Incremental Backups vs. Differential Backups: What’s the Best Approach for Your Business?

Data loss can happen at any given moment. A cyber-attack or a system failure can corrupt enterprise data and render it useless or, even worse, lead to permanent deletion.

To counter the threat of data loss events, companies require a robust backup strategy to ensure business continuity. While most businesses today routinely backup their data, the effectiveness of this approach lies in the strategy.

There are different backup strategies, but what’s best for your organisation is relative to your business, resources, and industry vertical. When it comes to data backup strategies, most IT support teams recommend a combination of full, incremental, or differential backups.

For this post, we’ll focus on incremental backups and differential backups. Both approaches help save time and disk space by only backing up files that are changed or updated. However, the way they do this is significantly different. 

What’s a Full Backup?

As the name suggests, a full backup involves copying and saving the entire data set of a system. This is usually saved in a separate partition or an external system. As it backs up the whole specified data volume, this approach is time and resource-intensive.

As a result, most businesses schedule full backups weekly, biweekly, or monthly while running incremental or differential backups in between. The frequency of this activity depends on the size of the organisation.

What’s an Incremental Backup?

As mentioned above, the first step in an incremental backup strategy is a full backup. After a full backup, incremental backups, back up any changed data since the last backup.

For example, if you did an incremental backup on Friday, the system will back up all the data changed since the last backup on Thursday. As a result, the backed up data is much smaller, leading to a faster backup. The primary benefit here is shorter time intervals between backups.

Key Advantages of Incremental Backups:

  • Backs up data faster (than full backups)
  • Takes up less storage space (than full backups)
  • Uses less bandwidth

Key Disadvantages of Incremental Backups:

  • Recovery is time-intensive
  • If there’s damage to any part of the backup chain, there’s a significant risk of failed recovery

What’s a Differential Backup?

Similarly, differential backups back up single files or folders that are modified daily. This means that differential backups only save the files and folders that have changed since the last full backup.

Like incremental backups, the process starts with a full backup. Then subsequent backups are deployed to include changes made to the files and folders in the system. This approach allows IT support teams to restore data faster as it only has to restore the backed up components.

Key Advantages of Differential Backups:

  • Backs up data faster
  • Takes up less storage space
  • Rapid restore (as there are only two backup data sets – files and folders)

Key Disadvantages of Differential Backups:

  • Takes up more space (when compared to incremental backups)
  • Much slower back up time than incremental backups

Incremental Backups vs. Differential Backups

 Incremental BackupsDifferential Backups
Backup speedFastestFast
DuplicationDoesn’t store duplicated filesStores duplicate files
Storage SpaceLowMedium to high
Restoration speedSlowFast
Media needed for recoveryThe most recent full backup and all incremental backupsThe most recent full backup and all differential backups

What’s the best data backup strategy for your business?

The best data backup and recovery approach for your company depend on the amount of data that needs to be backed up. For example, if it’s a large corporation, IT support teams will leverage a backup strategy that combines both full and incremental backups.

For small and medium-sized businesses, a full and differential backup approach will suffice (if data volumes are relatively low).

Do you need help developing a robust data backup strategy? We can help! Reach out to one of our in-house experts.