Backup Considerations 3: Clonezilla, Acronis, EaseUS and Paragon

I previously reviewed Ghost, Acronis and Paragon in “Backup Software: And the Winner is …”.  I’m not going to cover Norton Ghost again, and if you’re interested I suggest reading the previous article.  It has changed a lot over the years, and I’m not convinced it gives you the best bang for the buck.  In other articles, I have looked at present and past versions of Clonezilla as well, and it is certainly worthy of mention here.  However, it seems I didn’t write about EaseUS previously, so I want to round out the major choices with that software as well.  The last two should be considered because there are free versions for home personal use, but this review should aid you in knowing what you are getting for that price.

It should be stressed that I am not covering Windows Backup here for several reasons.  The biggest reason is that I am assuming that your needs goes beyond whatever version of Windows Backup you have, but at least look at the criteria list below to aid you in knowing whether or not your version does what you need.  The second biggest reason is that it changes with every version of Windows.  So, I may or may not advise any of the solutions in this article if you have Windows 7 unless you also have an XP machine, for example.

To paraphrase the criteria in the previous comparison article, of interest is:

  1. Ability to image (sometimes called “snapshot”) the drive.  If the entire hard disk fails, you want a way of getting back to a working system in short order.  Some backups only capture data files, which will not get you a working system.
  2. Ability to extract files from an image.
  3. Ability to boot from a CD and/or USB should Windows not be bootable.
  4. A reasonable and understandable license scheme.  There are two scenarios here, actually: a. An individual/computer license, and b. A tech license.  The first is the most common and is usually straight-forward because you buy a certain number of licenses for the machines you have.  The second can be harder to find or even require contacting someone, which means the company may or may not have transparency issues.
  5. Ability to create differentials. If this is a differential from a system image rather than requiring an entirely different backup, then add bonus points. If it doesn’t do differentials, then does it at least do incrementals?
  6. Whether or not you can boot into a recovery partition on the hard drive.  While this is more useful for techs, it can aid anyone in creating a custom recovery partition rather than a generic manufacturer partition that still takes two days to customize.
  7. Whether or not it can resize partitions.  In addition, is the resizing only upwards or can it be done to shrink a volume?
  8. Ability to wipe drive clean.

The above is more or less in order of importance, IMO, but the first three are pretty much mandatory.  A backup is virtually worthless if it cannot rebuild the system, if you cannot run it from a CD, DVD or USB or if the licensing costs so much that it breaks the bank.  However, there are other utilities that can wipe a drive or resize partitions if all else is OK.  The ability to create differentials or incrementals strictly speaking isn’t required, but you will be using a lot more disk space for your backups if the solution does not do those.  Likewise, if the utility requires you do a system image and then an entire backup in order to just pull off files, you’ll be wasting disk space and a lot of time fiddling around with that, which is why that scores a lot higher.

So, let’s look at Clonezilla, Acronis True Image Home, EaseUS and Paragon.

Clonezilla

Clonezilla is a wonderful free tool for imaging hard drives.  It is Linux-based, which means that you might have to pay attention while using it.  In like manner, Clonezilla is built with the UNIX mindset of do one thing and do it well.  Of course, the flip side of that is that it may not do other things in the way you expect if at all.

Disk Imaging

Now, my opinion is that you don’t have to be a geek to use Clonezilla, but it doesn’t hurt.  The first time you run it, you really do have to read the screens to pay attention to what is going on.  Seriously, a geek wrote the menus.  However, most of them aren’t terribly hard to understand, and even the most confusing ones aren’t impossible to figure out.  Having said that, this might not be for you if you are easily intimidated by technology and/or unfamiliar software.

Earlier versions would sometimes barf on me at the slightest provocation.  This points to the importance of having multiple backups, and if you are an IT shop, you should have two different imaging programs and use both when data loss seems like a reality.  Even the earlier versions of Clonezilla would sometimes be able to fix errors and create an image even when other tools would not, so YMMV.  The last two versions, though, have run as expected as long as the disk is accessible (which is really when you need to try multiple tools).

