Making Automatic Backups on Linux


Here we describe how to quickly setup efficient, automatic rolling backups on Linux. The backup at any particular week is simply a folder and can be accessed with your usual filemanager. Only the files that changed from the previous week occupy any space. The backups be made remotely, or locally.


Here’s a quick overview of the process:

  1. Suppose you already have backups of your data in the folders backup/2020-02-14, backup/2020-02-15 from the last two days
  2. To backup your data today into backup/2020-02-16 we hard link any file that hasn’t changed from the previous backups, and then copy any file that has changed.
  3. rsync now does this for you automatically, if you pass it the right options. A simple script that calls rsync correctly can be downloaded here
  4. A systemd timer can be used to automate the process.

Making the backup using rsync

To make the backup itself, you just need to run the command:

rsync -xa -HAX --delete-after --fuzzy --fuzzy --delete-excluded \
    --exclude pat1 --exclude pat2 \
    --link-dest=../2020-02-14 --link-dest=../2020-02-15 \
    source-dir/ dest-dir/2020-02-16/

For a full eplanation of the options consult the rsync manual page. The useful ones for our purpose are:

  • --exclude pat1: Patterns of file / directory names you want excluded from the backup.
  • --link-dest=...: All old backup directories need to be specified as paths relative to the destination backup directory.
  • dest-dir is the destination directory, which can be a remote folder using a variety of supported protocols.

As time progresses you need to manually delete older backup directories. All of this is a simple enough task that you can hack your own script quickly. Or you can download my perl script here. My script keeps:

  • one backup a day for a week,
  • one a week for 4 months,
  • and one a month for two years.

If your target directory is on a remote host, then my script also requires you be able to ssh in there without having to type your password.

Automating the process using a systemd timer

Once you have tuned your backup script to your liking, you can automate it easily using systemd as follows. (The older method to do this was using cron. Using systemd is simpler and more reliable.)

  1. First setup a service that will notify you by email. Put the following in ~/.config/systemd/user/notify-email@.service:

    Description=Send email
    ExecStart=sh -c 'systemctl --user status %i | \
        mailx -s "[SYSTEMD %i] Fail" gautam'

    (Replace gautam with your username of course.)

  2. Now setup a service that will do the backups. Put the following in ~/.config/systemd/user/backup.service:

    ExecStart=/home/gautam/bin/backup \
        /home/gautam LOCAL_DST_DIR/backups -- -v
    ExecStart=/bin/bash -c '\
        eval "$(keychain --noask --agents ssh -Q --quiet --eval)"; \
        ~/bin/backup ~ REMOTEHOST:backups -- -v'

    Replace /home/gautam with the directory you want to backup. If you have a second hard drive, and want to do backups locally, then use the first ExecStart command.

    If you want to do backups remotely, then use the second ExecStart command. For this, you need a way to log in remotely without typing a password. The most common way of doing this is using ssh with a public/private key pair. If you have this setup, then your private key is typically encrypted and you only decrypt it in memory using ssh-agent. In order to let your backup run, you need to pass this information to systemd. I do it using keychain in the snippet above, but other was are possible too.

  3. Finally setup a timer that runs the backup service. Put the following in ~/.config/systemd/user/backup.timer:

    Description="Automatically run backups"
  4. Test it using

    systemctl --user start backup.service

    If there is a problem it should print an error message on the screen, and email you. You can also view the logs using

    journalctl --user-unit=backup.service
  5. Once it is working, enable it so it runs automatically:

    systemctl --user enable backup.timer

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