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Last updated: Apr 22, 2024

What is the difference between incremental, differential, and full backup?

In a business environment where data security is highly important, backup tools are a crucial business tool that must be in place. The role of backups in a data environment cannot be overstated – even individuals set up data backup policies to keep their critical files safe. You will always hear data experts discuss backup solutions because data loss scenarios cannot be completely prevented. 

But, there are different types of backups, and each offers unique advantages and disadvantages. It is essential to know the different types of backups that exist and how you can benefit by setting up either of them. This article explains every single detail about the different types of backup strategies businesses and individuals use – plus how you can set them up. 

What is a Backup?

A backup is a copy of your significant file(s) and data saved on another storage that is different and independent of your primary storage. Let’s say you have a PC running Windows OS, and you need to backup your files saved on the system. You have to install a backup solution, then select a backup type, and backup the files to an external hard drive or another PC in the network (if you’re running a networked environment)). 

A  backup is your solace in the face of critical conditions that lead to data loss scenarios. Setting up an effective backup strategy is crucial for businesses and individuals that handle tons of data – but it all starts with choosing the right strategy. We have mentioned strategies quite a lot, hereunder are the different backup types and strategies used by enterprises and data-centric individuals.

Types of backups

There are several types of backups commonly used to protect data and ensure its recoverability in case of corruption, deletion, or disaster. Each type has its own advantages and is suited for different backup strategies:

    Full, Incremental, Differential

  • Full Backup: This is the most comprehensive type of backup, which copies every file in the system. Full backups provide the simplest form of recovery because they contain a complete copy of everything. However, they require more storage space and more time to perform compared to other types of backups.
  • Incremental Backup: After an initial full backup, incremental backups only store the changes made to the data since the last backup (whether it was a full backup or another incremental backup). This method saves disk space and reduces the backup window but can complicate the recovery process, as you need to restore the last full backup and all subsequent incremental backups.
  • Differential Backup: Similar to incremental backups, a differential backup starts with a full backup. After the full backup, subsequent differential backups include all changes made since the last full backup, not just since the last backup as with incrementals. This type uses more storage than incremental backups but less than full backups, and it simplifies recovery compared to incremental backups because only the last full backup and the last differential backup are needed for restoration.
  • Mirror Backup: This type of backup creates an exact copy of the source data and usually involves a real-time mirroring process. Mirror backups are quick to restore from as they are an exact replica, but they do not offer protection against file corruption or accidental deletion (since changes are mirrored instantly).
  • Continuous Data Protection (CDP): Also known as continuous backup, CDP continuously saves a copy of every change made to the data. This method offers the ability to restore data to any point in time and provides a very high level of data protection. It requires significant storage and processing power.
  • Cloud Backup: Cloud backups involve sending a copy of the data to a service provider’s off-site storage. This can be done using any of the methods described above (full, incremental, differential). Cloud backups are effective for disaster recovery and remote access.
  • Local Backup: This involves copying data to a storage device located within the same physical environment as the data source. Local backups are fast and easy to access but do not provide protection against local disasters like fires or floods.

How each backup type works

Full Backup: Captures Entire Data Set

A Full Backup involves copying all the data from the system. This method is the most straightforward as it includes every file and folder in the backup process. In the event of a data loss, recovery is simple and direct since the full backup contains every piece of data as of the last backup date. The downside is that it requires significant storage space and more time to complete, as it does not discriminate in what it backs up.

Incremental Backup: Saves Changes Since Last Backup

An Incremental Backup focuses on saving storage space and reducing backup time by only copying data that has changed since the last backup was made. This can be after a full backup or a previous incremental backup. Although this strategy uses less storage and completes more quickly, it complicates the recovery process. To restore data, one must have access to the last full backup as well as all subsequent incremental backups, which must be applied in the correct sequence.

