I recently spent two weeks restructuring my entire network so that I could begin running Exchange 2000. Needless to say, any time you're working with a brand new operating system or program, there's a good chance that a bug will cause your system to crash. After such a crash, you may have to reinstall the questionable program, or you could end up having to reformat the system and start from scratch. Because of the amount of time I had spent preparing the systems, I wanted to be sure I didn't have to do the job twice because of a crash. Therefore, I set out looking for the best way to back up and restore each server in my organization.
Before I discuss my solution, let's take a closer look at the obvious solution. I easily could have used the Windows 2000 Backup program to back up the system to a tape drive or to a file. For that matter, I could have used some other backup program, such as Backup Exec or ArcServe. However, for this situation, such a solution would have been a poor choice.
The reason is that tape backup devices (or backups to a file) work very well for nightly backups, but not so well for backing up an operating system and the programs installed on it. Sure, it's possible--even routine--to do so; but this approach has some serious disadvantages. Any time you restore a system from a traditional backup, you must first have a functional operating system installed on the server. If this operating system happens to be Windows 2000, the installation process can take an hour or two. After the operating system is installed, you must install the drivers for the backup device, whether it's a driver for a local tape drive or a client for a remote backup program. If you're working with a local tape drive, you must also install the backup software. Only then can you begin the long process of restoring your backups.
In some of my previous jobs, I've had to restore an entire server in the manner I just described. The process was ridiculously time consuming. On one occasion, I started the process at 3:00 p.m., and it was midnight before the server was back to its previous state. Of course, that server contained an extremely large amount of data, but you get the idea.
A Better Way
I knew that there had to be a better way to recover a system, so I did some research. In the end, I decided to use Ghost 2001. Its part of Symantec's Norton System Works 2001 Professional Edition, which sells for around $100.
There are several things I really like about using Ghost to back up my operating system. For starters, Ghost runs from a DOS boot disk. This means the operating system isn't running during the backup. Therefore, no files are open (and therefore skipped) during the backup. Ghost performs a sector-by-sector backup of the hard disk, so every file is backed up--even files that are sometimes skipped, such as boot files, the Registry, and the page file.
The sector-by-sector backup method has three other big advantages over traditional backup methods:
- The backup not only backs up the files, but also their locations. This is handy because some files, such as the boot sector, are expected to exist in a specific location on the hard disk. If you ever have to restore the backup, critical system files will be restored to their correct locations.
- Ghost doesn't care what operating system it's backing up. Because the entire backup and restore process is done outside of the operating system, you can use Ghost to back up just about anything. So far, I've used Ghost to back up Windows 2000, Windows NT, Windows ME, and Windows 98, with no trouble. Although Ghost isn't advertised for use with other operating systems, I suspect it would have no trouble backing up a Linux system, as well.
- Ghost supports a wide variety of file systems, including FAT, FAT 32, NTFS, and compressed NTFS.
Earlier, I mentioned that with a conventional backup, once the operating system is functioning, you have to load drivers for the backup device before you can restore the backup. However, this isn't the case with Ghost. Ghost lets you create an image of either a disk or a partition and save that image to another disk or partition or to a CD. The Ghost boot disk actually contains drivers for several CD-RW drives. In fact, I use several different models of CD-RW drives, and all of them were supported.
When I backed up each of my 13 systems, I was able to span the disk images across several CDs without the aid of third-party software. At the time you create the CDs, Ghost gives you the option of making the CD bootable. I chose to use the Ghost boot disk as a model for the bootable CD. Therefore, if I insert my backup CD into a system and boot the system, the server will load the Ghost program along with my CD-RW drivers; the first image file is right there on the CD for me to begin the restore process.
For the most part, the process works extremely well. Ghost is extremely simple to use. However, the Ghost boot disk uses PC DOS. On systems with a large number of files, such as the servers I was backing up, PC DOS simply doesn't work (as documented on www.symantec.com). To get around this problem, I had to create my own boot disk from a Windows 98 machine. After doing so, I copied HIMEM.SYS, the CD-RW drivers, and the Ghost program to the new boot disk. I haven't had any problems since doing so. I should mention, though, that the backup process works best if you defragment the system before backing it up.
This article may sound like I'm trying to sell copies of Ghost, but that isn't the case. After I discovered how quickly, easily, and accurately I could back up and restore systems, I simply wanted to pass along the technique. //
Brien M. Posey is an MCSE who works as a freelance writer. His past experience includes working as the director of information systems for a national chain of health care facilities and as a network engineer for the Department of Defense. Because of the extremely high volume of e-mail that Brien receives, it's impossible for him to respond to every message, although he does read them all.