Storage

HDD imaging: Not just for the enterprise

A failed hard drive can mean many hours of tedious work reinstalling a new drive. Whether you're an enterprise pro or small-time tech, make that chore a thing of the past by imaging your hard drives whenever there is a chance that data will be lost.


For the enterprise help desk pro, hard disk drive (HDD) images are an essential aspect of the job. But support pros in small IT shops would be remiss not to also take advantage of reimaging since it allows for the recovery of a workstation's hard drive with unparalleled speed and accuracy. Of course, that’s only true if the image is kept current.

To illustrate why reimaging is sometimes preferable to troubleshooting, here's the story of how a current image saved me from wasting many hours reloading software.

A simple move
Before moving into my current house, I made a backup of my useful files before packing away my computer. When I unpacked my system, plugged it all together, and hit the power switch, instead of the usual hum and clicks, all I heard was a screeching, grinding noise. Then a hard disk failure message appeared on the screen. After some checking, I determined that all was well except for the hard disk. Without another alternative, I unchained the trusty Visa card from my wallet, wiped off the cobwebs, and bought a new drive.

Within half an hour I was up and running. Printer, scanner modem, dual screens, ISP settings, and all my current work were fully available to me. Normally, reinstalling the operating system and all my applications would take several hours even after I found and unpacked all the CDs. Luckily, I had used Symantec's Norton Ghost to make my backup.

While I routinely make CD copies of my critical files, I decided to take this backup one step further. Using Ghost, I created a bootable CD that could be used to restore my hard drive. While I used Symantec's Norton Ghost, other imaging utilities are available, including PowerQuest's Drive Image.

Norton's friendly Ghost
Creating my bootable CD with Ghost was a snap. After starting Ghost, I accessed the boot Wizard. While several options were available, I used the standard configuration to create a simple boot disk. Then I restarted the PC using the boot disk. During the reboot, several error messages appeared as Ghost tried various CD-ROM drivers until it found the correct one. A Norton Ghost menu then appeared.

From the menu, I clicked Local | Disk | Image to make an image of my local hard drive. I elected my source drive, the save location (in this case, a CD writer, although you can use a floppy drive or separate hard disk partition), entered a file name for the image, and clicked Save to begin. At this point, Ghost provided an estimate of the number of disks required. Once Ghost finished the image, I rebooted the computer as normal, shut it down, and packed it for the move.

You could say I was just lucky to have taken a new image right before my hard disk failed, but luck had nothing to do with it. This was planning. Although slim, there was a chance my computer would be damaged during the two-mile move. Taking this into consideration, I decided to take the extra precaution of making a complete image instead of just backing up my important files. Whether you’re working on your home PC or an executive's, it's always a good idea to image the drive before you do anything that might cause a loss of data.

Reimaging vs. troubleshooting
Our IT department uses Ghost to quickly configure newly built PCs. They have a unique hard drive image for each department. The images contain software specific to the department's needs and PC configuration. This allows a new PC to be up and running in minutes compared to the hours it normally takes to install an OS and multiple applications.

Ghost is also used as an alternative to troubleshooting software problems. Although it is a point of pride with many support techs to troubleshoot and solve a problem, it isn’t always cost effective. By the time you have sorted out an errant registry entry or corrupt system file, you could have reimaged a dozen workstations. Our workstation hard drives are configured specifically for this process. Personal files are stored on a separate partition from the operating system and applications. All users also have a home drive on the network for saving important files. End users understand that anything not stored to a network drive is not backed up.

The moral of this story
Using hard drive images saves so much time and effort that I don't understand why anyone with a CD burner wouldn't take advantage of this handy tool. You may be saying to yourself, "I only support 15 PCs; HDD imaging won't save me that much time." I think you're wrong. While you may not be installing new systems on a daily basis like an enterprise help desk, there are plenty of situations when an image can save you time, effort, and frustration. Think of the last time you went to do a simple software fix and ended up reinstalling the OS. Imaging, while not the end-all-be-all of IT support, should be a part of every help desk's toolkit.

Imaging and you
How does your help desk use HDD imaging technology? When was the last time a hard drive image saved you time and effort? Where do you fall in the debate over reimaging and troubleshooting? Post a comment to this article or write to Jeff Dray and let us know.


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