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Backup and DR

System Image Backup and Recovery Guide

What Is System Image Backup?

System image backup is a process that allows the backup and recovery of the whole computer including the state and the structure of its drives and operating system.

System image backup works as follows:

  1. Backup software creates a block-level copy of the disk.
  2. If the disk contains several partitions, each partition is then saved as a single file, an image.
  3. The software adds a copy of a boot sector and disk configuration data to images.

System image backup is a general term used by Microsoft. Some backup vendors including MSP360 and users call the technology image-based backup.

System Image Backup Usecases

Image-based backup solutions can be helpful in cases of hardware or software failure, disaster recovery, or any malware attack. Speaking of less disastrous situations, you may need system image backup if you would like to switch to different hardware keeping the same system settings and configuration.

The greatest advantage of system image backup is a faster recovery of entire systems. The faster you restore your data, the sooner you can get back to business operations and communication with customers.

Further reading Cloning vs Image Backup: When you Need What?

Full System Backup and Recovery
Check out our comprehensive guide covering system image, system state, and application-aware backup and recovery, as well as bare-metal recovery:
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System Image Recovery Options

There are three options to recover a system from an image-based backup. You can recover only selected files, selected partitions excluding the operating system, or recover the full system if you don’t have the operating system installed.  

File-Level Restore

Granular Restore from System Image BackupThe recovery of individual files and folders from the system image backup is called file-level or granular restore. It often saves the day when you need to recover only one file without downloading the whole image from the failed machine.



Further reading How to Recover Individual File from Image-Based Backup

Recovery to the Drive

System Image Recovery to local driveSometimes you boot your machine and one or several partitions are missing or do not work. There are two possible reasons for that: HDD/SSD failure and file system failure. In these situations, you can recover only the needed partitions from system image without recreating their structure, or reinstalling the OS.

Recovery with ISO File

Recovery with ISO File from System Image BackupISO file is basically an archive with the .iso, .img or .ima file extension. Nowadays, it’s an industry standard and files with mentioned extensions are used to distribute large programs. The idea behind the ISO image file is that you can store and recreate, when needed, an exact digital copy of a disc or a selected partition.  

ISO files typically contain everything you need to run and install a given program. When you need to recover the whole system, you need some sort of operating system in your ISO file so that the recovery can be started. That is why ISO-images contain not only copies of partitions, configuration, and a boot sector, but also a Windows PE (PE stands for Preinstalled Environment). This makes images bootable - you don’t need any installed OS on the machine to boot it and recover your data.

The given structure for bootable ISO file is true for MSP360 Backup and may not be used by other backup vendors.

Further reading Creating a Bootable ISO Image with MSP360 Backup

Bare-Metal Recovery

Bare-Metal Recovery from System Image BackupA computer without an operating system installed is called a bare-metal machine. Bootable ISO images help to recover the system to these machines fast and without additional configuration. This approach saves time in many cases of sudden hardware changes including:

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  • Upgrade
  • Maintenance
  • Disaster recovery

Further reading Bare-Metal Recovery Guide

System Image Recovery Destinations

The system image recovery process is different for different types of IT-architecture. There are three common destinations for a recovery:

  • Physical machine
  • Virtual machine
  • Virtual cloud machine

System Image Recovery Media and Destinations

Physical Machine

In case of a bare-metal restore, you need to recover with a bootable USB, a device containing the ISO-image.

Further reading How to Create a Bootable USB for Windows Server

We don’t mention granular and straight to drive recovery on the scheme and further in the article since it can be done on any machine, physical or virtual, with an OS installed.

Virtual Machine

Virtual machines are booted similarly to physical ones - from an archive file that contains the image of the drive. The extension of this archive is defined by the VM-environment you are going to use for recovery. Two of the most popular VM-environments (Hyper-V and VMware) have extensions formats starting with VH and VM (VHD, VMD, etc).

To recover your system as a virtual machine, you should first convert the ISO file to the needed format. In MSP360 Backup, this operation is automated.

Further reading Restoring Image-Based Backups as VMware Virtual Machines

Cloud Virtual Machine

All large cloud service providers including AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud, allow to spin up virtual servers within their infrastructure. They each offer a service for the task:

  • Amazon EC2
  • Microsoft Azure VM
  • Google Cloud Compute

You can build a cloud virtual machine from scratch or use an image of a server. The procedure is similar to server recovery to a virtual machine. All mentioned providers allow to import virtual machine images, but they each have different naming, feature set, user-interface, and requirements.

Further reading How to Recover Windows Server to Amazon EC2, Azure VM, Google Cloud VM

Image-Based Backup vs. File-Level Backup

Using image-based backup might not be preferable for all situations. Sometimes, it’s better to run a simpler and less sophisticated file backup.Image-Based Backup vs. File-Level Backup

*LOB - line-of-business software. It is a critical application that is vital for operating a company. The examples of LOB software include finance, insurance, health care, telecom, and e-commerce applications.

  • File backup is faster for both backup and recovery and typically takes less space than system image backup. Granular restore from the image is slower than simple file restore.
  • If you are dealing with a file server, it is faster to recover the system partition from a system image backup and the partitions containing the user data from file-level backup.
  • Image-based backup allows recovering system configuration and partitions’ structures. File backup preserves only the data structure.
  • Image-based backup is more preferable for servers. Servers have applications that affect other machines and users. These services cannot be backed up and recovered as files.
  • You don’t always need to create images of desktops. If you have only several folders and files and don’t care about the configuration, back up just these folders and recover only them.
  • System image backup is preferable when you don’t have an operating system installed.


With system image backup, you can create a block-level volume snapshot of the full disk or other partition at the chosen point in time to be able to roll back to it in case of disaster. System image restore provides rapid deployment from your backup media. Besides bare-metal recovery, image-based backup gives you the capability to virtualize from backup software if your server is down, thus significantly reducing the downtime. Even in a worst-case scenario, with properly implemented and managed image-based backups, the downtime could be reduced to minutes.

System Image Backup and Recovery Software

MSP360 Backup server and desktop editions support the technology of image-based backup providing faster recovery times and protecting businesses from the costs and consequences of downtime and data loss. For the detailed manual on MSP360 as an image-based backup solution, please refer to this blog post:

Further reading Image-Based Backup and Recovery with MSP360 Backup

Download MSP360 Backup for Windows Server and check out its advantages during the free 15-day trial.

System state and system imageSystem State and System Image Backup

MSP360 Backup provides:

    • Restore from system image backup - if you need to recover a full copy of the needed computer or server
  • Restore from system state backup - if you need to recover only the operating system and configuration


Bare-metal recovery from USB or ISO fileEmergency Recovery of System Image Backup

Easily create a bootable USB drive or ISO file for a bare-metal recovery in case of a system or hardware crash. Install additional drivers for a hardware configuration that is different from the current machine.


Flexible retention and recoveryFlexible Retention and Recovery

Why recover only the latest version? MSP360 Backup allows system image to restore to the point in time that you choose. Store as many versions as you need for as long as you need with flexible retention settings.


Compression and encryption

Compression and Encryption

Compression allows you to reduce storage (and thus save money) while improving backup time. With AES-256 encryption, you can be sure that all your files are protected.


Cloud and localCloud and Local

MSP360 Backup allows you to store your backups on local storage and any of more than 20 cloud storage providers, including Amazon S3 and Amazon Glacier, BackBlaze B2, Wasabi Hot Storage, and Microsoft Azure.

Guide to Backup Types
  • Pros, cons, and use cases of each backup type
  • Results of our efficiency tests of synthetic full backup
  • A decision-making chart to choose your backup type
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