Incremental vs. differential backup: which is better?

| By:
Sagar Kamat

In today’s digital age, backups are critical to protecting invaluable client data and enabling business continuity should a threat arise. On paper, the best option for protecting client data is a full backup, which provides comprehensive coverage of all data. This includes the copying and storing of all files, folders, and data in a secure location, ensuring nothing is left behind. 

While full backups are generally ideal, this approach can consume too much time and bandwidth to rely on regularly. For this reason, MSPs may turn to differential or incremental backup to supplement the deployment of full backups. Both incremental and differential backups are popular, feasible, and effective options to help support a comprehensive backup strategy.

Keep reading to gain a deeper understanding of the differences between incremental vs. differential backups and determine which is best for your business needs. 

Incremental backup: what you need to know 

Incremental backup is a data backup strategy that captures and stores only the data that has changed since the last backup—regardless of whether the previous backup was a full backup vs. an incremental backup. 

Because each incremental backup includes just the changes made since the last backup, incremental backups can be executed faster, compared to full or differential backups. 

How it works 

Let’s imagine a situation where a full backup is performed on Day 1. It captures all of the data of a system or dataset. Then, on Day 2, an incremental backup is performed. This incremental backup only captures the changes made to the files or data since Day 1. On Day 3, another incremental backup is taken—and again, only captures the changes made since the previous day. 

While incremental backups are a fantastic option for clients, restoring files after data loss can be more complex compared to differential backups. To effectively restore the data, the last full backup—and all subsequent incremental backups—are required.

Ideal use cases 

How do you know which clients are the best fit for an incremental backup vs a differential backup? 

  • Clients with a large dataset and limited backup window. If your client’s data experiences constant changes throughout the day, performing regular full backups within the available window isn’t feasible. In this case, leverage incremental backups to capture only the changes made since the last backup—and significantly reduce the overall backup time. 
  • Clients with limited bandwidth. If a client’s infrastructure or network bandwidth is limited, performing frequent full backups or differential backups is challenging. Use incremental backups, which involve transferring only the changed data. This results in reduced data transmission and lowers the impact on a client’s network resources. 
  • Clients with specific RPO or RTO requirements. If your clients have rigid Recovery Point Objective (RPO) or Recovery Time Objective (RTO) requirements, incremental backups help meet those objectives. By capturing changes more frequently, you can reduce the potential of data loss for your clients. 
  • Clients with limited storage. If your client has limited storage resources, maintaining multiple full backups or differential backups uses up disk space. Because incremental backups are smaller in size, they allow you to retain a longer backup history—without exhausting storage resources. 

If your client meets any of these parameters, consider incremental backups over differential backups. By focusing on capturing the incremental changes made, day by day, you can strike the ideal balance between data protection and resource efficacy. 

Differential backup: what you need to know 

Now that we’ve covered incremental backup, what is a differential backup? 

A differential backup works by capturing and storing all the data that has changed after the last full backup. Unlike incremental backups, which only back up data that has changed since the last backup of any type (full or incremental), differential backups always include all changes made since the last full backup. 

This means that with each differential backup, the backup set grows larger, capturing a collection of changes since the last full backup.

How it works 

Say your full backup was performed on Day 1, capturing all of your data. On Day 2, a differential backup is taken, capturing all of the changes made since Day 1. On Day 3, another differential backup is performed—and this captures the comprehensive changes made since Day 1.

The restoration process for a differential backup is relatively straightforward. To restore the data to a specific point in time, the last full backup and the latest differential backup are required. By combining the last full backup with the latest differential backup, the system can be restored to the desired state.

Ideal use cases

When comparing differential backups vs. incremental backups, consider your client’s IT infrastructure and business model. Differential backups are ideal for: 

  • Small business clients with frequent data changes. If your client is a small business that frequently updates and modifies files throughout the day, performing daily differential backups is an effective solution. It enables you to quickly capture changes and ensures that the client's data is protected without the overhead of performing full backups regularly.
  • Clients with regulatory compliance needs. For businesses with strict regulatory compliance requirements, maintaining a comprehensive backup history is essential. A differential backup strategy should be used to create a series of backups—capturing all changes since the last full backup. This approach makes it easier to maintain long-term retention of data for compliance purposes, as each differential backup includes a snapshot of data at different points in time.
  • Clients who need rapid recovery. In situations where rapid recovery is crucial, such as when dealing with critical systems or time-sensitive projects, differential backups can provide a better option than incremental backups. Since each differential backup includes all changes since the last full backup, restoring the system requires only the last full backup and the latest differential backup, simplifying the recovery process.

When considering your backup options, a differential backup strategy is a practical and efficient data protection solution for any clients with frequent data updates, regulatory compliance requirements, and the need for rapid recovery in disaster scenarios.

Incremental vs. differential backup: how do they compare? 

We’ve covered the basics, so let’s see how the pros and cons of each backup method stack up side-by-side.

