Peter Bretton

File Backup vs. Image Backup: Which to Use and When

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While “backup” may simply mean “backup” to the majority of SMB clients, MSPs know there is a wide variety of tools and options for getting the job done. In this post, we’ll breakdown the differences between two of the primary types of backup — file backup and image backup — and share examples of situations where each can work best.

First, let’s get the quick high-level definitions out of the way.

What is file and folder backup?

File and folder backup is designed to do exactly what the name implies — protect critical business data from accidental deletion, corruption, or loss. They backup files generated directly or indirectly by the user, rather than system-generated files, executables, or similar. Because of the focused scope of these tools, they often backup files faster, restore files faster, and utilize less storage.

What is image backup?

Image backups take a snapshot of an entire system at a point in time – the OS, application data, system settings, patches, and files. This provides MSPs with the ability to restore the system and its data in the event of a necessary rebuild or restore to another machine (physical or virtual) in case of a disaster. The major benefit to image backup is that it’s comprehensive and takes away the guess work of determining which files and folders should be backed up/recovered and which shouldn’t. It also removes the risk of having to re-install and reconfigure systems in the case of major malware infections or other disasters. The corresponding drawback is that full image backup and recovery can be more time-consuming, resource-intensive, and expensive.

When does file and folder backup make sense?

MSPs should have both file and image backup solutions in their stack, but there are specific scenarios where each have clear advantages. For file backups, those scenarios include:

  • Most workstations and laptops
  • Any devices used by remote workers
  • End users with critical files and frequent restoration requests

Most small business end-users don’t require complex endpoint configurations or deep device customization to do their jobs. Think about it – most of the workstations and laptops you support are probably minimally customized with a few line of business or productivity applications, a few minor configuration changes to improve security, and possibly a few settings changes to improve productivity – all things that can be easily redeployed via your RMM in case of an emergency. Often, their files are the primary thing of value on their devices. Executives, for example, may insist on having critical files on their laptops protected and available to them at all times. In these cases, file backup is a clear go-to for multiple reasons:

  • Restore speed: File and folder solutions are built for restoration – if a file is accidently deleted or becomes corrupted, you don’t want to have to restore a full image or spin the image up in the cloud just to restore a file. File and folder backup solutions are optimized to allow you to quickly restore individual files or full folders remotely. You can even give end-users the ability to restore their own files.
  • Restore flexibility: Image backups take a snapshot of everything on a device, including configurations. Often, these configurations and drivers are related to the specific hardware built into the device. This has the potential to make restoration challenging, particularly if you’re restoring to dissimilar hardware. If a workstation or laptop is lost, stolen, or damaged beyond repair, it is likely the end user will want to replace it with a different make or newer model. In those cases, it can often be faster to just use a fresh Windows install and restore files than downloading a whole image and restoring to dissimilar hardware.
  • Mobility: Due to their large storage requirements, many image backup solutions require some type of local storage. For most SMBs or organizations with distributed or remote workforces, this can be an incredibly expensive proposition. Direct-to-cloud image backup can similarly become very expensive for workstations due to their larger size. Due to the far smaller storage requirements, and direct-to-cloud backup method, file and folder backup solutions enable a more remote and mobile workforce.
  • Storage cost: The base image size for an up-to-date Windows 10 device with just system files can be as large as 20 GB. Add to that any applications and files the user needs and image backups get very large very quickly. When you’re paying for storage, this can get expensive fast. Utilizing file and folder backup for machines that don’t truly need full image backup can help you reduce costs and provide data protection more efficiently.

When is image backup more ideal?

  • Servers
  • Complex, highly-configured systems
  • When the cost of downtime exceeds the cost of storage to a client’s business

Image backup was created to minimize downtime in case of a disaster for complex and business-critical systems such as servers. While many image backup products can also do file and folder-level restores, the primary function of image backup is to enable full bare-metal recovery. Image backups also enable MSPs to very quickly virtualize a server until a new physical server can be setup, minimizing the impact of an outage on their client’s business. As such, it is the preferred backup method for essentially any scenario where procuring and configuring a new system would take more time than an image restore and/or any scenario where the increased cost of storage is justified by the even larger potential cost of downtime.

Bottom line

Many MSPs seem to default to image backup as the backbone of their data protection offering. Every MSP should have an image product in their stack, but many will find that the addition of a reliable file and folder backup solution will allow them to provide even more effective backup across more endpoints at higher margins.

Speaking of... 😉

Did you know? NinjaRMM just released a new cloud-based file and folder backup solution, built from the ground up to be fast, reliable, secure, and fully integrated with our flagship RMM platform. Interested in checking it out? Learn more here.