How to automate Windows desktop backup tasks

Admins can certainly automate the Windows desktop backup process -- all they need to do is choose the right tool.

Backup solutions for Windows have evolved to the point where they are nearly invisible -- they do their work automatically and silently in the background as we work. This tip focuses on such backup tools, as well as the degrees of automation you can expect to get from currently available backup packages.

Prior to Windows Vista, everyone running 32-bit or 64-bit Windows had a free built-in backup application available -- Microsoft's own NTBACKUP tool. It works with the Windows Task Scheduler to launch the program at a pre-designated interval and start a backup process -- typically to another hard drive or maybe a network folder, since, unlike tape or DVDs, these don't require user intervention to be available.

But NTBACKUP is still terribly limited. When a scheduled backup runs, the program pops up a window right in front of you. If you're in the middle of typing, it might even wind up canceling the job by mistake. (It's possible to run NTBACKUP in a separate user account via Fast User Switching, but that would have to be set up by hand -- which doesn't make it very automated!)

This brings out two criteria that need to be satisfied if you're using a backup tool to automate the backup process with a backup tool.

  • It has to be able to run non-interactively so it doesn't disrupt ongoing work (i.e., use the Volume Shadow Copy service in Windows).
  • It has to be able to back up to any available device. (For example, some consumer-level backup products don't even allow backup from one hard drive to another, only to tape or CD/DVD.)

A program like SyncBackSE can do both of these at a low cost for desktops -- even if it has no support for tape devices. (But tape backups are difficult to automate without becoming very costly anyway).

A third and increasingly important option is automatic incremental backup -- i.e., changes to files are replicated to the backup more or less in real time. Norton Ghost does this for the desktop; Symantec's Replication Exec or LiveState Recovery products do this sort of thing for servers.

Other solutions might not even involve a backup product per se. One such product is Altiris Client Management Suite 6.0 -- nominally an enterprise desktop management program, but it can also be used to maintain passive backups of all the clients in a network. Consequently, it may be overkill for some applications (especially given the cost), but perfect for others since it doesn't even require any user intervention at all.

Note: There is a way to restore NTBACKUP files in Windows Vista.

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About the author: Serdar Yegulalp is editor of the Windows Insight, (formerly the Windows Power Users Newsletter), a blog site devoted to hints, tips, tricks and news for users and administrators of Windows NT, Windows 2000, Windows XP, Windows Server 2003 and Vista. He has more than 12 years of Windows experience under his belt, and contributes regularly to and

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