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I recently described rebuilding a machine from scratch. I'll look at alternatives, one of which some people expected me to use.

I'm a bit disappointed that you didn't say that you restored an Acronis image. I've often wondered if it's better to reload all the software and then reload the backed up "My Documents".

A couple of people questioned my approach to rebuilding a machine from scratch in What do you install first? wondering why, rather than installing everything from scratch, I hadn't used a pre-saved image of the machine, or restored from an image backup.

That's a valid question. I'll explain the techniques, and then explain why I chose not to use it, and why my approach might not be appropriate for everyone.

First let's illustrate the traditional approach I used:

  • Save all your installation media when you get your machine. That must include operating system CDs or DVDs, application CDs and whatever else.

  • Backup your data regularly. (Remember that this might be a lot more than just "My Documents".)

  • After a hard disk failure, replace the hard disk.

  • Install the operating system from scratch.

  • Take any and all updates to the operating system.

  • Install your applications from scratch.

  • Take any and all updates to the applications.

  • Restore any data needed from your backups.

  • Resume using your now-repaired machine.

"Backup your data regularly. (Remember that this might be a lot more than just "My Documents".)"

It's a short list, but there's actually a fair amount of work involved.

What people were expecting from me is this:

  • Prior to any failure, make sure to use an imaging tool to perform nightly backups.

  • After the repair, restore from the most recent nightly full backup that was taken prior to the failure.

It's nearly the perfect solution, and yet I'll explain later why that didn't make sense for me in my situation.

Another alternative that people may also be thinking of is the pre-made image, that works like this:

  • After getting a new machine, and before using it, take any and all updates to the operating system and applications.

  • Using a disk image tool such as Acronis or DriveImageXML or others, take a complete disk image - a snapshot of the machine in it's current state.

  • Save that image somewhere.

  • Backup regularly.

  • After a hard disk failure, replace the hard disk.

  • Use the disk imaging software to restore the machine to the snapshot you took after you got the machine.

  • Take any and all updates to the operating system.

  • Take any and all updates to the applications.

  • Restore any data needed from your backups.

  • Resume using your now-repaired machine.

This is a slightly longer list, but the repair steps are actually typically quicker than the first approach.

Pros and Cons

Each approach has its costs and benefits.

The start-from-scratch approach is more than a recovery, it's an opportunity to recover and clean up at the same time. When reinstalling everything from scratch, you're not locked into whatever you decided to have on your machine at the time a pre-made image was taken, or whatever you happened to have on your machine at the time of a backup. You can install the operating system differently, or install a completely different mix of applications. And of course no planning is needed, other than making sure your data is being backed up somehow, and getting and saving your installation media.

The biggest disadvantages are the time and effort involved, and the fact that you need the installation media for everything you're about to install.

The restore from backup approach has very few disadvantages - the disk space required to keep the backups is perhaps the most obvious.

The advantages are numerous: you have a complete backup of your machine. Not only can you restore it in its entirety, as in the case of a hard disk failure, but you could also do things like pick up a single file from your backup that had been accidentally deleted from your machine.

The biggest single benefit to the pre-made image approach is that it gets you most of the benefits of cleaning out your machine but allows for a much quicker restore process after a failure. Restoring an image is significantly faster than wading through all the setup steps for both operating system and applications. Even the "take updates" portion is quicker, since the number of updates to be applied is presumably less. An interesting side effect is that you do not need the original installation media to restore an image. Given how many manufacturers are not including original media, this makes it a true lifesaver when an issue arises.

The cost to the image approach is simply that you must plan for it; you can't restore an image you don't have. There's no clear answer as to when the best point to take an image is either. I've described it as after the OS, Applications and all updates have been installed, but in fact there are arguments to do it sooner (so you're not locked into the applications installed), or later (so you can also update all your personalization's, for example). It takes some planning and forethought, something not everyone is prepared to do. Oh, and it takes some space to store the image somewhere for when you might need it later.

Why I Do What I Do

I installed from scratch, and I did so because:

  • I have multiple PCs, and taking full, nightly image backups for all of them would take a significant amount of disk space that I'm not willing to dedicate to the task. Given the amount of duplication across all my machines, it would also be extremely redundant. As a result, I backup data from all my machines to a central machine (my desktop), and then take image backups of that desktop machine only. The machine that broke had no image backups.