Incremental backup 


  • Backup size: Incremental backups have smaller backup sizes compared to full backups and differential backups. This reduces storage requirements and backup time.
  • Backup speed: Since only the changes made since the last backup are captured, incremental backups are the faster option compared to full backups and differential backups.
  • Bandwidth efficiency: Incremental backups transfer only the changed data, making them more bandwidth-efficient, which is advantageous in low-bandwidth environments or remote backup scenarios.
  • Granular recovery: Incremental backups provide more granular recovery options, allowing users to restore data to specific points in time between full backups.


  • Complexity in restoration: Incremental backups require the last full backup and all subsequent incremental backups for a complete restoration. This complexity can lengthen the restoration process compared to differential backups.
  • Dependency on previous backups: A chain of incremental backups relies on previous backups, so a failure in any one backup can affect the ability to restore data from subsequent backups in the chain.
  • Backup chain length: Over time, the number of incremental backups in the chain can grow, potentially increasing the time required for full restoration.

Differential backup 


  • Faster restoration: Differential backups require only the last full backup and the latest differential backup for restoration, making the restoration process simpler and quicker compared to incremental backups.
  • Fewer backup files: As each differential backup captures all changes since the last full backup, there are fewer files in the backup chain compared to incremental backups.
  • Lesser dependency: A single differential backup is not dependent on previous backups, reducing the risk of data loss in the event of a backup failure.


  • Backup size growth: Differential backups grow in size with each backup, capturing all changes since the last full backup. As a result, they can become larger than incremental backups over time.
  • Slower backup process: Compared to incremental backups, differential backups take longer to complete since they capture all changes since the last full backup, irrespective of when the last backup was taken.
  • Higher storage requirement: Over time, the storage requirement for differential backups can become significant, especially when there are frequent data changes.

Choosing the right backup option for your clients 

When evaluating your client’s backup needs, consider these crucial factors to help determine whether an incremental or a differential backup is most effective. 

  • Data size and growth rate: If your data set is large and growing rapidly, incremental backups may be preferable due to their smaller backup sizes and faster completion times. 
  • Backup frequency: If your client has frequent data changes throughout the day, an incremental backup strategy can effectively capture these changes without exhausting resources. 
  • Recovery point objective (RPO) or recovery time objective (RTO): Because incremental backups offer the most frequent capture of data changes, this option is recommended for clients with strict or robust RPO and RTO requirements. 
  • Network bandwidth and speed requirements: Incremental backups are more efficient for bandwidth, which makes them the ideal choice for clients with limited network resources. 
  • Storage capacity: If you have a client with limited resources, incremental backups are preferred due to their smaller backup sizes. 
  • Restoration needs. What is your client’s tolerance for restoration complexity? Incremental backups are known to involve a more complex restoration process in comparison to differential backups. 
  • Data retention. If long-term data retention is a top priority, differential backups are more manageable. 

Both incremental and differential backups provide a secure option for clients’ data backup needs. Clients with data hosted in the cloud may also require specific considerations, which we cover in depth in our eBook: SaaS Data Backup: Everything You Need to Know (and Do) About It. 

Solutions to manage your incremental and differential backup plans 

Regardless of the specific backup configuration chosen, both incremental and differential backup solutions play a critical role in ensuring the effective protection of client data. Backup solutions act as a safety net, providing a means to recover data and systems in the event of data loss, hardware failure, software corruption, accidental deletions, cyberattacks, or other natural disasters. 

ConnectWise provides a suite of BCDR solutions for MSPs looking to scale their practice with reliable and secure backup and disaster recovery services. From Co-Managed Backup to SaaS Backup, our software solutions can help simplify your backup processes, saving your business time and money. Watch an on-demand demo of ConnectWise BCDR get started today.


An incremental backup is a type of data backup strategy that captures and stores only the data that has changed since the last backup. Because incremental backups only store the new changes, they are smaller in size and faster than other backup options. Incremental backups are ideal for minimizing data transfer and storage requirements—however, the restoration process in case of emergency can be more complex and time-consuming.

A differential backup is a type of backup strategy that captures and stores all of the data that has changed since the last full backup. In comparison to incremental backups, differential backups always include all changes made since the last full backup. Because of this, the backup set grows larger to capture an accumulation of changes. Differential backups offer an easy restoration process; however, the backup sizes increase over time and require higher storage requirements.

Incremental backups are ideal for businesses looking for a reduced backup size, faster backup completion, and bandwidth efficiency. These benefits make incremental backups a cost-effective and efficient protection strategy for businesses.

Differential backups offer a number of advantages, including a simplified restoration process, fewer backup files, independent from previous backups, and optimal data restoration from multiple points.

The choice of backup style depends on several factors, including the size of your data, the frequency of your data changes, availability of storage resources, desired recovery time, and any specific data protection requirements. Assess your clients’ IT infrastructure and data environment and implement a backup strategy that meets your goals and aligns with your operational objectives.