Data protection is a necessary evil of the computing world. If the fact that most PC data is stored on magnetic platters spinning in excess of 7,000rpm while read/write heads float about 3 millionths of an inch above the media surface isn't enough motivation for frequent backups, perhaps your user's penchant for overwriting the big presentation will serve as a reminder of the importance of data protection. Backups that you're diligent enough to perform today might save your proverbial behind in the not too distant future.

IT shops have traditionally used NTBackup to back up desktop data and system information. First appearing in Windows NT 3.1, NTBackup was originally a limited version of a commercial backup application from Seagate Technology, which became Veritas Software and recently, through acquisition, Symantec. Although NTBackup might not seem elegant, its beauty lies in its simplicity and its price, especially for small-to-midsized businesses (SMBs). Many system administrators have used NTBackup and its companion Removable Storage Manager (RSM) to create effective backup and recovery strategies for both workstations and servers.

So, if NTBackup is such a solid performer and has met the backup needs of thousands of IT shops, why is Microsoft supplanting it in Vista? The short answer is that Microsoft wants users to be able to efficiently back up and, if necessary, restore their own systems. To make the backup and recovery processes more useful (and forgiving) to the masses, some of the functionality had to be traded for ease of use. So, instead of repackaging the old backup technology, Microsoft built Vista's new backup capabilities from the ground up and effectively leveraged proven technologies to create robust yet easy-to-use data protection features that even your mom can use.

Vista's new backup and recovery capabilities should provide for better end-user self-sufficiency, which might make administrators and power users feel slightly abandoned. However, if you take the time to learn about the new tools and how to leverage them, you'll likely embrace their simplicity.

The Big Picture
Vista provides two general backup-and-restore methods: Basic File Backup and Restore, which protects users' data, and Windows Complete Backup and Restore, which ensures full system recoverability. Additional data and system protection is afforded through the Shadow Copy and System Restore functionality.

With the exception of Shadow Copy, all backup and restore activities take place in the Backup and Restore Center, which Figure 1 shows. Wizards are available to step even the most novice users through the tasks required to perform effective backups. The processes for defining and executing backups are, at first glance, overly simplistic, but the combination of automation, advanced media support, and standard file formats actually hold a great deal of promise for effective data protection on user workstations.

Basic File Backup and Restore
Basic File Backup and Restore protects user data files, such as documents, pictures, and email messages. This operation doesn't back up program files, OS files, temporary files, and profile settings. Nor does it back up the data that resides in Encrypting File System (EFS) or a FAT file system. Supported media for file backups include CD-R, DVD-R, secondary hard disks (either internal or external, including USB and FireWire), and network drives. Tapes are no longer supported as backup media.

To perform a file backup operation, you need to open the Backup and Restore Center by selecting All Programs on the Start menu, then choosing Maintenance. Alternatively, you can access the center through the Control Panel System and Maintenance applet. In the Backup and Restore Center, click the Back up files button. In the list of available backup media, choose the appropriate hard disk, CDR, DVD-R, or network target, then click Next. You'll be prompted to pick the categories (e.g., Documents, Music, Videos) for the files you want to back up. Note that unlike NTBackup, Basic File Backup and Restore doesn't let you pick individual files or directories to back up. This is part of Microsoft's efforts to save users from themselves. Although it might drive some administrators crazy, the default selections ensure that users don't inadvertently exclude their most important data from the backup operation.

After selecting the file categories, you're prompted with scheduling options. The wizard forces you to create a backup schedule, which is another measure designed to user-proof the backup operation. By default, the backup settings you specify through the wizard are saved and used for all scheduled and all manually run backups until you say otherwise. If you want to alter the schedule, backup media, or file categories, you need to click the Change settings option under the Back up files button in the Backup and Restore Center, then click the Change backup settings option in the Backup Status and Configuration dialog box.

If you don't want file backups to automatically run, you can turn off this functionality by disabling the Automatic backup option at the bottom of the Backup Status and Configuration dialog box. However, if you later change a backup setting, the automatic backup functionality is re-enabled by default.

During file backups, Vista uses the Volume Shadow Copy Service (VSS) to take a snapshot of the files targeted for backup, even if those files are open. Vista saves the shadow copy versions of the files to the specified backup media in a compressed-file format (i.e., in .zip files). Whenever a file meeting the selection criteria is updated, a complete copy of that file is saved during the next file backup, regardless of whether the backup is full or differential.

