Sunday, October 14, 2007

Drive Imaging and Cloning Solutions


Drive Imaging versus Drive Cloning?

I suspect at one time there was a much more rigid technical distinction between the concepts of "Image" versus "Clone".  There still may be, but I suspect that in popular usage, there is a bit more interchangeability between the two.

In general conversations I tend to refer to an "image" (noun) as being the physical data (structure/contents) copied captured off a source drive or partition. I may then apply the "image" to one or more target drives using that previously captured information.  I suppose you could refer to the process of capturing the data off the source drive as "imaging" it (verb), as well as when you image (verb) apply the image to the target.  Depending on the method and software used, it may be a complete image (sector by sector capture of the entire partition/drive -- whether blocks in those sectors are in use or not...good for forensics) or simply a file/folder based image that only captures files/folders/structure that are active blocks on the drive and not any "unused block" sector data.

When I refer to "cloning" a system I tend to refer to using an image to make one or more exact replicas (sector by sector) of a source drive to one or many target drives.  I use "cloning" as a process description or verb form.

Regardless, the point is that what we are attempting to do is copy the system, application, data files, and structure from one hard drive.  It may then be used as a backup to restore back in the case of a failure...or it may be used to replicate that data to other drives.  Imaging/Cloning is a bit more expansive than a "backup" whereas an image/clone should (typically) restore an entire operating system, a backup would simple be concerned with capturing and preserving data for restoration in failure, but not necessarily the operating system itself.

(I'm open to suggestions to correct or fine-tune the distinctions as I am using them here!)

Why Bother?

Well, most home users probably don't care.  They (hopefully) have a "system restore" disk that would allow them to restore their base home pc system to its original "out of the box" state in the event of a catastrophic failure.  Hopefully they have their data backed up separately as OEM system restores only put the system back, not your data. XP and Vista also have a "system restore" of sorts that attempts to restore your operating system to a previously-saved state in the event of bad-things happening.  I've never used it so I can't say how effective it really is.

See also: On Losing Data and a Family Backup Strategy - Scott Hanselman's Computer Zen

XP and Vista both have backup tools from Microsoft...but I'm saving that for a later "backup post."

The real folks who care about image/cloning of systems are enterprise/corporate or small-to-mid sized businesses.  In these cases technicians may need to deploy hundreds to thousands of workstations at once.  Imagine going to each one, putting in a setup disk and setting it up from scratch!  Imaging allows us to build several "base" configurations of laptops and workstations and store that image on CD/DVD media (or USB drives and servers).  Then when we have a new machine or a corrupted one, we just recover the user's data, apply the image (10 min - over an hour depending on the software/technique), reboot, tweak a few things and restore the user's data and we are gone.  Usually in about one hour or less the user is back at work.

It is a real time-saver and helps ensure standard configurations on our platforms.  Yes you do have some time invested in building the source machine(s) the way you want, configuring them, and running sysprep so you don't have to mess with duplicate SID's on your stations (XP or Vista).  If you forget to do that, you would have to go back and use the NewSid utility to reset them....

There are a wide-variety of enterprise class ways to capture and deploy images.  Some of the more popular are Symantec's Norton Ghost, Acronis True Image, and Novell's ZenWorks imaging.  There are also a number of popular Linux-based products.

Freeware Imaging Solutions?

While the enterprise-class image/clone applications are very battle-tested and robust, they often carry large price-tags and can be a bit intimidating for home users (or SOHO users) to approach.

There are a number of free imaging solutions on the Net, here are just a few (in no particular order) each with their own techniques and limitations.

My Perspective

I have used Ghost extensively at work to image and restore drives.  It is a solid tool that works well.  I have used Seagate's DiscWizard ( Hard-Drive Hell and the DiscWizards; A Six-Act Play ) to clone my system when I upgraded my personal hard drive.  I've used Altiris to lay images down at work (but not create), and we are just now starting to use "Clonezilla" as a high-speed imaging tool.

Clonezilla is noteworthy solution as it is freeware/open-source and based on Linux. (Sure, many are.)

