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Don Watkins

Bare Metal Hard Drive Recovery and Restore - What's Best: Ghost, True Image or Image for Windows?

By Don Watkins



This article takes on back up and in the event of a hard crash restore to a new drive. If you're in the situation of a hard crash with no backups and need to recover data from the crashed drive be sure and check out this article on recovering data from a crashed hard drive.

Complete disaster recovery (restore from "bare metal"; formatting and restoring) has been a thorn since Windows XP. In fact it's been downright weird

I've historically been a huge fan of tape backup. You can take a copy off-site and yeah, it's slow, but a 4mm tape fits nicely in a safe deposit box or a neighbors drawer and hard drives (and the bays to keep them in) were expensive. Since hard drives have gotten very cheap and it seemed like a good time to explore other easier and faster options.

I looked around and found a bunch of promising disk backup possibilities and I settled on a test of Symantec's Ghost, Acronis True Image and Image for Windows. This was after one image programs actually ruined the data on a disk drive just backing it up.

Basically all of these guys allow you to create a disk image on another drive or CD/DVD and, in the event of a disaster, boot from their CD-ROM and restore.

I started out using a big box for testing; six RAID drives using a Perc controller (neither using RAID-0 or RAID-5), 2 3Ghz processors and Windows XP.

Ghost - Scary Stuff

Symantec clearly warns you to test the recovery CD-ROM and even if they didn't it'd be one of the first things you'd want to do anyway. If you can't boot the recovery disk it doesn't matter if you have a backup if you can't get to it.

So the Ghost recovery disk goes in the CD-ROM drive and I boot. It's not unlike installing Windows, you're prompted to install any special drivers which I did for the Perc controller. Things chugged along for a bit and then the blue screen of death (actually the first time I've seen the BSoD in XP). Tried it again and didn't installed the Perc drivers. Another BSoD, just different text.

I could make backups with no problem in Windows, I just couldn't boot the restore disk and you can't restore from Windows. Ouch.

Created a long, detailed report on the Symantec web site with full text of error messages, hardware details, OS details, the whole nine yards. I received a confirmation that I'd get a reply in 24 hours.

Five days later no reply. I query them. They want me to use their live support chat feature complete with a link that returns a page not found. No way could I detail all the content from the BSoD even if I could get to the page. I replied by email.

They acquiesced to helping me by email. They pretty much suggested doing what I've been trying (loading the drivers) and then they slip one in on me; it only works with RAID-0 and RAID-5. There's no mention of that in the Ghost 9.0 requirements page. My reply was that gee, "how was I supposed to know that" and "I'm not going to change my RAID configuration to use this, how about a refund" didn't get anywhere; I'd have to talk to another department about that.

Can't use it (Ghost) in the Windows 2003 box (Windows 2003 isn't supported) so punt and use it in the Sony Digital Studio XP Media Center box, which I've left stock out of the box with no "funny" software or hardware. Slip in the CD, click on the install button and....ten minutes later the CD is still spinning and locked up so bad that ctrl-alt-del won't even bring up task manager.

While Ghost might work well in your environment it failed my first requirement; that it actually work.

True Image - Slick & Functional

The True Image recovery CD-ROM can be created from the program itself or at install time. I choose the latter and it didn't even ask me about special drivers. I presume that it pulled them in from my configuration. Very slick. Booted it and no problem. Went to restore the image and wow, it worked.

There is one limit that I found with True Image, it does not support "dynamic disks". If you have drives set up as dynamic disks True Image will not create an image of them. Otherwise it handled everything that I could throw at them and never even burped.

Restoring a single or a couple of files from the True Image backup was a bit more time consuming than Ghost. You had to "restore" the image backup to a temporary location and then select and copy the files from that temporary location. With Ghost you simply displayed the image, expanded it in an Explorer type interface and pick and copy the files you needed. A very small matter to be sure, but True Image worked so flawlessly I was scraping the bottom of the barrel to find a drawback.

I can't speak to the quality of Acronis support as I didn't need to ask them since everything worked as advertised. I suspect you'd not need to contact them but If it's anywhere near as good as their product it'll be top notch.

Image for Windows - Small, Fast and Effective

Image for Windows is a lean backup and restore program. It's small and fast and has a somewhat "less slick" look to the interface than the others. Not that the process doesn't offer options or functionality, they're simply devoid of the graphics found in the other two programs.

Of course this cuts down on the size of the program to the point that the restore program (the Image for DOS version which comes with the package) can fit on a floppy diskette (which suits me as I still find comfort in diskettes, it's an old guy thing). Oh, you can create a boot diskette on CD-ROM for the Windows version if that's your preference.

The option for boot disk is only necessary if you keep a drive image on another drive; if you create your drive image on CD-ROM you need only boot that CD-ROM to restore it.

Restoring the drive (the C: boot drive) via the boot floppy and then the CD was fast and easy. I only had to point to the image file, hit enter and it was automatic from there on out.

The restored image was perfect, nary a glitch. A very well crafted program. I exchanged a few emails with questions about how Image worked with the author of Image for Windows. He was prompt and as the actual author of the software as opposed to a script reader and knew what he was talking about. How refreshing.

Bottom Line

Image for Windows worked without fail, was faster and had more recovery boot options (diskette or CD-ROM). It preformed flawlessly. It is not as "slick" in terms of graphics vs. True Image but graphics add to the size of the program file and getting a program to work from a floppy boot disk was a feature I liked. Image for Windows was also the least expensive especially for Windows Server 2003 where the standard $40 version of Image for Windows worked fine. I did not test the $600+ version of True Image for Windows Server.

The full Acronis restore CD booted in about half the time it took me to get to the BSoD in Ghost. Restoring with True Image was indeed as simple as can be, just a couple of clicks.

In extra features both True Image and Ghosts have features that Image for Windows doesn't; Ghost has the Symantec Live Update feature for patches and with True Image and Image for Windows you have to log on to the their respective web sites and check manually (gasp!). The Symantec "live update" stuff takes up too much disk space for my tastes and it is just another of scads of resident programs chewing up cycles and memory and I can do without that.

Image for Windows doesn't have an integrated schedule program but uses Windows Scheduler. Actually I think that's a plus since it means one less "foreign" service running. It's not as easy to set up a schedule for Image for Windows as it is for True Image but it's not rocket science either, just cut and paste from the True Image web site.

Image for Windows costs $38.94 and you can download the 3.6Mb 30 day evaluation here.  Acronis True Image is listed at $49.99 and a limited (you can't restore) 100Mb+ demo can be downloaded here, Ghost is listed at $69.99 on the Symantec site as a buy only product.

By far, and not only because of the fact that I can't actually recover with Ghost I'm going with Image for Windows. I'm strongly moved towards Image for Windows because for it's low price of $39 it'll work on Windows Server 2003 while the server version of True Image is much, much more. But True Image does work as advertised and if you prefer a very, very GUI interface you won't go wrong with it.

Check out Image for Windows or True Image. Either way I think you'll be impressed and will provide you with a solid way to avoid disk disaster blues. -- Don Watkins




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