Windows Vista takes on Norton Ghost

Windows Vista takes on Norton Ghost

Summary: Premium editions of Windows Vista include a full-featured Backup program that allows you to create an image-based backup of a full drive rather than copying one file at a time. In Vista Beta 2, the new image backup feature has a name: CompletePC Backup. Yesterday, after deliberately making a thorough mess of a new Vista installation, I put it to the test. How did it work? See for yourself.

TOPICS: Data Management
A few years ago, I interviewed a Microsoft product manager who shared a depressing statistic with me: The number of Windows users who have any kind of routine backup procedure is in the low single-digit percentages.

Recovery menu - click to enlargeMicrosoft is partly to blame for that sad state of affairs. The well-hidden XP Backup program won’t win any awards, but it gets the job done in its plodding way. That’s all changed in Windows Vista. As I noted a few months ago, Vista has a full-featured Backup program that includes the capability to schedule backups of important files. In some premium editions of Windows Vista, a new option allows you to create an image-based backup – a la Norton Ghost – rather than a file-by-file backup. In Vista Beta 2, the new image backup feature has a name: CompletePC Backup. Yesterday, after deliberately making a thorough mess of a new Vista installation, I put it to the test. It worked much better than I expected. (Update 29-May-2006: CompletePC Backup is available in the Business, Enterprise, and Ultimate versions of Vista.)

I’ve created a screenshot gallery that shows CompletePC Backup in action. The process is fairly simple: Run the backup program to create a disk image and save the resulting files to an external hard drive, a separate volume on an internal disk (local drives only, no network copies permitted), or writable DVDs. To restore the image, boot from the DVD and follow the prompts to the Windows Recovery Environment, where CompletePC Restore is a menu choice.

Creating a disk image was faster than I expected. Using a local hard drive, I backed up a 25GB drive in less than 10 minutes. The restore process took a few minutes longer, but the results were exactly what I expected. When I restarted, I was back to a clean installation.

The process isn’t perfect. Here are a few disadvantages worthy of note:

  • The process is destructive. Your backed-up image completely replaces the contents of the drive onto which you restore it. In that sense, it’s like the restore CDs included with some OEM PCs – except you can create your own.
  • It works with full volumes only. Norton Ghost, Acronis True Image, and other commercial alternatives can do more selective backup and restore operations.
  • It doesn’t appear to use compression. My 25GB drive became a 25GB image file.
  • The DVD option didn’t work for me. I’m willing to chalk that up to a beta bug, but this process should have worked perfectly.

Surprisingly, the image file that CompletePC Backup produces doesn’t use the Windows Imaging (WIM) format used in Vista’s installation process. Instead, it creates a large file with a VHD file name extension, plus a slew of small XML files. That VHD extension is the same one used by virtual hard drives in both Virtual Server 2005 and Virtual PC, but I haven’t been able to confirm whether the two formats are actually the same. If the formats are identical, then (in theory) one could extract individual files from a backup image with relative ease.

In Symantec’s boardroom, they must be going nuts over Microsoft. First it was OneCare Live, which significantly undercuts the price of Norton AntiVirus. Then it was a patent brouhaha that led Symantec to file suit to block the release of Vista. And now comes this utility, which is free with Vista and should be good enough for most casual users who might otherwise have purchased a copy of Ghost.

No wonder Symantec is talking about a new business model

Topic: Data Management

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  • Ouch!

    So basically MS has figured out how to do: dd if=/dev/hda1 of=/backup/image.dd ?

    This is pretty darn useless except for catastrophic failures and considering that most boxes ship with 100 GB + drives (with a single partition) on them these days the lack of compression is really going to be a problem.
    Robert Crocker
  • i wouldn't use it myself...

    and i would stick with ghost, but thats because I don't just keep an image of a single users PC. Most ghost users may keep a, lets call it a screen shot, of a PC from time to time, and I do that on my home pc's, but I also create client loads for their PC's. This is where ghost shines. Failed HD, get a new drive, image it, done. Take failed drive to seperate machine and see if any information on the local drive can be recovered(alot of the time it's quite easy, every so often the drive is done). This program wouldn't help in that case if there were a single drive with a dual partition, the drive is fried, and unless the user is smart enough to have burned that image somewhere, consider it worthless. It's a good idea, but will it be really used to it's potential, if even at all?
    • Agree in general

      Yes, if you're a system builder, Ghost is an ideal tool. And I agree that keeping a disk image on another partition on the same drive as the one you're preserving is just stupid. I think most people will use this with external hard drives, which are widely becoming the backup medium of choice.

      Will a majority of people use it? No. Most people don't do backups beacuse they're lazy and/or clueless. Will a higher percentage of Windows users do backups using Vista compared to XP? I think so.
      Ed Bott
      • it's definitely possible...

        but I think we all know that users get lazy, and that leads to pretty much doing nothing. It might be good at first, but eventually even with task manager running it, that they just keep those externals unplugged when it's ran, so it doesn't run, they turn it off because it's taking time, or cancel it because it's schedule pops up in between gaming(or whatever).

        Don't get me wrong, it's a useful tool, but it needs to be made aware of to simple users or it will just sit there. Will MS market this ability to the normal mom and pop users? I guess if it's going to work more education to normal users about the good points of this will be needed and shown to them.
    • Where's the scheduling?

      One thing that especially caught my eye was there were no scheduling options. At least, not in the screen shots posted. And that's what people really need, automated backups, then they don't have to give it any thought.

