Full Vs. Incremental Vs. Differential: Comparing Backup Types

There are many things that can go wrong with your website, from a hack to unplanned downtime. If an incident occurs, it’s vital to have a backup of your site’s files so you can restore to an earlier version. However, it’s important to choose the right kind of backup.

The good news is that, once you understand each of the options, narrowing down your decision becomes significantly easier. Familiarizing yourself with the pros and cons of the available solutions will better position you to choose the right one for your specific needs. 

The three main types of backups

You have a variety of backup types to choose from, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. What works for some businesses and website owners may not be the best option for you.

There are three main types of website backups you can choose from:

  • Full
  • Incremental
  • Differential 

In the following sections, we’ll explore each one and discuss its pros and cons, in order to help you better understand and compare them. 

1. What is a full backup?

A complete or ‘full’ backup consists of backing up all of the files and data that make up your WordPress installation and then storing them all together. This includes pages and posts, theme and plugin files, your WordPress database, WooCommerce products, and so on. As you might imagine, this is the most comprehensive type of backup you can have. 

Pros and cons of a full backup

On the plus side, full backups provide you with a full copy of your website so you can migrate or restore it at will. Recovery can also be a relatively simple process, as all of the necessary data is stored together. 

On the other hand, they can take up a large amount of storage space. Due to their size, the backup and restoration processes can also take a while to complete.

Therefore, many businesses only run full backups periodically, perhaps weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly. However, it also makes sense to perform this type of backup before and after a major update to your site.

2. What are incremental backups?

Another popular option is incremental backups. With this method, only the files and/or database tables that have been changed since the last backup are saved.

For example, perhaps you conducted a complete backup of your site on Friday. On the following Tuesday, you could run an incremental backup that would only involve the files on your site that were modified since last Friday (such as recent reviews or comments).

Pros and cons of incremental backups

The main advantage of incremental backups is that they take up less space and less time than complete backups do. This can be particularly beneficial when you have a large or complex website that you update often.

It’s also the fastest type of backup you can make and it requires less bandwidth. Ultimately, this means minimal burden on your server. It also translates to greater control over how frequently your backups are conducted.

What’s more, the chance of something going wrong is lower with this type of backup. The files produced tend to be relatively small, leaving less room for errors.

There aren’t many disadvantages to incremental backups. However, it’s worth noting that in order to run one, you’ll first need a complete backup. Of course, by nature, they also don’t save everything on your site.

Another potential downside is that, while incremental backups are quick, the restoration process can be on the slower side. The new version of your site has to be reconstructed from a combination of previous complete and incremental backups.

3. What are differential backups?

Last but not least, we have differential backups, which fall somewhere in between incremental and complete backups. Differential backups save the data that was introduced or changed since the last complete backup. This is different from incremental backups, which only look for changes in your site since the last backup of any type.

Pros and cons of differential backups

There are a few benefits to using differential backups. For example, they tend to be faster to back up and restore than complete backups.

However, when compared to incremental backups, differential backups take up more storage space. A lot of this can be unnecessary, as differential backups may store duplicate files. Also, the backup won’t be able to complete if either the last differential backup or full backup failed.

Tips for choosing between the different types of backups

When choosing a backup solution for your website, it’s important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach. It’s usually best to use a combination of backup types.

Things to consider when choosing a type of backup:

  1. Your server resources. If you’re on a shared hosting plan, running frequent, complete backups could cause the process to time out. This could temporarily slow down your site or even cause the backup to fail.
  2. The backup restoration process. If something happens to your site, you’ll want to ensure that you can quickly and easily recover your data and files in as little time as possible. 
  3. How much data you’ll be backing up. If you run a complex website and make frequent changes, you’ll likely want to combine a complete backup with an incremental backup strategy. 
  4. Available file storage space. If you store backups with a paid, third-party tool, or if your backup plugin limits the amount of storage space you have, you may want to choose incremental or differential backups. These take up a lot less storage space and enable you to save multiple restore points.
  5. Your tolerance for time between backups. If you rarely make changes to your site, you can likely afford to take a full backup just once per day, or even less. But if you have a lot of important activities, such as online sales, you’ll want to constantly save everything that happens on your site. In this case, a full backup is impractical. An incremental backup might be the best choice because it can quickly save any new data.

