Recovering Your Pc From Disaster With Vista Backup & Restore

Jan 19


Alan M Johnson

Alan M Johnson

  • Share this article on Facebook
  • Share this article on Twitter
  • Share this article on Linkedin

Whether you’re a business or individual it’s more important than ever to be able to recover from disaster as quickly as possible and with minimum data loss. However it’s surprising just how many people do so little about it. This article outlines this useful service in Windwos Vista and how to get the best out of it so you can feel secure in the knowledge recovering from disaster is simplicity itself.


A pre-requisite to using this feature of Vista is buying the license for either Vista Business or Ultimate editions.  Unfortunately Microsoft have not made it available in other versions of Vista.   There are two types of backup you can use,Recovering Your Pc From Disaster With Vista Backup & Restore Articles and they affect how you restore the system:

  1. Using the ‘Backup Computer’ it’s possible to write what’s called an image backup of your entire PC to a backup device usually a USB stick or external drive.  This snapshot of your entire system allows you to recover exactly to the same point in time.  However, because it is an ‘image’ of your system drive it requires the restoring PC to have a system drive of at least the same capacity.  Usually it would be the same PC so this is not a problem.  It is also the lengthier of the two backup options as it backs up the whole machine.
  2. Using ‘Backup Files’ you can backup selected data files such as images, photos, music, documents, spreadsheets, emails and application data.  This type of backup is incremental i.e. it only backs up changed files and therefore is usually very fast taking only a few minutes.  However it will not enable you to restore a full system, only those backed up files.

Typically we advise you use both types of backup and blend them to cover all your data and system.  So for example you might take a complete backup weekly, but a file backup daily.  In the event of a disaster you would need to restore the system backup first, and then each daily backup (since its incremental) that contains changes that will not be on the full system backup.

The service has a scheduling function within it so that regular file or full image backups can be taken on a regular basis be that daily, weekly or monthly, whatever suits your needs.  With the speed of modern drives the backup of your entire PC can be done within an hour and in the event of a disaster be recovered in a similar amount of time.  

There are many options for backup devices but with the steadily decreasing cost of external hard drives and USB memory sticks these are looking like the consumer and very small business users backup device of choice.  You need a minimum of 80GB of space to backup up your entire system and that’s what I’d recommend you do. An external hard drive would normally be connected to your PC via a free USB2 socket, however in some instances you may also have eSATA, Ethernet or Firewire (IEEE1394) connections available as alternatives. The fastest connections to use for backup in reverse order are USB2, Firewire and eSATA.

Should your machine stop working for either software or hardware related reasons the Image backup allows you to return it to its last working state to and be confident that everything should work perfectly as it did previously. What this means is that should anything go wrong with your current installation like a faulty hard drive, corrupt windows file or Virus problems, all that is needed to be done is to enter the Windows Vista Ultimate or Business disc, plug in the backup device and start the PC. Once you have done so, follow the steps below to fully restore your PC to the exact state as it was at the last backup.

Keeping your back-up image up to date means you don’t have to worry about any problems caused by software errors, virus infections, hardware failures or corruption. Similarly, should your system hard disk fail entirely, all that would need to be done would be to get a replacement, install it and then follow the process of a system restore and you would have your operating system and software back as it was before.

Please note system restore points described in Windows are a different tool. They save operating system files as a snapshot at a given time in another directory (usually hidden) on your system disk so that without referring to a backup you can reverse a hot fix, service pack or driver update should it prove to cause instability or bugs.  This is obviously no use to you is the system disk fails or becomes corrupted.

Doesn't RAID protect me from drive failures though?

Ideally if you have also selected our RAID1 or RAID5 disk storage configuration you can afford to lose one hard drive and simply 'hot swap' it out for a replacement without any interruption to the working system as it is able to rebuild the information that was on the missing drive on the fly, until you are able to replace the defective drive. Once the defective drive is replaced the RAID5 redundant volume set is rebuilt on the new drive and you have fault tolerance restored once again.

Remember your backup images don’t care whether it’s a RAID drive they are being backed up from or restored to so you can back up a RAID set and restore to non-RAID or vice versa.

How to restore Vista from a backup

Assuming you have your backups now to recover from your backup device (USB or External hard drive), and your machine is now back up and running (or you are using a similar replacement machine) and you have the same capacity hard drive space available it’s very simple.  Just go through the following steps:

1. Insert your Windows operating system DVD into the drive

2. Reboot your machine (or power on)

3. If you are asked whether to 'Press A Key' to boot from CD-ROM, then do so. The standard windows installation process will now begin with a progress bar along the bottom of your screen. Select your preferred language when prompted (i.e. 'UK English') and click ‘Next’.

