To image or not to image...


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Drive image, to image or not to image...

A drive image is one type of backup, and it is very handy for when your Operating System needs to be fixed ...

Consider this:

If your computer failed right now do you have a backup of your data? If you do great, if you don't how much will it cost you to recover that data?

However the most important question is this: Is the data recoverable?

I am not saying to do an drive image of your computer at the end of each business day.

The usefulness of a image (also known as a Norton or Symantec Ghost image) of you hard drive is in case of a catastrophic hardware failure, your power supply goes south and takes your hard drive with it. Or your hard drive fails.

With an image of the partition(s) that have your data stored on them you can recover faster with less work or heartache. To go along with the image you have to have a comprehensive data back up plan and schedule.

How a drive image works:

Along with your comprehensive data backup program you create an image (a special file) of your operating system and data partition(s).

Example # 1, a personal system:

Lets say you have a brand new computer (works with an old one too!), it either comes with the OS installed or you install it. Then you install your programs (with all those nagging key codes, activation codes, anti theft programs, etc....) and you customize your desktop to your liking.

Now that you have invested at least four hours if not more into just getting the darn thing where you can actually do some work!

Ok how much did that cost you? I mean how much is four hours of your business day worth?

With a imaging program you can create a complete image of the hard drive.

You can either create an image of the hard drive itself or of each of the partitions on the hard drive (partition image is recommended because you would have to have the same drive from the same manufacture with the same specifications as the original to recover with a drive image or more commonly called a "clone" image).

The different programs that will make this "special file" for the drive image called an image:

  1. Acronis True Image
  2. Norton Ghost
  3. Symantec Ghost
  4. DriveImage XML

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I have used these four programs extensively and have not had any major problems with the image they made. However the Norton Ghost, Symantec Ghost an Norton/Semantic Ghost32 is out of production.

So your hard drive has failed, you get the new one, it is installed now what?

Well if you had a image of the original hard drive partitions you could put the images on your new hard drive and be back up and running in less than an hour.

Once you have the image on the hard drive, you go to your latest backup and restore your data. Done, looks just like the old one, eh? And as a bonus you don't have to find those key codes, call or contact the program publisher to unlock the activation again, it is all ready installed!

Example # 2 a business with multiple systems:

Before I get into the why and how; this only works on computers made by the same company and have the same model number, differences between companies and models of computers will cause the image to fail on startup!

Lest say you have a business, you are going to expand or buy new equipment.

The local computer store or shop wants $XXX per hour to setup and install all your systems with the OS and all the software you have for each computer.

You will need to check with the program's publisher about licensing your software, if you have a corporate or enterprise license you will not have any problems installing all your software on one computer and creating a copy to put (or deploying as the geeks say) to all the other computers.

So to save your self a lot of $$$ you decide to buy Symantec (Norton) Ghost, or use Acronis True Image, create an image on one of the new computers then deploy that image to  all the other computers.

To do this you or the tech will setup one system, load all the software, Optimize the OS! Then using ghost create the image.

Note: To make a drive image of an installed Operating System you have to start the computer from a separate Operating system. You can use one of these options:

  • A bootable CD
  • A bootable USB Flash Drive
  • Have a Dual Boot system

Some bad news: Newer computers have SATA II and III interface for the hard drive or SSD, unless you have made your BartPE with those drivers you will not be able to access the hard drive or SSD. You can however make your own ERD, for more information click here.

Ok where will you put the image once you decide to do this?

The fastest way is to create a separate partition on the image computer and not format it. You will have to either boot the system from dos or use a program like (see my review of this fine program!) ERD... Commander

Or make your own ERD and then format the partition and create your image there.

Once created you can then copy it to a CD or a DVD. This makes the image portable and tamper proof.

Before you begin your image:

You will need three things before you can create your drive image:

  1. A way to start the computer and not be in the installed OS.
  2. A place or storage device for the image.
  3. A program that makes the image file

How do you start the darn thing with out the hard drive? Well there are thee ways to start the systemYour IT Toolbox should have these programs... besides using the installed OS. You can use:

A Floppy


A USB drive

Once you have it started and are ready to create the image, where are you going to store it? You can't use any of the boot devices they are to small, your image(s) may be over 1 gig, the OS partition will be that or more by itself.

You could use the hard drive in the computer if there is enough space to create another partition of say ten GB or a little more. You could use an external USB drive, or if you have a second drive in the system use that. Another place could be the second partition if you have two partitions on the hard drive, this will only work for the OS partition.

Note: if you are using the hard drive in the computer you should move the OS image off the second partition before you image it, leaving it on the partition then creating an image will increase the size of the image by the amount of space the OS image occupies, say it is 3.3 gig, then the image you are creating will be the data on the partition plus the OS image of 3.3 gig.

Now you have your images what next? Well you need to store them in a safe place. Look at the size of the images, will they fit on CD's? or maybe a DVD? If you used a external hard drive is it reliable? Do you carry it with you when you travel? Hard drives are extremely reliable but they are vulnerable to shock, electro magnetic discharge, and voltage spikes. They will fail. Put the images on a CD or DVD as soon as possible.

Note: Ghost and True Image allow you to split up the image file in smaller sections, this would be very advantageous for an image of over 2 GB in size, with the image split into smaller sections you could use DVD's and still have the complete image. Just a thought...

Note: To create an image you need a way to start the computer from either a dual boot operating system configuration or an external OS such as a bootable usb, I use a custom Emergency Repair Disk (ERD), make one for yourself? Check this out.

Tutorials for creating and restoring a drive image:

Creating a Symantec (Norton) Ghost drive image

Restoring a Symantec (Norton) Ghost drive image

Or you could use Acronis True Image.


Your recovery is only as good as the last backup! Backup regularly!

Update 02/12/20 - Since creating this article I have since examined the PE3 (Preinstall Environment version 3) which is a way to make an Emergency Repair Disk that the Windows 7 installation uses. Add to the fact that the older version of ERD for XP and older Windows versions may start a Windows 7 or newer installation you will do damage to the file system with the file and disk management tools. The disk imaging program recommend by the programmers of the ERD creator I suggest you use also suggest a newer drive image program called DriveImage XML, I have used this program and find it fairly easy to use, however I also have used the Ghost program since if was released many years ago and have yet to run in to a problem with the images I have created even with the extremely picky Windows 10.

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