Normally, though, Clonezilla only fails on me when I allow the target disk to get full.  There really isn’t a good way to remove files and restart the program, either.  You can drop to a command prompt, but you have to manually mount the drive then before you can remove files.  It is actually easier to bring it up under Windows so you can see all the backups, what date they were made, etc., and then remove the older ones.  Of course, you must not forget to empty the recycling bin afterwards!

File Extraction

OK, but that’s a maintenance issue, so how about pulling files from the image?  Well, there is no way to do that from a menu or somehow mount the image to appear like a drive you can navigate and select files.  After searching the net a while, I found out that what you have to do essentially is extract all of the files from the image to a drive with plenty of space and then you can navigate that instead.  However, you’ll need to do this under Linux.

I’ve not tested any of this, as it’s a bit of a pain to have to work around the tool, but it should work from all the available documentation.

Check out your archive.  If it has “ptcl” in the filenames, it was made with partclone.  Likewise, if it has “.gz.” in the name followed by two letters, it is a split gzip archive.  While you probably have gzip on your Ubuntu system, you might have to download partclone from SourceForge.

If your backed up partition is sda3, then it probably has filenames like sda3.ntfs-ptcl-img.gz.aa, ab, ac, etc.  In Ubuntu, these files might be in /media/External/ClientBackups/2011-11-13-10-img just for example, then you would want to create a mountable image file by typing:

cat /media/External/ClientBackups/2011-11-13-10-img/sda3.ntfs-ptcl-img.gz.* | gzip -d -c | sudo partclone.restore -C -s - -O /media/External/hda3.img

This creates the mountable image file, hda3.img, at /media/External/.

Next, mount the file via the mount command:

sudo mount –o loop –t ntfs /media/External/hda3.img

You should now be able to navigate and use the “drive” normally.

Booting From CD/DVD/USB Drive

Clonezilla comes as an ISO file, so you can easily burn to a CD.  You can also create a bootable Clonezilla Live USB stick using various methods.  I have only tried the manual method, so I cannot speak to the others.

License

Clonezilla is free under the GPL.

Differentials

Sorry, but Clonezilla is a disk imaging tool.  What it does, it does well, but it isn’t really a backup utility as is traditionally thought of.

As a special note, it also requires an unmount of the disk being imaged, so you cannot work on the computer while it is being imaged.

Booting Into Recovery Partition

I have been able to do this with earlier versions of Ubuntu (9).  However, for some reason, it doesn’t work with newer versions of Ubuntu.  It does not seem to be anything Clonezilla has changed, as I’ve been able to boot the same version of Clonezilla that did not work on Ubuntu 11 on Ubuntu 9.  It makes no sense to me why, either.  It’s quite a shame, really, as it was one of the best ways I knew to setup a recovery system to quickly get the machine back to a known state, and it required no additional software licenses.  It was one of the main reasons for using it in the first place.

However, it does appear that there may be an answer yet.  On the Ubuntu forums are topics on “clonezilla grub2 entry” and “ISO Booting with Grub 2” which may provide the key to this dilemma.

Partition Sizes

Clonezilla makes an image of the hard drive and restores that image.  It does no resizing, which is why you cannot restore a larger drive image onto a smaller drive.  There are ways to make it resize if restoring to a larger drive, but frankly it is easier to boot into Ubuntu and just move them around afterwards.

Drive Wiping

Again, this is outside of the scope of the Clonezilla program.

Conclusion

Clonezilla is a good program to restore a static drive image, but it lacks the features of a normal backup program.  Of course, that means less program bloat, so it runs quicker than some other programs I’ve played with.  Since all programs have their weak points and their strong points, those who really need reliable backups such as support techs should consider using this as well as another imaging program to ensure the best backup rather than put all their eggs into one basket.  If licensing is a concern, then this is also a solid contender for applications like creating recovery partitions.

Acronis True Image Home

I have only played with the latest Acronis True Image Home (ATIH) 2012 a couple of times.  They have added a number of features such as synchronization, it seems, which could be a substitute for my prior Dropbox recommendation.

