Anyone who has ever tried backing up Windows 7 or Windows Server 2008 using the built-in backup utilities knows that Windows Backup (and Windows Server Backup) leave a lot to be desired. Although these backup tools are alive and well in Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012, Microsoft has made some big changes that should make the native backup utilities much more tolerable.
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File History backup
The biggest change for Windows 8 backup is the introduction of a new feature called File History. File History replaces a Windows 7 feature known as Previous Versions and allows the easy restoration of files and documents.
File History is designed to use an external hard drive as a backup medium, but Microsoft also gives you the option of backing up Windows 8 machines to a network share as well.
To enable File History in Windows 8, you must open the Control Panel, and click System and Security, followed by File History. Once the File History applet opens, the first thing that you must do is to specify a location for storing your file history, as shown in Figure A.
At this point, you can enable File History by clicking the Turn On button. Before doing so however, I recommend clicking on the Advanced Settings link. As you can see in Figure B, the Advanced Settings page lets you control how frequently Windows saves data, the size of the offline cache and the retention time for previous file versions.
Incidentally, File History is designed to back up the Windows libraries (such as documents, pictures and videos). The File History applet contains an Exclude link that you can use to exclude specific items from being backed up, but there is no option for adding items outside of the libraries to the backup.
So what do you do if you need to perform a full system backup? In previous versions of Windows, you would accomplish this by using Windows Backup. I have heard that Windows Backup will exist in Windows 8, but has been deprecated. In the current build, however, I have been unable to find Windows Backup.
Besides Windows Backup, Microsoft gives you a few other options for recovering your system. If you open the File History applet, you will see a link to restore personal files. This link is used to recover items that have been backed up as a part of the file history. If you need a more comprehensive recovery, however, then click the Recovery link instead. This opens the Recovery applet shown in Figure C.
One option is called Refresh, which essentially installs a clean copy of Windows. In doing so, Windows will preserve data that is stored in your library and it will retain any apps that were installed from the Windows App Store. All other applications, however, will be deleted (although Windows does create a report telling you which applications have been removed so that you can reinstall them).
Another option is Reset, which is designed to return the computer to a pristine state. Choosing Reset removes everything including user files and applications, and installs a clean copy of Windows. Although Reset isn’t exactly a restoration mechanism, a badly corrupted PC could be reset and then the user files could be recovered from File History.
What about Windows Server?
Things work a little bit differently in Windows Server 2012 (formerly known as Windows Server 8). File History does not seem to exist in Windows Server 2012, but Windows Server Backup is alive and well. Thankfully, Windows Server Backup has evolved quite a bit since its debut in Windows Server 2008.
One of the major shortcomings of the current version of Windows Server Backup is that if you use it to back up a Hyper-V host, there is no way to restore individual virtual machines or granular content within a virtual machine. The new version of Windows Server Backup makes it easy to restore an individual virtual machine, as shown in Figure D. If you need to restore files or folders from within a virtual machine, Windows Server Backup 2012 lets you restore a virtual hard disk file to an alternate location and then mount that virtual hard disk outside of the virtual machine. It’s possible to copy files and folders from the newly mounted virtual hard disk to the virtual machine.
The built-in backup mechanisms in both Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012 have changed considerably since the previous versions. Of course, both of these operating systems are still in beta testing and Microsoft could still conceivably make changes prior to the final release.
About the author: Brien M. Posey, MCSE, has received Microsoft’s MVP award for Exchange Server, Windows Server and Internet Information Server (IIS). Brien has served as CIO for a nationwide chain of hospitals and has been responsible for the Department of Information Management at Fort Knox. You can visit Brien's personal website at www.brienposey.com.