A True Image is Worth a Lot...

Note that this article describes TrueImage version 6.0. Acronis have recently released a new version 10. I've written some notes about the newer versions in a later diary entry.

Following on from my previous rants, I've managed to get somewhere on the issue of building standby backup machines and creating disk images for disaster recovery. I can't say that it's an ideal solution, but it should give me some protection for the future. It's also helped to save some time rebuilding my laptop after a rather optimistic reconfiguration I undertook late one evening.

I've been experimenting further with Acronis TrueImage, and it does seem to do a lot of what I want, and most of the things it's advertised as being able to do. I've tried it on a range of machines, set up in a range of different configurations, and with wildly varying hardware. In most cases, it worked well. However, there are a few things that could do with fixing.

My requirement was to be able to create a complete image of a drive that could be restored on demand, and return that machine to its exact original configuration (service packs, applications, services, etc.) quickly and without me needing to spend hours fiddling with network drivers and other stuff just to access the saved image file. It would be nice to be able to create the image while Windows was running, and TrueImage seems to be able to do this as well - though I never got to the point of test restoring an image created this way.

I'm quite happy to pull a machine out of the network for the half-hour or so it takes to create the image by booting from the four floppy disks that TrueImage can create, and I reckon this has a far better chance of creating a true image (pardon the pun) of the disk. When something like Exchange Server or SQL Server is running at the same time, I always wonder if what I actually get in the image is accurate enough to restore without having the corresponding application cough, splutter and die.

The boot floppies that TrueImage creates don't use traditional DOS, but some shell (I suspect it might be something Linux-based) that can run on Intel machines. Amazingly it seems to recognize all kinds of hardware automatically, and the interface is almost pure Windows XP look-alike. Fully GUI, easy on the eye and reasonably intuitive.

However, there are still a few issues with this shell, which I understand are under review for future releases After two weeks of badgering them several times a day, the technical support people have cooled a little. I don't blame them... (but thanks a lot for your help Dennis). Things I found are:

The machines I tried it on included Dell 8100 and 8200 office PCs, a Dell Inspiron laptop, a couple of ageing Dell P330 tower machines, a Dan Celeron 600 office PC, and a Dell 1400 server. The only one it completely failed to run on at all was the Dell 1400. Maybe the server architecture, the fact that it boots from a SCSI disk, or something else more technical with wires and things, was to blame (sorry, I'm only a programmer...).

My final setup for the main machine I wanted to protect (which, typically, didn't provide network support with TrueImage) involved adding an extra (cheap) 40 GB IDE hard disk and partitioning half as FAT32. Then I created the image locally to this partition, restarted Windows, and copied it to the file server for storage. The other half of the disk is an NTFS partition, which is useful for storing Windows Backup files.

The only concern with this is security of the FAT32 partition, and I chose to delete it after copying the image file. It would be easier to leave it there (making sure not to share the disk, of course) so it could be used immediately if required. However, it's easy to install a vanilla instance of Windows from the bootable CDROM, and then use this to get the image file back onto the local disk for a restore.

One interesting event was that, while testing the image process under Windows (rather than from a floppy disk) I kept getting an error that a file had been changed and the process was abandoned - but only on one machine. I suspected Exchange Server to be the culprit, but it happened even with all Exchange services stopped. It turned out to be a dozen bad sectors on the hard disk (good thing I've got a backup!). After booting from the floppies, the image creation process also found these bad sectors, but gave the option to ignore them.

The machine I wanted to protect is a clone PC made by the now defunct Dan Technology in North London. I bought it when we were working on the Application Center book and I needed a test server-farm stack. So I had an exactly identical machine available to use as a cold-swap backup. After installing a vanilla copy of Windows, I used the "extra hard disk" approach to create the image, then copied it to the spare machine and restored it there. It worked! An exact replica. As a test I swapped it with the original and it works fine.

Probably I'll have put it in a cupboard and won't be able to find it when the current server does finally give up on me...

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