When I reviewed Acronis before, I concluded that it “seems like the only sane way to” do both backups and restores as well as disk imaging.  Things have changed somewhat to challenge that, but that doesn’t mean that Acronis didn’t set the bar quite high as much as others are slowly catching up.  Since some of this has been discussed already, I will probably gloss over quite a bit, but I want to give you enough for a decent comparison

Disk Imaging

Acronis does backups slower than Clonezilla, sometimes significantly more.  However, over the past two years of using both, I’ve seen Acronis back and restore things that Clonezilla would not touch and vice versa.  I believe it is because Clonezilla will try to check a dirty filesystem prior to imaging, and thus fixes some issues that way.  However, Acronis evidently does not, but that seems to allow it to ignore errors (after prompting) a lot easier.  Restores seem to be about the same speed.

File Extraction

Acronis provides an easy way to mount a backup on a system with it installed.  Acronis also allows you to choose which files to restore from an image and where to restore them to, all using a graphical interface.  If you are a tech, this is great because you can do one backup for multiple purposes.

Booting From CD/DVD/USB Drive

You create a rescue disk, and you can do practically everything you can do from the desktop program.

License

Here is where Acronis and others get weird.  The Acronis Product Licensing Table lists “physical machines”.  Even comments in the forums make it sound like the license is for the computer.  However, when I emailed them two years ago, they told me that the person who bough the license owns the license.  Therefore, selling a machine with Acronis on it requires you to remove it from the system.  This makes sense when you consider they have “1 physical machine”, “3 physical machines” and “5 physical machines” for their various licenses for their different products.

One thing I questioned them about was selling a machine with a recovery partition on it.  Did that mean that a full license had to be bought for each machine or could it even be sold that way in the first place?  At the time, they had no answer, but I now see that they have Acronis Snap Deploy 4 for PCs which is a license at reduced cost.  However, that does not allow for a recovery partition but rather an enterprise can setup a deployment server to deploy the image.

There does seem to be an Acronis True Image OEM product, however, that appears that it might fit this bill.  Pricing does not appear to be available from the website.  The full version of ATIH 2012 is $49.99 for a single PC.

A lot of this is not of any concern for the normal user.  However, the worst part is that there is no tech support type of license for computer technicians.  According to their forum as of 11 May 2010 (bolding theirs):

I completely share your concern, but still License Policy of Acronis Company cannot be changed, and it states that you need 1 license per 1 machine you are backing up/restoring (same with Bootable Media) . Anyway this means that in case you are using Backup and Recovery solution even from the Bootable Media you need a license for recovering the image onto the new machine. You can transfer the license from the old machine to the new one only in case the old one is out of service and cannot be used anymore.

Differentials

ATIH can not only make system images, but it can make differentials based upon the images.  Optionally, it can do incrementals if that’s what’s preferred.

Booting Into Recovery Partition

Acronis provides a means of backing onto a separate partition, which the user can boot into by pressing [F11] at bootup.

Partition Sizes

ATIH provides a toolset in which you can manage partition sizes.  However, I’ve seen instances where this has failed while Ubuntu was able to do it quite easily.  My tentative conclusion is that it had something to do with memory.

Drive Wiping

One area Acronis shines is not only the ability to wipe drives, but you can choose the method you want to use to do so.

Conclusion

Acronis has some nice products, but they seem to be cutting out certain market segments unnecessarily.  If you are an individual, small business or enterprise, then the tools work well and aren’t all that expensive.  However, if you are a computer technician and either want to create factory recovery partitions on the machines you sell or use imaging software as part of the repair process, then I advise you to look elsewhere.

EaseUS Todo Backup

I’m including it for completeness’ sake.  In spite of it being free, however, I am pretty disappointed because it advertises certain features but only makes them available if you do a full install of the software.  The download, install and creation of a rescue disk went well.

Disk Imaging

EaseUS Todo Backup was able to create an image without incident as well.  I booted off of the CD and created an image.

