System Imaging Vs. Full Backup

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December 2, 2021

Which One Is Right for Your Business?

Pretty much everyone understands that backing up their data is important. But when you’re talking about how to perform backups for your entire small or medium-sized business, your backup strategy can get complicated quickly. What would you do in the event of a disaster? Do you have storage for all the backups your company may require? And what type of backup do you want to perform—one that’s system wide, or just for your files? While the answers to these questions will vary from organization to organization, they all boil down to one central ask. In a debate between system imaging vs. full backup—which one is best for your business?

Here at Integris, it’s one of the first questions we explore with our clients. But before we get into our recommendations on the matter, let’s start by defining the difference between system imaging vs. full backup.

System Imaging vs. Full Backup: Some Definitions

System imaging and full backup represent two completely different types of backup systems and processes. Let’s break it down.

System imaging is a type of backup that takes a snapshot of your entire system, and uploads it to a server, backup device, or cloud-based backup system. This snapshot includes everything that resides on your devices and in your networks—operating systems, files, software, and system infrastructure.

Backup is simply a copy being made of the properties you specify. Depending on the tool, this could be individual files on individual devices, or it could be as comprehensive as copying all shared files and software on your database. Compared to system imaging, standard full backup is generally more incomplete, as it usually doesn’t cover everything your system contains.

So what are the key strengths and weaknesses of each approach? In the debate over system imaging vs. full backup, each system has its good and bad points.

System Imaging vs. Full Backup: Pros and Cons

We can make arguments for either regular backup or system image backups. You’ll need to make your decision, however, based on your organization’s operations and needs. Here’s how that decision tree generally breaks down for most companies.

Considering System Imaging

System Imaging has one enormous advantage: it captures an image of your entire system. So, if your company experiences a natural disaster that takes down your network, or cyber thieves lock down your system and demand a ransom, you have options. With regular system imaging done of your network, you can simply erase everything, and upload a clean copy of your entire IT system. You can strip your network devices right down to its hardware, then reload the entirety of your systems on it.

The downsides to System Imaging? Mainly speed, and storage. Those large system imaging scans can take time to download—and that can be a hassle if you only need to download portions of your system that have been lost or damaged. You can find systems that offer storage compression, but that will only take you so far. If you’re considering system imaging, you’ll need a robust cloud or local/cloud combination system for storing all those system images.

Considering Backup Systems

Backup systems can vary widely. Full backup will take snapshots of all your files and shared networks. You can also get backups that work only on certain systems, like Microsoft 365, for instance, which automatically backs up to the cloud. You can target a backup provider against the systems or files that you choose. But it will not provide a system-wide snapshot.

The upsides to more targeted backup are substantial. It’s cheaper. It requires less storage space. It’s quicker to download, especially if you’re only needing a reboot for specific lost files or software. This can be especially helpful if you have a remote workforce that needs access to backups of files.

But, if you’re a company that has lots of proprietary systems, handles a high volume of customer transactions/data, or does business through connected portals, relying on standard backup could be a disastrous choice. Imagine being in a situation where a flood destroyed the server farm at your headquarters office. You’d lose your customer data and probably the whole operating system that supported your online sales. You’d be downloading piecemeal information from your systems and rebuilding the rest from scratch. The delays could be enough to destroy many businesses, entirely.

As you can see, each type of system has its downsides. So how should you use this information to craft a sound backup strategy? The answer varies depending on the type of business you run and the data you use. In the debate over system imaging vs. full backup, the answer may not be an either/or choice. For most companies, it’s “both/and.”

System Imaging vs. Full Backup: Your Next Steps

Developing a backup strategy is a complex decision. You’ll need to factor in the nature of your network, your budget, your data loss risks, and disaster recovery needs. Here at Integris, backup planning and implementation is a key service we provide our clients. And in most cases, we’re recommending that our clients use both system imaging and full backups.

In fact, the most effective backup strategies follow the 3-2-1 backup rule. It recommends that companies: create one primary backup and two copies of your data (3); have backups to two different types of media (2); and keep at least one backup file offsite (1). Since every company’s backup needs are different, this plays out differently at every organization. But, in general, it’s a great rule of thumb.

If you’d like to learn more about backup strategies and options, Integris can help you take a deeper dive into the information. Check out our recent blogs about how to use data analytics tools to manage your backups, and why business continuity plans are crucial for your disaster recovery efforts.

We have lots of information about cybersecurity for you to consider.

And as always, if you’re in one of our service areas, don’t hesitate to contact us. We’d love to talk to you about our full suite of backup and recovery solutions!

Susan Gosselin is a Solutions Writer for Integris. A career communicator and business journalist, she's written extensively on IT topics and trends for IT service providers like Iconic IT and ProCoders Ukraine, as well as business publications such as Technologyadvice.com, Datamation.com, The Lane Report and many others. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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