Clonezilla: A Drive-Duping Monster With a Fearsome Face

Backing up data and restoring a crashed computer are two of those “I wish I hadda” moments in the life of every computer user. When you maintain a collection of computers for your job or organization, those tasks can be critical.One of the fastest and most reliable ways to restore an afflicted computer is to copy its previously saved image onto the hard drive. This is particularly useful when the cure for what crashed your computer is a failed hard drive. Clonezilla is one of my top choices for open source imaging solutions. But using it comes with a caveat: Its interface is intimidating.

Interface aside, Clonezilla ranks among the most popular open source options. It is a bit more challenging to use than my long-time favorite EASEUS Disk Copy. But Clonezilla gets the job done with a bevy of options to select. Hence, it often scares away the less technically comfortable users.

What It Does

Clonezilla is a feature-rich disaster recovery system. It is an ideal solution for cloning hard drives and deploying an OS with preferred installed applications and their data to single computers or up to 40 computers simultaneously.

It is based on DRBL technology, or Diskless Remote Boot in Linux, to bypass the hard disk to start the computer. This is the same method used for booting low system-impact Linux distros such as Damned Small Linux (DSL) and Puppy Linux. Clonezilla comes in two flavors.

Use Clonezilla live to back up and restore a single machine. I use the live version as a backup solution for my individual desktops and laptops. I also use it to do a basic system setup on computers I convert from that other OS to Linux for friends and associates. This eliminates the need to install applications from the resident Software Manager after I do a virgin OS installation of Linux.

Use Clonezilla SE (Server Edition) for massive deployment. The software saves and restores only used blocks on the hard disk. This increases the cloning speed and efficiency.

What It Does Not Do

Clonezilla does a lot. But it does have limitations. For example, image format limitations keep you from exploring or mounting a saved image. Similarly, you can not recover single files from the saved image.

Another limitation is the lack of support for spreading a saved image over multiple CDs or DVDs. Ditto for using Clonezilla to make differential and incremental backups.

The primary benefits of using Clonezilla Live is that you do not have to set up a DRBL server ahead of time, and you can boot the restored or target computer from a network.

Instead, you can use Clonezilla Live to clone individual computers using a CD/DVD or USB flash drive. Though the image size is limited by the boot media’s storage capacity, this problem can be eliminated by using a network file system such as sshfs or samba.

The Setup

The first step in getting started is downloading Clonezilla Live and burning it to a CD or a USB drive. To use it, make sure that you set the target computer to boot from your preferred device.

Like other Live distro versions, Clonezilla boots your target computer into a Linux distribution. But you won’t see the familiar desktop trappings. Instead, you will only see white lettering on a black screen.

When the computer finishes the initial boot sequence, you will see an option to pick a kernel version. This is followed by a series of screens from which you select the video resolution, language and the keyboard layout.

The “Start Clonezilla” part of the process is where the inexperienced user easily gets lost. This is where you select the cloning option.

More Setup

Next, decide where you want the image placed. Your options include a local device such as a USB drive or optical drive.

You can also connect to the machine over the network to a mounted drive. If you select the network option, you will need to set up the network settings next and configure the necessary network protocol.

After this, enter any passwords required to access and write to this remote location. Then the image creation and copying will begin.

The process used to run the Clonezilla Server Edition (SE) is similar to that of Clonezilla Live. Clonezilla Live runs the same software as the Server Edition but does it from a live CD or USB flash drive instead of a network connection.

Running It

Once you complete the setup steps, the actual cloning process is relatively simple with Clonezilla. The software breaks down the process into different screens. This reduces the pressure and anxiety that I usually get from a rapid-fire display of multiple options.

But this bare-bones Linux distro lacks any graphical interface. Instead, it uses a kludgy archaic textual interface. This means there is also no mouse input available, so everything is the old-fashioned tab-and-press-enter method.

Still, the interface offers a simple and straightforward approach to cloning a hard drive partition. What Clonezilla lacks in prettiness it makes up for in performance. It has no lack of network devices, sharing protocols and external storage hooks.

Using It

Clonezilla has a high comfort bar if you are not an experienced user. But if you have the tenacity to read through the ample documentation on the product’s Web page, you will do fine. You will find very useful user tips.

To get precise directions on how to customize the setup to meet your particular computing hardware needs, go here.

To get specific installation instructions to install using a USB flash drive or USB external hard drive, go here.

To get specific installation instructions to install on a hard drive with the OS installed already, go here.

To put Clonezilla live on a PXE server and boot your client via PXE, go here.

Bottom Line

This software is packed with advanced features. It supports Grub 1 and 2 along with almost two dozen file systems. It handles both 32-bit and 64-bit OSes with versions for Intel and AMD-based architecture.

But newcomers to cloning with Clonezilla need to take things slowly. A wrong selection will result in cloning failure.

Jack M. Germain has been writing about computer technology since the early days of the Apple II and the PC. He still has his original IBM PC-Jr and a few other legacy DOS and Windows boxes. He left shareware programs behind for the open source world of the Linux desktop. He runs several versions of Windows and Linux OSes and often cannot decide whether to grab his tablet, netbook or Android smartphone instead of using his desktop or laptop gear.

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