The following article was submitted for publication in TCEA’s TechEdge magazine but was not published. Still, I hope it finds a home among blog readers!
by Miguel Guhlin
“Does anybody use other software or method beside Norton Ghost, to clone their computers?” This is a question shared on the TCEA Technology Education Coordinators’ Special Interest Group (TEC-SIG) listserv recently. It’s a question that often arises as technology coordinators at the campus and district level work to reformat new and old computers with the software that needs to be loaded on them for school use. While software applications like MS Office and antivirus are the same from one computer model to another, there can be tremendous differences in the software drivers (consider using DriverMax mentioned in this article to help with this problem) computers use to handle built-in video and sound, as well as bluetooth and other devices that come on today’s computers. As a result, technology users struggle to find the right software. For the technology director at the beginning of this article, the specifics of the problem can be as straightforward as what he shares after the question:
This article explores some of the solutions that technology coordinators–but also every day users of technology who want an inexpensive way to back up their Windows, GNU/Linux, or Macintosh computer–can put to work right away at little or no cost. As a bonus, also mentioned in this article is a strategy for creating bootable flash drives with operating systems on them, as well as what software is available for DVD/CD burning.
An image of your hard drive is essentially a digital copy of everything on the hard drive. This is important to have because the more we use–add/remove software, suffer virus attacks, etc.–a computer, the slower that computer can get. Most folks don’t have software programs likeRaxco’s PerfectDisk ($40) to defragment the hard drive or Macecraft’s RegistrySupreme ($12) to clean up the computer’s registry. Of course, you could use free programs like UltraDefrag (http://ultradefrag.sourceforge.net/) or Defraggler (http://www.piriform.com/defraggler) instead. As such, you can have problems develop as programs are installed, removed (sometimes improperly), eventually degrading the speed of your system. Sometimes, the problem is not just the standard slowness of a system that results from installing/uninstalling programs.
Problems may develop after a spyware/malware or virus infestation, causing problems that even reinstalling your operating system can’t fix. The answer is obvious if you have ever had a virus or spyware program slink its way past your computer’s defenses and “trash” your computer. Consider the case of Michael Fiola, a former Massachusetts government employee who was mistakenly arrested in 2007 for child porn on his computer. Apparently, malware had found its way onto the computer and was able to download 40 child porn sites by minute. It took almost a year for Fiola to be found innocent (Source: http://bit.ly/3DUVRF).
Although previous issues of Download a la Mode have discussed how to protect yourself from malware–and clean it out–on a Windows computer, sometimes it’s easier to just wipe your computer and start over. In fact, I have had to do that for several teachers’ home computers where their computers were so infested with spyware and malware, they had no other recourse but to “blank the slate” and start over.
When you reach that sad state of affairs, you have several options:
1) Reformat your computer, and reload all software. This can be very time-consuming. Only a short time ago, this process could be done fairly quickly in 1-2 hours. However, the size of software and the time it takes to copy it from CD to hard drive can be lengthy (4-5 hours). Worse, as a result of spyware/malware/viruses, you must complete Windows System Updates, install firewall software, antivirus software, and innoculate your computer against malware. Although programs like the free DriverMax (http://www.innovative-sol.com/drivermax/) can help you save all your special software drivers unique to your computer and reload them quickly, you will have to save them prior to infestation. If you’re not careful, when you connect to the network to install these updates and get the programs, viruses will invade your computer BEFORE you can “put your shields up.” I recommend downloading the firewall, antispyware and antivirus software, putting it on a CD and having it ready. That way, your system is protected PRIOR to connecting to the network.
2) Using a previously saved image of the hard drive, re-image your computer. This means wiping out everything that was on your computer at the time of re-imaging with a copy of your hard drive. To ensure complete privacy, you may want to use Darik’s Boot-n-Nuke prior to reimaging, but that is only if you want to ensure all previous data was erased from the hard drive. “Erased” in this case means making the data completely unrecoverable, even by computer forensics. The copy of your hard drive that you have saved previously is a “pristine” copy or a snapshot of your computer system the way you wanted it to be before you started installing/uninstalling programs, had to deal with spyware/malware, etc. It’s a fresh start without the time consuming problem of reloading all your software.
Several questions come to mind, however, for option #2:
a) Where do I save a copy of my hard drive? The copy is obviously going to be very big and can’t be on my computer at the same time. So, where can it go?
