In cybersecurity, cloning is an approach to replicating all the data on a machine to another place (local storage, off-premises storage center, the cloud) while ensuring the target copy is an exact copy of the source disk or system. The cloning process offers two primary options - disk cloning and system cloning.
In this article, we will compare a disk clone vs system clone, explore the benefits and disadvantages of both, and hopefully ease your decision regarding regular backup types and cybersecurity strategies.
What is a system clone?
A system clone is a clone of your original operating system. The method will only copy data from the system partition and system-related partitions. (e.g., the EFI system partition and the recovery partition)
System clones comprise all the required information for the operating system to execute in the destination location, including any data saved on system partitions - drivers, related applications and programs, updates, personalized system settings, and more.
What are the benefits of system cloning?
Let's explore how your computer benefits from a system clone below.
- A complete copy of the computer's system drive
A system clone includes system files, apps, settings, and any system-related partition without changing the size and properties of cloned data.
Given you store the system clone in an external drive or the cloud, you can always access your data backup and restore your OS to the same or a new machine.
- Quick operating system recovery
A system clone is great if you need to migrate OS files and settings to a new machine or multiple devices at home or in an office.
- Protection against accidental deletion or system failure
If your operating system crashes or is corrupted, a system backup will enable quick recovery to the same or a new machine.
As the system cloning process doesn't require compression, you could quickly restore the clone to resume your day-to-day processes. Moreover, if you accidentally delete a critical system file, you can restore it without recovering the entire clone. (however, this is only possible if your backup and recovery solution supports individual file restoration)
Which are the most common use cases of system cloning?
Aside from keeping system clones in a secure storage space to enable easy recovery, organizations can benefit from the approach in several other ways.
- Addressing logical corruption
Logical corruption can be due to software or human errors, a cyberattack, a power outage, or sabotage.
Often, logical corruption can't be addressed with traditional disaster recovery solutions. Therefore, companies may not meet their maximum data loss and downtime requirements depending on the app, file system partition, layer, or storage space where corruption occurred.
In such scenarios, it's recommended to try fixing the logical error within the system by inspecting the problem in a repair system. (separate from the source disk)
Analysts can create a repair system via cloning software to mimic the production system based on data saved and stored before the logical corruption occurred. This way, the required information can be exported and imported between the two systems without stopping the production system.
In the best-case scenario, the process will yield no data loss.
- Disaster recovery testing
Effective disaster recovery requires testing the required workflow.
Testing determines whether your DR strategy works and calculates internal documentation sufficiency. It also enables admins to train on all required procedures. A system clone makes it possible to procure DR testing without risking RTO and RPO objectives. Testing in such a manner can be performed without hindering data replication.
- Data refresh for QA, sandboxing, and training systems
In specific scenarios, source system data must be available to a target system for testing or training purposes.
The testing systems must be updated regularly with data from the source system to ensure testing is performed with the most updated data. Depending on the level of automation, these system-refresh processes can take multiple days to complete.
How to create a system clone?
Unfortunately, Windows doesn't offer native cloning software.
Its "Backup and Restore" function can create a system image (not a "clone"); then, you need to save the image file on an external media carrier and install it on a new machine if you want to migrate OS contents. This means you must copy and compress the system partition contents and then decompress them to enable installation at the destination location. Thus, imaging takes more time than cloning.
To avoid the cumbersome process, you can turn to third-party cloning software, such as Acronis Cyber Protect Home Office.
What is a disk clone?
Disk cloning is a methodology to create an exact copy of the target disk - the operating system, installed programs, and all the data will be cloned to a target disk.
Because of its magnitude, disk cloning is primarily used as a reliable backup to protect data against natural disasters, accidental deletion, or hacking attacks. Moreover, it is helpful when replacing a hard drive due to physical or technical issues.
What are the benefits of disk cloning?
Let's explore how users and computers benefit from a disk clone below.
- A complete device backup
A disk clone is an excellent way to create a complete computer backup. During the clone creation process, the operating system and all applications and data are saved to a different drive. (destination disk)
As long as you keep the destination disk clone in a secure location, you can restore it to the same or a new machine whenever needed.
