At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, I cannot stress enough just how important a regularly scheduled backup solution is to the lifecycle of your data. Moreover, know this: One size does not fit all!
When considering data backups, there are documents that can take some time to restore, but how about a desktop? How about an entire office full of desktops? Getting these online with an OS, applications, patches, and settings can range from a matter of hours to a few days, depending on the scope of the project.
The solution for this is called thick imaging. More commonly referred to as cloning, this process involves taking a "snapshot" of the desktop at a specific point in time. In essence, a base node is created with all of the required software applications, settings, and system patches installed and configured prior to the snapshot being made. The resulting image file is then stored as a backup in the event of a complete system failure. If needed, the contents of the image file can then be read and copied back to the node (or several nodes at once in a process called multicasting), which restores the device back to the point in time when the image was first taken.
While images tend to be rather large in size, hence the "thick" prefix, they more than make up for the storage size in both their efficiency and ability to get a desktop fully operational in as little as 20 minutes.
Let's take a look at four cloning solutions for OS X to further diversify your disaster recovery plan.
1. Carbon Copy Cloner by Bombich Software
Developed by a former Apple employee, Carbon Copy Cloner (CCC) creates a clone of your computer quickly and even optimizes the data on the drive by enabling incremental data backup and removing (or archiving) previously deleted data.
CCC is a completely native OS X application that handles cloning perfectly. It even allows one to boot directly from the external drive in the event that your internal drive fails. Once the failed drive has been replaced, simply initiate a clone process from the external drive to the internal unit, and you'll be synchronized in no time.
The CCC solution is ideal for one-to-one scenarios but misses the mark when it comes to mass deployment, as there isn't server functionality to multicast images over the LAN. Furthermore, all clones must be done one-to-one, which makes deploying more than a few computers at a time cumbersome and time consuming. It's also the most expensive solution ($39.95) on this list, though Bombich Software does offer discounts for education and corporate clients, plus volume licensing and support contracts.
2. Super Duper! by Shirt Pocket
Their tag line states, "Heroic system recovery for mere mortals." Super Duper! is an easy-to-use cloning app that allows bootable, block-level clones. It also features Smart Update, which evaluates files on both the internal and external drives, compares the differences, and copies over just the data that's changed since the most recent event. This saves processing time and brings peace of mind, knowing everything is backed up.
Super Duper! has been hailed by many as a one-to-one cloning solution with the flexibility of being able to call bash scripts before and after a backup session, plus the ability to run scheduled, as well.
Similar to other offerings on this list, Super Duper! lacks a server component or one-to-many casting ability to allow mass cloning of multiple computers over a network. Instead, an external HDD must be used to "sneaker net" the image to each desktop, taking away from the time-saving features, since the process must be performed on each desktop one at a time.
It must be noted, however, that licensing Super Duper! is super simple: One license model exists, and that's it! There are no complex terms or volume license hassles to contend with at a lower price ($27.95) than its direct competitor.
3. Clonezilla Live/SE by Steven Shiau (NCHC Free Software Labs)
Clonezilla is the only free, open-source cloning software on the list. Based off the Linux kernel and supporting countless file systems, Clonezilla has the ability to create an image from OS X — plus it can handle dual-boot and triple-boot environments using Windows and Linux.
Using a Live CD to boot into the desktop, Clonezilla's approach is a little different. While it's creating an image, the desktop cannot be used. The process yields an exact, bit-for-bit copy of the computer's file structure and all the partitions contained therein. This can be used, in-turn, to deploy out to multiple nodes across a LAN.
This leads to the SE version of Clonezilla - the server edition. The SE version can be installed on a server and used for the centralized management of creating images from desktops and pushing them out to other desktops, which vastly cuts down on the time it takes to commission a fleet of office computers.
The one-to-one (or one-to-many) feature found here has one distinct drawback that sets it aside from the previous entries. As mentioned above, the desktop cannot be in use during the imaging process. This means scheduling, while technically still possible, is typically relegated to after-hours cloning sessions involving scripts to ensure a proper backup can be made. This makes Clonezilla a risky proposition, since there may not be anyone to detect an issue with the software until the following business day, which may already be too late.
4. NetInstall/NetRestore by Apple
Apple's NetInstall service is included in the OS X Server (1.0+) app from the App Store ($19.99). A full-fledged server is also included in that purchase, making it quite worthwhile compared to the other offerings on this list.
NetInstall (and its deployment component, NetRestore) work with the System Image Utility found in OS X to elegantly make boot images (NetBoot) for booting over the network, images of Apple computers to be used to mass deploy OS X (NetInstall), or restore existing configuration snapshots (NetRestore). Being designed by Apple, it includes all of the necessary software to get this service up and running — only the hardware and backbone network infrastructure is required.
While working seamlessly in a one-to-one or one-to-many environment, NetInstall's Achilles heel is in the image-building process itself. The modular nature allows for compartmentalization of applications and updates, making it lightweight, but settings and configurations must be executed using scripts. As the scope of deployment or backup grows, so too will the processes exponentially grow, creating a huge overhead that may negatively impact the speed at which the end user will have access to his or her data or a restored desktop in the event of catastrophic loss.
An upside to the modular nature of Apple's offering is the level of flexibility offered for those proficient in bash scripting. A powerful, organized server with a code-minded SysAdmin will be able to literally backup and restore nodes using an efficient workflow, with just the touch of a button!
Whether cloning one machine or 100 — bootable images, scheduling, and synchronization add efficiency and failover support to your existing disaster recovery plan in a one-to-one environment.
If SMB/Enterprise support is necessary, augmenting your network with a cloning server brings reliability, integrity, and the ability to mass deploy devices. Redundancy is as important to data backup as multi-factor authentication is to security. It provides a secondary safety net to fall back on in the event the primary one fails.
What cloning solution do you use for OS X in your organization? Share your experience in the discussion thread below.
Jesus Vigo is a Network Administrator by day and owner of Mac|Jesus, LLC, specializing in Mac and Windows integration and providing solutions to small- and medium-size businesses. He brings 15 years of experience and multiple certifications from several vendors, including Apple and CompTIA.