Documentation about Backing-Up under Linux


At another page, I described how I backup Windows machines. Under Windows, I prefer image backups because the integration between user data and the OS is tight, especially for user settings.

Under Linux, I prefer files based backups, because user settings and data can be cleanly separated from the OS.

I have chosen to adopt tar fo file backups, because it is

About tar

tar, whose name comes from "tape archive", is an old and proven utility. It is available for all Unix-like operating systems.

There seem to be two major tar variants:

Comparison of Functionality of the Two Variants

tar is mostly used to do backups. It used to be used to do backups on physical tapes. The functionality still reflects limitations of tapes. For example the tar "update" mode will write the updated file(s) to the end of the archive, while leaving the older information in the archive untouched. This is because "seeking" on a tape was slow and costly.

Incremental backups using "update" mode

To do incremental backups, you might consider using the "update" mode, to add new or updated files to the archive. This mode is supported by both BSD tar and GNU tar.

To restore, you would use the "extract" mode together with option -k "Keep (don't overwrite) existing files". However, this approach does not cater for files that were deleted in the source between the full backup and subsequent updates. Also files that were renamed would appear twice after extract:

  1. under their old name, and
  2. under their new name.

Similar for files that were moved: they appear

  1. at their old location, and
  2. at their new location.

Another drawback of "update" is the fact, that it works only on uncompressed archives. This is due to the fact that tar compresses after creating the archive and before writing to tape/file. The approach seems to be due to legacy constraints:

Incremental backups using the "listed-incremental" option

GNU tar has additional functionality for incremental backups. This is not available in BSD tar. GNU tar creates and maintains an additional file with meta data along side the archive file. The standard extension for this file is snar. Example syntax:

tar -czvg mybackup_full.snar -f mybackup_full.tgz dir-to-backup

The options

An additional option p ‑ to preserve meta data like access rights ‑ is only relevant for extract.

There is no mention of the "differential backup" strategy in the on-line documentation. However, the GNU tar manual (see section 5.) calls a full backup a "level 0" backup and the first incremental backup "level 1". The manual explicitely states that you might want to do more level 1 backups by creating a "working copy" of the snar file created at level 0. I tend to call this approach a differential backup. The approach would be:

cp mybackup_full.snar mybackup_diff-1.snar
tar -czvg mybackup_diff-1.snar -f mybackup_diff-1.tgz dir-to-backup

Extract from Incremental Backups

To restore or "extract" from incremental backups, the GNU tar manual stipulates to also use option --listed-incremental with =/dev/null as argument (it could be any argument). So with just a full and a level 1 backup:

tar -xzpf mybackup_full.tgz
tar -xzpg /dev/null -f mybackup_diff-1.tgz

The following alternative also works:

tar --incremental -xzpf mybackup_diff-1.tgz

To list what is going on, you might do:

tar --incremental -tvvzpf mybackup_diff-1.tgz


tar stores "device numbers" in the snapshot file and also uses these to check if a file has changed since the last backup. You might want to use --no-check-device option to avoid a full backup if device numbers change for some reason. There is a tar-snapshot-edit (tar-edit-snapshot ?) utility to deal with such snapshot file issues.


  2. Introduction to the tar command line syntax
  3. Introduction to the syntax of incremental backups
  4. Explains level 1 (=differential) and multi-level backups
  5. The tar manual
  6. Also explains why to copy the snar file
  7. Difference between --listed-incremental and --newer
  8. More details on incremental backups
  9. Torture-testing Unix Backup and Archive Programs

Last change: 2023-10-27
© 2002-2023 Dr. Thomas Redelberger

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