Differential Backup: Stores Changes Since Last Full Backup

A Differential Backup strikes a balance between full and incremental backups. After an initial full backup, each differential backup captures all changes that have occurred since that last full backup. This means each differential backup grows larger over time, until the next full backup is taken. Recovery is simpler than with incremental backups, requiring only the last full backup and the most recent differential backup. This method uses more storage than incremental backups but less than performing full backups frequently.

Tip: how to recover your type of backup?

Considerations when choosing between incremental and differential backups

Backup Operation Speed

  • Incremental Backups are generally faster in terms of operation speed compared to differential backups because they only record the changes made since the last backup, which can be either another incremental or a full backup. This minimizes the data amount that needs to be processed and saved.
  • Differential Backups take longer than incremental backups because they capture all changes since the last full backup. As the period extends from the last full backup, the differential backup grows larger and takes more time to complete.

Storage Space Use

  • Incremental Backups are more storage-efficient in the short term. Each backup is smaller since only changes since the last backup are saved. However, over time, the storage required to maintain all incremental backups until the next full backup can add up.
  • Differential Backups initially use more storage space than incremental backups because each backup includes all changes since the last full backup. The storage requirement increases with each differential backup until the next full backup is taken.

Data Restoration Speed

  • Incremental Backups can slow down the restoration process, as each set of changes must be applied in the order they were taken following the last full backup. This can become time-consuming if many incremental backups have accumulated.
  • Differential Backups typically offer a faster restoration process compared to incremental backups because only the last full backup and the latest differential backup need to be restored, irrespective of how many differential backups have been taken.

Cost Difference

  • Incremental Backups can be more cost-effective in terms of storage management, especially in environments where changes between backups are minimal, thereby reducing the storage footprint.
  • Differential Backups might incur higher storage costs due to the larger volume of data saved with each backup. However, the potentially reduced complexity in recovery might justify the extra cost, especially in environments where rapid recovery is critical.

When to use each type of backup

Differential Backups: For Fewer Backups but More Storage Use

Differential backups are particularly well-suited for scenarios where backup windows are limited and the recovery time needs to be relatively quick, but where there is also enough storage capacity to handle potentially larger backup files. This approach is beneficial in environments where data changes are significant but not excessively frequent, as each differential backup grows in size over time until the next full backup is performed.

Suitable scenarios include:

  • Businesses that can perform full backups only occasionally (e.g., weekly) and need quicker recovery times without the complexity of managing multiple incremental backups.
  • Environments where the change rate is moderate, making differential backups sizable but not overwhelmingly large.
  • Situations where backup simplicity and recovery speed are prioritized over storage efficiency.

Incremental Backups: For More Frequent Backups with Less Storage Use

Incremental backups are ideal for environments where data changes frequently and minimizing storage overhead is crucial. This method significantly reduces the volume of data backed up after the initial full backup by only capturing changes since the last backup, whether that's another incremental or a full backup. Incremental backups are typically scheduled more frequently due to their efficiency.

Suitable scenarios include:

  • Organizations with limited storage capacity that need to manage their storage utilization carefully.
  • High-change environments where daily or even multiple backups per day are required to capture all changes without overloading the storage system.
  • Situations where the backup system can manage the complexity of restoring multiple incremental backups in sequence, and where backup windows are very tight.

In summary, differential backups might be the right choice when you need a simpler, quicker recovery process and can afford the extra storage space. On the other hand, incremental backups are better suited for environments that require frequent backups with reduced data redundancy, as long as there is a robust system in place to manage and restore from multiple incremental data sets. The decision should align with the organization's operational requirements, data management policies, and the specific demands of the IT environment.