  • I don't find myself restoring machines all that often. If I did, I would likely choose a different approach.

  • I rarely install any machine the exact same way as I did "the last time", and almost always take hardware failure as an opportunity for what is likely some much needed cleanup anyway. My usage, and hence my needs, are constantly changing in ways that would be impacted by whatever decisions I might make at the time I might take a pre-snapshot.

  • I can never settle on exactly when, for my needs, I should take pre-made snapshot.

  • Taking a pre-made image snapshot requires a bit of discipline I can never bring to bear: I always (and I do mean always Smile) want to start using the machine before I've completely set it up. That's at odds with the snapshot approach where you set it up, take the snapshot, and then begin using it so as not to "pollute" the snapshot with partial data or other incomplete items.

What You Should Do

As you can tell, a lot of this is subjective, and highly dependant on what you have, what you need, and how you use your computer.

That being said, there are some simple guidelines:

  • Backup. There is no excuse from backing up your data. Even without the image-backup for this machine I experienced near zero data loss when my hard drive died because I have a different, yet thorough backup system in place. If you take regular image backups, and your needs are typical, then you're actually done. In case of a hardware failure you just restore your entire machine from that backup.

  • If you have no installation media: take a full snapshot. Now. Without your Windows setup disk it may be the only way you can restore your machine should your hard disk die and need to be replaced.

  • If your machine requires re-installation often: use the snapshot approach. The scenario that makes a lot of sense is the kid's computer that's constantly getting infected with malware. A quick restore to a known-clean image can come in very, very handy, and be a big time saver if it's something you need to do often.

  • If you've never had to rebuild a machine, or you have someone else do it for you, it might not be worth the investment up front to take an image. As long as you're backing up your critical files somehow, and you have your installation media in case you ever do need a repair, a rebuild-from-scratch may be all the safety net you need.

But in all honesty, for most people who have one or two computers (not 6 or 8, as I do), investing in an image backup solution is, by far, the safest and most appropriate approach.

Article C3663 - March 1, 2009 « »

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Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

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12 Comments
ron
March 3, 2009 8:49 AM

Excellent analysis of the pros and cons, Leo. Personally, I take an image of just the OS and antivirus software installed and completely updated. I then take a second image once I install and update all of my applications. This takes up about 6 gigs and 15 gigs (on a detachable drive of course)respectively. I save all of my daily work to a detachable flash drive which I backup using the copy/paste method daily. This keeps my 3 systems in a nearly identical configuration. You are so right about the planning. I ended up with a 2 page document outlining all the steps to keep me organized and away from "playing" with the partially assembled computer ;)

Linda Claycomb
March 3, 2009 10:00 AM

So Ron, it would be safe to assume that I could image a freshly installed system before the drive is loaded with pictures, documents and programs, keep it on a safe media somewhere and then go to the partition that has my programs and image them also?

For instance, suppose my programs partition is compromised and I use my standby image of that partition and it seems to work well and suddenly I need to use my original OS image but they don't jive for some reason. Do you ever get into a problem with the applications and original image of the OS clashing?

I think the ideal situation would be what you're doing. Image the OS, then image the OS/applications, then daily update images of pics/music/documents.

Thanks.

Dale Orwig
March 3, 2009 12:16 PM

Other reasons to restore from scratch:

Any yet undetected viruses, worms, torjans, registry errors, annomolies you've not been able to solve but have gotten used to, ... all will be reproduced from your latest reasons.

If before the crash, your operating system was an upgrade to a previous one, you can take this opportunity to restore with a fresh version without the old/version new/version adjudications you had before. Put another way...

when finished, your machine will look much fresher without leftover uninstall tails. Eg.: tight registry.

This restore opportunity becomes an excellent time to weed out programs you no longer use or have forgotten what they were full. My "start" menu is half the size it was before one of my computers crashed last month -- without any loss in what I've been doing over the past six months. For instance there's a 2004 mapping program I've been using less and less ... as a "collector" I couldn't drop it, but now, I'll not reinstall it., etc.

