Backups vs Snapshots: Differences and Examples

SimpleBackups founder

Laurent Lemaire

Co-founder, SimpleBackups

January 20, 2021

Last Update: April 29, 2022

Data storage security is as important as ever, no matter what industry you are a part of. Unfortunately, too many businesses lack efficient and modern technologies that can keep their data safe.

Data loss can be a major roadblock on the path to successful scaling and development. No matter the size of the company.

In fact, data loss can be caused by quite a few different factors.
From malware and viruses to power outages to accidental damage, data loss is much easier than you would think.
Because of this, it's necessary to secure an enterprise's data.

Luckily, there are a ton of options out there.
Two popular options involve Backup and Snapshot.
Both of these processes are used to reduce data loss scenarios by essentially "backing up" your data.
However, they are both very different from one another and each boasts its own use cases.

In this quick guide, we'll be breaking down Snapshot vs Backup and their key differences.

Snapshots vs Backups

Table of Contents

What is a Server or a File Backup?

A server backup (or what we often call a file backup) is simply a copy of a system or server's files.
When you create a Backup, it essentially creates an archive of some or all files of your server.
These files, bundled in an archive, are kept in a different location than the original source, which makes them quite dependable in the case of file corruption or data loss.

The main difference between a Backup and a Snapshot is that Backups are isolated copies of data.
They aren't connected to your virtual machine.

That means that they won't offer an entire virtual machine image that you could restore but rather will allow you to restore individual files/folders that might have been compromised.
Backups can be easily moved to the cloud or an off-site data center, unlike snapshots.

The Pros of Server Backups

  • If you upload backups to the cloud, they can be accessed from anywhere at any time.
  • They can easily be moved to the cloud, an off-site location, or a data center.
  • Server backups are highly efficient, reliable, and ideal for long-term data center protection.
  • They are an excellent choice for disaster recovery.
  • Server backups do not require both on-site and off-site storage.

The Cons of Server Backups

  • The backup process can take longer to complete, depending on the volume of data you are backing up.

When to Use Server Backups

Ideally, you should always consider file backups if you want to invest in long-term data protection.

If you host multiple projects on a server, it allows you to back them up and thus restore them individually without impacting other projects

Backups aren't just ideal for business continuity. They can also provide features that snapshots simply cannot. Think of image-level backups. They offer a slew of recovery options and can recover entire virtual machines or applications.

For less dire scenarios, you can use incremental backups in order to only back up the data that has changed recently, so you can save up on storage space.

What is a Snapshot?

A Snapshot is a quick "photo" of your server's file system for a specific period.

This photo of your file system is typically used to restore entire servers in the event of data loss or corruption.

Snapshots can be quite useful in some scenarios, and certainly ideal when combined with Server Backup.

The Pros of Snapshots

  • Snapshots are small and can be made quickly and easily without too much of an effect on the server.
  • They allow for better app availability, quick recovery, simplified backup management of big data volumes, and reduced exposure to data loss.
  • Snapshots can be scheduled and used when necessary for system backup.
  • They can nearly eliminate the need for backup windows and lower the cost of ownership.
  • Data that is corrupted or has been deleted can be brought back through snapshots. (Just as well, you can revert back to an older version of a snapshot in the event of file corruption.
  • Rather than restoring a whole system, one can switch to replicated Snapshot copies since they are already in their native format.
  • You can start the restore a server from a snapshot instantaneously.

The Cons of Snapshots

  • Snapshot backups rely on the system's cloud provider and have to be on the server provider cloud-only. This means if something wrong happens in your provider data center your risk losing your Snapshots as well.
  • For in-house snapshots, if a server has too many snapshots, the system will slow down product volume. It's worth noting that this only happens through copy-on-write snapshot data. Most snapshot systems have negligible lag.

When to Use Snapshots

When thought Snapshot backup has its downfalls, the advantages are quite good.

It's a very practical solution for system backup if it's used with both on-site and off-site backup systems.

If your startup or enterprise already has these storage systems in place, snapshots can be a great solution to data backup and security. However, they are best used for short-term situations.

Summary: What are the Key Differences Between Snapshots and Backups?

A backup is a duplicate of a file or any type of data usually stored in an archive.

Once a backup is initiated, it will copy your files. These copies are kept in a separate location. Backup processes time will vary depending on the volume of data you are backing up.

Snapshots are an immediate sort of "photo" of your server's file system. This photo captures everything about the server exactly when it was taken. Snapshots can be used to restore servers by reverting them to the state they were in when the snapshot was taken.

To summarize, here are the main differences between a server/file backup and snapshots:

  • Backups can be stored in additional locations, the same drive, or even the same server. They do not require off-site and on-site storage. Snapshots require both on-site and off-site storage and must always be stored in the same places where the original system data is located.
  • Backups can have differences between when the backup began and ended. Snapshots are "photos" of your server that preserve it exactly as it was at a given time.
  • The process of creating backups can be long and tedious. Snapshots are instantaneous and take a lot less time to complete. Snapshots take less time to copy data as well.
  • Backup files only include the file system. Snapshots can be made of different types of systems. These include files, apps, settings, etc.
  • Backups exist in different specific locations and can easily be restored. Backups are also usually verifiable. Snapshots are not exactly backups. They can be used as part of the backup process (and should be) but are mostly short-term solutions. Snapshots are deleted when a backup is complete.

Both snapshots and backups have their own pros and cons. However, it's generally recommended to opt for backups if you need long-term coverage. Snapshots are designed for short-term use and storage. They are generally only useful if you need to revert to a very recent version of your server on the same infrastructure.

When it comes down to it, both Snapshots and File Backups can be used together for different levels of data protection, and in fact, this is the most recommended setup for a bullet-proof backup strategy.

Automated File Backups and Snapshots using SimpleBackups SimpleBackups will save you a lot of time setting up and managing snapshots. It helps you schedule point-in-time snapshots for DigitalOcean Droplets, AWS EC2, Exoscale, Lightsail, Hetzner, and more providers. Servers may fail at any time, take action, and avoid permanent data loss!

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