HOWTO: Clone Your Hard Drive
To clone a hard drive means to make an exact copy of it. This is more than simply backing up data files; even hidden, protected operating system files are copied in a clone operation, and the exact position of every file on the original drive is preserved. Hard drive cloning (also called imaging) is useful for backup, disaster recovery, and other applications. Read on to learn more...
How To Clone a Hard Drive
A hard drive clone or image is often stored as a single, huge file called a "disk image" file. Think of it as a snapshot of your hard drive. A disk image can be stored on a hard drive, or offline media such as DVDs. It can be stored on a network drive, a web server, or in cloud storage. Wherever the disk image is stored, having access to the whole disk image or just individual files in it is an excellent safety net against hard drive crashes.
The "rescue disk" that comes with some computers is a clone of the computer's hard drive as it was at the time it was shipped by the manufacturer. Restoring the contents of the rescue disk returns the hard drive to its factory-new state. Of course, all your personal settings; user-installed software; and personal data files are not restored. But at least you have a working system that's not fouled up with malware or registry errors.
This is one good reason to make your own backup image copy every now and then. If something goes wrong with your hard drive, a clone copy (disk image) can restore its exact contents at a certain point in time to the same or another hard drive.
Hard disk cloning software (disk imaging software) includes its own minimal operating system. You reboot your computer from the cloning software CD (or other external media). This is necessary because the cloning software cannot copy operating system files on the hard drive while they are in use, and because you want the hard drive's contents completely "at rest" when you take a snapshot of it.
Likewise, when restoring data from a clone of a hard drive you will boot from the cloning software CD. Then, with the minimal operating system and cloning software running in RAM, you can transfer data from the disk image to the hard drive without running into in-use files that cannot be overwritten.
You can use disk cloning to transfer all of your hard drive's contents to a completely different computer (not just a new drive in the same computer). But to prevent unauthorized copying of the operating system, Windows may refuse to start, if it detects that the hardware signature of the computer has changed. This can also happen if you swap out other hardware components, such as RAM memory or the motherboard. To overcome this difficulty you can re-activate Windows with the help of Microsoft. This tutorial explains the process.
Do I Still Need Backup Software?
Disk cloning or imaging is a form of backup, but it's kind of a brute force approach. Because it takes everything from your drive and rolls it up into one big ball, it doesn't allow for incremental backups. Individual files cannot be added to, deleted from or replaced inside the image. And depending on your imaging software, it might not allow you to extract a single file from the image. An image file is meant to be restored in full.
My suggestion is to do both imaging and regular backups. One strategy might be to create an image file once a month, and stash it on an external drive. Delete the older images, so that you always have three months, six months, or a year's worth of images that can be restored if needed. You might be happy keeping just one month, and deleting the previous image each time you make a new one.
Along with that, use backup software to make regular incremental backups, which consume less storage space, and allow you to quickly restore a backup copy of a single file of folder. See my Free Backup Software Options if you need help choosing one.
Disk Imaging Software
Windows disk cloning software offerings include Macrium Reflect (free); Microsoft Image Backup (part of Windows 7); and Paragon Drive Copy ($39.95); and ShadowProtect ($89.95). Although it's the most expensive of those offerings, ShadowProtect has an interesting feature called VirtualBoot, which allows you to right-click a backup image and boot it as a virtual machine.
If you're running Mac OS X, check out these disk imaging software options: Apple Software Restore and Disk Utility (both included with OS X); CopyCatX ($49.95); and Synchronize! Pro X ($99.95).
For Linux users, the free and open-source Clonezilla is a good option.
Have you ever cloned your hard drive? Post your comment or question below...
This article was posted by Bob Rankin on 12 Jul 2013
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Article information: AskBobRankin -- HOWTO: Clone Your Hard Drive (Posted: 12 Jul 2013)
Copyright © 2005 - Bob Rankin - All Rights Reserved