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I am trying to decide on imaging software.
My system:
Desktop running Vista 64 and 750GB hard drive.
I need to create an image file of this entire disk, including the MBR, and put it on an external USB hard drive as a file.

My preferences are:
A reasonable GUI.
Ability to work with (include writing to) NTFS file systems without any problems. (A few years back when I played with Linux, NTFS support was not adequate. This may have changed by now. Although I can probably create a Linux partition, like ext3, and save to that.)
Not make Vista unbootable after restoration. (I don't have a Vista DVD.)
USB Support.
Live CD is preferred over shadow copying. (I think.) Ideally I would just download and burn a CD iso image and work off of it without having to install anything on Windows.
Support for Vista and XP.
Ability to be used as partition manager from Live CD is a plus, but not required.
Free.

I am currently looking at:

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3 Answers

up vote 1 down vote accepted

I suggest you use a Linux/GNU live-dvd. There are many to choose from, I like Gentoo's. The Linux ntfs support is in my experience no worse than in Windows, provided you can use ntfs-3g. It is included in many Linux live disks. (The in-kernel support is horrendrous, though. Afaik it has been abandoned long ago.)

The usb support of Linux live disks is generally good, but I'm certain you can find some strange hardware not supported by all distributions. However, you would notice immediately if this was a problem, and be down for a bit of network traffic and a dvd-r.

Most live disks also sport a goodly number of partitioning tools, and the Gentoo ones I mentioned lets you compile many more in memory if you need it. Don't try anything fancy involving partitions Windows needs for booting, though. Last I looked, (admittedly 4 years ago) there were a few (3-ish) commercial packages claiming they could do so without breaking anything and exactly 0 that could.

I need to create an image file of this entire disk, including the MBR, and put it on an external USB hard drive as a file.

I'm almost certain this is easier to do from the command line than with any GUI. Assuming you obtain a root shell in your booted environment, I'll show you how:

I assume the partition you want to back up is /dev/sda (Usually the first ata or scsi drive), and that you only have one hard drive installed, so that the usb drive becomes /dev/sdb, with a single partition /dev/sdb1 containing your ntfs filesystem.

  • First you mount the filesystem you want to put a backup on, using ntfs-3g.

    # mkdir target
    # ntfs-3g /dev/sdb1 target/
    
  • Then you backup your hard disk

    # dd bs=1M if=/dev/sda of="target/my-disk-backup_$(date +%F_%T).img"
    

This gives you a filename like my-disk-backup_2012-03-07_04:17:39.img. Likely, you want some compression to save a bit of diskspace on your usb disk, the following is an example:

    # dd bs=1M if=/dev/sda | xz -2 | dd of="target/my-disk-backup_$(date +%F_%T).img.xz"
  • Finally, unmount the backup drive to make sure your backup stuck.

    # unmount target/
    

Your complete disk backup is now complete.

Recovering

To recover from the backup, do everything like with making the backup, but exchange the direction of the copying. Then you either

    # dd bs=1M if="target/my-disk-backup_$(date +%F_%T).img" of=/dev/sda 

or

    # dd if=target/my-disk-backup_2012-03-07_04:17:39.img.xz | unxz | dd bs=1M of=/dev/sda 

When the command is finished, your disk should be in exactly the same state as when the backup was made, every single bit of it.

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+1 for NTFS-3G. Works great for mounting and writing to NTFS partitions in Linux. –  kobaltz Mar 7 '12 at 3:34
    
Thanks, Eroen. Would this also work if I recovered to a new, larger hard disk? Could I use the unused space for new partitions? –  mcu Mar 7 '12 at 5:58
    
Sure. You would end up with the same partition table from the old disk, though, but you could then make another partition or extend an old one. However, I'm guessing you might have trouble with Windows activation. I never tried that. Also, remember that MBR partitioning doesn't support disks over 2 TB. –  Eroen Mar 7 '12 at 7:05
    
When you say I might have trouble with Windows activation, do you mean it might happen if and only if I move or resize the original Windows partition? Adding new partitions shouldn't be a problem, should it? I would stay under 2TB. –  mcu Mar 7 '12 at 17:36
    
True, and true. –  Eroen Mar 7 '12 at 20:07
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Warning: huge major bias! I am a developer of Macrium Reflect, so please bear in mind that what I'm discussing is probably influenced by that!

Live CD is preferred over shadow copying. (I think.) Ideally I would just download and burn a CD iso image and work off of it without having to install anything on Windows.

