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Multibooting with Clones for Backup and Recovery

If you want the ability to shrug off most computer problems and quickly get back to work, then there really is no better solution than being able to just reboot into a clean copy of your operating system.

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If we have a few bootable clones of our operating system which are all fully up-to-date and that use the same data storage areas, then we can switch to using any one of them without hardly noticing the difference. With all of our up to the minute data immediately accessible to every clone, we can banish annoying problems or recover from infections and major disasters in literally the time it takes to reboot the computer.

Complete and Rapid Recovery.

Being able to fix any operating system problem in just a minute or two can lift that constant specter of worry off our chests and let us experience the huge peace of mind that comes from knowing that we can keep a machine working when we need it the most. If we additionally keep clone and data backups on a second hard drive, then we can even recover from the hardware failure of a drive in very little time. If our machine has two internal hard drives and the second drive has been configured correctly, then recovery can take no more time than rebooting from that second drive. If our second drive is external and is a powered eSATA device then we will be able to reboot our machine directly from that drive. If our external drive is USB connected and we have ensured that it is compatible, it can be swapped with our internal drive, so recovery can be achieved in just the time required to exchange the drives, which on many notebooks can take but a minute or two.

The Principals and Inspiration.

Anyone who has spent weeks or months building and configuring their perfect workhorse operating system with all its programs and settings and logins and everything else, would in the event of a problem, like to be able to restore their perfect operating system rather than be forced to reinstall and start again. The Windows built-in System Restore function is a partial solution that can restore many key files, but it can only ever be a partial fix that may not work in many situations, so from Windows-7 Microsoft finally included a back-up system that can make a copy of an entire operating system and save it as a single compressed file. This is called making an Image of an operating system and it means that we can at anytime replace Windows from the Image file and so revert our operating system back to exactly how it was when the image was made.

Back-Up Hard Drive
If we can't have a second hard drive inside our machine and so need to depend on an external drive then we don't have to spend a fortune for one that comes inside its own flashy enclosure. A sealed or difficult to open case would be undesirable as we want the option of being able to quickly swap out a faulty internal drive with our backup drive. For a USB connected external drive for a laptop then the cheapest option is to just get an ordinary 2.5in HDD or SSD and a basic case. A SATA2 HDD can be had for 30-50 bucks and a suitable screw free case for as little as $5.
back-up hard drive
Being able to restore our operating system from a backup image is the best restore method available to the average computer user as it allows us to roll back to the time we made the image. All our programs, settings and everything else that existed up till that point will be as they were and we can then bring the restored operating system up-to-date. Any able computer user will have various backup images of their operating system so they can revert either to a much earlier time when their operating system was newer and cleaner, or to a time from the very recent past where very little work will be required to bring the restored operating system up-to-date. It is not a perfect system and we will discuss below the pros and cons as we see it compared to multibooting with clones.

How the Professionals do it.
The average corporate IT department will have procedures in place where they can restore (or deploy) an image to any workstation that has developed a problem. It still takes time to deploy an image but the big difference is that the image will be fully up-to-date and the restored operating system will be clean and lean and ready to go. This is achieved by the IT department having a master install of the operating system on another machine where they are able to update and tweak it as and when required so that when an image from it is restored to a workstation it is all ready to go. The workstation operative can be doing something else while the IT department restores their computer.

How we can do it.
If we don't have an IT department or a compatible second computer that we can use to do the job of updating and imaging a master copy of our operating system, then our next best option is to keep that master copy on the computer that it is for, but not as an image that we can do little with, but in a way we can boot into it so we can add updates and additions as we please. Adapting our machine for multiboot means we can do just that, so by installing and configuring a suitable bootmanager we can have the ability to mimic the way the pros do things and so keep a master copy of our operating system fully updated and ready to go at a moments notice.

