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Backup Operations (206.2)

Backup Operations (206.2)

Candidates should be able to use system tools to back up important system data.

Key Knowledge Areas

  • Knowledge about directories that have to be include in backups

  • Awareness of network backup solutions such as Amanda, Bacula, Bareos and BackupPC

  • Knowledge of the benefits and drawbacks of tapes, CDR, disk or other backup media

  • Perform partial and manual backups

  • Verify the integrity of backup files

  • Partially or fully restore backups

  • Awareness of Bareos

Terms and Utilities

  • /bin/sh

  • dd

  • tar

  • /dev/st* and /dev/nst*

  • mt

  • rsync


Making backups is the sysadmins Pavlov reaction to having at least one system to administer. But do we still need backups? After all, nowadays data is often stored on RAID cabinets or "in the cloud".

Well, it depends. First of all superredundant storage will only protect you against one reason for data-loss, namely hardware failure. But not against human error, software bugs and natural disasters.

After all, humans are quite unreliable, they might make a mistake or be malicious and destroy data on purpose. Modern software does not even pretend to be reliable. A rock-solid program is an exception, not a rule. Nature may not be evil, but, nevertheless, can be very destructive sometimes. The most reliable thing is hardware, but it still breaks seemingly spontaneously, often at the worst possible time.

To protect yourself against any of these threats, a very cheap and simple control is available: to make regular backups. There is a very low break-even point between the costs of data loss and those of making backups. In fact, the control used to be so cheap that employing it became a solid best practice.

But please note that there are situations in which making a backup is not necessary. An example is a math-cluster. The results of its calculation are important and you probably will make backups of these. But cluster nodes themselves are discardable. Might a node fail you can simply replace it with a freshly installed one.

So, in conclusion: making backups should always be the result of proper risk-analysis. But in the overwhelming majority of cases they are a cheap way of ensuring your data availability and in some cases your data integrity.


What you need to backup should be the result of proper risk analysis. In olden days most system administrators simply backed up as much as possible - that may not be such a good idea anymore as it takes a lot of time to backup and restore large quantities of data. In all situations you do not need to backup certain parts of the Linux filesystem anyway, for example the /proc and /sys filesystems. They only contain data that the kernel generates automatically, it is never a good idea to back it up. The /proc/kcore file is especially unnecessary, since it is just an image of your current physical memory; it's pretty large as well. Some special files that are constantly changed by the operating system (e.g. /etc/mtab) should not be restored, hence not be backed up. There may be others on your system.

Gray areas include the news spool, log files and many other things in /var. You must decide what you consider important - do a proper risk analysis. Also, consider what to do with the device files in /dev. Most backup solutions can backup and restore these special files, but you may want to re-generate them with a script or they may be created when you reinstall a system.

The obvious things to back up are user files (/home) and system configuration files (/etc, but possibly other things scattered all over the filesystem).

Generally it is a good idea to backup everything needed to rebuild the system as fast as required after a failure - and nothing else. It is often quite difficult to find out what to backup and what not, hence the sysadmins paradigm: whilst in doubt, back it up.


Depending on the rate of change of the data, this may be anything from daily to almost never. The latter happens on firewall systems, where only the log files change daily (but logging should happen on a different system anyway). So, the only time when a backup is necessary, for example, is when the system is updated or after a security update.

To determine your minimal backup frequency consider the amount of data you are confident you can afford to loose without severe consequences for you and/or your company. Then consider the minimal timespan needed to create that amount of data. You should make at least one backup during that timespan. Practical considerations like the time it takes to make a backup and whether or not you can do any work when a backup is being made, will restrict the maximum frequency. In the past systems were mainly used during the day and not at all in weekends. Hence many companies made incremental backups during the night and a full backup during the weekend. However, nowadays many systems need to be used 24 x 7 which creates the need for alternate strategies, for example creating snapshots on disk, which can subsequently be backed up on tape while the production systems continue their work on the live filesystem.

Backups can take several hours to complete, but, for a successful backup strategy, human interaction should be minimal. Backups are mostly made to disk or on tape. In the latter case, the human interaction can be further reduced by having tape robots that change the tapes for you. However, make sure to store tapes off-site so any disaster will not take out your backups. And be sure to protect sensitive data on tapes you store off-site, for example by encrypting the data stored on them.