Well, Macrium Reflect runs via VSS (the Volume Shadow Copy Service). We do this because it gives us a number of advantages in that Microsoft maintain and support it. The alternative to this would be inserting a custom driver into your kernel to do copy-on-write style backup. Such things can cause interoperability problems between drivers and platforms etc, and our principle is not to destabilise your system (although for when VSS is disabled, our driver does work :)). Other services can be configured to interoperate with it and allow us to back them up, which we're currently working on.

That said, Reflect does come with a live CD product. In fact it comes with two - both a PE/WAIK based environment (Windows) which features the full product and a Linux live CD, which has slightly fewer features. Mostly, our workflow is focused on using the Live CD to restore your system; however, the PE disk can also image it.

Our restore functionality should restore your system to full working order, including booting - however, this isn't always possible. Specifically, your master boot record can be overwritten by third party software for a variety of reasons - disk encryption, custom bootloader etc. Reflect has the option to restore/replace whatever your MBR has with BCD (Vista and later bootloader) - so providing the image is successfully written down, we should be able to fix any boot problems that have arisen.

There are other ways to achieve a full disk image. You can use dd to literally take a copy of all the bytes on the disk and write them elsewhere, including to a file. Obviously, doing this will take a copy of every byte, regardless of whether it is necessary (i.e. in use, according to the file system's MFT) - whereas a lot of imaging software including ours will look at what active sectors you're using, and only copy those. This makes your backup much, much smaller and is the default behaviour in Reflect.

Ability to work with (include writing to) NTFS file systems without any problems. (A few years back when I played with Linux, NTFS support was not adequate.

My experience with Linux and NTFS has been mixed as well; I used to dual boot with ntfs-3g when it was in beta and had some interesting experiences (like non-bootable Vista systems). These days I find it is much more stable.

Reflect's NTFS support is fairly mature now. We've a fair number of customers who are using our product regularly to back up their disks and we've seen a lot of different configurations, setups, highly fragmented disks... etc.

I can't really speak for the other imaging products our there as I just don't know them very well - I'm actually quite new to this space myself.

Other considerations you might like to look at, especially if you're paying:

  • Does the software support GPT/EFI boot disks? There are increasing numbers of users with EFI bootable systems and this is a different setup to the MBR that imaging software must respect.
  • Can the imaging software do differential/incremental backups? If you're running regular or automated backups, you might want to design your strategy for backing up in such a way that your daily backups take less space.
  • Does the live CD / other recovery options work as advertised with your hardware.

As always, I'd still say try a few and see what fits your needs :)

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the PE disk can also image it Reflect has the option to restore/replace whatever your MBR has with BCD (Vista and later bootloader) - so providing the image is successfully written down, we should be able to fix any boot problems that have arisen. Great info, thanks. Are there any disadvantages to using the shadow copy because of the fact you are currently using the disk? dd-style bit-by-bit copying just seems more error-proof, although at the price of having a larger image. –  mcu Mar 7 '12 at 18:16
    
The advantage of using the shadow copy and working from within Windows is that you will be using your OS's native NTFS support to create the copy, which could eliminate some problems if you were also using the external hdd for other purposes. I think if I was using Linux dd, I would just create a ext3 partition to hold my image to avoid any pitfalls, but that would result in some lost space. –  mcu Mar 7 '12 at 18:26
    
@mcu nope. Not only are you using native NTFS support, but the system creates a shadow-copy at that point in time and handles the tricky issues like writes that occur during the image capture, so we don't have to. I believe (will look at the code tomorrow) that VSS exposes a raw drive device and we have to parse NTFS; not sure on that. Anyway - not really, no. It's the most interoperable way of doing it we've found especially as Microsoft change their internal driver stacks around (minifilters, for example) - it's what powers system restore point, too, you see. –  Ninefingers Mar 7 '12 at 22:43
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While its got a curses based interface, clonezilla is dead simple, livecd based and has worked for me with similar systems. Just make sure you have a folder to save the image to on the root of the backup drive with no spaces in the name. I've saved a NTFS/EXT/HFS/SWAP partitioned drive to an image on an NTFS drive so there should be no issue with NTFS

I've also used macrium reflect free before, and it works well for shadow copy type backups.

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+1 for Clonezilla. Takes a bit of getting used to but is free, decent software. Only downside is that it can't seem to resize images to a smaller disk size that was imaged from. –  tombull89 Mar 7 '12 at 9:04
    
I tend to use it for situations where i have systems that are too odd to bother with - like my WIndows Windows Linux OS X quadboot ;p –  Journeyman Geek Mar 7 '12 at 9:07
    
Windows Windo-eek. –  tombull89 Mar 7 '12 at 9:18
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