Both imaging and cloning have a place in today’s workflow. But you should understand the benefits and downsides of both technologies before you make a decision to use either. IT pros have used both going back 20+ years. At some companies, imaging has basically replaced cloning. We’ll define and then discuss a number of use cases for both imaging and cloning.
Defining Terms: Disk Imaging vs Disk Cloning
Let’s begin with an example: You recently installed a fresh copy of Windows on your PC. You then spent a few hours reinstalling all of your applications such as Office 365, Google Chrome, and Adobe Creative Suite. After running Windows Update, you’ve got your PC back to exactly how you like it. And you don’t want to lose all your hard work to a hard drive failure. One person tells you to clone your primary hard drive. But another tells you to take an image. You’re confused because both sound like they should work. And both do achieve the same goal.
Both cloning and imaging create an exact record of your drive. That includes all the files on the drives along with the master boot record and everything else your PC needs to boot in Windows. So how do they differ? Let’s take a look at disk imaging vs. disk cloning.
Disk Imaging: Imaging creates a large compressed file of your drive. You can then restore this file to bring your drive back to life. Because the image file itself is large, they are often saved to external drives or the cloud.
Disk Cloning: Cloning creates an exact, uncompressed replica of your drive. If a hard drive fails, you can remove it and replace it with the cloned drive. And that brings us full circle: Cloning can get you up and running quickly, but it doesn’t offer as much flexibility as imaging. For this example, taking an image beats cloning.
Scenario 1: Upgrading to flash
Say you keep getting reminders that you’re running out of disk space. So you decide to upgrade your primary mechanical hard drive to a speedy new flash drive. You have at least two options:
1. Pull your old drive, install the flash drive, and reinstall Windows and all of your programs on your new drive. This is the most time-consuming option. But it might be worth going this route if your current Windows installation is giving you problems. If your current PC is stable and all you need it a larger drive, better options exist.
2. Install the flash drive alongside your old drive. Image the old drive, deploy it directly to your new flash drive, and then yank your old drive. This option usually gets you up and running with a new drive within a couple of hours.
Scenario 2: Replacing a Bad Drive
Cloning makes a lot of sense if you’re moving your operating system and data to a new drive that will immediately be used to replace the old drive. But there are issues while trying to image a failing hard drive. And imaging takes time, so cloning a drive often makes the most sense. And that’s one of the primary benefits of cloning: it minimizes downtime. So if you can’t afford to be without access to your data for long, this is your best choice.
Scenario 3: Backup Options
This is where imaging shines. Cloning is great for fast recovery, but imaging gives you a lot more backup options. Taking an incremental backup snapshot gives you the option to save multiple images without taking up a lot more space. This can be helpful if you download a virus and need to roll back to an earlier disk image. Cloning only gives you one copy per drive. You can overwrite a clone with another, but each clone “version” needs its own drive.
Another benefit that comes from imaging is that images can be saved remotely. Using compression helps reduce storage demands and allows you to store images where it makes the most sense for your own scenario.