While the brand or the technology of the hardware and software used for backups is not important, there are, nevertheless, important considerations in selecting them. Imagine, for example, the restore software breaks and the publisher has since gone out of business.

No matter how you create your backups, the two most important parts in a backup strategy are:

Verifying the backup

  • The safest method is to read back the entire backup and compare this with the original files. This is very time-consuming and often not an option. A faster, and relatively safe method, is to create a table of contents (which should contain a checksum per file) during the backup. Afterwards, read the contents of the tape and compare the two.

Testing the restore procedure

  • This means that you must have a restore procedure. This restore procedure has to specify how to restore anything from a single file to the whole system. Every few months, you should test this procedure by doing a restore.


If something fails during a backup, the medium will not contain anything useful. If you made that backup on your only medium you lost your data. So you should have at least two sets of backup media. But if you store both sets in the same building, the first disaster that comes along will destroy all your precious backups along with the running system.

So you should have at least one set stored at a remote site. Depending on the nature of your data, you could store weekly or daily sets remotely.

You will need a written plan, the backup plan, which describes what is backed up, how to restore what is being backed up an any other procedures surrounding the backup. Do not forget to store a copy of the backup-plan along with backupplan the backups at the remote site. Otherwise you cannot guarantee that the system will be back up-and-running in the shortest possible time.

One important thing to be aware of, as noted in the previous paragraphs, you need to be able to rebuild your system (or restore certain files) as fast as required. In some enviroments restore times can be hours because of slow network lines or other causes. The time lost may be too much and can defeat the purpose of the backup system. Other solutions for continuity of service like cluster/failover systems are recommended.

There are different types of backup media, each with their own benefits and drawbacks. The medium of choice however will often be made based on total cost. The main types are: Tape, Disk, Optical Media, Remote/Network


Tape is one of the most used mediums for backup in enterprise environments. It is low cost and because tapes store passively they have a low chance for failure and consume little power on standby. A disadvantage of tape is that it is a streaming medium which means high access times, especially when a tape robot is used for accessing multiple tapes. Bandwidth can be high if data is provides/requisted in a continuous stream. Tape is especially suitable for long term backup and archiving. If a lot of small files have to be written or restored the tape will need to be stopped and started and may even need to be partially rewound frequently to allow processing by the restoring operating system. This may consume excessive time. In those cases tape is not the best medium.


Local disk storage is hardly used for backup, (though it is used for network storage, see below). The advantages are high bandwidth, low latency and a reasonable price compared to capacity. But it is not suitable for off-site backup (or the disk has to be manually disconnected en transported to a safe location). And since disks are always connected and running, chances for failure are high. Though not suitable for off-site backup it is sometimes used as intermediate (buffer) medium between the backup system and an off-site backup server. The advantage is that fast recovery of recent files is possible and the production systems won't be occupied by long backup transfers. Another option, suitable for smaller systems, is using cheap USB bus based portable disks. These can be spun down and powered off when not in use, while still retaining their data. They can contain many terabytes of data and can be taken off-site easily. Also, modern disks employ fast USB protocols that reduce backup- and restore-time.

Optical Media

Optical media like CDROM and DVDR disk are mostly used to backup systems which don't change a lot. Often a complete image of the system is saved to disk for fast recovery. Optical disks are low cost and have a high reliability when stored correctly. They can easily be transported off-site. Disadvantages are that most are write-once and the storage capacity is low. Access time and bandwidth are moderate, although mostly they have to be handled manually by the operator.

Remote/Network storage

Network storage is mostly remote disk storage (NAS or SAN). Using data protection techniques like RAID, the unreliability of disks can be reduced. Most modern network storage systems use compression and deduplication to increase potential capacity. Also most systems can emulate tape drives which makes it easy to migrate from tape. The cost of the systems can be high depending on the features, reliability and capacity. Also power costs should be considered because a network storage system is always on. This type of medium is thus not preferred for long time backup and archives. Access time and bandwidth can differ and depend on infrastructure, but are mostly high.

