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Light Virtualization and Instant Recovery Software: A great overall safety net for your computer - Important Notes on Snapshot Software Usage

Light Virtualization and Instant Recovery Software: A great overall safety net for your computer
If you were under the impression that a firewall/anti-virus/anti-malware suite and a full system backup are the only tools at your disposal in order to keep your system safe, think again.
| Security & Backup in Software | Posted: Feb 18, 2013 5:22 am

Important Notes on Snapshot Software Usage

 

There are certain important principles that should be followed in order for users to make the most of the features and protection that IRS/Snapshot software can provide. Here are some pointers:

 

A full backup of your system disk/partition is needed first. Before installing snapshot software on your computer make sure to create a full backup of your Windows partition/disk first. This will be your lifeline that will bring your system back from the dead in the rare case that the new software proves to be incompatible with your system and messes things up. The same backup methodology mentioned earlier should be followed here as well. It is probably best to move all your user folders to another disk too (follow steps 1 and 9 from the LV section of this introduction).

 

If you leave all that stuff on C: then your future backups will be huge in size and will take longer to restore; and you don't want that. Moving all your user folders (or any other custom folders that you may have which contain large files) to a different disk/partition means that your future backups will be much smaller in size and more manageable. If no such files are contained within your future snapshots you will also be saving a considerable amount of protected disk space later on.

 

You can always burn all those personal files to DVD or Blu-ray discs later, or just move them to an external disk. Just remember: It is best to have at least two copies of everything you value stored on two different mediums, one copy of which should always be stored away from the computer. Do not trust a single piece of media for your irreplaceable photos, videos, or other important files. Disks and USB sticks can develop bad sectors or even suddenly fail altogether, this can happen without any warning. DVD's can fade with time and the files you burned on them may become unrecoverable, lost forever. Always backup everything twice, in order to protect your personal data from such eventualities. Another good option may be backing up to the cloud with the many various options available, for example Google Drive or Dropbox.

 

Install Snapshot software ideally on a clean and fresh Windows installation. It makes good sense to install snapshot software on clean and freshly-installed Windows, and before installing any drivers, Windows updates or any other software. After your snapshot program has been installed it will auto-create the baseline snapshot on the next reboot. You want this first snapshot to be absolutely clean and free of any additional stuff. In the future you can always revert to this clean snapshot and bring your system back to its original freshly-installed Windows state in just a few seconds, with no drivers or third-party software introduced to the system yet. You can then add the newest drivers plus the latest versions of your favourite software, essentially creating a brand new and clean setup which you can then save as a new snapshot.

 

Keep your C: partition and your snapshots trimmed and free of unnecessary stuff. Use standalone versions of your favourite programs and run those from a different disk/partition. A lot of popular software is now available in portable/standalone form. They require no installation, you just place them in a folder and use them from there. If you have such software installed on C: and you need to update them to their latest versions in the future, you would have to load the snapshot that contains them first, update them, and then save a new snapshot and delete the snapshot that contained their older versions. When such programs reside on a different disk/partition as standalone programs, there is no need for any of this. When newer standalone versions come out, they can usually be installed on top of the existing versions, thus preserving your individual settings for those programs. If you put them on a different disk/partition in the first place and use them from there then they will be available regardless of which snapshot you have currently loaded, and updating them won't have to interfere with any of your existing snapshots.

 

The same applies for games. Most modern games take a lot of disk space and it makes sense to install them to a different disk/partition and use them from there. There is really no need for huge programs like these to be installed on C: and to occupy valuable snapshot space as a result. If you only have one disk in your system then make sure you split it into two or more partitions as explained earlier. Obviously you have to do the partitioning before installing snapshot software. Once the disk is split to a primary C: partition plus one or more logical partitions, you can then install the snapshot software and select the C: partition to be protected by the software. Later on you can install your games on one of your secondary logical partitions, or you may opt to install them on external eSATA or USB 3.0 disks instead. Once again do not use USB 2.0 disks for this purpose, they are slow and your games will take forever to load.