However it is fast in capturing images and very, very fast in applying images back to target drives. Why?  Well, instead of doing a sector-by-sector copy of the source drive, it only captures the used blocks on the disk.  Not the unused space.  This saves a bunch of time.It also supports "multi-casting" the image to multiple target machines at the same time.  Very handy for project size deployments.  Images may be "put-back" to a target from a CD/DVD, portable USB drive, or a network share.

This is something we are doing "locally" in our shop, and our "official" enterprise image and cloning solutions remain Ghost-based for now.

However, all this might change soon....Microsoft has waded into the image waters with a free utility for all.


...and that's coming up next!



Anonymous said...

Great blog. I've used a few of the free and pay options that you have listed and I found (personally) that Acronis fulfills all my needs plus some for my Windows needs. Sure its pay for for the price (@ $50) its saved me WAY more then $50 in time at work and home combined. I actually couple Acronis with MS Virtual so I can restore my PC\Laptop\Server loads to a virtual drive and use it for whatever purpose is needed and then simply delete when I'm done with it.

Great post though, its bookmarked for sure for future reference.

WAFord said...

Hey Claus,

Very nice and well detailed explanation of Cloning vs Imaging.

Would y'all mind if I included a link and minor blurb on my web site?

My fav cloning utility right now is XXClone and I'm currently using the freebie version. But after using this for several months now, I'd say the Pro version is more than worth the yearly $35.


Anonymous said...


Free free to do so.

Thanks for stopping by!

I'm a big fan of Microsoft's ImageX as well as Clonezilla

Regardless, it is great to know there are so many (free) options out there now-a-days!


WAFord said...

Hey Claus,

Thank you!


Anonymous said...

You are missing one.

Macrium Reflect Feeeware.. Great program!


Anonymous said...

Macrium Reflect is only free for NON-commercial use. I suspect that most people use imaging/cloning software for work, although some of us have a bunch of computers at home too.

Anonymous said...

On the topic of Windows XP System Restore; having worked in tech support when XP came out, I have a ton of experience using it. It is a very useful tool, not anywhere near the same as restoring an image, but it was generally the very first thing we tried depending on the specific situation, and it would probably fix near half of the issues.

dymgarcia said...

I have tried to make the clonezilla iso using InfraRecorder as recommended and it will supposedly make the iso(no other iso burning software sees the iso) but even after making it,I go to My Computer to verify the burn and the CD appears as if nothing is there,yet if I try to use the same CD again it says to insert a blank CD.
Can anybody explain the iso burning process Please? I have downloaded clonezilla 5 times and can't find any iso file at all.There must be something I'm doing wrong.This is for a winXP machine.Thank You all for whatever help You can give Me.
David --- at

Claus said...

@ David -- I've used a number of other ISO burning programs with no issues, including burning ISO's of Clonezilla.

I would recommend you download and use the free ISO burning tool from TeraByte Unlimited called BurnCDCC. You can find it on this page

Unzip the application and run the burncdcc.exe file.

Place a fresh unburned CD disk in your optical drive.

Click the "browse" button in the burncdcc application to navigate to the location you downloaded the Clonezilla file Download clonezilla-live-20110922-natty.iso (110.1 MB) and select the file.

If you aren't sure about the ones you have already downloaded, try again but save it somewhere easy to find...say your Windows desktop.

One the file is listed in the "file image" line, your optical drive should be listed under the "device" line. If it isn't showing correctly click the arrow on that line to select the right drive that can burn the CD.

I always select "finalize" checkbox when burning ISOs but that's just me.

Click "Start" and it will ask you to insert your disk. If you have already done so it will probably spit the disk (or CD/DVD tray) out. Push the disk back in and click "ok" and the burning will start.

When it is done you should be good.

Use the CD to boot the system you want to capture the image of (assuming you have a portable USB HDD to place the image onto) and you should be good to go.

If you put the disk in the same system right after burning you should still see some files and stuff...even though Clonzilla (thus the disk contents) is Linux-based.

Good luck.

--Claus V.