Have you ever had a hard drive malfunction and needed to completely reinstall all your applications and drivers? Chances are, it took a while, and may have involved a desperate search for installation disks or license numbers. Reinstalling a server can be even more of a hassle.

Disk imaging software eases that pain by creating a single image "snapshot" of everything on a hard drive. That allows you or your IT staff to "clone" -- completely reproduce -- that hard drive in a single operation. It can get you up and running in less than an hour, as opposed to many hours. Even better, it can create huge savings in IT work time.

Even if your company tried imaging software in the past, and rejected it because it took too long or used too many network resources, advances mean you should take another look at this highly useful software, according to Joel Barker, senior product analyst for Aeshen, which creates training and marketing tools for technology professionals. "Now, images are smaller, networks are faster, and it's easier to store everything in a single location," he says.

Making the most of imaging

Here are some ways disk imaging can make your IT life easier:

  • Disaster recovery: "We use imaging for customers to make it much quicker and easier to restore a desktop after a disaster," says Paul Sullivan, vice president and general manager of Agility Recovery Solutions, Inc. He estimates that restoring from an image saves four to six hours of work per desktop. Agility specializes in helping companies deal with catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina or this summer's Midwestern flooding, but imaging can also help you recover from a relatively minor disaster such as a crashed computer. "I think the greatest value is reducing desktop support, which is a major IT cost," Barker says. If a desktop is suffering malware-related trouble or otherwise experiences a software-based crash, IT staff can simply restore an image rather than having to wipe the disk and reinstall everything from scratch. Often they can do the restore remotely and won't even have to touch the malfunctioning computer. It's important to note that, in most cases, the new image will completely replace the old, so that any applications or data stored after the snapshot was taken will be lost for good unless they're saved separately. This is why most IT experts recommend separate backup for day-to-day data, and why Sullivan recommends that his customers update their stored images on a quarterly basis or more, especially after installing a major new piece of software.
  • Hard drive upgrades: "If your computer's hard drive is getting full and you need to replace it with something larger, it's easiest to create an image and then restore everything onto the new hard drive," says Ken Colburn, president of Data Doctors Computer Services. "That's what it was primarily used for in the past. It works so well because everything's in the same structure, and the same setting."
  • Software deployments: Imaging can also come in handy during a software deployment, in which many desktops must be loaded with the same new or upgraded application, or operating system. Instead of doing the same installation over and over, IT staff can simply load it on one desktop, take a snapshot of that computer, and then copy the image onto all the rest. This strategy works especially well if your company uses standardized PC configuration. (For more on the benefits of standardized configuration, see previous article.)Keep in mind, however, that unless all employees have the same brand and model of computer and peripherals, you may need your imaging software to account for hardware variations.
  • Resetting to a previous state: Have you ever had an upgrade or new application that caused more problems than it solved? Disk imaging makes it easy to undo a bad installation, and can completely remove unwelcome applications from your computer, which standard uninstall functions don't necessarily do. To take advantage of this benefit, make sure you or your IT staff takes an image of a computer or server just before beginning the new installation. Companies now paying to have IT pros restore their computers to Microsoft Windows XP after encountering problems with Vista could have saved themselves the money if they'd taken this step before beginning the Vista upgrade.

Before selecting imaging software, Barker says, you should first plan precisely how it will be used. "They're all targeted at slightly different roles," he says. "So you should decide your requirements before you start shopping, or you may get suckered into buying features you don't need."

There are also differences in their interfaces, some of which may work better for your IT setup than others. "The only way to find out is to test it," Barker says. Fortunately, he adds, "They all have free trial versions, though they may have limited features. So get the free version, and try it out."

Sidebar: Disk Imaging Software Options

Here are some of the most popular disk imaging options. Check their various features against your company's specific needs to make sure you pick the right one.

  • Acronis True Image -- Allows for backups of key files and data as well as the entire disk image. Restores in minutes and allows computers to be online while restoring. Acronis Universal Restore allows you to restore the image to a different model or brand of computer, or even to a virtual machine.
  • Symantec/Norton Ghost -- Can be managed remotely, and perform incremental backups as well as image restores. Can copy to an FTP site for easier off site recovery. Can trigger automatic backups of new data in response to increased malware threats.
  • Microsoft Windows Deployment Services -- Microsoft offers this product primarily to assist with upgrades or migrations to new operating systems, but Joel Barker of Aeshen notes that it can also be used to create and restore disk images, and if you have Microsoft Windows Server 2003 or 2008, then Windows Deployment Services is available free. It works with XP as well as Vista.
  • Paragon Drive Backup -- Paragon Drive Backup allows you to save both space and time with quicker backups and restores, and allows you to keep working during the backup. You can back up and restore your whole computer to and from a USB flash drive.