Windows Vista Tip: Excluding Directories From Vista's Built-In Backup

Vista's built-in backup utility can be very useful, but it's got some serious limitations. Here's how to get around one of the most annoying.

May 5, 2007

6 Min Read
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Windows Vista's built-in backup utility is a love-or-hate thing: Some people swear by it, and some people swear at it. I do a little of both. The backup function has saved my skin at least twice since I started using Vista Ultimate, and once it's set up it runs with no baby-sitting. But it's so limited in some ways that I've had to engineer end runs around the program to use it effectively.

Here's the single biggest annoyance I've had so far with Vista's backup function: It's not possible to manually exclude directories from the backup. If you select a drive for backup, everything on the drive barring system files is backed up. It's only possible to exclude file types, and even that's only possible to within a certain degree of granularity.

And yet what Vista's backup program does, it does well enough that I felt compelled to find ways to engineer an end-run around not being able to exclude directories from being backed up.

This is the easiest solution, but also the most disruptive. Since Vista's backup tool works drive by drive, rather than folder by folder, the easiest solution is to simply move any data you don't want automatically backed up to another drive.

If you only have one drive or partition in the system, then this is not going to be of much help. One approach is to repartition an existing system drive into a system and data partition, and then move the folder(s) in question to that partition. I am not crazy about this approach for one simple reason: There is a fairly noticeable performance impact caused by forcing the head to move back and forth between two partitions on the same physical drive.

Also, while it's possible to resize partitions within Vista without rebooting (through the Disk Management console), because of the way the partition manager works you may not be able to use all of the available free space on the current partition for the new partition. To do that you'd need to turn to a third-party disk management tool, such as Boot-It Next Generation.

There's one supersneaky trick you can use to cheat the Vista backup tool. The one directory that does not get backed up is the WINDOWS directory; that's left for the full-system backup tool to handle (assuming you can run that in your edition of Vista). Therefore, if you want to exclude a given directory from being backed up, simply make it a subset of the WINDOWS directory and create a shortcut to that folder for easy access.

This isn't as dangerous as it sounds as long as you're careful not to overwrite or interfere with anything else in the WINDOWS directory. I've been using this trick through several backup cycles on about 50 Gbytes of data, with no ill effects whatsoever.

Here's how I did it: I created a subdirectory in WINDOWS named _My_Stuff (note the underscores) and moved everything I didn't want automatically backed up into that folder. I then created a shortcut to _My_Stuff from the desktop so I could jump into that folder quickly if I needed to. Finally -- and this part is optional but useful -- I changed the access permissions on _My_Stuff and everything below it so I could edit everything in those folders without triggering a UAC prompt or having to launch programs in admin mode. I did this by giving the Users group the following permissions over the folder: Read, Write, List Folder Contents, Read & Execute, and Modify. (You can also assign the same permissions to your own user account specifically if you'd rather not do it by user group.)

Obviously I don't recommend this to everyone. There are many people who are reluctant to tinker with their WINDOWS directory, especially if they're making permissions changes, no matter what the excuse, since the permissions set on the WINDOWS directory are there to help things like UAC work correctly. Also note that some antivirus/security products may object to your tinkering with the WINDOWS directory.

This is an obvious answer, but it's worth including here. If Vista's backup tool just isn't cutting it, there are always other programs, depending on what you need and can afford. This way you don't have to move files around or do any tricky stuff with the WINDOWS directory.

One alternative: I use Microsoft's own SyncToy to make manual backups from a few folders on one of my other internal drives to an external USB hard drive. SyncToy supports excluding folders and will perform incremental backup, and the backed-up files are just mirrors of the originals -- unlike NTBACKUP's monolithic and proprietary file format, there are no funny archive formats to figure out. It also has a number of other options for synchronizing between any two folders that makes it pretty indispensible to begin with -- and it's free.

One important thing SyncToy does not do is file versioning. If you want to recover an older version of a file, the only way to do that is through Vista's Previous Versions feature, where you can recover earlier editions of a file through Explorer. Also, the user interface for restoring previous versions of files is only available in Vista Business/Ultimate, which makes it that much less useful. I'm researching possible ways to make that interface available to Vista Home users as well, but so far I haven't found a way to do it.

Another possible solution is -- surprise, surprise -- to run NTBACKUP, the old Windows 2000/XP backup application, in Windows Vista. However, this is only possible if you have a running copy of Windows XP somewhere, since you'll need to copy several files from that Windows installation to your Vista installation. Using the NTBACKUP.MSI installer alone (from the XP Home installation disc), for instance, will not do the job. Daniel Petri has created a tutorial that explains how to copy the files and set everything up.Some notes on using NTBACKUP in Vista: First, NTBACKUP needs to be run as admin for it to work properly. Second, you should only use NTBACKUP for file backups and not try to back up or restore the System State. Finally, scheduling backup jobs through the program's own scheduling interface doesn't seem to work properly. You'll have to schedule such jobs through Vista's Task Scheduler to make them useful, using NTBACKUP's command-line options, and ensure that NTBACKUP runs as administrator there, too.

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