As amazing as this is it gets better because we can do something that the pros don't do. Having the partitions with the operating systems of both our current working install and our master install on the same computer means we can simply clone partitions directly instead of having to go through the process of creating and deploying images. When required we can just clone the entire partition of our master install to replace the partition and its contents that we want to restore and renew. Cloning a partition is not only typically faster than restoring a compressed image, it is also less error prone.

The Killer Feature.
And now we come to the main feature of multibooting with clones that makes the whole exercise more than worth the effort. Once we know what we are doing and have everything in place for cloning and multibooting, then there is no reason why we can't have as many bootable clones of our master install as we want. If we give ourselves at least two it means we will have the ability to recover from any software problem with our operating system in a very short space of time. Boot failures or malware infections to even just minor glitches can all be left behind by simply rebooting the computer from our next clone. There are of course a few provisions to the full success of using clones in this manner and they are covered in detail below. You should study all the pros and cons before deciding if this approach is going to be practical for your situation.

In fig:1 you can see a Disk Management view of a hard drive that has the most
basic of setups we can have for a functioning clone and multiboot system.
disk management screenshot

As you can see we have three Primary partitions that all have Win7 on them, then we have a Logical data partition that all of our operating systems are configured to use as their main location for all personal data. The first partition is our Master install that we will only ever boot into when we want to update or tweak or add new programs or settings or logins that we want to become permanent. We never use our Master install for general use and we certainly never browse the internet and we never install any programs we have not first trialed and tested in one or more of our clones. Our over riding aim is to keep our Master as clean and lean and as close to a new install as possible, so that every new clone we run off from it will essentially be as good as a fresh install of our perfectly crafted and configured operating system.

Our example on this page and most of the material on our site is mainly for drives that have been configured with the traditional MBR style of partitioning. The new GUID Partition Table (GPT) when used on the boot hard drive in machines that are using the new UEFI motherboard firmware, makes multibooting with clones a little trickier and less dependable. Until the tech guys solve a few issues and supply us with one or two user friendly boot managers that will work as we need with UEFI systems, we can't recommend trying to mix it up with GPT styled hard drives and Windows clones. info iconUEFI and GPT
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The second and third primary partitions on our example drive are of course the clones of the Windows-7 master install. If our master has been configured to save and retrieve all our data to and from specific folders on the data partition, then all our clones will be configured the same and so from the moment we boot into any one of them we will have our recent data immediately to hand, even data that was written by another clone just minutes earlier. If we keep our master install fully up-to-date and regularly renew our clones from it, then all being correct we should be able to switch to a new clone with minimal disruption or loss of time.

Creating our Perfect System.
We believe the ideal clone and multiboot system would have up to several clones across two or more hard drives, but circumstances and personal preferences will dictate what kind of setup you go for. Whatever you decide it will take time and knowledge on your part, which you can get some idea about in our follow up article:- info iconConfiguring a Clone and Multiboot System.

Not for Everyone.
The particular software you run or the way you work or prefer to handle updates may not lend itself well to a clone and multiboot system. You should read as much as you can and try to understand the conditions required and the few limitations of using clones before you jump in, as you may find something that will clash with your working habits or that core software application you require. The rest of this page examines the various ups and downs of multibooting with clones.

Pros and Cons - Summary.
The Pros: -
Quickly and effortlessly recover from any OS or software failure and get back to work.
Never again have to spend time fixing Windows, either from major problems or minor bugs.
No housekeeping tasks like cleaning out privacy or temp files, or tidying the registry, or defragging Windows.
Less malware fears means more freedom to browse the web and test new software.
Resource using background running protection and repair apps and services can be cut back or curtailed.
Windows and software updates can be allowed and tested without the worry that your day may be ruined.
Quickly diagnose problems to determine if they are hardware, software, or remote or local connection issues.
Third-party bootmanagers can give extra protection from MBR and boot time viruses.
Clones vs Images - There are a few areas where clones are just easier, quicker and more reliable.
The Cons: -
Certain software you use may have internal configuration files that could be difficult to synchronize.
Performing incremental back-up of files may not be possible from within clones.
You may not be able to use Windows Hibernate, or only with special care.
It takes time and commitment in applying updates, and rolling out new clones on a schedule.


