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Common Backup vs System Image Backup – Which Do You Need?

by Keith Summers

System image versus common backup – which backup feeds your needs? In this blog we will explain the similarities and differences between these backups, and describe some scenarios where you would use each.  

Common Backup

Common backup, generally refers to backing up files and folders. This includes photos, documents, music and various other files. The data is unstructured and simple rather than complex like system image backup data. Regular backup assumes that you have the ability to access folders/images upon the restore.


  • Restores can be completed faster than system image backup due to smaller data footprint
  • Backups also take less time compared to system image backup


  • Cannot backup or restore the whole machine, which can be an issue in the event of a disaster
  • No backup or restore of applications

Case Scenario for Common Backup

Say you accidentally delete an important Word document that you need for a report tomorrow. For this scenario, you would use your common backup and restore that single file. This is a simple process that will allow you to restore that file quickly and easily.  This backup assumes that you have the application to access the file once you restore it. 


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System Image Backup

A system image backup is used to back up the whole machine. This includes the operating system, applications, as well as files and folders. System image backups tend to use up more space than regular backups for files and folders, since there is more data to back up. System image backups also enable virtualization, which is the ability to boot a virtual instance of the system.


  • Works for virtualization
  • Useful for physical to virtual migration/conversion
  • Saves applications and data


  • Takes up more storage space than common backup
  • Can take longer to recover due to larger data footprint

Case Scenario for System Image Backup

Say a virus infects your system, making it impossible for you to use your machine. In this case, having a system image backup would enable you to restore the entire machine. It will allow you to retrieve not just your files and folders, but everything else your machine needs to be restored back to its original state (ie your OS, applications, etc).

Importance of Regular Backup

Whether backing up files or folders, or backing up system images, we recommend that you back up your most critical data on a regular basis. How often you back up your data will depend on your RTOs and RPOs (recovery time objectives and recovery point objectives). It is a good idea to schedule backups to be performed at times when sufficient resources (compute resources, network bandwidth, etc.) are available to successfully complete the backup process. For example, scheduling backups at night could be a good practice.  The resources that are used during the day by employees could be leveraged for backups at night when those employees leave for the day.  This could provide ample resources to enable your daily changed data to be backed up and available in the event that you need to recover it. Also, performing backups at night could prevent the regular backup process from impacting or slowing down the productivity of your employees.

Zetta Keith

Keith is a Senior Product Manager at Zetta. Keith has years of experience in the areas of data storage and disaster recovery serving in roles ranging from software development to product management at startup and enterprise companies.

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