Comparing backup types

FeatureFull BackupIncremental BackupDifferential Backup
Data CapturedEntire datasetChanges since the last backup (full or incremental)Changes since the last full backup
Storage Space RequiredHigh, as it involves copying all dataLow per backup, but accumulates over timeMedium, increases until the next full backup
Backup SpeedSlowest, as it copies all dataFastest, only copies changed data since the last backupModerate, depends on the amount of data since last full
Recovery SpeedFastest, as all data is in one placeSlowest, requires multiple backups to be restored in orderFaster than incremental, only need last full and latest differential
ComplexityLow, straightforward to manage and restore fromHigh, requires careful tracking of backup sequenceModerate, simpler than incremental but more complex than full
Frequency of BackupTypically less frequent due to size and durationMore frequent, tailored to capture daily changesLess frequent than incremental, more than full
Ideal Use CaseSystems where a complete dataset recovery is neededEnvironments with frequent changes and limited bandwidthSituations needing a balance between speed and storage efficiency
CostPotentially high due to large storage needsLower initial cost, but operational costs can be highGenerally higher than incremental due to larger backups

Understanding backup strategies

Choosing the right backup strategy is crucial for any organization to ensure data integrity and availability. Here’s a structured approach to help you analyze specific requirements and enterprise needs:

1. Assess Data Criticality and Volume

  • Criticality: Determine how critical the data is to your business operations. Essential data requires more robust backup solutions with shorter recovery times.
  • Volume: Understand the volume of data that needs to be backed up. Large volumes may necessitate more efficient backup methods, such as incremental or differential backups, to manage costs and performance.

2. Understand the Recovery Time Objective (RTO) and Recovery Point Objective (RPO)

  • RTO: The maximum acceptable time that your systems can be down after a failure or disaster before causing significant harm to the business.
  • RPO: The maximum acceptable amount of data that can be lost, measured in time. This helps determine how frequently backups should be performed.

3. Consider Regulatory Compliance Requirements

  • Ensure that your backup strategy complies with industry regulations regarding data privacy, retention, and protection. This may influence the choice of backup location (on-premises vs. cloud) and the type of data encryption used.

4. Evaluate the IT Infrastructure

  • Analyze your current IT infrastructure to determine the most compatible backup solution. Consider whether your environment is virtualized, uses cloud services, or relies on traditional on-premises servers.
  • Check for the need for special backups like database backups, application-specific backups, or system state backups.

5. Determine Budget Constraints

  • Cost is a significant factor. Full backups provide the best protection and fastest recovery but are costly in terms of storage and management. Incremental and differential backups can be more cost-effective but may require more complex recovery processes.

6. Analyze Frequency of Data Changes

  • The frequency at which your data changes can determine whether incremental or differential backups are more suitable than full backups.

7. Plan for Scalability and Flexibility

  • The chosen backup solution should be scalable to accommodate future data growth. It should also be flexible enough to adapt to changing technology and business needs.

8. Decide on On-Premises vs. Cloud Backup

  • On-Premises: Offers more control and potentially quicker restoration times but requires significant management and maintenance.
  • Cloud Backup: Provides off-site data protection, scalability, and reduced maintenance but depends on internet connectivity and ongoing subscription costs.

9. Implement a Pilot Project

  • Before fully committing to a backup strategy, implement a pilot project involving key systems to evaluate the solution’s effectiveness and uncover any potential issues.

10. Review and Revise Regularly

  • Regularly review the backup strategy to ensure it continues to meet the organization's needs and adjust as necessary based on changes in technology, business practices, or regulatory requirements.

By methodically assessing these aspects, organizations can choose the most appropriate backup strategy that ensures data safety, meets budget constraints, and aligns with business continuity plans.

Cloud backup benefits and considerations

Cloud backup refers to the strategy of storing data backups in a remote cloud-based data center, which is managed by a third-party service provider. This approach has gained popularity due to its flexibility, scalability, and efficiency. Here are the key benefits and considerations to keep in mind when opting for cloud backup.

