Backup Strategy

by Malcolm Murphy

Broadly speaking, we can identify two types of backup; the system backup, which is a backup of the operating system and applications (the things only the sysadmin can alter), and the user backup, which is a backup of the users' files (I don't know if anyone else uses these terms, but they'll do for the purposes of this article). As we shall see, system backups and user backups should be treated differently.

System backups

The reason for making system backups is to minimize the effort required, following a crash, to get the system up and running as it was before disaster struck. However, you don't want to spend half your life backing up your disk; no one said it was fun! The key to backing up effectively is to back up only that which is absolutely necessary to enable speedy recovery when disaster strikes.

Think about it: most of your system is pretty stable—the contents of /usr/bin don't change that often, do they? To make things even easier, you probably have a rough copy of your system already; most people install Linux from a distribution of some sort, then make their own customizations. The original distribution is likely to be the starting point of a recovery for many of us.

Linux differs from most other operating systems in that the operating system and a large number of applications are typically installed in one go, whereas DOS-based systems and even Unix-based systems other than Linux tend to be installed in a more piece-wise fashion; first the operating system, then each application, one-by-one. For those systems, it makes sense to back up the whole system; usually a lot of time and care has been invested in setting the system up in the first place. By contrast, installing or re-installing a basic Linux system (complete with applications) is usually a quick and painless affair.

Having just said that most of your system is pretty stable, let's consider what is likely to change. One way you will customize your system is by adding new programs (software that didn't come as part of your distribution). When installing new software, you should be strict with yourself, and keep any new programs separate from those on the distribution. The best place for them is in the /usr/local hierarchy. As its name suggests, /usr/local is designed to contain programs that are local to your system. The advantage in doing this is that you can easily see which programs you can restore from your distribution, and which programs you need to restore from elsewhere.

Another thing you are likely to change is the configuration files the standard programs use. The behaviour of many standard Linux utilities is controlled by simple text files, which you can edit to tailor your system to your requirements. Sometimes distributions will “invisibly” edit some of these text files for you, based on your responses to certain questions, but often you have to edit them yourself.

A lot of the important files live in the /etc directory:

  • /etc/printcap—describes how to communicate with your printers

  • /etc/fstab—describes what file-systems you have

  • /etc/passwd—contains a list of all users, and their (encrypted) passwords

  • /etc/inittab—tells init how to set the system up for a given run level

  • /etc/XF86Config—describes the initial setup of XFree86

Depending on your system, there are likely to be many others as well. As you can see, the /etc directory is very important, and the files it contains are likely to be the result of hours of work. I don't know if I'm typical, but I spent a long time just getting XF86Config exactly how I want it. The thought of going through that again is enough to make me shudder. Of course, some programs will use files in other places, but most of the basic Linux system is configured using files in /etc.

When you modify the configuration files used by an existing program, you can't move them somewhere else; the program (usually) looks for them in a particular place. Therefore, it is important to keep track of what changes you've made, so that, should disaster strike, you can get them back easily. Make a note of all the modifications you make to the system, no matter how trivial they seem at the time.

The best tool for the job is a pen and some paper. Write yourself long descriptions of what you've done, and why. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that in six months time you'll remember just how you got application Y to compile, or what the printcap entry to filter your postscript files through ghostscript was, because the chances are you won't. Even if you are installing new software in a separate directory so it's easy to keep track of, it won't hurt to write down what you installed, when you installed it, and if there were any things that didn't seem obvious at the time.

Now that we've identified what kind of system files we need to back up, let's consider how often. Just after you've made a change is probably the most important time, but don't forget to keep a backup of how the system was before the latest change, just in case things do go wrong later because of your change. The point is that things only change when you change them, which probably isn't very often, and the frequency of your backups should reflect this.

User Backups

ser backups are different from system backups, in that a user's files are liable to change frequently. It will almost certainly be impossible for you to have up-to-the-minute backups of a given user's file space, and you shouldn't even try. In backing up user files, you are offering your users a virtual safety net—reasonably recent copies of their files they can fall back on if they do something silly (like rm * bak instead of rm *.bak—it does happen!), or if the hard disk fails.

User backups will have to be done much more frequently than system backups, perhaps even daily (the cron program enables you to run programs at regular intervals, without having to issue the same commands each time—see the cron sidebar).

One useful feature of many backup programs (including tar) is the ability to backup only files which have changed after a certain date (the last time you did a backup, for example). This can drastically reduce the amount of work in a user backup, since a user is likely to be working on only a small number of files at a given time. You can combine full backups of your user space every so often with more frequent incremental backups.

While it is possible to use floppy disks for your backups, each disk can only hold a small amount of data. Many programs allow a backup to span several disks, but this means that you have to be there to change them while the backup is taking place. If you only have a small system with few users, then this might be feasible, but often it isn't. Magnetic or digital tapes are probably a better choice, simply because of their higher capacity. Linux supports a wide range of tape drives, either via the ftape module or its SCSI support (digital drives are almost always SCSI). The price of tape drives has fallen quite dramatically in the last 18 months or so, and they are now a realistic option for many of us. Alternatively, your Linux box might be on the same network as another machine with a tape drive. Linux can access tapes on remote machines, but that is beyond the scope of this article.