Arguments For........ The Pros.

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Fast Recovery From Any Software or OS Problem.
The biggest advantage and the main point of this whole affair is to give us a machine we can recover in very little time. If restoring an image or attempting a System Restore is never going to cut it for you and could result in the missing of a deadline or the canceling of a presentation, then being able to achieve a full and almost guaranteed recovery in just a minute of two would be an ability worth having. The knowledge gained and tools acquired while creating a multiboot system should give you a greater understanding of the boot process and provide you with the means and ability to diagnose and quickly repair other boot issues, such as MBR or bootmanager problems. What's more, with the proper configuration of your backup hard drive even a complete hardware failure of the main drive can be recovered from in a matter of minutes.


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Give up Fixing Windows Problems.
If you have ever spent hours or days trawling round the net or computer help forums looking for a solution to a serious issue or just the latest annoying bug, then you should appreciate having a new way to deal with problems. Rebooting into your next clone will solve any Windows or software issue and banish to oblivion all ailments, bugs or malware takeovers. When family or friends ask for help with their latest gremlins you can in all honesty say you can't help them because fixing Windows is not your area, as you never have to do such things yourself.


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Housekeeping Tasks are no Longer Required.
Each new clone you switch to using as your current operating system is in effect a new and unused install of Windows, so there is no need for cleaning of temp files or bloat, for the scanning or clearing of registry errors or malware infections, for the defragging of the operating system or for the erasing of privacy or history information. All of these things will be taken care of every time you switch to a new clone, so set yourself a scheduled of using clones only for a length of time you think is suitable before you feel the need to move on - a month or two or even 3 if use has been light. Also say goodbye forever to all those tools that promise to clean out errors and speed up Windows, and feel smug when you see other people using or talking about them.


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Do More and Worry Less About Malware.
When your everyday operating system is a disposable clone that can be replace at any time then you can be less concerned about looking after it. You can treat it like a hire car and not worry about potholes or tyre wear or over-reving the engine. Clones in fact go one degree further because there are no consequences even if you dent a few panels or have a big crash. You can just walk away and take the wheel of the next clone that is fueled and ready to go.

If you tend to avoid trying out new software or are cautious about trawling the internet because of fears of unwanted toolbars or malware infections, then you can when using clones let yourself relax and live a little in the knowledge that you can shrug off the worst the world can throw at you. Any obvious problems can be dealt with immediately by a reboot and you will also know that any unseen malware that you may have acquired will also not survive your next move to a new clone, so if you have even the slightest of concerns then bring your next scheduled move forward. Or alternatively you can use a spare clone for the testing of software and those moments of madness on the internet, then return to your working clone and when convenient just overwrite any clone or clones you have abused.


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Run Fewer Protection and Repair Apps and Services.
If we can recover almost instantly from any malware problem, if we are never going to be spending time trying to repair Windows or software faults, then there is very little point in using up resources to run programs and services that we have no need of. When people have a single operating system that they totally depend upon then we can understand why they may run two or three or even more anti-virus/malware/adware programs. When Windows can develop faults over time that can make it buggy and unusable, then we can understand why it is packed with background running services that monitor and record and report events and faults and make memory dumps to help the tech guys diagnose and repair the cracks and breaks. We also understand why there is a System Restore service that constantly monitors and backs-up scores of system and user files to give the less tech savvy at least a chance of rolling their operating system back in time to before a fault occurred.

Running minimal anti-malware protection and turning off unrequired Windows components will not only give us a more able machine but also a more stable one. Fewer slowdowns and lockups are just another of the many beneficial side effects of running clones. info iconWindows Components That We Can Turn Off.


