I’ve been using “disk imaging” software for just over 10 years now. Such software allows you to either move everything on your hard drive to a new disk (cloning) or make an image file of the contents, which you can then save as a backup or use to deploy the image to as many computers as you’d like. The advantages in every scenario are obvious. Simply doing a standard “file copy” within Windows can take forever, and if you’re trying to copy a system drive to a new disk, Windows will choke on the “in use” files and refuse to copy them. As a backup, imaging software copies everything on a disk; if you want to reformat your system you could easily copy all of your documents to a flash drive or CD\DVD… but chances are that you’ll forget at least one thing, and having an image of the drive means that you can always go back and retrieve that file later. And of course, imaging software is a must when a company wants to deploy lots of new computers. I once imaged almost 300 computers over a weekend for a client that was moving into a new building and got all new computers for staff. As you can imagine, manually installing Windows on nearly 300 computers would take weeks; installing Windows on one computer (along with Office and all the updates) and then copying the image to all the others took less than 3 days.
The only problem I have with imaging software is that I’ve never found a program that I really liked. I was a huge fan of Ghost when it first came out. It was a single, small executable file that could easily fit on a boot disk or network share. Symantec bought Ghost back in 1998 though, and Ghost kept getting bigger and bigger – until 2003, when Symantec bought PowerQuest, its biggest competitor in the disk imaging market. Symantec then tried hashing Ghost and PowerQuest’s DriveImage product together, and the result was, for a couple of years, a jumbled mess. I simply gave up and started using Acronis TrueImage, which was a somewhat new product at the time. Come to find out, True Image has always let me down when I needed it most. The boot discs froze when I attached a USB hard drive to my system. The boot discs also were very picky (a boot disk made with version 9.0.123 would think that a disk image created with 9.0.456 was “corrupt”, for instance). And TrueImage is as slow as Christmas! I tried using it in the field a couple of times, only to have the program’s progress bar give me “four hours remaining” on both jobs – on modern computers with no more than 12GB of disk space used!
I then decided to take a look at DriveImage XML. This program is free (unlike Ghost and TrueImage) and it stores your data in XML files, which are an open standard that third-parties can use to create plug-ins. And not only is it free and based on an open standard, it also leverages Microsoft’s Volume Shadow Copy service to copy files in use on your computer; rather than re-invent the wheel, the app uses the tools Microsoft builds in to Windows! This not only makes DriveImage small (the current version is less than 2MB to download), the program’s back up is reliable, too! The program is blazing fast too – I used it just a couple of days ago to back up a client’s computer, and it only took around 15 minutes to back up 8.7GB worth of data to a 5400rpm laptop drive in an USB 2.0 enclosure. But the best part – the best part – is that it’s included on the Ultimate Boot Disk for Windows. All you have to do to use DriveImage outside of Windows is attach a USB hard drive to your computer, boot off the Ultimate Boot CD and start the DriveImage plug-in. Compared to Ghost and TrueImage, I find this reliability and ease of use simply stunning.
Browsing the contents of an image file
I’ve only recently started using DriveImage XML. I like it a lot so far – although the interface is a bit rough around the edges, and the program itself is really basic. The program is fully scriptable via Task Scheduler, so the admins out there will probably appreciate that.
I’ll keep you posted on how well it works when I need it!