- Enables hard drive upgrades
A disk clone is convenient when upgrading your hard drive. A hard disk clone means you won't need to install the OS and applications again after the upgrade. You can clone HDD data and use the backup hard disk to restore the computer to its previous state.
- Full data backup in case of machine crash or cyber attack
When creating a disk clone, using the bootable option is best. This will enable easy restoration of the OS and other apps if your machine crashes. A secure boot is faster than reinstalling the operating system and all apps following a PC crash.
- Easy data transfer to a different machine
If you want to upgrade your configuration to a new machine, you can use a disk clone to transfer all files and programs (along with your old operating system) to the new machine. As all of your information is kept on the destination disk clone, you won't lose any of it during the upgrade.
What is disk cloning used for?
The primary use cases for disk clones are:
- Drive recovery and reactivation
Having an entire disk clone enables easy recovery if a drive malfunctions or fails. If your hard drive crashes, you can use the clone disk to restore all data following a successful repair. If the crashed drive is beyond salvation, you can restore disk clones to a new drive - HDD or SSD.
- System backup and recovery
As mentioned, a disk clone can comprise all the data saved on your PC - the system partition, system-related partitions, user-created content, applications, programs, system settings, and more. If your PC suffers from corruption or a cybersecurity incident, only one disk clone is enough to restore your entire configuration quickly and efficiently.
- Upgrading hard disk to SSD
A proper SSD alignment ensures optimal data access performance. If you're considering upgrading your hard disk to an SSD, you can easily migrate OS, data, and programs from the old disk to your chosen target drive.
- Migrating the data backup from a PC to a laptop
Having your whole disk in secure backup lets you easily transfer it from your old PC to a new laptop. As long as there is no capacity limitation on the laptop, all the data saved in the backup will be migrated to it. However, if the backup copy requires a larger disk, you must upgrade the laptop's hard drive (or SSD) to successfully transfer your old operating system, all files, and programs.
How to create a disk clone with Acronis
Acronis Cyber Protect Home Office enables users to clone an active Windows system directly to a new drive without hindering system processes and restarting Windows.
The "Active Cloning" feature lets you create a disk clone without rebooting the PC to complete the operation. In some cases, the cloning software will ask for a reboot, clone disk contents offline, and then the PC will reboot back into Windows. To create a disk clone via Acronis Cyber Protect Home Office, you need to prepare your system and then follow the steps below.
Preparation to start Clone Process
Before cloning your hard disk, it's recommended to back up the entire disk as a safety precaution. (this includes the original operating system, installed programs, files, settings, etc.)
Keep in mind that:
- You can't clone dynamic disks.
- The source disk and the destination disk must have equal logical sector sizes. A smaller disk will not work as the target destination, as the clone will require more storage capacity than the drive can offer.
- It's recommended that the source disk and the destination drive operate in the same controller mode. (e.g., AHCI or IDE); otherwise, your PC may not start from the new disk.
- Disks encrypted via BitLocker should be unlocked to enable cloning.
To use the disk cloning features of Acronis, follow these steps:
- On the Acronis sidebar, select "Tools" -> click "Clone disk".
- On the "Clone Mode" screen, choose either "Automatic" or "Manual" transfer mode. The automatic mode will proportionally resize partitions to fit the new drive. The manual mode offers more flexibility.
If the agent finds two disks, one partitioned and one unpartitioned, it will automatically label the partitioned disk as the source disk and the unpartitioned one as the destination disk.
- On the "Source Disk" option, select the disk you want to clone.
- On the "Destination Disk" option, select the target disk for the cloned data.
- On the "Finish" step, ensure you've configured all required settings and click "Proceed".
- After cloning is complete, the system will inform you of the potential next steps, including using the disk clone on the current, similar, or dissimilar hardware.
Disk clone vs Disk image
A "disk clone" and a "disk image" (or a "system image",) can often be confused as interchangeable terms. Both disk-clone and disk-image methods differ from a simple copy-paste process. Disk clones and images comprise all the needed information for the hard drive to access the backup data, such as the master boot record, file allocation tables, and more. Nonetheless, cloning and imaging are different regarding data recovery.