Don't Be Over Complacent.
We would not advise that you throw all caution to the wind but still retain some defenses and safe working practices. Have one resident anti-virus/malware program such as Microsoft's own Security Essentials to keep an eye on things in real time and scan downloads. Any malware component that has made it onto your data partition will be inert without the infected clone that placed it there, but you should still periodically scan the data partition because some malware may be inadvertently reactivated by you by running or reinstalling it. Any damaged files on the data partition can of course be replaced from backup.

If you have sensitive data on your machine or perform online banking or indeed anything that you would not like to see compromised then you should be extra mindful of unseen spyware and key-loggers that are out to steal your data or identity. If security is a real concern then you should turn off global active content in your browser and allow it only for trusted sites. There are browser add-ons such as NoScript that can make this a one click operation. Alternatively you could even keep a clone or two that you only use for sensitive operations and logins so that your every-day clones never have sensitive information inside of them.


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Allow That Update or Upgrade Without Holding Your Breath.
Any long time computer user will have been lucky indeed if they have never experienced a problem after some Windows or software update or upgrade. It still happens on a regular basis and can literally ruin your day and cause you hours or even days of grief as you are forced into an unscheduled quest to find and rectify the problem. If however you are a member of our multibooters club and have a few clones to fall back on you can apply updates with impunity and dare them to do their worst. info iconApplying and Sharing Windows Updates


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Diagnose the Root Cause of Problems.
We have all been there trying to determine if some issue that has developed is a faulty piece of hardware or a software problem with either our OS, an application, or a driver. When we have more than one operating system on a machine we can boot from one to the other to see if the fault follows us. If it does then it is likely we are having a hardware problem, if we only have the issue in one OS then we should look to a software problem in just that OS. Likewise if we are having a connection problem we can quickly determine if the cause is hardware or software related, or a local problem on our machine or a remote issue with our router, network or provider.


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Greater Protection from MBR malware.
Most MBR (master boot record) viruses will be designed to integrate themselves with the Windows installed MBR, setting themselves up so that you don't notice any difference the next time you reboot. If however you have already replaced the Microsoft MBR with your own third-party bootmanager the chances are slim that any virus will be capable of recognizing your bootmanager and injecting itself into it while keeping it functioning. The next time you reboot you will immediately notice that your boot manager is broken, probably replaced with an infected copy of the Microsoft master boot record. A quick reinstall of your bootmanager will restore balance and likely overwrite most of the virus code or at the very least isolate it from ever being run. Replacing any suspect clone and a full scan of the data partition should ensure that nothing remains to attempt a comeback.


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Clones vs Images.
Most people who employ imaging to backup their operating system will typically only restore their machine when either they develop problems, or have a noticeable slowdown in performance. They may have a choice of reverting to an older image that will be cleaner and leaner, or they may have an image they made recently that will take them back just a few weeks. The older image has the disadvantage that it may require many hours to bring it up to date, and the newer image will only take them back a short time to an operating system that can have years of use on it and may be bloated and slow and possibly even harbor some unseen malware.

To use images effectively requires working from a master image that has been kept clean and has never been used after restoring it other than to bring it up to date before making a new master image. This is comparable to how we can do things with clones but it has the major drawback that restoring, updating and making a new image takes a lot of time and would not be practical if we needed a quick recovery. With discipline and planning the updating of images can be done at a more convenient time, but remember that restoring an image replaces the current operating system, so it is a major commitment and there is no going back to retrieve something that may have been missed. The time it takes to restore an image and the thought of having overlooked something prompts many people to delay in restoring from images in favor of just living with or trying to fix problems and bugs, which wastes time and also puts them in danger of falling victim to undetected malware.

In contrast when we multiboot with clones we can update our master as needed while continuing to use our current operating system. We can switch to a new operating system with just a reboot, and still go back to our current one if required. We don't have to spend time fixing anything and we can at any time revert in minutes to what is essentially a brand new install of our perfect operating system.