Whatever media you choose, you should look after it. Your backup is there for when things go wrong, so it is important that you can rely on it. You should always verify your backups; it is often said that an unverified backup is worse than no backup at all.

You should also keep more than one set of backups. A popular strategy is based on the “grandfather-father-son” idea. You have three sets of backups; the last one (the son), the one before that (the father), and the one before that (the grandfather). When you do your next backup, you copy over the grandfather, so the son becomes the father, the father becomes the grandfather, and the grandfather is replaced with a new son. The advantage of this strategy is that should one of the sets fail, you at least have something to fall back on, but you don't have to make more than one backup at a time.

The next piece of advice might sound strange at first: always keep at least one backup well away from your machine, preferably in a completely different building. Why? Well, what if the building burns down? You can replace the machine, and get a new Linux distribution, but you won't be able to replace your backup tapes. The data on your computer is its most valuable and irreplaceable component, so treat it with care.


Okay, enough of the chat—let's see some examples. There are many different backup programs available, both freeware and commercial. Each has its merits, but for these examples, I'm going to use tar (GNU version 1.11.2).

Suppose you've just installed a lot of new software in /usr/local, and think it's time you updated your backup of the whole /usr/local tree. You don't have a tape drive, so you're using floppies. A command like:

$ tar -cWMf /dev/fd0 /usr/local

will do the trick. The c option means create an archive, W means attempt to verify the archive after writing, M tells tar to span more than one floppy if it needs to, and the f option tells tar where to write the archive, in this case to /dev/fd0—the floppy disk drive. On many systems, you will have to be root in order to access /dev/fd0 directly.

Even though I've requested verify, it doesn't hurt to check. The command:

$ tar -tMf /dev/fd0

will show a list of all the files backed up. Depending on the size of your /usr/local tree, you might need several floppies. You could reduce the number of disks needed by using tar's compression option; the z flag will tell tar to filter the archive through gzip, thus saving disk space. A good idea? Well, yes and no. While it is attractive to save disk (or tape) space, compressing a lot of files together is risky. It means that the slightest corruption is likely to destroy the whole backup, whereas if the archive is uncompressed, it might be possible to read past any errors, and retrieve at least some of your data. Some programs compress files individually before backing them up, and this is probably a better idea.

I mentioned earlier that it is possible to back up files that have been modified since a certain time. With tar, you can achieve this using the N option. For example,

$ tar -cf /dev/ftape -N yesterday /home

will backup all files under /home which have been altered since yesterday, this time to a floppy tape device /dev/ftape. An alternative approach would be to use a combination of find and tar:

$ find /home -cnewer /etc/last_backup \
  -type f i-print > back_these_up
$ tar -cf /dev/ftape -T back_these_up
$ touch /etc/last_backup

Here, the find command finds all files under /home which have had their contents altered since the file /etc/last_backup was last modified, and writes their names to a file called back_these_up. The T option tells the tar command to back up the files listed in back_these_up. Then we touch the file /etc/last_backup, so that the next time we do this sequence of commands, we get the files that have been modified since this backup. Combining several commands like this is quite useful; as a side effect, we have a list of files that have been backed up, as well as the time of the last backup (the timestamp of the file /etc/last_backup).

Another thing we could do is to filter the list of files, so that certain files don't get backed up. For example, you might not want to back up object files, or DVI files, since they can easily be recreated from the source code (which is usually a much smaller file!). A simple grep -v will do the trick if there is only one kind of file you want to ignore; egrep can be used to ignore several kinds of files. Change the first line above to something like:

$ find /home -cnewer /etc/last_backup \
  -type f i-print | egrep -v '<<<>.o$|<<<>.dvi$' \
  > back_these_up

to ignore object and dvi files. It's also possible to do the same kind of thing with find for this simple example, although it doesn't have egrep's powerful regular expressions:

$ find /home -cnewer /etc/last_backup \
  -type f ! \( -name \*.o -o -name \*.dvi \) \
  -print > back_these_up

It is likely that your exact backup requirements can't be met easily by a single tar command, so don't be afraid to write your own little scripts to do the job. They can be as simple as the three line example above, or as complicated as you like. A few simple scripts, run regularly using cron, can make backing up a very easy process.

Backing up needn't be a protracted form of torture. It needs to be done, and as a sysadmin you have to do it, but a bit of planning and clear thinking goes a long way. It is easy to feel that you must have a complete current snapshot of your entire hard disk at all times, and equally easy to believe that a six-month old copy of a few files lying about somewhere will do. The best strategy lies somewhere in between.

Malcolm Murphy ( remembers a time when 256K of memory was considered more than enough for all your computing needs, instead of the bare minimum cache requirement, and wonders if we aren't just a little spoiled nowadays.

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