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Disk Imaging vs Disk Cloning: Key Differences

Last month I took look at how Windows Backup compared to more advanced third-party backup solutions. With consumers, the least expensive and most simple solution often wins. For that reason, many people are content to use whatever Microsoft includes in Windows. In the article, I briefly touched on the differences between imaging and cloning. Over the years, I’ve noticed people using imaging and cloning almost interchangeably. While similar, there are important differences when talking disk imaging vs disk cloning.

This week, I’d like to sort through the confusion. Both imaging and cloning have a place in today’s workflow. But you should understand the benefits and downsides of both technologies before you make a decision to use either. I’ve used both going back 20 years. At some companies, imaging has basically replace cloning. We’ll define and then discuss a number of use cases for both imaging and cloning. Let’s get started.

 Defining Terms: Disk Imaging vs Disk Cloning

Let’s begin with an example: You recently installed a fresh copy of Windows 10 on your PC. You then spent a few hours reinstalling all your applications such as Office 365, Google Chrome and Adobe Photoshop. After running Windows Update, you’ve got your PC back to exactly how you like it. And you don’t want to lose all your hard work to a hard drive failure. One friend tells you to clone your primary hard drive. But another tells you to take an image. You’re confused because both sound like they should work.

Both cloning and and imaging create an exact record of your drive. That includes all the files on the drives along with the master boot record and everything else your PC needs to boot in Windows. So how do they differ? Let’s get the scoop on disk imaging vs disk cloning.

Disk Imaging: Imaging create a large compressed file of your drive. You can then restore this file to bring your drive back to life. Because the image file itself is large, people often save them to external drives or file shares.

Disk Cloning: Cloning creates an exact, uncompressed replica of your drive. If your hard drive fails, you could remove it and replace it with the cloned drive. And that brings me back to the above example. Cloning can get you up and running quickly, but it doesn’t offer as much flexibility as imaging. In the above example, I’d recommend taking an image instead of cloning.

Scenario 1: Upgrading to an SSD

So you’ve run Disk Cleanup, removed any duplicate files and used WinDirStat to track down and remove a large iPhone backup you no longer need. But Windows continues to remind you that you’re running out of disk space. So you decided to upgrade your primary mechanical hard drive to a speedy new Samsung 960 Pro SSD. You have at least two options:

1. Pull your old drive, install Samsung SSD and reinstall Windows and all your program on your new drive. This is the most time consuming option. And it might be worth going this route if your current Windows installation is giving you problems. If your current PC is stable and all you need it a larger drive, better options exist.

2. Install the Samsung SSD alongside your old drive. Image old drive and deploy it directly to your new SSD and then yank your old drive. This option usually gets you up and running with a new drive within a couple of hours. Sometimes the maker of your new drive includes all the tools you need. If you purchase a Samsung drive, you can user their Data Migration toolset that creates an image of your existing PC and deploys it to your new SSD. It even handles moving from a smaller to larger drive without any issues.


Samsung Data Migration uses imaging to migrate OS/data to a new drive

I could clone a drive in this scenario, but most will find imaging a better solution because the imaging tools included with most new drives are so easy to use.

Scenario 2: Replacing a Bad Drive

Cloning makes a lot of sense if you’re moving your operating system and data to a new drive that will immediately be used to replace the old drive. I’ve run into issues while trying to image a failing hard drive. I recently cloned a drive in my friend’s laptop because it was giving him disk errors. We used a USB enclosure to connect the drive to his laptop. We used Macrium Reflect Free to clone his old drive to the new one. I then removed the drive in his laptop and replaced it with the newly cloned drive from the USB enclosure.

My friend couldn’t afford to be down very long so cloning his drive made the most sense. And that’s one of the primary benefits of cloning: it minimizes the downtown. A few months ago I talked to a day trader in New York who explained that even a few minutes of downtime could potentially cost him tens of thousands of dollars. He worked off a powerful laptop. So we decided to create a clone of his drive at the end of each day. If he ran into any issues while the markets were still open, he could replace his primary drive with the cloned one.

Scenario 3: Backup Options

This is where imaging shines. Cloning is great for speedy recovery, but imaging gives you a lot more backup options. Most software allows the user to take incremental and differential backups. Taking an incremental backup gives you the option to save multiple images without taking up a lot more space. This can be helpful if you download a virus and need to roll back to an image from two days earlier. Cloning only gives you one copy per drive. You can overwrite a clone with another, but each clone “version” needs its own drive.

Another benefit that comes from imaging is that images can be saved remotely. Using compression helps reduce storage demands and allows you to move images around your LAN or to the cloud. This is incredibly helpful if you’re traveling or work remotely. Some of the more advanced services allow you to spin up an image from the cloud in a pinch. I think you’ll find your IT department doesn’t clone a lot of drive anymore. Imaging has taken its place in most scenarios because it’s far more flexible and takes up less storage.

Conclusion

If you absolutely need to minimize downtime then cloning could be a good option. It works best in simple setups such as single drive configurations often found on laptops or general purpose desktops. For everyone else, I suggest using imaging products, such as ShadowProtect SPX, for your backup and restore needs. Imaging can be difficult to explain and understand because it offers so many options.

Hope this clears out some of the issues around disk imaging vs disk cloning. If your computer is on a corporate network, speak with IT to find out what options they provide. They may offer one service for systems on their LAN and another option for those who work remotely or travel often.

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Tags: backup technologydisk imaging vs disk cloningimage backup
Brett Nordquist: Brett spent nearly a decade in various roles at Microsoft and currently runs his own consulting company called Red Mountain Research. Brett attended the University of Utah where he earned a degree in German. When not at his computer, he enjoys spending time with family, cycling, and playing basketball.