      I think the best way to do automated backups is with a NETWORKABLE external hard drive, like the Buffalo Technolgies Linkstation:

      LinkStation Network Storage Center 160GB

      I use one of these to backup my home computers and I absolutely love it. Using the Linkstation and Norton Ghost, my computers automatically backup their crucial personal files every day, and image the system partitions once a month.

      With a little hacking, you can even install TwonkyVision's MediaServer program, and stream media files to several types of network media player devices:
      • Yes, the Backup program has scheduling options

        The first option you see when you run the Backup program is the one to set up an Automated Backup and define a schedule for it. Scheduled backups are only used with file-by-file backups, obviously.
        Ed Bott
  • Good for the novice

    If they make the image when they buy their new computer, then they can do a clean re install whenever windows get screwy, without having the task of doing a reformat and install.
  • It looks like this is done with APIs

    as opposed to a stand alone exe. If so I suspect you will see lots of third party programmers building upon the basic functionality.
  • Free advice: Sell any Symantec stock you may have.

    It's not going to be worth much in a year.
    • True

      And so it goes when a monopoly illegally bundles software into its OS.

      I expect Symantec to file suit against Microsoft for this some time in the next few years. MS will pay Symantec some large sum to settle, the Symantec execs will walk away with a nice chunk of cash, and Symantec will die as a company. It's depressing how predictable the pattern has become.
      • Will Goodyear sue GM if GM invents a tireless car?

        Or better yet, will Pep Boys or Midas sue GM if GM builds a self-maintaining car?

        The only reason Symantec exists in the first place was because MS couldn't get their OS in order. They didn't include the most of the necessary utilities needed to keep it in working order, so a market for third party utilities came about. Now that MS is finally starting to get things right, Symantec doesn't have a market anymore. Is that Microsoft's fault? Last I checked, it was MS's #1 responsibility (at least the Windows division of the company) to provide a working OS out of the box. It is NOT their responsibility to provide a broken piece of software just to keep third party fix-it men in business.

        You can make a case for illegal bundling with regards to a web browser or media players, because they are not necessary for the proper operation of the core product. But safety backups programs, registry editors (even text editors for text configuration files), defraggers, AV, firewalls, these are all necessary items for properly running and maintaining the core OS (although pretty soon one will even be able to make the case that you need a web browser and media player to properly maintain an OS, for online help files and help videos). Symantec has made its fortune based on the fact that MS failed in their job to provide all the necessary tools to properly run and maintain its own core product. Well now MS is trying to correct its mistake. It has every right to. Indeed, it is obliged to. So Symantec's market, as a result, is vanishing. That's their own fault for not diversifying themselves enough to overcome the period of time when MS finally takes interest in providing a fully functional product.
        Michael Kelly
  • multiple installs ?

    so now if i had multiple computers and they all share the same hardware configuration, then couldent i install 1 machine and then ghost all the rest to have them up and running.

    and if so would microsoft be an accessory to software piracy in lou of their "single end user licance agreement". so then could they be sued as a third party ? to the alleged crime !

    not of this world
  • Why NOT a networked drive?

    I would think in this day and age, this would be a primary option.
    • Throughput

      Only a guess, but I assume the following: Image files are big, and trying to send multiple gigabytes over a wire whose throughput may vary or which may go down at any time is a bad idea. A local drive can generally be relied upon to stay available and work at a constant speed.
      Ed Bott
      • There are whole

        businesses built on backing up over the web, the network, at the push of a button, etc.
        • Agreed, but...

          How many network-related support calls do you think those services get? (Lots, I bet.) I'm not saying it's a legitimate technical reason, only a decision to produce a lowest-common-denominator product that works most reliably out of the box.
          Ed Bott
          • Disagree

            I've backed up two computers at home using a network drive for years. I do a full backup every month that is well over 50 GB for one machine and throughput is not an issue. We also started backing up a few servers at work over a network and I haven't encountered a single problem backing up or restoring. It works just fine. Is this just a limitation of Microsoft's version of Ghost or is does it also apply to file by file backups?
      • Male Bovine Waste Product

        There is absolutely NO technical reason not to allow writing backups to a network share. The Win32 API's for writing files work exactly the same way, no matter the destination. The ONLY possible reason is to be able to sell the network backup feature separately.
        • Support calls

          No technical reason, but for a product that is aimed at home networks, support is a huge consideration. The average home network (especially wireless networks) is simply not reliable enough to count on for backups. If you're an IT pro, you can probably troubleshoot and fix network problems, but for home users the result will be a lot of support calls. So yes, no technical reason, but don't dismiss support as a feature driver.
          Ed Bott
        • For businesses? No. For home use? Plenty.

          Okay, it's great for businesses - but not so great for home use.

          -Home users may only have one PC. Backup to where?

          -Home users may have limited bandwidth. Gigabit or better Ethernet is rare for home use. Usually they're using slower 10/100 networks.

          -Internet backup is too slow. Sure, home users are starting to get larger pipes with broadband, but it's not at the point where it's useful for backups yet.

          -Home users can be on at practically any time of the day, even during weekends. Businesses have it easy because it's easy to find hours during which we know the computers won't be in use and can perform a backup without interruption.

          -Home users may have more data. With photos, videos, and other multimedia it's not uncommon that a home user is pushing hundreds of gigabytes around, especially if the computer is being used as part of an entertainment center.

          -A home user has no idea what a Win32 API is, nor do they care. Not everybody is a programmer, you know.