Preparing for Vista Backup and Restore - Part 1 of 2

Happy Holidays Everyone!

What could be better than spending the Holidays backing up your computers? :) If you have Windows Vista (Ultimate Edition) and if you are thinking about using Vista's new Backup and Restore Center, here are a few things that you may want to consider before starting.

Vista has two backup/restore modes: the normal backup and the CompletePC backup. Both are very easy to use but the ease-of-use has trade-offs and limitations. I leave you to do independent reading on the details of these two backup mechanisms. This blog focuses on the limitations and ways to "make the best" of Vista backup.

The Normal Backup

This mechanism backs up an entire Windows drive and offers scheduling and incremental backup like any other backup program. For ease-of-use, Vista offers drive-level source and category-based file filtering. Drive-level means that you can only specify the drive (like C: and D:) but not the individual folders (like D:\MyPrograms\MyDir). Category-based file filtering means that Vista decides which files to backup and which files to exclude.

By now you may be asking, “You mean I can’t pick which folders to include or exclude from the backup?” Yes!

Not being able to select individual folders to backup is a major handicap but not a show stopper. Developers often have one or more source code enlistments on their drives along with other daily work data. The daily work data has to be backed up but the source code enlistments most often do not since they are normally from a version control system (like the Team Foundation System). With Vista backup, if you have to back up your daily work data, you have to back up the entire drive and needlessly include those source code enlistments. My way around this limitation is to separate my daily work data and the source code enlistments into different drives.

But before you jump for joy, there is this little technicality called category-based file filtering…

Category-based file filtering means that Vista decides on which files to back up and which files to exclude based on its internal determination of the file’s category. The downside of this is that you cannot be sure that ALL of your files are backed up. This limitation is critical, if you, like me, keep personal tools (.exe) and scripts (.bat, .cmd) that also need to be backed up. These files (and others that falls into the “exclude category”) will be skipped and you'll end up with unknowingly incomplete backups.

The question now is: How likely are you going to back up files that are in the Vista backup engine's "exclude category"? As a developer, I would say "Very likely!" As a home user like millions of others, I would say "Not so likely!" This leads tomy recommendation: Fellow developers out there should really think twice about using the Vista normal backup to back up your daily data and work environment because your backups may be incomplete.

The CompletePC Backup

This mechanism backs up an entire PC which includes the Vista system drive and, optionally, any other Windows drive in the computer. If you dual boot, both the boot partition/drive and the Vista partition/drive will be included in the backup. You can optionally include additional Windows drive.

Unlike the “normal backup”, a CompletePC backup includes ALL files and folders! Yeah!

The backup process is very quick using block-level copy. There is also no data compression. If the drives to be backed up total to 90GB, the backup will be around 90GB. Make sure that you have enough space in your backup storage.

To restore from a CompletePC backup, you’ll have to boot into System Recovery Mode using your Vista install disc (or F8 from the Advance Boot Options menu). The restore process will restore the Vista system drive plus any other system drive that is needed to boot. For example, if you backed up a dual boot PC and the backup contains drive C: (XP) and drive D: (Vista), both drives C: and D: will be restored. Restoring other non-system drives is optional. Special care must be taken since drive restoration is destructive and all current data on the drives to be restored will be lost.

This is actually my current setup. I separate my data/work and source code enlistments into different drives and use CompletePC Backup to back up my system drives (XP) C: and (Vista) H: along with my work drive D:. Now I can back up and restore my system drives and optionally my work/data drive.

The question now is: Now that I have everything backed up the way I wanted, how do I restore just my data/work drive, just a folder, or even just a file?

Stay tuned. I’ll have an answer (or way or the other) for you in the next blog. See part 2.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!


PS. Here is an interesting reading from Dan Stevenson of Microsoft about Vista backup and restore.