For a long time, I’ve been looking for a good backup solution for my Linux desktop. I thought I had found it for some time in Dropbox, but I recently abandoned that due to concerns around privacy. I looked around, and I believe that I have found something (much) better now. And the great thing? It was actually pretty easy, by combining some recent developments in Linux desktop land.

What are my requirements? Well, there’s quite a few:

  • I am using Fedora as my primary workstation and so I need it work work there.
  • I want privacy for my backups. This means client-side encryption.
  • I want backups to be non-tamperable. So they should be signed.
  • I want the backup client to be verifiable. So I need source code.
  • I want my backups to be hassle free. They should run in the background, automatically and reliably.
  • The backup process should be efficient. This means incremental backups and deduplication of data.
  • The backups should be timely. I can live with the loss of an hour of work, but not more.
  • Finally, I travel a lot. It would be nice if a backup would not run over an in-flight wireless network or a super slow conference wifi.

I thought I’d never find my perfect solution, but I believe I now have. Here’s what I have been using for the last few months:

As the backup tool, I use Tarsnap. Tarsnap gives me most of what I need. It brands itself as backups for the truly paranoid. I don’t believe I fit the label, but I appreciate the positioning and I’ll gladly use the tool anyway. Tarsnap is written by Colin Percival who is well known and well respected in security circles. It comes with source code that you compile yourself (note that Tarsnap is not Open Source as per the OSI Definition, but that is not one of my requirements). It comes with extensive crypto including client-side encryption and signatures. It also performs extensive deduplication.

Tarsnap is just half of the solution though. As anybody that has ever written their own backup script knows, there’s a whole bunch of hairy issues regarding how to execute the backup job periodically. The standard answer would be to use cron(8). However, this solution has some serious non-trivial issues:

  • You need to take care of job exclusion yourself. Jobs can take a long time and so a future job could be started before the current job finishes. This requires some kind of reliable locking.
  • Debugging is a pain. Cron will mail the output of your script. Local mail is not something that I want to deal with anymore in the twenty-teens.
  • Cron has no notion of a logged on user. Cron jobs always run, even when not logged in. This is not what you want for a backup job.
  • Modern laptops sleep all the time, and may only be active for short periods of time between sleeps. Cron has no notion of this. Jobs could be delayed for a long amount of time if the system sleeps at the time the job is due.

Enter systemd --user! My Fedora 22 system runs a user mode systemd for every logged on user by default. The process is fully reliable. Using control groups and other tricks, systemd makes sure there is always exactly one systemd user instance running per logged on user. Systemd also takes care of the following:

  • If a previous job has not completed, a new one will not be started up concurrently.
  • It is possible to run a job at regular intervals after it was first activated, ignoring time that the computer went to sleep between jobs.
  • It provides great logging and status monitoring. It can show you the output of your job, when it was last run, and when it will next run.

The last problem is the travel issue. Ideally I’d like my backups to run automatically when I’m at home and when I’m at work, but not elsewhere.

Enter firewalld! The command firewall-cmd --get-active-zones will give you the curently active networking zones. Using this it was easy to write a script that will only kick off tarsnap if I am at home or in the office.

That’s it! The total number of lines of configuration and scripts that I needed is a whopping 36. I believe that’s safely below the “will I be able to maintain this?” threshold.

Files are below. First, the systemd timer file. Store this in ~/.config/systemd/user/tarsnap.timer.

Description=Run tarsnap hourly

OnCalendar=*-*-* *:15:00


The timer kicks off a service file with the same name. Store the file below in ~/.config/systemd/user/tarsnap.service. Note how this uses /bin/sh to execute the backup script. This way it can use the $HOME environment variable:

Description=Run tarsnap backup

ExecStart=/bin/sh ${HOME}/bin/run-tarsnap

Finally the backup script. Store it in ~/bin/run-tarsnap. The script is pretty straightforward. As an optimization, it uses a timestamp in $HOME to keep the time of the last backup. If no files in the backup locations have a date more recent than the timestamp, and a backup has run in the last 24 hours, then no backup is performed. This is done to prevent creating too many identical tarsnap archives.

zone="`firewall-cmd --get-active-zones | head -1`"
echo "Current network zone: $zone"

test "$zone" != "home" -a "$zone" != "work"  && {
    echo "Not running backup in this zone"
    exit 1

echo "Running backup in this zone"

cd "$HOME"
files="Documents Projects"  # configure this

test -f ~/.backup-timestamp &&
  test "`find ~/.backup-timestamp -mmin -1440 | wc -l`" -eq 1 && \
    test "`find $files -newer ~/.backup-timestamp | wc -l`" -eq 0  && \
      { echo "Last backup < 24 hours and no changes, exiting."; sleep 1; exit 0; }

label="`date +'%Y%m%d-%H%M'`"
tarsnap -c -f "$USER-$label" $files
touch ~/.backup-timestamp
sleep 1  # Without this, stdout sometimes does not get into journal.

Final thoughts

The solution has been working great for me so far over the last couple of months. So, do I store all my files in Tarsnap? No, it is too expensive for that. At $0.25 per GB per month it is much more expensive than e.g. S3 which is just $0.03 per GB per month. The way I backup up my files is as follows:

  • All my “work” (documents, code, presentations, etc) is backed up by Tarsnap.
  • Media files like family pictures, music and videos go onto Google Drive. I don’t care much about privacy here. On Google Drive I can store these for the impressive price of $0.01 per GB per month (for the 1TB plan). And it also lets me share and synchronize these files with my family. I’m using the great Insync client for this.

The final final thought: back up your keys! Without your tarsnap private key you cannot recover. I have a ~/.pki directory that holds all my private keys including the one for tarsnap. This directory is occasionally copied to multiple USB storage devices that are encrypted using dm-crypt/LUKS with a 6-word Diceware passphrase.