Automated Backing Up

Table of contents
  1. Automated Backing Up
    1. Preparing the Installation
      1. Creating a backup-up type
        1. Naming rules
        2. Include file format
        3. Exclude file format
      2. Configuring the Backup Script
        1. Destination directory
        2. Disk full threshold
        3. Use of compression
        4. Access by unprivileged users
        5. Default backup types
        6. Incremental clean-up policy
        7. Clearing the Print Queue
        8. Test for File Existance
    2. Preparing the Back-Up Device
    3. How It Works
      1. The Incremental Creation Process
      2. The Automated Clean-up Process
      3. The Creation of the Backup Files
      4. Notes About the Script Operation
        1. Preliminary Steps
        2. Locking Approach

PSC's home page

Preparing the Installation

The script is installed by first unpacking it to some sensible location (e.g. a directory kept just for the backup scripts and configuration files) and then editing the *.include and *.exclude files to suit your usage, and maybe the pbackup.conf file as well.

If you want, create additional include/exclude files for specific areas you want to have back-ups of.

Then install the stuff from a terminal by going to the place you unpacked the stuff, and using the command sudo ./

NOTE: The default is not to backup when rebooting, only on shutdown! You can, of course, change that by the install script, for example as sudo ./ -R 2

Creating a backup-up type

To create a backup "type" you simply create two files, one that lists what you want included, and the other what you want excluded that may be in the include list. Of course, there is slightly more to this than initially meets the eye, so here are the key points:

Naming rules

The 'rules' for acceptable naming for each backup type (such as the home.include and home.exclude files for type "home") are simply down to not contain any spaces or odd characters that the bash shell will be unhappy with. So the following are OK and different backup types:

    mybackup   (normal lower case, easy to type)
    my_backup    (has the underscore character '_', that and the hyphen '-' are fine)
    MyBackup    (capitalisation is OK and might make it easier to read)

The following are NOT allowed:

    .mybackup   (bad, the leading period character '.' makes this a hidden file)
    my backup
    (bad, has a space)
    my~backup  (bad, has a unusual punctuation character)

Once both the type.include and type.exclude files exist, they can be used at the command prompt, or added to the default list in the pbackup.conf file for automated backup when the PC is shut down.

Include file format

The backup script uses the program tar and this has the features for including and excluding files by putting the list into other files. However, there are a number of subtle things that makes this less than ideal, so the files you create are processed by the run_pbackup script to prepare the files that tar actually will use. The following features apply the the files you create:

Typically the include file will list directories you want to have backed up (such as /home) and the assumption is that everything below this directory will be included. But it can also list regular files, if you have a specific requirement for only certain files to be added to the list.

However, one thing you need to be aware of is that the script tells tar not to cross file systems. This was intended to make it easier to avoid the mistake of trying to backup the external backup device, but you need to consider this when creating the include list. Use the mount command to see what file systems are used (the ones starting with /dev) and if necessary have each one that matters explicitly included in the file.

Exclude file format

The exclude file is very similar to the include file, but no bash globbing is used. The program tar is capable of making use of matching patters already for exclusion, and this file should follow tar's rules.

Do not worry if there are exclusion rules that are not present in the files found during include parsing, tar will simply ignore them.

Things you might want to exclude are:
Generally, the safe option is to back up everything, but in reality it just wastes disk space and shut-down time if you do so. Taking a careful look at how you use disk space, and how valuable the data is, will help a lot.

Also you might want to break valuable data in to different backup sets. So you might just exclude email from the "home" backup type, even though it is important, because you have chosen to include only email in another backup type.

Configuring the Backup Script

The file pbackup.conf has several key settings used by the backup (and restore) scripts, and you should take a few minutes to consider them in your system.

Destination directory

The assumption is the user has an external HDD with volume label "backup_hdd" so it is automatically mounted under Ubuntu as /media/backup_hdd and that this device as a directory backup for all of the data to be stored in. Hence the configuration file has:


You can have more than one, separated by a space, so typically the 1st is your prime backup device (e.g. USB disk or network drive) and the second, if set, is a fall-back should the first be unavailable (unmounted, disconnected, swapped for 2nd PC, too full, etc). For example:

BACKUP_DEVICE="/media/backup_hdd/backup /media/thecus/data"

As for the include/exclude file naming, the path to the backup location MUST NOT include spaces or odd punctuation!

Disk full threshold

Decide on a threshold for the disk being too full (percent). This is needed to allow space for the backup we plan, and to avoid the slow down as finding free blocks becomes difficult. The default is 85% so there is a line:


Use of compression

The choice of compressed (gzip) or uncompressed depends on the data type, CPU speed, and speed of the backup device. Typically uncompressed is much faster (2-3 times) but often only 1.5 times bigger (assuming bulk of files are media or .pdf that are not very compressible in any case). Default is to use compressed (TAR_UNCOMPRESSED=0), but typically a first 'full' backup might be done in uncompressed mode from the command line.

For most cases, compression is useful so the default line has:


Access by unprivileged users

The 'ALLOW_READ' variable controls the permission for those other than 'root' or the 'adm' group to access to the backup files and their text list. If privacy between users is not a significant factor this allows easy checking what has been backed up, however, it is a significant risk in most cases so the default is off:


Change to '1' if you want wide access (not recommended).