Backup utilities


rsync is a utility to copy/synchronise files from one location to the other while keeping the required bandwidth low. It wil look at the files to copy and the files already present at the destination and uses timestamps, filesize and an advanced algorithm to calculate which (portions of) files need to be transferred. Source and destination can be local or remote and in case of a remote server SSH or rsync protocol can be used for network transfer. Rsync is invoked much like the cp command. Recursive mode is enabled with -r and archive with -a. A simple example to copy files from a local directory to a remote directory via SSH:

    rsync -av -e ssh /sue remote:/sue

Note By default rsync copies over (relevant parts of) changed files and new files from a remote system. It does not delete files that were deleted on the remote system. Specify the option --delete if you want that behaviour. Also note that permissions will be copied over correctly, but if your local UIDs/GIDs do not match te remote set you may end up with incorrect local permissions still.


The tar utility is used to combine multiple files and directories into a continous stream of bytes (and revert the stream into files/directories). This stream can be compressed, transferred over network connections, saved to a file or streamed onto a tape device. When reading files from the stream, permissions, modes, times and other information can be restored. Tar is the most basic way for transferring files and directories to and from tape, either with or without compression.

An example of extracting a gzipped tar archive, with verbose output and input data read from a file:

    tar xvzf sue.tgz

Extracting a tar archive from a scsi tape drive:

    tar xvf /dev/st0

Creating a archive to file from the directory /sue:

    cd /; tar cvf /tmp/sue.tar sue

By default the tar utility uses (scsi) tape as medium. As can be seen in the example above scsi tape devices can be found in /dev/st* or /dev/nst*. The latter one is a non rewinding tape, this means that the tape does not rewind automatically after each operation. This is an important feature for backups, because otherwise when using multiple tar commands for backups any backup but the last would be overwritten by the next backup.

Tapes can be controlled by the mt command (magnetic tape). The syntax of this command is: mt [-h] [-f device] command [count]. The option -h (help) lists all possible commands. If the device is not specified by the -f option, the command will use the environment variable TAPE as default. More information can be found in the manual pages.


Using the dd utility, whole disks/partitions can be transferred from/to files or other disks/partitions. With dd whole filesystems can be backed-up at once. dd will copy data at byte level. Common options to dd are:


input file: for the input file/disk/partition


output file:


, block size: size of blocks used for transfer, can be optimised depending on used hardware


number of blocks to transfer (dd will read until end-of-file otherwise)

An example of dd usage to transfer a 1GB partition to file:

    dd if=/dev/hda1 of=/tmp/disk.img bs=1024 count=1048576


The cpio utility is used to copy files to and from archives. It can read/write various archive formats including tar and zip. Although it predates tar it is less well known. cpio has three modes, input mode (-i) to read an archive and extract the files, output mode (-o) to read a list of files and compress them into an archive and pass-through mode (-p) which reads a list of files and copies these to the destination directory. The file list is read from stdin and is often provided by find. An example of compressing a directory into a cpio archive:

    %cd /sue; find . | cpio -o > sue.cpio

Backup solutions

Complete backup solutions exist which help simplify the administration and configuration of backups in larger environments. These solutions can automate backup(s) of multiple servers and/or clients to multiple backup media. Many different solutions exist, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Below you'll find some examples of these solutions.


AMANDA, the Advanced Maryland Automatic Network Disk Archiver, is a backup solution that allows the IT administrator to set up a single master backup server to back up multiple hosts over network to tape drives/changers or disks or optical media. Amanda uses native utilities and formats (e.g. dump and/or GNU tar) and can back up a large number of servers and workstations running multiple versions of Linux or Unix.


Bacula is a set of Open Source, enterprise ready, computer programs that permit you (or the system administrator) to manage backup, recovery, and verification of computer data across a network of computers of different kinds. Bacula is relatively easy to use and efficient, while offering many advanced storage management features that make it easy to find and recover lost or damaged files. In technical terms, it is an Open Source, enterprise ready, network based backup program. According to Source Forge statistics (rank and downloads), Bacula is by far the most popular Enterprise grade Open Source program.


Bareos is a fork of the project Bacula version 5.2 and was started because of rejection and neglect of community contributions to the Bacula project. The Bareos backup program is open source and is almost the same as Bacula, but is does have some additional features like LTO hardware encryption, bandwidth limitation and new practical console commands. One focus in Bareos's development is keeping the obstacles for newcomers as low as possible. Because newcomers are usually overwhelmed by configuration options, the Bareos project offers package repositories for popular Linux distributions and Windows.


BackupPC is a high-performance, enterprise-grade system for backing up Linux, WinXX and MacOSX PCs and laptops to a server's disk. BackupPC is highly configurable and easy to install and maintain.