Reasons Against....... The Cons

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Your Software Updates and Configuration Files.
Most software applications will allow you to move the location of the folders where personal data and documents are saved, which is ideal for a multiboot system. Some apps even let you move their internal settings and configuration files to a location other than the Windows partition, so that continuity can be maintained even after a restore or reinstall of the software or operating system. This is also ideal for us as it means whichever clone we boot into our application will know all our latest configuration preferences and additions to such things as custom dictionaries or other assets or code snippets. On the other hand however some applications may only have an option to export and import settings and assets to an external file, which means we will have to remember to, and be able to, manually do this to update our master or the new clone we have just switched to using.

The worst thing for us are applications where there are no provisions for synchronizing settings and assets from one clone to another. In such cases our only real option is to track down which files in Windows our settings and assets are stored in and then either manually transfer them, or set up a regular auto-backup of these files to our data partition, from where we can then sync them to the out of date ones in our master or other clones. This approach may not work in some cases and so our final option would be to keep a detailed list of all changes and additions we are making in a clone so we can manually apply them again in our master.

In addition to our own configuration updates there may also be software updates or upgrades that are automatically downloaded and installed. Ideally we would want to take control here and turn off auto updates and manually download any updates and upgrades as executable files that we can test in our current clone and later install in our master. Failing that we would want to just have our master do the online updates so that we are not wasting bandwidth by letting clones and master do the same updates. Your ability to manage the updates, settings and any embedded assets in your important software may be what will dictate whether multibooting with clones is going to be practical for you. info iconUpdates and Settings For Your Essential Software.


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Incremental Back-Up
When a backup program performs an incremental backup from one file to another it often keeps a record of the contents of both files so that it knows what has to be added or taken away from the backup. If the data we are backing-up, or the record file of that data is stored within the clone where the backup program is running from, they will be constantly changing and so when we boot into a new clone it will know nothing of recent changes, which will have bad consequences for our next incremental backup. If on the other hand both the data and the record file are on our shared data partition and the backup is also in another location, then all our clones will be seeing the same thing and incremental backups may work. You would have to run tests on your backup program to determine if it could be used in these circumstances, or you could always run backups from a utility operating system you would keep specifically just for such tasks.


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No Hibernation
When Windows goes into hibernation it does not fully terminate or shut down operations that are in progress, but instead creates a memory file of ongoing events so that the restarted Windows can pick up where it left off. If we boot into a different operating system or clone while another one is in hibernation it may be that some files on our shared data partition have not been fully released and so will still have open handles to the hibernated operating system. Corruption of these files can occur if we try to use them in a different clone, so to prevent this we should turn off hibernation and hybrid sleep in all our operating systems. If however you could remember never to boot into a different operating system until you had checked that the last one you had been using was indeed fully shut down, then perhaps you could still use hibernation. Normal sleep is unaffected by multibooting and can still be used from any operating system.

The Windows Bootmanager
With a Windows native dual or multi-boot setup using only the Windows bootmanager then there are no problems with hibernation because the bootmanager is bypassed by hibernation so that you can only ever reboot into the hibernated operating system. When multibooting with clones it is just easier for us to use a third-party bootmanager, but we sacrifice the hibernation feature. info iconWindows Hibernation and Bootmanagers.


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Takes Time and Commitment.
While there does not have to be any financial cost to setting up your perfect multiboot machine it won't be a free ride in terms of the time and the due diligence you will have to supply. To get the best from the system you will have to be organized in doing updates and backups and rolling out new clones so you can be sure your system is always fresh and malware free. Of course this is offset by the time you will save by having no maintenance and cleaning tasks in Windows, plus never having to repair or reinstall Windows or fix software bugs - ever. If you compare the time spent on each approach over the life time of a machine then there may not be a lot of difference, or you may actually save yourself many days of distraction and grief.

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spacermultibooters.com:- Sep 2013

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