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Clone/backup multiple computers' hard drives onto single external HD?

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December 1, 2012 6:25:04 AM

We currently have about 8 computers for my business, and I'm hoping to create a handy consolidated backup, containing clones of all OS-containing partitions from all computers, onto one 2TB external hard drive. Would this work, or create issues? What would you advise?

In case of a HD failure, I want to be able to replace the broken HD, and easily redeploy the respective cloned partition(s) onto the repaired computer, and have everything operating as it was before.

I use BootIt NG as a boot manager on 5-6 of the computers, and have multiple-OS setups on those (generally WinXP and Win7, setup to not see each other at all, plus a shared data partition if I need to transfer files between them).

With BootIt NG, it creates an Extended MBR, and I can essentially set up as many primary partitions as I want on a given drive on that computer. I have also used the program to individually clone, resize, move, etc., the partitions within a single computer - and I have made clone backup partitions within the same HD of each OS partition, in case the working OS gets hopelessly messed up. But if the HD itself dies, that won't help me much.

Of course, when working within a single computer, BootIt NG makes sure the EMBR keeps track of all the partitions. But if I try throwing maybe 15 cloned partitions on a single external HD, as separate partitions, originating on different computers, I'm guessing that any computer I plugged the ext HD into would not read it correctly, or it wouldn't see all the partitions (nor >4, if they're all made primary).

Or, perhaps, would I have to dedicate one desktop computer for holding a 2TB internal drive for all these backups, and use the boot manager/EMBR on that desktop to keep track of them all -- and then to redeploy a backup if needed, put the new/replacement HD into a USB enclosure and copy the cloned backup(s) onto it? But then might the MBRs not match up between the source computer and the new computer, rendering the new HD not bootable once I install it?

Or, is it better to scrap the whole "partition" premise, and make "images" of each partition instead? But then could I recreate a fully working, multiple-OS, multi-partition HD that would work like before?

This is confusing! :)  Sorry for the lengthy post, but thanks for your input!
a c 79 G Storage
December 4, 2012 10:06:10 AM

You can't clone more than one hard drive to another hard drive in the way you suggest. The 'target' drive can only contain one clone at any one time.

For saving multiple drive backups to a single drive you need to create "disk images", not clones. A "disk image" is just a file (allbeit a very large one) which is also compressed to save space. Since it's just a file, you can have any number of them on the same backup hard drive, the only limit being the capacity of the drive. Neither does it matter if all the disk images contain active partitions.

I have no idea if your existing BootIt NG utility can create disk images, so I can only recommend one which can, and which I have been using for years with total success. It's called Active Disk Image and is worth every penny in my opinion: http://disk-image.com/
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December 5, 2012 10:06:52 PM

Thanks for the reply and the software suggestion.

If a computer dies, and I want to utilize a backup image to recover that computer, is it as simple as just 'pasting' the backup image onto the new drive via whatever backup software I'm using? Will it boot up like before?

I imagine the backup software would work as a 'live' utility or something, to be able to read/transfer the image to the new HD without otherwise accessing the new HD. But then once transferred, what else would I then have to do to make it bootable?

Especially, what if the imaged drive had contained 5-6 primary partitions (made/managed via BootIt NG and it's associated extended MBR partition)? Does the backup image contain the complete contents, including every last sector, including the MBR and all partitions? Would the repaired computer then boot and operate just like before?

Also, it is best to collect the backup images on an external HD, and then to plug in that ext HD via usb into the computer to be repaired, and copy the image onto a new/blank internal drive installed in the computer needing repair?

OR, is it better to keep the backups on some 2nd internal drive, and then when needed, put a new replacement drive into a usb-connected external enclosure, transfer the image to it, and then psychically install that new drive into the computer that died?

Does it make any difference at all, practically speaking?

Thanks again.
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a b G Storage
December 6, 2012 1:19:08 AM

Most drive imaging software out there should contain the ability to send an image of the computer via the network.

I recall Norton Ghost for example. I'm partial to http://www.paragon-software.com/ however I have never tested the network share option as I have all my images stored across multiple drives.

Typically most of these imaging apps provide an option for a WinPE environment which offers hardware support with a familiar Windows interface. WinPE provides network support through either a DHCP or manually configured connection, support for external FireWire or USB drives, and enables pre-mounting of network shares and driver injection for special storage controllers and network cards.

If not, the next option is to have a mobile drive to use via the recovery method and connect the image back up drive to any of the computers for re-imaging. However keep in mind that if the hardware changes and you try to re-image the drive you will run into issues whereby you will be required to register the OS.

I would also look into backing up the image mobile drive to an alternate drive, one for onsite and offsite storage.
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a c 342 G Storage
December 7, 2012 2:56:20 AM

Sorry, I have to disagree with Phil22.

I have a machine with two Seagate 320 GB HDD's internally, and a 500 GB Seagate HDD in an external enclosure attached by eSATA. I use Seagate's free utility package Disk Wizard. I can clone the C: drive to a PARTITION on the external drive. I start with the external drive empty - no Partitions, even, just all Unallocated Space. I let the cloning software create a new bootable Partition to hold the clone, and I make it large enough to hold the C: drive's contents - say, 200 GB. When that is done, I re-run the cloning utility to clone the D: drive to the same external HDD. It just makes a new Partition from the Unallocated Space and puts it there - I set the size again, and in my case this one does not need to be bootable. Result is I have on one external HDD two partitions, each containing a perfectly functional clone of the internal HDD's.