4. Once the Windows setup DVD has started select the Repair option from the first screen. You will see the ‘Repair your computer’ option on the bottom left. Click on it and click ‘Select’.
On The following screen click ‘Next’ and you will get to a screen with an option o perform a ‘Complete PC restore’

5. Then select the option to 'Windows Complete Restore' to restore from your latest backup (ensure your backup device is already connected and switched on)

6. Windows will now look for backups on your device and allow you to restore your system from it, this will take a few minutes depending on how big your system disk was in terms of volume of data that has been backed up

7. Now remove the Windows setup DVD, and reboot your PC again

8. Your system will now be restored to the state of your last Full image backup

9. You can now go into Control Panel, System Maintenance, Backup and Restore, and select to restore any documents, images, music, email or data files that are backed up individually but were not in the last Full image backup

Please note running through this process WILL DESTROY any existing data on the disks as it completely overwrites it with your backup image including any new files that might be on the disk so you need to be sure you do want to restore from the backup.

Typically a full backup image will take up at least 10GB of space, and your restore will create a new volume of exactly the same size as your original volume so you must ensure that you are restoring to a volume at least as big as your backup volume was.

Backup and Disaster Recovery FAQ

What do I need to do to ensure backups are run?

Just make sure you machine is on at the time set for backups to run, the backup device is connected and switched on. We also recommend you make sure all applications are closed and its advisable to have nothing running while backups are being taken. We default the backup to be done every week, on Sunday, at 7pm.

Manually running backups

If you would like to run a one off backup because you are about to change your system configuration or add hardware or software and you want to be sure the system is safe this is a prudent practice and is easy to do. Go to the ‘Start’ bar (which has now been replaced with a Windows icon in the case of Vista) and Click on Control Panel, followed by System Maintenance and then Backup and Restore Centre. Select 'Backup computer' to make a full image backup of the entire machine and its configuration, or select 'Backup files' to make incremental backups of changed data files (the latter being much quicker and requiring far less backup space).

Bear in mind that you need to rename your backup image file names manually so you can identify which one is which when it comes to having to restore them, otherwise each successive backup will simply overwrite the last and you cant recover to a given point in time. To change their folder names simply use file explorer as you would on any other windows file system device.
All backups are stored in a folder on the backup device named ‘Windows image backup’. The default name for the folder will be the PC’s computer name. Here, simply right click the folder with the new backup you have made (the new one will be identifiable by the date) and select ‘rename’. If you then need to restore to any given point you will be given a choice of folder names identifying all your backups you can restore from.

Do I need to backup anything else?

I recommend you also periodically (say once a month or quarter) backup your full system with a complete image backup. This is the only way to ensure the whole system in its complete working state is backed up and can be restored to. If you don’t mind the wait for it to finish its better to run a Full backup as often as possible, but it can take some time (several hours).

Can I restore my system even if its still working?

Yes! If you want to revert to a previous working state of your system at the time of an earlier backup then even though your system is working you can go through the same procedure above to restore it to that earlier point. This is sometimes useful if a software or driver installation or a virus has infected your machine and you would like to safely revert to an earlier known working and secure state.

If the Windows DVD/CD wont boot on my machine what should I do?

Most likely your CD/DVD drive isn't set as the first priority boot device so the PC is scanning the disks and trying to boot from them first and failing. You need to check your boot priority setup in the machines BIOS setup. You can usually enter the BIOS by pressing at start-up (PC start-up, not Windows start-up, if windows is starting up its too late), usually there is a screen to accompany this to tell you when to press or another prescribed key). Your BIOS will usually give you three or more options for priority order of boot devices for installing windows or recovering from a backup this needs to be set as [CD-ROM] or [USB] first, it doesn't matter what follows it in second priority but ideally it should be your system disk to minimise boot-up time. This is exactly the same process as if you were about to fresh install Windows onto the machine

Protecting backup media

Don’t forget your backup is only as good as the medium it’s on.  In business its good practice to dummy run a restore of your system every now and again to make sure the process and the media are working properly.  If you have the time id recommend you do the same.  Its also advisable to protect the media especially if all your backups are on a single external drive or USB device.  Consider storing the device in a fire safe in between backups to ensure it doesn’t get destroyed in the event of a building fire, flood or collapse.  To be doubly sure buy two backup devices and rotate them on and off site (at a friends house or different business location) that way if an aeroplane hits your house (hopefully while you are out!) your friend still has one of your backups for you…