Response: CD-ROMS and DVD media are not really the best way to save a copy of your media. While they are often used by technical support specialists, regular folks like you and I may find the process of creating an image of the hard drive, then burning it to CD problematic. Instead, I recommend purchasing an external 120gig USB hard drive. These hard drives are easy to connect to your computer and should be formatted when you receive them as FAT32. FAT32 is the most “easy to read” format for various operating systems (such as Windows, Mac, and Linux). Reformatting an external USB hard drive is as simple as reformatting a floppy.
Once reformatted to FAT32, you have a drive that will allow you to back up your data. Most hard drives, even though they may be 80gigs or more, rarely have that much on them. That is, an image of your hard drive may only take up 4-6 gigs of your 120gig drive. So, you’ll be able to use your external 120gig HD for more than just a backup image of the hard drive.
b) How do I make an image of my hard drive? Don’t I need expensive, special software to make an image?
Response: While there are a variety of programs you can use, I prefer free, open source software (FOSS), as opposed to a program like Norton Ghost. Even if you’re not familiar with a Linux Operating System, you will be able to use FOSS solutions to save a backup image of your computer.
Questions to Ponder:
- What free software is available for cloning computers?
- What free software is available to burn DVDS/CDs?
Scary stories aside, school districts and educators CAN afford the approaches outlined in this article.
1) What free software is available for cloning computers?
In my search to find a worthy response to the question posed at the start of this article, I have stumbled across various programs that can be used. There are a variety of approaches one can take. From my experience, they divide up into 2 approaches:
- Reimaging from a Networked Drive: Start the computer but instead of booting from the hard drive, boot from a CD or USB Flash drive that points to a networked computer where an exact copy of all the software on the hard drive is stored. Typically, school districts pay quite a bit of money for software that will pull a pristine copy of a computer’s hard drive and put it on a series of computers. With this type of software, you can boot up on multiple computers in a lab setting and all of them can be reimaged within a short space of time. Some of the challenges to using this approach is that you must have a computer designated as a server (whose setup may be “outlawed” on a District network in school settings) and know how to connect to that computer over the network. If you are not sure how to do that, then you have already hit an almost insurmountable roadblock.
- Reimaging from a USB Flash Drive or DVD (less used now): Since large capacity, external USB hard drives have dropped in price, you can now boot up off a small USB flash drive and then reimage your computer. Instead of storing the “image” of the hard drive on a networked drive, you can use a copy stored on your large capacity external USB drive. The only challenge with this approach is that you have to “touch” every computer. Yet, for home users or small numbers of computers, you can reimage. This is my preferred approach.
A) REIMAGING FROM A NETWORKED DRIVE
“I’m a daily user and huge proponent of the FOG Project,” shares Mark Cockrell (HoneyGrove ISD). “It’s a free, open source hard drive imaging system that is fast, reliable, and simple to use (though somewhat tricky to set up initially). I’m pretty sure I’d pay to use it if it weren’t free.” The FOG Project is only one of several tools available–for free–that you can use. Leslie Sessions, Technology Coordinator for a small Texas school district, was kind enough to teach me about FOG. Like any person with a lab or two of computers, I needed an easy to use solution that would work. These Windows XP computers have to be reimaged frequently, and doing so can get to be a pain. Ms. Sessions shared that she’s an avid open source seeker, and was quick to point out that she’s using FOG (http://bit.ly/2gXoDz), a Free Computer Cloning Solution. A description of FOG appears below:
Fog is a Linux-based, free and open source computer imaging solution for Windows XP and Vista that ties together a few open-source tools with a php-based web interface. Fog doesn’t use any boot disks, or CDs; everything is done via TFTP and PXE. Also with fog many drivers are built into the kernel, so you don’t really need to worry about drivers (unless there isn’t a linux kernel module for it). Fog also supports putting an image that came from a computer with a 80GB partition onto a machine with a 40GB hard drive as long as the data is less than 40GB.
Jeremy Fluhman (Winters ISD) offers this advice in regards to getting FOG working in an Active Directory environment:
- is NOT a member of the domain, change the computer membership to workgroup instead.
- has support tools installed.
- has the FOG service installed.