Owen Pollard Jr
March 3, 2009 12:41 PM

Last December I had three hard disk failures. I have since purchased another computer and reinstalled all of my software and three spare hard drives. I purchased Acronis and made three mirror images of the hard drive. I keep an additional copy of my files. I have swapped each of these hard drives from time to time and they switch out with no problem and the only time lost is the time it takes to remove and reinstall the hard drive and copy my current files over. simple and quick. thanks

Mark
March 3, 2009 4:34 PM

I still use a Ghost 2003 boot disc to make images, then burn them to DVD for storage. I'm tempted to make images just after installing the OS, but then I realise the hours of work ahead installed apps, tweaks, etc. and decide to image after all that instead. I recently did this on a friend's notebook which didn't come with original OS or hardware media.

Good article.

Ron
March 3, 2009 4:54 PM

Hi Linda...I actually don't have the applications on a separate partition. I simply have one image of just the OS and antivirus software for a situation in which I really need to go back to the beginning. Otherwise, I just use the second image (applications installed and updated) when I notice my laptop acting "different" (junk, virus...who knows). Since all of my daily files are saved elsewhere, I restore this second image every 6 months or so just for the heck of it. Best of luck!

Linda Claycomb
March 3, 2009 10:00 PM

Thanks Ron! I think I will go back to the old way I had before as far as OS and applications on the same partition. I landed up having some applications on the main partition and some apps on another partition. Don't ask why because I don't know, other than being leery of some of them not working correctly.

I WILL keep separate partitions for my videos, music and documents/pictures though.

I love Acronis.

Now....if we could only come up with a solution to be able to use an image of applications (and have it work correctly) when replacing a chip or mobo!

Thanks again!

Ron B
March 4, 2009 1:21 AM

Could anyone explain why my duplicate image I have made on an external drive of my C dive is much smaller than the C:/. It is actually 7GB smaller?

Not without knowing the tools an steps used to create the image.
- Leo
04-Mar-2009

Steve Bukosky
March 4, 2009 7:28 AM

Good answer and clears up some questions I've had. Have lost two HD's recently but having a partial back-up of one, I've since become pretty anal about nightly backups of my three computers to their external HD's. I now better understand why the three choices need to be considered. Thanks!

Ron B
March 4, 2009 11:31 AM

Than you leo

I used Retrospect 7.5 Duplicate to WD 500 GB external hardrive. I copied C:/ to a patition using the duplicate function.

Kind regards

Ron Barker

Sandy Smith
March 4, 2009 6:52 PM

We have 6 computers in the home and each has its own Western Digital Passport external drive. Each WD external drive is partitioned in 2 with 1 partition holding the computers image back up and the other partition holding its data. Each WD drive was roughly $100. So, it's not a bad investment.

Also, I don't do "nightly" image backups -I found it is better to do them only every couple of months. Data should be backed up every time it changes but not image backups. Of course I learned this the hard way... With Image backups it is possible to "backup" a problem and not know it - then you are screwed. Image backups should ONLY be taken when you know for a FACT your system is running well. Then, after an Image restore that might be a few months old I use a sync program (I use GoodSync) to "sync" back from the external drive the data that has changed on that computer.

In the end I do have a lot of "redundancy" but better safe than sorry - I like to have Image backups and data backups. I also have my data on CD's, DVD's and uploaded to a website... I like knowing I am covered in any and every situation. But to each his own here... there is no wrong way... As long as you are backed up, you will be able to fight another day no matter what technique you use.

I like my scenario becuase I am NOT tech savvy and Image restores have spared me getting outside assistance for tech trouble or reinstalling my OS far more often than somebody like Leo... who can figure it out.

Hope passing this along helps somebody looking for answers... Happy restoring and backing up!!!

Bob
March 4, 2009 7:06 PM

There was a year when I was making regular trips over to the MS Store to have a friend who works there buy me the Windows XP CD-ROM (multiple purchases because of different venues: home, work, etc.). All because of learning the hard way that System Restore doesn't really work well, except for destroying the OS, and that external hard drives can fail and take the OS with them.

One thing not directly touched on in the comments above is that when you restore from scratch, for example on a DELL machine (where the F11 option was not available), is that you have to get the proprietary drivers right, and installed in the right order. Even though you might have a CD-ROM with the drivers, the scratch version of Windows is probably a later version than what is really compatible with the drivers. I can tell you that going through all that to download and install the correct drivers with tech support is a truly souring experience, and shifts my vote to the image restore. I still see the yellow alert for the multi-media drivers in Device Drivers on my home machine.

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