A few secondary backup types

So far, we’ve discussed the three main kinds of backups that you can use for your entire website. However, in some cases, you may only want to save certain aspects. 

That’s where secondary backups come in handy. In the next sections, we’ll take a look at four secondary backup types you might consider using: 

  • Database
  • Plugins
  • Themes
  • Media

1. Database-only backups

Your WordPress database consists of your site’s posts, pages, and comments. However, it does not include your other files and folders, such as those for installed plugins and themes.

The database stores much of your site’s content, so it’s important to make sure you’re backing it up at regular intervals. This is especially crucial if you consistently add new content to your site.

exporting database from phpMyAdmin

As with most types of backups, you can create database-only backups manually or by using a plugin. Typically, you’ll back up your database via phpMyAdmin. With this method, you can export your database tables as a zipped file, and exclude any that you don’t want.

2. Plugin-only backups

Another secondary option is a plugins-only backup. This approach enables you to save all of the plugins on your site, both active and inactive. 

Plugins folder highlighted in file manager

For this, you can also use a plugin or conduct the backup process manually. To handle it yourself, you can access your site via File Manager or a File Transfer Protocol (FTP) client, and then navigate to the plugin folder in your site’s root directory (typically located in the wp_content folder).

This type of backup is smart to perform when you’re about to install a new plugin on your site, or when you plan to update an existing one. Sometimes conflicts and compatibility issues can cause errors on your site. If this happens, you’ll want to have an updated, secure version of your plugin files to roll back.

3. Theme-only backups

True to its name, a theme-only backup involves backing up your site’s themes, both active and inactive. It makes sense to conduct this type of backup any time you plan to install a new theme on your website, or when you want to update an existing theme to a more recent version.

Again, you can do this via a plugin or manually. To do the latter, you would need to download the zipped theme folder located in the root directory of your website using an FTP client. 

4. Media-only backups

If you’re only interested in saving the media files on your website, you can run a media-only backup. This consists of all the files on your site that you’ve added or uploaded to the Media Library. More specifically, it includes your images, videos, audio files, and so on.

As with every other type of backup, you can conduct this task either manually or using a plugin. To do the former, you can download your uploads folder from the root directory of your website:

Uploads folder selected in file manager

This requires connecting to your website via an FTP client. As with plugin and theme backups, you can locate the correct files in the wp_content folder.

The best backup solution

At this point, you’re probably ready to pick a solution to help you implement your backups. There are a wide variety of options to choose from, and narrowing them down can seem a bit overwhelming.

We recommend going for a well-rounded, robust tool such as Jetpack Backup, which offers complete, incremental, and differential backups all in one!

Jetpack Backup homepage

This premium solution will create backups of your WordPress site in real time. It also offers one-click restores to make rolling back to an earlier version as quick and easy as possible.

You can restore your site from anywhere via the Jetpack mobile app, even when your site is down. Also, because the plugin is built on WordPress’ infrastructure, you can rest assured that it is incredibly reliable and kept up to date.

Perhaps most importantly, Jetpack lets you back up every aspect of your website and stores redundant copies in multiple locations.

For these reasons, we believe it’s truly the best WordPress backup plugin

With Jetpack, you can access full, incremental, and differential backups, all in real time. It also stores the files offsite, meaning you don’t have to worry about placing an unnecessary burden on your server.

If you’re still not sure whether the investment is worth it, you may also want to consider the other features Jetpack offers. While you can get Jetpack Backup as a standalone plugin, the full WordPress security suite provides all-around protection for WordPress sites. It offers malware and security scans, an activity log, anti-spam functionality, downtime monitoring, and more. This makes it an excellent all-in-one solution for keeping your WordPress site safe.

Find your perfect backup method

While there are steps you can take to safeguard your website, there’s always a risk that it will fall victim to a data breach or hack. With so much at stake, it’s imperative to implement a solid website backup strategy.

Remember, there are three main options you can choose from: full, incremental, and differential backups. For best results, you’ll likely want to use a combination of these at different intervals. To implement a strong backup strategy and put it on auto-pilot, use a reputable real-time backup plugin like Jetpack Backup.

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Rob Pugh profile
Rob Pugh

Rob has worked in marketing and product development for more than 15 years, primarily at Jetpack, Mailchimp, and UPS. Since receiving a Master of Science in Marketing Degree from Johns Hopkins University, he’s focused on delivering products that delight people and solve real problems.

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