Finding an open-source alternative to Ghost

Finding an open-source alternative to Ghost. Have I mentioned lately just how pathetic a software company Symantec is? Norton Utilities is adequate, don’t get me wrong. But I don’t think I’d put Norton AntiVirus on any computer that I wanted to work right. I’d give you my opinion of McAfee’s product, but that’s a violation of the license agreement, so I’ll give you my opinion of the company instead. They’d rather spend their time and money and energy keeping you from talking about their products than they would making them worth buying.
So, anyway. Since Symantec is making my life difficult, why do we keep rewarding them by buying Ghost licenses over and over again?

Knowing that the Unix command dd if=/dev/hda of=[filename] makes a bit-for-bit copy of a hard drive, I sought to utilize the Linux kernel and dd as an alternative. Pipe it through bzip2 and it’d be great, right?

Uh, no. I imaged a 1.6-gig HD that had about 400 MB in use. About an hour later, I had a 900 MB disk image. This is bad. Very bad. Ghost would have given me a 250-300 MB image in 15 minutes.

But then I stumbled across PartImage, which does an intelligent, files-only disk image like Ghost does. It’s fast, it’s small, it works. NTFS support is experimental, but as long as you defragment your drive before you try to make an image, it seems to do fine.

However, it doesn’t do a full disk clone like Ghost does. Not yet, at least. Not on its own, at least. But this is Unix. Where there’s a will, there are 47 ways.

First, dump your partition table: sfdisk -d /dev/hda > table

Next, get your MBR: dd if=/dev/hda of=mbr bs=512 count=1

Yes, Eagle Eye, dd does grab your partition table. But restoring the table with DD will only get your primary partition(s). It won’t get your extended partitions, so that’s why sfdisk is necessary.

Now that we’ve got that detail out of the way, you can use PartImage to create images of all your disk partitions. It’s menu driven like Ghost. It’s text mode and not graphics-mode, so it’s not as pretty, but it’s also a fraction of the size.

Got your files made? Great. Now, to make the clone, you reverse it.

Write out the MBR: dd if=mbr of=/dev/hda bs=512 count=1

Re-create your partition layout: sfdisk /dev/hda

Then restore your partitions, one at a time, using PartImage either in interactive mode or with command-line switches.

It's a lot to remember, so the best bet would be to dump the images plus these two small files to a CD, make a Linux boot floppy containing dd, sfdisk, and partimage, and write a shell script that does it all. Then you can think about getting fancy and making a bootable CD that holds all of it and restores a system lickety-split.

A lot of trouble? Ugh. Yeah. Worth it? Probably. Ghost licenses aren't cheap, and PartImage has the potential to be a whole lot quicker, since it's built on a better foundation. Today's PCs are extremely powerful, and DOS has been underutilizing PCs' power since the introduction of the PC/AT in 1985. Linux will very happily scale up to whatever amount of memory and CPU power your PC has under the hood, making compression and decompression go faster. And if you do a little tweaking with hdparam before creating and before restoring (again, a good job for a shell script), you'll get far better disk throughput than DOS could ever give you. On these P3-866s, I found PartImage was a good 20-60 MB/minute faster than Ghost.

So this is not only faster, it also frees you from the difficulty of keeping track of Ghost licenses, which is a hidden administrative expense. With Linux and PartImage and the associated tools, you're free to use them as you like. The only questions anyone will ask is, "How'd you do that?"

That's not to say I have any objection to paying for a good product, but when you can't even buy a site license to escape the paperwork, it gets ridiculous. I suspect some companies just count their PCs and buy that many Ghost licenses once a year in order to be rid of the administrative overhead.

So I think it's more than worth it to figure out how to effectively do this job with open-source tools.

Of course I've left some questions. How do you make Linux boot floppies? How do you make Linux CDs? The PartImage site has images of bootdisks and boot CDs, but they don't have everything you need. Notably, sfdisk is missing from those images. And obviously you'd have to write your shell scripts and add those yourself.

I'll let you know when I figure it out. I'm pretty darn close.

3 thoughts on “Finding an open-source alternative to Ghost

  • February 28, 2002 at 12:15 pm

    Well, I seem to be searching for the same "Holy Grail" you are, and speed is about the only issue I can’t figure out. I don’t want to use PartImage as of yet — it just doesn’t seem straightforward enough for a non-Unix type (others I work with). So far, I’m looking at just making some scripts that quickly mimic most of what Ghost does, without the bit-for-bit copying of the partitions. I’m curious how you’ve fared at this so far.

  • March 9, 2002 at 10:40 pm

    I really like PartImage as I am migrating to Linux and open source as much as possible. It actually has a pretty slick user interface and *seems* to work. (Desparately needs to be able to restore into different-sized partitions, though.) But I bought Powerquest Drive Image 5.0 because my hard disk backup is mission critical and, frankly, a beta tool with "experimental" NTFS support does not give me much peace of mind. But best wishes to the Partimage folks, and hopefully this is the last software I buy for a *long* time…

  • January 11, 2005 at 1:33 pm

    I have been using patimage for the past year to deploy linux, and windows systems. The only problem is that the partition size needs to match, and you have to defrag the ntfs drives proir to image creation.

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