When you consider that these solutions exist, it makes one wonder why certain school districts spend thousands of dollars for alternate, non-free open source software solutions. Unfortunately, while others have experienced success with both these tools, I have not. I suspect that it may be my inability to setup a server with a static IP address. Having seen how FOG functions–thanks to Leslie Sessions–I imagine that the tool of choice I would use would be FOG. So, I had to find another approach.
B) REIMAGING FROM USB FLASH DRIVE OR DVD
If you have ever reformatted a computer, reloaded it with software by loading the programs one by one, you know it can be a time-consuming process. As a matter of fact, I recall spending many an hour loading software with a book in hand (pleasure reading, not a manual!) just clicking “NEXT” at the appropriate moments. Of course, this was before I knew about creating an image of your hard drive. Now, with an image, the process can take as little as 20 minutes (unattended by me) to be up and going. This is a time-saver for me.
Some of the software programs to reimage a computer from an external USB Flash Drive include the following:
- For Macintosh computers, use Carbon Copy Cloner. It is free and provides very easy way to make an image of your Macintosh computer’s hard drive. Even more helpful, you can boot off the external hard drive on ANY Mac and continue to work on your hard drive. From their web site:
Have you ever wanted a simple, complete, bootable backup of your hard drive? Have you ever wanted to upgrade to a larger hard drive with minimal hassle and without reinstalling your OS and all of your applications? Have you ever wanted to move your entire Mac OS X installation to a new computer? Then CCC is the tool for you!
Having used CCC on 20-30 Macbooks, various Macintosh Desktops, this is an incredibly easy to use program. It sets a high standard in the area of reimaging computers. Get it online at http://snipurl.com/t7b1c
- For Windows and GNU/Linux computers, try Partimage (longer tutorial online at http://snipurl.com/t7b1l) or, if you feel adventurous, try DD (http://snipurl.com/t7b3t) or FSArchiver (http://snipurl.com/t7b3h). From their web site you can see that “FSArchiver is a system tool that allows you to save the contents of a file-system to a compressed archive file. The file-system can be restored on a partition which has a different size and it can be restored on a different file-system.” I’ve used all three of these tools successfully but they are not for the faint of heart. A fourth option is an automated tool known as PING. What is nice about PING (PartImage Is Not Ghost) is that it uses menus to simplify the process. You are not stuck at the command line typing in commands. Find more out about PING–along with a short tutorial–online at http://snipurl.com/t9fqt
Another handy resource to have in your toolkit for option 2 above is UNETBOOTIN. It’s a fantastic tool for creating bootable USB Flash drives using popular GNU/Linux distributions (e.g. SystemRescue which includes the tools mentioned above in option 2 in software programs…get it online at http://systemrescuecd.org).
Finding the right free tool can be tough, but having investigated these, I encourage you to explore these tools for your own use, as well as in work settings for casual reimaging.
2-What free software is available to burn DVDs/CDs?
Although creating bootable USB flash drives with a rich variety of software that allows you to burn CDs/DVDs, sometimes there are other need. One of these came up at a workshop I offered in August of this school year. “Is there an application,” asked me a Languages Other Than English (LOTE) teacher at the end of a day of workshops, “that I can use to burn videos to DVD?” As I pondered the question, I wondered if perhaps I hadn’t fallen into a state of comfort. On Mac and GNU/Linux operating systems, free programs abound for burning DVDs…but on Windows, could the same be true? For example, on Macintosh, I could turn to the software that came on my Mac, or use other software freely available. On GNU/Linux (I prefer UbuntuLinux), software like Brasero or K3b is available that gives you much of the functionality of commercial DVD burning programs.
Here is a short list of the free software available for Windows.
Completely Free Software:
(Updated to reflect Danny Maas’ suggestion of DVD Flick)
- DVD Flick – http://dvdflick.net/
- AVSMedia – http://www.avsmedia.com/AVS-DVD-Copy.aspx
- ImgBurn – http://www.imgburn.com/
When I chatted with the LOTE teacher, I thought the following programs would work since they were free but I discovered they don’t handle DVD burning well, but they work well with CDs:
From optimizing your computer’s hard drive to reimaging your computer to burning data on CDs and DVDs can all be done using freely available tools. Take advantage of them to achieve your goal of backing up your content.
Everything posted on Miguel Guhlin’s blogs/wikis are his personal opinion and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer(s) or its clients. Read Full Disclosure