your back ups are stored.

The one time I had a problem with Acronis had to do with their recovery CD not being able to recognize the hard drive, the external hard drive I happened to be using. Now, in that particular case, I contacted Acronis and they supplied me with a different ISO, a different recovery disk that I was able to download and then use and it worked fine. But it’s one of those things that if there’s going to be a failure in the process, in the recovery process, more often than not, I think it has to do with hardware detection and the detection of your external hard drive or if in particular you are backing up over a network, the detection or the ability to connect to the machine on which you have your backups stored. But that’s an easy one to test and you don’t have to do a full recovery for that. If it can see it, then you are good.

Do I need to have a completely blank hard drive or USB to start using Macrium on it, or can I use one that is partly full? Not sure whether you’re referring to your system drive or your backup drive but in either case, it doesn’t matter. It can have stuff on it. In this particular case, I happen to have new, fresh images. But since you’re saving to a folder in most cases, you can create your own folder and partition your data away from other things.

Somebody reminds me that yes, Whenever your backup software company issues an upgrade always burn a new recovery CD. Whenever Acronis issues a new build, burn a new recovery CD. That is true for any back up software. Whenever you get an upgrade to your backup software, make sure that you burn a new copy of the recovery CD that comes with it. It’s uncommon but backup tools have been known to change the format and a new backup may not necessarily be readable from an old recovery disk so just make sure you’ve got a current recovery disk and you’re in good shape.

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2 comments on “Questions and Answers about Backup”

  1. When first running Win 7 Backup I stupidly set it to backup to a DVD. I want to change this so that it backs up to an external drive. I cannot see how to reset Win 7 backup so that I can select the correct device.

  2. I’m not clear on what you are saying about the need to make another backup recovery disk whenever there is a software update seems to defeat the purpose of having multiple backups/images on a new system. For example, I create a couple of backup images of the system as it comes out of the box with basic registration info completed and some devices installed . Then I run all the updates and create another image, etc. Are you a saying to create a new recovery disk that would generically use the images previously made or create new images each time the software is updated?

    All I’m saying is that it’s a convenience to create and save images periodically so that if you need to reinstall you don’t have to go back to stage 0 and then have to apply all those updates again. It’s still a good thing to save that stage 0 backup, but much like a reinstall from scratch it’s a safety net that hopefully you’d never use.


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