File Extraction

When you view the Version Comparison chart, one of the items listed is Explore image in Windows Explorer.  However, there was no visible means of doing so from the rescue disk.  When I went to restore the image, I noticed there was no way to extract files from the image either.  I have come to these conclusions based upon what I’ve seen:

  1. You must install the software onto the PC in order to Explore image in Windows Explorer.
  2. Backup of data and a system image are separate functions with different file types, meaning that you cannot simply take a snapshot and go from there.

As far as I’m concerned, this is a significant design flaw that makes all else a moot point.  You will require twice as much disk space initially, not to mention twice as much time to do a backup.  Of course, you will probably need to do a system backup periodically, so it isn’t likely to be just a one time event.

Booting From CD/DVD/USB Drive

You create a rescue disk, but you cannot use it to explore an image.  It pretty much limits you to backup and restore.

License

Free is good, obviously, but only if it does what you need.  When you view the various comparison charts, though, it seems that many of the shortcomings I’m talking about aren’t different for the paid vs free versions.

They do have a technician license, and it is only $799.20 (special price, normally $999.00).  However, after seeing it in use, this phrase makes more sense: “Technician Edition must be uninstalled from the client’s machines after external service.”  What a technician license should allow is for you to not install anything at all but run it from CD!

Differentials

Todo can do differentials and incrementals.

Booting Into Recovery Partition

This is apparently not available.

Partition Sizes

This is only available in the business versions.

Drive Wiping

This and other tools are available, but I did not test them.

Conclusion

Using this product reminds me of the saying, “The left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.”  Until it acts more like an integrated product, I cannot recommend it.

Paragon Backup & Recovery

This is the one I’ve had the least amount of time to review, I’m afraid, so there’s likely to be a followup.  However, there are some promising things about it, and I’ve already used it once to backup a drive and restore the image onto another.

I’ll be reviewing the Free version, unless I otherwise specify.

Disk Imaging

Like I stated, I created a disk image on a drive that was near death and was able to pull off the data and restore it onto another drive.  I did not try this on the machine in question, however, as it had no DVD drive and I had other concerns as well.

File Extraction

I was able to mount an image in Paragon and extract out only the files I needed from the desktop interface.

Booting From CD/DVD/USB Drive

The tool to create rescue disk tells you that it will create a disk with all the functions available on the desktop.  However, the machine I tried it on had some difficulties.  So, I am going to have to try it out again.  However, if it truly does everything as the desktop, then that gives it an edge over EaseUS right away, and may make it comparable to Acronis.

License

Well, it’s free.  There is a paid version as well, but I’m really not sure what the difference is, but Backup & Recovery 11 Home is only $39.95, as compared to $49.99 for Acronis.  It gets pretty decent reviews on CNET’s download.com as well.

The business Hard Disk Manager Server must be purchased for the technician license, it seems.  The price for the technician license isn’t available on their site, but a standard tech license seems to be running about $2500 for three years.  What’s confusing is that the level of the tech license is variable by number of sites as well as PCs.  So, if you have a small business that goes and does backups at customer locations, you may have to pony up for the premium level license!  Once again, you have to wonder who or why these goofy rules get made in the first place.

Differentials

The ability to do differentials is available from a dropdown on the Wizards menu.

Booting Into Recovery Partition

This is apparently not available.

Partition Sizes

This is only available in the business versions.

Drive Wiping

This and other tools are available, but I did not test them.

Conclusion

This needs more testing.  However, Paragon obviously has a price advantage for both consumer and tech for the features it has.

Summing It Up

Clonezilla still looks like a good solid solution for recovery partitions (esp. if the boot to hard disk can be gotten to work) and for techs needing an alternate image to choose from when backing up and restoring drives.

Acronis is overall the leader in the field, but Paragon in particular is nipping at its heels.  Paragon appears to do almost everything Acronis does for less cost.  The one thing Acronis does that Paragon does not is the ability to boot into a restore partition.  On a personal machine, this might be a worthwhile consideration.  However, a tech building custom systems isn’t likely to want the additional cost of an Acronis license to install it (if that’s even legal, which isn’t clear).

EaseUS just continues to miss the mark.  Requiring a tech to install software and then uninstall it later is a messy way to design it, and having file backups and system images as completely separate processes in this day and age makes it stand out as old school.