Windows Complete PC Backup and Restore
Windows Complete PC Backup and Restore creates an image-based backup of your entire system for use in the event of hardware failure or other system damage. The backup process saves everything on the system drive and other selected drives, but you can't back up the drive on which the backup image files are saved.

You can save the backup image files on local hard disks, DVDR media, and network shares in which the share is specified as a Universal Naming Convention (UNC) path. By leveraging VSS, Windows Complete PC Backup and Restore backs up only changed blocks during subsequent backups, but only if the backup target is a hard drive. If you're backing up to DVD-R media, a complete backup is performed. Another media-dependent difference concerns the compression of the backup image files. Image files saved on a hard disk aren't compressed, whereas image files saved to DVD-R are compressed.

For Windows Complete PC Backup and Restore images, Vista uses the Microsoft Virtual Hard Disk (VHD) format, which is the same format used for virtual machine hard drives. You can mount a VHD backup image in Microsoft Virtual Server and Microsoft Virtual PC, but you can't boot from a VHD backup image. Mounting a VHD image in Virtual Server or Virtual PC will let you restore a select portion of a complete PC backup. However, Microsoft designed Windows Complete PC Backup and Restore for full system recovery, which you accomplish with the Windows Recovery Environment (WinRE).

WinRE is an operating environment based on Windows Preinstallation Environment (Windows PE), which replaced the recovery console functionality in Windows XP. You can install WinRE on a hard disk partition in your system. To learn more about this type of installation, see the blog at http://blogs.msdn.com/winre/default.aspx. Alternatively, you can run WinRE directly from the Windows Vista installation DVD. To do so, boot from the installation DVD, make the appropriate language selections, then choose the Repair your computer option. WinRE will guide you through the appropriate recovery operation you're performing, which in this case, is Windows Complete PC Restore. (There are many system repair and recovery functions you can perform from WinRE.) With Windows Complete PC Restore, you can use the complete PC backup, whether stored on disk or DVD, to bring a user's system back to life after a catastrophic event.

You can also use a command-line tool, wbadmin.exe, to perform backup and recovery operations. For example, you might use the following command to perform a full backup of your system's C and D drives to a server share:

wbadmin start backup
  -backuptarget:\\server\share
  include:c:,d:

where \\server\share specifies the share's UNC path. (Although this command appears on several lines here, you would enter it on one line in the command-shell window.) You can get more information about wbadmin by typing

wbadmin /?

in a command-shell window. If you want to automate the complete PC backup process, you can create a script that uses wbadmin and use Vista's Task Scheduler to run that script.

Shadow Copy
If you've worked in a Microsoft server environment, you've probably had a chance to use VSS. In Vista, VSS is part of the desktop OS, which provides for easy and effective protection against accidentally deleted or overwritten files. VSS is enabled by default and saves point-in-time copies of files. You can easily restore a file or folder by right-clicking it in Windows Explorer and selecting the Restore previous versions option. As Figure 2 shows, the Properties page appears. On the Previous Versions tab, you'll find a selection of restorable versions of the file or folder. You can restore a file or folder from not only shadow copies but also from file backups. Note that you can open, copy, and restore shadow copies, but you can only restore backup versions. There isn't much you will want or need to do to manage VSS, but if you are curious, vssadmin.exe is the command-line tool for monitoring VSS. Note that you need to have administrative rights to run vssadmin.exe.

System Restore
Between file backups, complete PC backups, and shadow copies, Vista has user data pretty well protected. However, none of that will help users who can't log on to their systems because of a bad driver or corrupted OS file. System Restore can help users recover from such scenarios. Although System Restore has been around for a while, Vista has improved it by again leveraging VSS to make point-in-time incremental copies of the files required to perform a System Restore. Vista's System Restore tool even includes an undo option in case the desired results aren't obtained.

Restore points are automatically created every day and before significant events, such as the installation of a new device driver. You can also manually create a restore point in the System Protection tab of the System Properties dialog box. This tab is also where you perform a System Restore.

Simply Powerful
Although Vista's backup features might lack familiarity and some of the granular control of NTBackup, Microsoft has gone a long way toward achieving its goals of making backup and recovery tools more usable to the general population. Administrators and power users who are willing to learn about and embrace the new capabilities for what they are will likely discover that just because the features are user-friendly doesn't mean they're less effective in protecting workstation data and providing overall system recoverability.