A disk clone copies the entire disk contents, including all information required to boot the OS from the drive. Cloning software enables users to create an exact copy of their PC's hard drive and transfer it to another drive. The copy is fully operational and can be swapped with your PC's existing hard drive. If you boot the disk clone, it will be identical to the source disk.
On the other hand, disk imaging software creates an archival (backup) copy of the entire hard disk. Disk images are storage files containing all data stored on the hard drive and the required information to boot the OS. Nonetheless, users need to apply the disk image to the HDD (or SSD) for the image to work. Essentially, you can't restore a drive by placing the image files on it - you need to open and install the image on the target disk via imaging software.
Another difference between the two refers to storage capacity limitation. An external hard drive can only carry one disk clone but may store several disk images.
What is the difference between system cloning and disk cloning?
The disk-clone vs system-clone debate outlines two primary differences between the two approaches.
- Different cloning range
System clones typically comprise boot-related items, usually stored on the system partitions. A disk clone is not limited to the system partition - it will include all data partitions on your machine.
- Different target disk size
System clones require less disk space as they only include system partitions in the backup. Disk clones require more space as they comprise all data on a target disk. Regardless of your chosen approach, you must ensure that the target disk is larger than or of equal size to the source disk.
System Cloning - Full Operating System Replication
System partition clones focus on OS protection. As mentioned, this approach is used to migrate OS components to a new machine, mass-deploy system files and settings to an office or home environment, or keep a secure backup of your operating system exactly how you like it. Once you configure your OS, you can clone and transfer it to external storage for safekeeping.
System cloning can be done regularly to keep an updated OS version in an encrypted backup. However, you won't typically need to create numerous system clones unless you change your OS configuration significantly.
Disk Cloning - Full Disk Replication
Disk cloning comprises all the data on your machine and, thus, is arguably more important than system cloning to some users. As the approach includes your OS in the backup, it is a complete way to replicate your entire disk to one or multiple machines. It also enables a full recovery in a data-loss scenario. Remember that complete disk clones take a lot of storage space since the method doesn't rely on compression.
Nonetheless, unlike disk images, you can access all disk clones on demand without installing them onto the same or a new machine. Typically, disk clones follow a similar pattern to system partition copies. Once you have your entire configuration the way you want it, you can clone it to backup, and rest assured that your files, programs, and OS settings are protected in external storage.
Which type should you choose: Disk clone vs System clone
Both disk-clone and system-clone approaches are focused on protecting critical data via sensible backup and recovery. Depending on your data-creation habits, you may favor one method more.
Advantages of system cloning
- Clones all the contents of the system partition
- Enables users to migrate OS easily to a new drive
- Allows Windows Server cloning to HDD or SSD
- Enables OS replication to multiple machines
- Doesn't take up extensive storage space
Disadvantages of system cloning
- Only clones the contents of the system partition and any system-related partition (EFI system partition, recovery partition, etc.)
Advantages of disk cloning
- It's faster than disk imaging
- Allows to migrate the whole disk from HDD to SSD
- Allows upgrades to a larger disk
- Avoids Windows and programs reinstalling in case of crash or corruption
- Allows quick disaster recovery and cuts downtime
Disadvantages of disk cloning
- Takes up more storage capacity on the destination disk
- Doesn't allow incremental or differential clones
- Only one clone can be stored on a drive at any given time
Importance of regular backups and cloning regardless of their type
Data loss and corruption can result from human errors, hardware or software failure, cyberattacks, natural disasters, or accidental deletion.
Whether you create a system partition clone to safeguard your OS or a full disk clone to protect your entire machine, regular backup is critical to ensure data availability and business continuity.
Many tools offer backup and recovery features, but most are too complex or costly to operate. Acronis Cyber Protect Home Office streamlines the cloning process, eases backup and recovery management, and lets you monitor all backup and cloning tasks from a single, easy-to-use agent.
Acronis is a Swiss company, founded in Singapore. Celebrating two decades of innovation, Acronis has more than 2,000 employees in 45 locations. Acronis Cyber Protect solution is available in 26 languages in over 150 countries and is used by 18,000 service providers to protect over 750,000 businesses.