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5 min read

File Vs. Image Level Backups: What’s the Difference and Are You Using the Right One?


Two different data backup levels exist: file-level and image-level. It may sound like file-level backs up documents while the other backs up pictures, but that’s incorrect. 

Let’s delve into each option and see what works best for different scenarios. 

What Is a File Level Backup?

 File-level data backup selectively copies and stores individual files or directories from a computer or server to a specific backup destination (such as an onsite backup server or an offsite cloud backup location). In this approach, the backup software identifies specific files or folders designated for backup, and only those selected items are copied to the backup storage medium. 

Think granularity with this backup option. You can choose and prioritize specific files, folders, or directories for backup. This allows for a more targeted approach to data protection, and you have flexibility in selecting the data you want to back up. 

While a file level backup backs up each file on your computer, it doesn’t back up the programs that created the files. For example, you might be able to back up your organization’s Word documents, PDFs, spreadsheets, etc. but not your Windows 10 operating system, your Microsoft 365 application, and your databases with all your settings and configurations. 

As more and more organizations move into the cloud and use applications hosted in the cloud, file level backups are sufficient because the cloud application is always accessible. You’re not responsible for any hardware, and so you just want to make sure that you can access and restore any files after an incident. 

What Is an Image Level Backup? 

Image-level data backup (also known as system imaging or bare-metal backup) involves creating a complete and exact copy of an entire storage device or system at a specific point in time. Instead of focusing on individual files or directories, image-level backup captures the entire structure of the storage medium, including the operating system, applications, settings, and data. 

This creates a snapshot—or image—of the entire system, allowing for comprehensive recovery in the event of data loss, system failure, or other disasters. The backup is typically stored as a single image file or a set of files that collectively represent the complete system snapshot. This simplifies the storage and management of the backup. 

Image-level data backup is especially beneficial for businesses that still use on-premises hardware or virtual environments, and require rapid recovery in the event of catastrophic failures, system crashes, or disasters. It provides a robust solution for maintaining system integrity and ensuring the availability of critical data and configurations. It is crucial for scenarios where the entire on-premises system or virtual environment needs to be restored. 

Benefits and Disadvantages of File-Level vs. Image-Level Backups 

Both file-level and image-level data backups come with their own set of benefits and disadvantages. The choice between them depends on the specific needs and priorities of an organization. 

File-Level Data Backup Benefits 

  • Quick Recovery of Individual Files: In the event of data loss, file-level backup facilitates faster recovery times for individual files. Users can restore specific files without the need to recover the entire system. 
  • Storage Efficiency: File-level backups can be more storage-efficient, especially when compared to image-level backups, as only selected files are copied. This is advantageous when considering storage space. 
  • Customization and Flexibility: File-level backup solutions often provide users with the flexibility to customize their backup preferences, enabling them to prioritize critical files or directories. 

File-Level Data Backup Disadvantages 

  • Time-Consuming System Recovery: In the event of a complete on-premises system failure, restoring the entire system may require a time-consuming reinstall of the operating system and applications. 
  • Incomplete System Snapshots: File-level data backup doesn't capture the complete on-premises system state, including operating system settings and configurations. This makes the restoration of on-premises systems complex and requires IT professionals to oversee it. 

Image-Level Data Backup Benefits 

  • Comprehensive, Quick, and Efficient System Recovery: In the event of data loss or system failure, image-level backup enables the restoration of the entire on-premises system (operating system, applications, data) to a previous state quickly and efficiently. It is well-suited for disaster recovery scenarios. 
  • Easy to Migrate to New Servers: Image-level backups facilitate system migration to new hardware or virtual environments. The entire system state can be replicated on different hardware configurations. 
  • Reduced Risk of Missing Files: Image-level backup minimizes the risk of missing critical files or settings during the backup process, as it captures everything within the storage device or system. 

Image-Level Data Backup Disadvantages 

  • Requires a Lot of Storage: Image-level backups consume more storage space compared to file-level backups due to the comprehensive nature of the system snapshot. 
  • Slower File-Level Restores: While image-level backups provide a quick recovery of the entire system, restoring individual files from an image can be slower and less efficient compared to dedicated file-level backups. 
  • Limited Granularity: Image-level backups have limited flexibility in choosing specific files for backup, potentially leading to higher storage costs. 

Which Backup Should You Be Using? 

If you are using cloud applications, then file-level backups are sufficient. The cloud application vendor handles the infrastructure and ensures it is available anytime, anywhere, without the need for hardware. Any backups would focus on the files and ensure that you can restore them after an incident. 

However, if you’re using on-premises servers and devices, then image-level backup is critical for disaster recovery, system migration, and scenarios where your entire system needs to be restored quickly. If you want to ensure business continuity in the event of a catastrophic failure of your on-premises systems, image-level backup is the way to go. It will save and restore the configurations, critical data, and more that you need to keep your business operational and help you get up and running again quickly. 

In practice, a combination of both file-level backups for cloud applications and image-level backups for on-premises systems is often employed, addressing different aspects of data protection and recovery needs within an organization. 

Proper backup is so important that we encourage all our clients to contact us with any questions they may have about their backup and restore options.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in November 2017. It has been revamped and updated in January 2024 with the latest information.

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