 

Games may still need to add registry entries, start menu shortcuts and other files on the C: partition. You can still install those games on a different disk/partition, but after their install is complete you will need to save a snapshot in order to preserve those C: entries. You must then load that snapshot before playing. Many games do not need any of this though; they will run just fine from a different disk just by double-clicking their executable directly from the game's installation folder, and without the need to use a dedicated snapshot for them. Most games also store data in your Documents or Saved Games folders. If you have already moved your user folders to another disk/partition as mentioned earlier, then your game saves and their settings will always be preserved and updated, regardless of which snapshot you have currently loaded.

 

Once again, snapshot software is not supposed to be a substitute for a firewall or anti-virus/anti-malware software. They are designed to work alongside existing protections and will not stop malware from infecting your system. Snapshot programs do not differentiate between malicious and non-malicious changes. What they can do is to fully undo all system changes, effectively reversing the damage caused by the installation of bad drivers, incompatible Windows updates, unwanted software installations plus any user actions that may have caused problems. They can also fully undo infections caused by the vast majority of conventional malware out there - but just like LV software, snapshot programs can also be vulnerable to certain rare sophisticated malware. That's why it is important to always use such software alongside existing anti-malware and anti-execution solutions.

 

Snapshot software is invaluable for when overclocking your PC: This quality stems from the fact that they can easily undo system crashes. For example, let's say that you are trying a new CPU or GPU clock and your system freezes. All you have to do is to hard-reset and invoke the snapshot software's pre-boot interface. Once there you can load a previously saved snapshot effectively undoing the crash, and all this happens before Windows even gets the chance to warn you of an improper shutdown. With snapshot software there is no need to check the disk for errors after each and every crash. This can save overclockers a lot of time, when trying to establish the limits of their hardware.

 

Snapshot software is ideal for software testing: Let's say that you want to benchmark four different versions of the same driver for comparative purposes. If you want to avoid any chances of driver leftovers affecting your benchmarks, you would have to restore a clean Windows backup before each driver installation, with all the time and effort this would entail. You would have to use a clean Windows install every single time, on which you would install the first driver, benchmark it, then boot into your backup program, restore the clean Windows back up again, boot back in Windows, install the second driver, benchmark it and so on.

 

With snapshot software none of this is necessary. All you have to do is install snapshot software right after Windows has been installed for the first time, and before adding any drivers, updates or any other programs. The program will then take its baseline snapshot which is your clean fresh Windows install with nothing else added.

 

When it's time to test those four drivers you just restore this baseline snapshot, this will bring you back to your clean barebones Windows in seconds. Add the drivers that are needed for all your other devices, leaving out the drivers for the device you want to test/benchmark. At this point you should also install your desired benchmarking programs. If your benchmarking programs can run as standalone applications from another disk this will save you from having to install them on C: at this point.

 

You save this new setup as a new snapshot; this will be your benchmarking base for the testing of those four new drivers. You then install and configure the first driver, reboot for the changes to take effect and once Windows has loaded you save a new snapshot that now contains the first driver.

You reboot once more and restore the clean benchmarking base snapshot. Remember that unlike traditional backups, saving/restoring a snapshot takes just a few seconds. Once back in Windows you install and configure the second driver, reboot, then save this as a new snapshot which now contains the second driver.

 

You repeat this process for all the drivers you want to test. In the end you would have five new snapshots, all branching out from your initial barebones mother snapshot. The first of these snapshots will be your temporary benchmarking base where you have installed all your testing prerequisites, and the other four will be its daughter-snapshots, each one of them containing a clean install of each version of the driver you will be testing. It would take just a few minutes to create these four individual clean driver setups and you now can switch between them with just a reboot and benchmark each driver cleanly. I simply cannot imagine software testing without the great helping hand that snapshot software provides for such a purpose.

