It's inevitable: At some point you're going to need to recover from a disaster. When this happens, if you happen to have a cloned image, the task will be far easier. But many budgets don't include the cost of some of the pricier cloning tools, like Acronis Backup and Restore. When you don't have the budget, what do you do? If you're lucky, you have access to one of the following free applications, all of which do an admirable job of cloning disks.
Some of these apps are more powerful than others. While some will do a-bit-for-bit copy, others create a full ISO of your running system. Some are Windows specific and others don't care what platform you're running. In the end, what's important is that you use the tool that best suits your skills and needs.
Note: This list is also available as a photo gallery.
Clonezilla (Figure A) is one of my favorite cloning tools. This particular take on the cloning process is more like a bootable Linux distribution that can do bit-by-bit copying, and it supports a ton of file systems. There's an unattended mode and multicast support built in. Clonezilla might be the single most powerful disk copy tool available that doesn't have a price tag. And if you're looking to clone multiple machines quickly, Clonezilla SE can clone 40 machines at once. Clonezilla does use a curses-based interface, so some might find it a bit challenging at first.
2: Macrium Reflect Free Edition
Macrium Reflect Free Edition (Figure B) touts itself as one of the fastest disk cloning utilities available. This cloning solution supports only Windows file systems, but it does it quite well and has a fairly straightforward user interface. This software does disk imaging and disk cloning, allows you to access images from the file manager, creates a Linux rescue CD, and is compatible with Windows Vista and 7.
Macrium Reflect Free Edition
3: DriveImage XML
DriveImage XML (Figure C) uses Microsoft VSS to create images and does so with reliability you might not expect in a free tool. With DriveImage XML you can create "hot" images from a disk already in use. Images are stored in XML files, so you can access them from any supporting third-party software. DriveImage XML can also restore an image to a machine without the need for a reboot. This software runs under Windows XP, Windows Server 2003, Vista, and 7.
4: Runtime's Shadow Copy
Runtime's Shadow Copy (Figure D) sacrifices in interface design for the sake of simplicity. With this tool there is little more to do than decide what you want to image and where you want to image it to. Shadow Copy makes use of VSS so you can even copy locked files on a running system. You can copy a single file or an entire system with the click of the mouse.
Runtime's Shadow Copy
5: Paragon Backup & Recovery Free
Paragon Backup & Recovery Free (Figure E) is for stand-alone Windows machines, and it does a great job of handling scheduled imaging. The free version is based on the powerful pro version, but it's for personal use only. I highly recommend using the free version to try out the software. If it fits the bill, pony up for the full version (or even the server version). Paragon is also one of the few backup and recovery software titles already labeled as Windows 8 ready.
Paragon Backup & Recovery Free
Just in case
You've been looking for a free backup solution that will help to clone disks. With one of these five, you should now have that solution in hand. Yes, some of them might be a bit challenging to use and some might not have all the features you're looking for. But each of them should allow you to clone a disk to another drive to make your disaster recovery plan come to life. With luck, you won't need any of these titles — but there's a little law named after a man called Murphy that might have something to say about that.
Other good solutions?
What cloning tools have saved you when things when awry? Share your picks with fellow TechRepublic members.
Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.