I have verified that my emergency plan works. I have disconnected my two internal HDD's, then physically moved the 500 GB HDD from the external enclosure into my computer to make it an internal HDD. I can boot from it (the 1st Partition is bootable, and a clone of the C: drive) and run, and the D: drive is also there to use. (I did it this way because I'm not sure if my BIOS will let me boot from the eSATA port, since it is run by a different mobo chip than the four "regular" internal SATA ports.)

Don't forget, one clones and uses "drives", and a "drive" is just a Partition on an HDD device.
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December 11, 2012 10:55:30 PM



Thanks for the reply. I'm wondering, would any computer be able to correctly see and read the multiple ext HD partitions, or just the computer you created them on?

Is reading ext HD partitions MBR-independent? Do you need the clone-making software present to read the partitions or to do anything with them?

Also, is there a limit to how many ext HD partitions you can make like this? (and are you making them primary or extended?)
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a c 342 G Storage
December 12, 2012 2:29:23 AM

Partitions on a hard drive (external or not) are each treated by the OS as one "drive", with its own letter name. As such, they show up in My Computer and are fully accessible. They should be so in any computer in which you install that HDD unit. In fact, ANY HDD has to have at least one Partition on it to be used - even if that Partition contains ALL of the HDD's space. That C: drive you use every day actually is a Partition on one of your HDD units (maybe you only have one HDD).

Now, I'm not sure (no personal experience), but I believe that an HDD that has had Partitions created on it by any common OS can be "read" by any other. BUT - a big one! - the way each Partition has been FORMATTED makes a big difference, because each OS can only "understand" a limited range of data storage formats. For example, all versions of Windows can read any drive formatted by any Windows, but it cannot read a Partition Formatted and written by most Linux systems.

Now, when you get beyond the MBR system (limited to HDD's of 2 TB or less), there is a problem with recognizing Partitions. I'm sure an OS using only MBR HDD's cannot read the structures on a HDD Partitioned with a GPT system.

In my case, the clone copies made onto my external HDD each appear to be complete "disks" and are completely usable under Windows. There is no need for the cloning software to use the data. In My Computer, they show up as G: (the clone of C: ) and H: (the clone of D: ) - I have two HDD's, C: and D:, and two optical drives, E: and F:. Of course, when that external unit is turned off or disconnected, they don't exist at all.

I'm not familiar with the GPT system. But in MBR-Partitioned HDD units, you can have up to 4 Primary Partitions on one HDD. One or more of the Partitions can be made into more Extended Partitions, and there are few limits on how many of those can be made. (Think of Extended Partitions as being contained within one (or more) Primary Partition, just as subdirectories are contained in the root directory of a disk.) I made mine both Primary Partitions (there are only two, although I have a job to do in future that will call for three Primary Partitions on that one external HDD). Only the first one is bootable - that is the clone of my C: drive, and I want it to be a possible boot drive in a failure situation. The other Partition is non-bootable, just like the data HDD (D: ) that it replicates. But it is possible to have more than one bootable Primary Partition on one HDD - this is one way to make dual-boot systems that use different OS's.
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a c 79 G Storage
December 13, 2012 5:33:27 AM

Paperdoc said: "Sorry, I have to disagree with Phil22"

You are entitled to disagree of course. I, however, I stick by my advice. Creating disk images in the OP's particular scenario is likely to be more suitable than creating clones. Disk images can include fully descriptive reference notes to remind the user which PC it belongs to, and that's important where several different makes or models are concerned. You cannot annotate descriptions when creating a clone.

Then there are the clones themselves. The OP suggests that every clone will contain an active partition, so how will the OP be able to boot from a clone if it becomes necessary, when there are several active partitions on it?

As I suggested, creating disk images is the way to go in this scenario.
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a c 342 G Storage
December 13, 2012 1:19:53 PM

phil22 has a good point. My disagreement was solely with his statement, "The 'target' drive can only contain one clone at any one time." I was saying that you can put more than one clone on on HDD unit, in separate Partitions.

However, as he points out, OP's original task was to make complete backups of many HDD's from different machines. For that task, phil22's proposal sounds better to me. I do not have experience with this larger task, so I defer to his advice.
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December 14, 2012 4:05:23 PM

Thank you everyone for your advice. It looks like the option of choice will be to create an image of each partition and keep those images all consolidated on an ext HD.

Next up, I'll go and review the disk-image software options. I'll check out Active Disk Image, which was suggested in a reply, and I also hear a lot about Acronis True Image and Norton Ghost. Have you run into any big advantages or disadvantages with one imaging program or another?

By the way, do these disk image programs create an image based on partitions (like a HD with 3 active partitions and 3 OS's will require 3 "images"), or do they create the backup image based on the entire physical drive itself (making one "image" regardless of how many partitions there are)?

Also, so as not to interfere with the HD as it's being imaged, do these programs require running off (or booting from) a USB stick or similar?
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December 15, 2012 4:42:34 AM

Hi, as for backup and clone, you can try out the software of AOMEI Data Backuper, It is professional and also free of charge.


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