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Backing up your 'SYSTEM' - what does that mean and why should I do it?

For anyone who has a PC that is critical to their DAILY life then I recommend a SYSTEM*³ BACKUP BEFORE they apply Windows Updates or indeed ANY SOFTWARE on their PC which they depend upon but especially anything which runs automatically on their behalf. Note that the updates made to MOST AntiVirus updates are 'Data Only' which means that their software is unchanged and as such they are 99+% likely to be stable after such a (Data) update.

Backing up your Windows System is not like backing up your Data - the two activities should be very, very distinct because the tools are completely different as well as the purpose. Personally I always use tools to backup Windows that I can run while Windows is shut down - this gives me a 99+% guarantee that what I have backed up is whatever state of the system that I closed down.

User data should not be affected by a Windows Update BUT you might want to use the monthly schedule to prompt yourself to do a DATA*³ BACKUP - i.e. back up your own data! If your data is properly organised then you should be able to fit all of your data onto even quite small (PAIR! of) memory sticks because all of your 'media' files such as MP3, Video, Pictures (JPG) should be backed up onto (more than 1!) DVDs or CDs depending on how they are to be used for viewing and/or listening.

*³ System backup versus Data backup - what's the difference and does it matter?

Although computers mix up programs (a.k.a. 'the SYSTEM') and data on hard drives as well as in memory they are fundamentally different in many respects which means that backing them up has different criteria and circumstances.

As a user of PC applications you will be familiar with at least some different types of FILES such as spreadsheets, e-mails, documents, pictures, music etc. - all of these ARE DATA and to preserve them in event of failures you can make backups of them as files and they are relatively portable to other PCs if that happened. See Data/File backup - often if needed for a guide to backing up data and what you might want to back up at the same time.

In contrast, most PROGRAMS (a.k.a. 'the SYSTEM') are deliberately NOT PORTABLE because the author (inc. Microsoft!) typically wants you to go through an installation process which is an opportunity for them to charge you for a license to run it. There are many other reasons claimed but mostly they are spurious, do a Google search on "Portable Apps" XP - Apps is slang for Application programs - i.e. the useful things that you want your PC to do! such as surf, e-mail, view pictures etc.. Some background is shown at WikiPedia Portable App's but proceed carefully if you want to take advantage of their attributes as there are distinctions in technology as well as implementation.

Windows itself is in fact thousands of programs inextricably glued together in a manner which Microsoft wants - for mainly legitimate reasons - to stop you from taking apart.

Because of this monolithic approach to assimilating programs into Windows the whole of the Windows SYSTEM has to be treated as a single entity even though some programs will claim some degree of viable separation.

Add the obvious complexity of making a copy of 'yourself' in real time this means that neither Windows not any program running under it cannot guarantee to capture an exact copy of itself 'on the fly' which is why the highest grade of backup is still done using one of the lowest levels of technology in the case of DOS or Linux (or variants) in some solutions to this problem.

The good news is that:

  1. As an end-user the technology is usually hidden from you in the shape of a Windows application that initiates the backup (of the Windows SYSTEM) even though the real work is only done while Windows is completely shut down.
  2. Unless you really depend on your PC on a day to day basis it isn't usually critical for users to backup before Windows updates - i.e. monthly unless it happens to be a 'big' month.

    Any NEW software to be added to a PC would probably justify a SYSTEM BACKUP even if for no other reason to be able to restore the PC to the prior state if the software proved to be either problematic or not fit for purpose.

  3. Many 'e-mail and surf' users survive with annual system backups after the initial flurry when the PC is new and software is added in support of both end-users and the hardware which they then want to attach to the PC

The only potential 'villans' in the above scenario are those companies which have SOFTWARE which UPDATES ITSELF in a similar manner to Microsoft but without the caution that Microsoft allows you to take in terms of:

  • Your choice to ONLY take (SECURITY) CRITICAL updates as opposed to (a) recommended or worse: (b) what THEY want to promote!
  • The mechanisms by which you can control 'how' and 'when' the updates are applied and with some degree of ability to remove updates that cause problems.

See Self Updating Software for the risks involved and prevention strategies that you can employ to ameliorate them.

I hope the information above has been useful, let me know if not! Any Comments, suggestions or corrections to: Contact us please. This would be especially useful if the software environment you have is different to mine and the headings, text or prompts are different.

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