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For the actual work environment, virtual machines are perfect. I have my IDE, Database and application servers on VM's so that part of the problem is basically solved.

I also use disk images of the main OS, so I can reinstall in a matter of ...well, under an hour anyway.

But there is still stuff that isn't in the image - application generated content like meta-data (favourites, number of times played, image tags in separate libraries), save-games, app settings, chat histories, bookmarks, cookies, DRM keys and more. After each reinstall, no matter how I try to prepare, there are a few D'oh!'s.

So what is your favorite tip, hack or tool to handle such things?

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Please mark this as community wiki, since it's somewhat subjective and has no single answer. – alex Oct 13 '09 at 6:28
I respectfully disagree, I think that there could be answers that actually solve this problem. There could be more than one approach that works, of course, but that's true of almost any question. – Console Oct 13 '09 at 8:29

I think this is mostly a hard problem for Windows, cause even if you back up your whole "Documents and Settings" folder, some program still won't see the old configuration.

For Linux, just backup your home folder, including all the .confxxx folders.
If your distro is using a qualified package management system, you can save your installed package names into a text file, and reinstall everything according to this when you move to a new machine or need to reinstall the OS.

With proper backup of the /home and /etc stuff, I have been able to recover almost exactly everything on a new machine within 1 hour.

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Linux has a real benefit in that all the apps are generally free and easy to auto-install. Good point. I am not so sure about the home folder actually, it is a good idea in theory but I find that it often accumulates stuff that you actually want to get rid of (temp files for that crappy app you tried out are left behind, say), so you have to apply some brainpower to that as well. – Console Oct 13 '09 at 8:42
well, IMHO the temp files & crappy app problems are mostly for windows. For linux, even if you installed some crappy app, it won't hurt you (almost no autostart feature, no registry bloat). And temp files in the /tmp dir will be cleared automatically, while windows tends to leave hundreds of megabytes temp files in some secret temp directories endin up eating all of your disk space. – CyberSnoopy Oct 13 '09 at 21:55

So many options, I don't know where to start :)

For VMs

  • Use the snapshot feature of most VMs to take precise snapshots of the VM. Good VMs include a snapshot manager that allows you to essentially turn the feature into a backups mechanism, removing old snapshots and maintaining new ones.
  • Use several backup strategies delineated in this quite convenient thread. From backup agents, to backup servers, to backing up the entire VM engine plus clients, to live backups, you have it all.

For Real OS

  • The simplest(?) of methods is to use a second HD. No DVDs or CDs can replace the ability of an HD to perform fast and convenient full data backups, regardless of operating system. For this effect you can use such tools as the free Clonezilla Live which supports disk to disk cloning.
  • Similarly you can use any number of Live Backup software. For Linux you have FSArchiver, for instance. For Windows you have Macrium Reflect. Essentially, you don't need to stop working on your computer for a full HD clone of your drives to be performed (simply wow!).

Alternatively you can indeed use DVDs or CDs. But as you clearly noticed this is far from ideal. What you have on a system like Windows or Linux is the sure promise that essential data for application normal operations to be spread across the entire filesystem (and for windows add the Registry to that). As you install new applications and the more sophisticated these applications are, your filesystem scope increases, to the point where a full system restore is near the size of your system used up space.

Any doubts? Fire away.

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You have the same approach as I do it seems, so we have basically solved the "how to reinstall quickly" problem. But what about strategies for the stuff that spreads "everywhere"? I don't think there's an easy solution that solves it, but I'm hoping there might be a few tips that at least help a little. – Console Oct 13 '09 at 6:28

Each time you reinstall, it's a chance to start afresh and reconfigure stuff differently, albeit the small details like the start menu. Some stuff is really hard to get right, as you said, like games configurations and licenses and so forth.

If you really need to reinstall quite often and use the exact same settings, that's called "restoring a backup." Clone your hard disk once a week and keep your daily data backed up as well. If you need to restore, you've got your config -- one week old at most -- and your data (fresh).

HDs are so cheap now that you can even keep one monthly and one yearly backup happening.

I've used programs like HDClone on Windows or SuperDuper on OSX even to move from one physical computer to another, or from one HD to another. Reinstalling the OS is a different problem. If you're reinstalling the OS a lot, there are a lot of programs to backup your Windows settings (including Windows own "Files and Settings Transfer Wizard")...

But really, do you need to reinstall that often?

share|improve this answer
I do reinstall too often, it's a deficiency I have. :) But sooner or later everybody has to reinstall, so I think the question is interesting anyway. I use images and such as well, but there's always a small amount of data that you don't want to get rid of between image restores. The settings transfer wizard was a good tip. – Console Oct 13 '09 at 8:26

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