Backing up a server with Rsync

Tips on using the rsync command. rsync performs incremental filesystem transfers, allowing filesystem duplication or snap shotting. Alternatives to rsync on Unix systems include cp -r, pipes between tar commands, or unison.

rsync behaves differently if the source directory has a trailing slash. Study and learn the difference between the following two commands before moving on. Use the -n option to rsync when testing to preview what would happen.

$ rsync -n -av /tmp .
$ rsync -n -av /tmp/ .

Permissions & Ownership

Normally, the -a option can be used to perfectly mirror the files. However, if the target filesystem does not support permissions, a different set of options should be used to avoid warnings from rsync. To synchronize data to a USB drive with a FAT filesystem, I use the -rlt options.

RSYNC="rsync --size-only --delete --delete-excluded --exclude-from=~/.rsync/exclude -rlt"


mkdir -p $TARGET/backup/repository
$RSYNC ~/share/repository/ $TARGET/backup/repository

A ~/.rsync/exclude can be used to list common file patterns to ignore, for example .DS_Store files on Mac OS X.

$ cat ~/.rsync/exclude

Secure Network Transfers

Set the -e option of rsync to use ssh instead of rsh when copying to a remote system. While ssh is slower than rsh, the data being transfered will be encrypted.

$ rsync -e 'ssh -ax' -avz .

If speed is a concern, use a weaker encryption option to ssh.

$ rsync -e 'ssh -c blowfish -ax' -avz .

The -ax options to ssh disable Secure Shell (SSH) agent and X11 forwarding, which are not needed by rsync. Also consider setting -o ClearAllForwardings to ssh, to prevent possible automatic port forwardings. For more information on options to OpenSSH, see ssh(1) and ssh_config(5).


To avoid stalls, set the --timeout option, though not low enough that rsync times out before it can build the filesystem differences in memory. In rare cases I have seen rsync not exit, so for unattended runs like filesystem snapshots I set the --timeout option to ensure the command will eventually quit.

Backups with rsync and SSH

Notes on how to configure periodic rsync runs over SSH. Filesystem duplication or snap shotting scripts may set the following up in different ways; the method outlined here mirrors the home directory of the user running the script from a client system to a backup server.

    1. Setup a SSH key pair without password.

A public key without a password allows unattended periodic backups. The public key should be locked down to only allow backups on the system the rsync is done to. These notes are for OpenSSH as of version 3.8.

On the system the rsync backup script is run on (client in these notes), create a SSH keypair.

client$ ssh-keygen -N '' -C backup1 -t rsa -f ~/.ssh/backup

    1. Configure public key on backup server.

On the system the rsync backup script connects to (server in these notes), configure the public key. These notes cover OpenSSH; consult the manual if a different SSH implementation is being used. Details on common problems with OpenSSH public key authentication.

client$ scp ~/.ssh/ server:.ssh

server$ cd ~/.ssh
server$ cat >> authorized_keys
server$ rm

For security, the authorized_keys file should be edited to only allow specific commands among other limitations. For more information, see sshd(8) and sshd_config(5). The command limitation to use can be determined by running the rsync with the -e 'ssh -v -v -v' option to see the exact command run on the server.

The following example shows how to restrict a public key in the authorized_keys file to only run the specified command, along with other restrictions on the connection. The limitations must be listed on one line, prior to the lengthy public key data.

command="rsync --server -v --timeout=999 --delete-excluded . backup/client",21B5;
no-port-forwarding,no-X11-forwarding,no-agent-forwarding,no-pty ssh-rsa AAAAB3Nza2026;

    1. Create the target backup directory on the server.

rsync will not create the target directory ($HOME/backup/client) on the server; the target directory must be manually created.

server$ mkdir -p ~/backup/client

    1. Create backup script dobackup.

Use the example script linked to, and localize it as needed.

To test the script, try prefixing the rsync call with echo to see what would be run, or add the -n option to rsync to see what it would copy.

    1. Configure a ~/.rsync/exclude file to list files not to backup.

Cache files and other transitory data should be skipped. For information on how to exclude files, see EXCLUDE PATTERNS in rsync(1).

$ cat ~/.rsync/exclude

    1. Run backup script via a crontab(5) entry.

In addition to automatic runs, the script can be run manually from the command line.

client$ crontab -l
@daily $HOME/bin/dobackup

client$ ~/bin/dobackup

Need to figure out simple locking to prevent an automated run from conflicting with a manual run.

Mac OS X & the Hierarchical File System (HFS)

Mac OS X 10.4 (Tiger) supports the -E option to rsync, which copies extended filesystem attributes.

On previous versions of OS X, compile rsync with the rsync+hfsmode patch. Note that rsync may have trouble with symbolic links (ownerships and permissions) and sockets (perhaps -gHlopqrtx instead of -a).


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