 

Here is another useful example on how snapshot software simplifies even hardware testing. In the past I had to perform a comparative analysis of an NVIDIA versus an AMD video card. Snapshot software has helped me to do so with minimal fuss and without having to uninstall existing drivers or having to restore clean backups first. Here is the methodology:

 

Once again I started from my clean barebones snapshot which was taken when Windows was freshly installed with nothing else added. On that snapshot I added all my latest hardware drivers apart from the graphics card drivers. I applied any needed system tweaks and then saved that snapshot and powered the system down. This would be the mother snapshot for these tests. I then plugged in the AMD video card and rebooted into the new mother snapshot I had just created. I installed the latest AMD drivers, DirectX packs etc. and then saved this setup as a new snapshot before powering down the system again.

 

Next step was to remove the AMD video card and plug in the NVIDIA video card. I then booted back to the mother snapshot, added the latest NVIDIA drivers and DirectX packs, and saved this as a new snapshot. For the next week or so I could just swap video cards when needed, load the appropriate snapshot and test-drive those new cards. All my benchmark apps were available as standalones from another disk, so I could use them regardless of the snapshot loaded. The moral of this little story: With snapshot software you can easily switch between different hardware and use those on the same Windows install with minimal effort. While this is very valuable for testing purposes, it also gives you the best of both worlds: If you know that a game runs better on an AMD GPU or an NVIDIA GPU, you just switch off the system, swap your cards over, then load the appropriate snapshot on the next reboot. Within a couple of minutes your graphics setup will have been changed according to your gaming needs, and without having to restore backups or to uninstall existing drivers first.

 

Snapshot software also allows you to define different software setups to suit different computing needs. Here are some examples of the kind of software setups you can create, my personal favourites:

 

Media Encoding Snapshot: This is a strictly offline snapshot with my CPU overclocked to 5.0GHz, and many non-essential Windows services disabled. This is a clean snapshot with only my hardware drivers installed and no other software added apart from my motherboard's utilities which allow me to overclock from within Windows. I use this snapshot strictly for video and audio encoding tasks. My encoding programs run as standalone apps from another disk, and as such they require no installation.

 

Gaming OC Snapshot: On this one my CPU is set at a more moderate 4.7GHz, perfect for gaming without getting too hot. Again this snapshot is a strictly offline one, as I rarely game online. I have installed all the necessary gaming components on this snapshot, things like gamepads, joysticks, latest video cards drivers, DirectX updates, Visual C++ packages etc. I usually install all games on a different disk anyway. As I mentioned earlier modern games are huge and in my opinion there is no need to install them on C: as this would result to huge future snapshots and even larger future backups. My user folders also reside on a different disk anyway, so game settings and saves are preserved even when I switch to another snapshot. I have created dedicated mini-snapshots for any games which need to store registry entries or files on C: Those snapshots take very little space because the games themselves have been installed on a different disk anyway.

 

'Green OC' Snapshot: I also have a 'green' overclocked snapshot, courtesy of my friends and hardware aficionados David and Rick. This one has my system under-volted, all my security apps installed and active, and Light Virtualization software installed. I use this snapshot for everyday tasks and non-demanding programs which don't require for the computer to be at full overclocked throttle. This is an ideal 'green' overclock for lower power consumption. It reduces hardware strain, prolongs component life expectancy and results to lower overall temperatures. It is also a great setup for hot days, or for when I have to leave the computer on overnight.

 

With snapshot software installed it is relatively easy to establish the minimum voltage requirements for your hardware in order to create a 'green' overclock. You just set the system to a moderate overclock first and then use the Windows overclocking utilities of your motherboard to reduce voltages bit by bit. You keep the values for each field written on a piece of paper and run stability tests as you go along. At some point the computer will crash, once this happens you hard-reset and upon rebooting you restore the previous snapshot in order to fully undo the crash. Once back in Windows you just increase the voltages back to their last-known good values and your minimum voltage discovery effort is over. You can then save the snapshot as your "Green Overclock". On the next reboot don't forget to also go to your BIOS/UEFI, check that your new clock and voltage values are as they should be, and save this setup as a new BIOS/UEFI profile.

 

Basically you are only limited by your imagination in regard to the wide variety of mission-specific setups that you can create and save on a clean and fresh Windows install when using snapshot software. And you can easily switch between such setups in a few seconds, with a simple reboot.

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