Benefits of Cloud Backup

  • Scalability: Cloud backup services offer flexible storage options, allowing businesses to easily scale up or down based on their storage needs. This means you only pay for the storage you actually use.
  • Accessibility: Backups stored in the cloud can be accessed from anywhere, anytime, as long as there is an internet connection. This is particularly useful for businesses with remote teams or multiple locations.
  • Cost-Effectiveness: With cloud backup, there is no need for large upfront capital investments in physical backup infrastructure like tapes or external drives. The subscription-based model typically includes maintenance, reducing overall IT costs.
  • Disaster Recovery: Cloud backups are stored offsite, making them ideal for disaster recovery purposes. They are inherently protected from local disasters such as fires, floods, or hardware failures.
  • Automation: Cloud backup solutions often come with automated backup capabilities, reducing the workload on IT staff and minimizing the risk of human error.
  • Security: Reputable cloud providers implement robust security measures including data encryption, secure data centers, and compliance with regulatory standards, ensuring that data is protected during both transit and at rest.

Considerations of Cloud Backup

  • Internet Dependency: Cloud backups require a reliable internet connection for both backing up and restoring data. Limited bandwidth can slow down these processes, especially with large volumes of data.
  • Data Security and Privacy: While cloud providers generally offer strong security measures, transmitting data over the internet and storing it on remote servers controlled by third parties raises concerns about data privacy and security. It’s important to understand the provider’s security protocols and compliance with relevant regulations.
  • Recovery Time: Depending on the amount of data and internet speed, the time to recover data from the cloud can be considerable. For large-scale data recovery, this could result in prolonged downtime.
  • Cost Over Time: Although cloud backup can be cost-effective, recurring subscription fees can accumulate over time. It's important to regularly review costs as data volumes grow.
  • Vendor Lock-in: Some cloud providers use proprietary technologies that can make it challenging to move data to another provider later. Always check for data portability options.
  • Regulatory Compliance: Ensuring that the cloud provider complies with all relevant laws and industry regulations is critical. Non-compliance can result in legal penalties and damage to reputation.

Cloud backup offers significant advantages for data protection, especially in terms of scalability, cost, and disaster recovery. However, it’s essential to weigh these benefits against potential drawbacks like internet dependency, security concerns, and long-term costs. Choosing a reputable provider and clearly understanding their service agreement can help mitigate many of these considerations.


Choosing the right backup strategy is essential for safeguarding an organization's data against loss due to system failures, disasters, or cyber attacks. The evolution of backup technologies from traditional tape-based systems to sophisticated cloud solutions reflects a growing need for more reliable, efficient, and scalable data protection methods.

Full, incremental, and differential backups each offer unique advantages and suit different operational requirements and constraints. Full backups provide a complete snapshot of data at a given point, making them easy to manage and quick to restore from, though they require significant storage space and operational downtime. Incremental and differential backups, while more complex in recovery processes, reduce the storage and bandwidth needs by focusing on changes since the last backup, with differential being slightly less complex to restore due to its comprehensive capture of all changes since the last full backup.

Cloud backups add a layer of flexibility and accessibility to the backup strategy, allowing data to be stored offsite and accessed or restored from virtually anywhere. This can significantly enhance disaster recovery capabilities and reduce the capital expenditure associated with physical storage solutions. However, the reliance on internet connectivity, concerns about data security, and potential issues with vendor lock-in are important considerations that must be evaluated.

Ultimately, selecting a backup method should involve a thorough analysis of the organization's specific needs, including data volume, criticality, change frequency, regulatory compliance requirements, and budget constraints. An effective backup strategy should not only address current requirements but also be scalable and adaptable to future technological advancements and changes in business operations. Regular reviews and updates to the backup strategy are recommended to ensure that it continues to provide the necessary protection as the digital landscape evolves.


  • Which backup is most efficient?

    For businesses that cannot allocate substantial amounts of time to back up their extensive data volumes, incremental backups are more practical than full backups. They require less storage space and can be completed more quickly.

  • How many backup methods are there?

    The primary backup methods are threefold: full backup, differential backup, and incremental backup.

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