Disk Imaging vs Disk Cloning: Key Differences

March 16th, 2022

Disk imaging and disk cloning both still have a place in today’s workflow. But you should understand the benefits and downsides of both technologies before choosing which to use and where it fits in with your IT infrastructure. IT pros have used both for years, but some companies are entirely replacing cloning with imaging today. So, let’s look at the features and benefits of these technologies.

Disk Imaging and Disk Cloning Defined

Disk imaging and disk cloning are often confused because both produce the same result—creating an exact record of your drive. That includes all the data, files, software, master boot record, allocation table, and everything else you need to boot and run your operating system. So, how do they differ?

Disk Imaging: Larger Files, Slower Restores

Disk imaging is the process of creating a byte-by-byte archive of a hard drive, producing a compressed file of your drive—much like a .zip file although typically saved as an ISO file—and storing it on another drive. These compressed files are still huge, so they are often saved to external drives or the cloud. But they can be a lifesaver because you can granularly restore your data from them.

Image files are broken down into two types: full and differential. While full images include everything on your source drive, differential images incrementally capture the data that has changed since the last full image was created, so only the latest changes are stored.

Because differential images don’t include all your drive data, they can’t be used to restore your drive. That requires a full disk image. Disk images also require that you open and install them on a new or existing drive using imaging software to restore and access your data—a time-consuming process. And disk images can take up a lot of backup storage space.

Disk Cloning: Uncompressed Replication

Cloning creates an exact, uncompressed replica of your entire drive or specific partitions of your drive. Because disk clones are uncompressed, they can be immediately replicated to a target backup drive or the cloud, so you have an up-to-date, identical copy of your data. Speed is one of the key advantages of cloning over disk imaging. If a hard drive fails, you can quickly remove it and replace it with the cloned drive.

Disk Imaging vs. Disk Cloning: Pros and Cons

Disk imaging and disk cloning both deliver benefits with some drawbacks. When it comes to your backups, cloning is excellent for fast recovery, while imaging gives you more backup options. Taking an incremental backup snapshot gives you the option to save multiple images without taking up a lot more space. That’s especially important if you fall victim to a ransomware attack or other data disaster and need to roll back to an earlier disk image.

Cloning limits you to one copy per drive. You can overwrite one clone with another, but each clone “version” needs its own drive. Other imaging benefits include its ability to be saved remotely. At the same time, its compression feature helps reduce storage demands so you can store images where it makes the most sense for your infrastructure.

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