Default backup types

There is a defined list of 'types' that are run with the -D option. This is typically used as the shut-down options to be backed up. For each 'type' there has to be a corresponding file $CONF_DIR/type.include and $CONF_DIR/type.exclude to list what should and should not be backed up:


This can be a space separate list with quotes (e.g. DEFAULT_BACKUP_TYPES="home system")

Incremental clean-up policy

Allow user control over the cleaning-up of older backups. Options are:
0 = Never clean up (needs lots of storage space!)
1 = Long clean up (keep "day/week/month" for 38/68/361 days)
2 = Normal clean up (keep "day/week/month" for 15/38/181 days)

Default option is:


Clearing the Print Queue

Provide the option to clear the print queue on shut-down. This is more in keeping with home use (in particular with children using the computer) where you don't want the printer bursting in to life with long-forgotten print jobs when first switched on.
0 = Normal workstation behaviour (print jobs preserved over reboot).
1 = Home use, print jobs cleared on shutdown.

Default option is:


Test for File Existance

It may be desirable to prevent the backup from running in cases where it is likely that one of the targets may be missing. If a backup runs without a mounted partition, etc, then restoring to that point in time will result in no files! (Basically the incremental backup list think all files were deleted then). To prevent this you can use a file existance test, this is configued by default to:


For example, if your /home directories are on another partiton (not simply part of the '/' root tree) then you could test for the lost+found directory being present when that partion is mounted with RUN_IF_PRESENT="/home/lost+found"


Preparing the Back-Up Device

The default assumption is the user has an external HDD, formatted as ext3 and with volume label "backup_hdd" so it is automatically mounted under Ubuntu as /media/backup_hdd

If the external drive is formatted NTFS it will be a little slower under LINUX and lacks permissions to control who can restore files from other users. If it is formatted FAT32 then it is poorly protected as well as being limited to 4GB per backup file! The basic steps for disk formatting are in the above guide, and if at all possible I would use ext3

Then create a directory which is used for the data archive, for example with the command:
sudo mkdir /media/backup_hdd/backup

You can have more than one backup device, as all key data is held on the backup device. If you swap them say, once per week, then you will have two sets of 'complete' backups but with some changes missing from each. However, should one device fail, you still have a usable backup on the other.

If you prefer to use Network Attached Storage (NAS) then you need to make sure of the following points:


How It Works

Most computers have a lot of "old" data, stuff that has not changed for a long time. For those files you really only need the one backup copy. For any file that changes, the efficient thing to do is to store the changes, so you backup the original set plus the changes with time.

There are various ways of doing this, and the script tries to create such an incremental backup (i.e. only the changes) according to the time between them. It also tried to arrange and manage this process so it is robust and automatic.

The Incremental Creation Process

Initially it is created with everything as a "full" backup (level 0). Then next time if less than 7 days from the previous backup level then the mode is a "day" backup, if 7-29 days then it is created as a "week" backup, if 30-179 days then a "month", and beyond that it is a "major" backup.

To illustrate this the diagram shows the creation steps (but with some big jumps in time):
Diagram of incremental backup creation steps
Step 1 is the full backup, it becomes the starting point for all other levels. Then steps 2-4 show daily changes being recorded as a change from day-to-day. Step 5 shows a weekly backup being made, starting again from the step 1 full backup, this in turn becomes the starting point for the next daily backup of step 6, and later for the next weekly backup of step 9.

Step 11 shows the first monthly backup being made, again starting from step 1's full backup point, and in turn becoming the starting point for the next daily and weekly, and later monthly points of steps 12-17.

The major backup of step 18 is just the same thing, it becomes the point for the process to repeat again, shown by steps 19-22.

The advantage of having different backup modes (i.e. levels) is the quicker path to restoring everything. To restore to a given point in time, you follow the "outer path" that created the chosen point in time. For example, to restore to step 22 you would do the following sequence: 1182122,  where as to restore to step 17 you would do: 1111617

Without such a hierarchy the process of restoring to step 22 would involve going through all 22 incremental steps, a much more tedious process.

The Automated Clean-up Process

The significance of the major backup is when it comes to the automated tidy-up process, this deletes incremental backups once they are significantly out of date (and probably incorporated in to higher backup levels). Without such a step the volume of data would grow significantly with time, as every change to the system is stored.

That can be an attractive mode, as you can then always go back, but it also demands a significantly larger storage device to match it!

The deletion process is based on the time of the last successful backup of a given 'type' (e.g. "home" and so on), and it works backwards from there. For example, all daily backups of the same type older than 15 days after the last successful backup of that type are removed, as are weekly backups older then 38 days, and monthly older than 181 days.

Full and major backup points are never removed. Once this process is completed, any empty date-time directories are removed to clean up the storage device.

An example of what you are left with is shown here:

Example of cleaned up backups

In this case, only the most recent sets are available, reducing the necessary storage volume. However, it is now only possible to fully restore to steps 1 or 18-22.

Step 16 is available, but not with its full history, so although you can recover some files from that point in time, you cannot restore a whole consistent system to then. For example, changes to files (or new files) between steps 11 to 16 can be recovered, but not any changes/additions between 1 and 11.

The use of the last successful backup point for the time reference has a significant advantage: you do not remove data from a new or reused storage device until you have at least succeeded in the automated process.

The Creation of the Backup Files

The script makes a lot of use of temporary files so the system is robust against an unexpected stop (e.g. power off or HDD removed during the back-up process). The main process is shown in this diagram:
Data flow diagram of 'tar' program used

Step 1 is the preparation of the control files for tar (from tape archive, the backup program used here). These are cleaned-up copies of the type.include and type.exclude files, and the last incremental state file for that type and mode (e.g. home.week.snar for type=home and the weekly backup mode). The cleaning up include stripping out any comment and odd spaces, and expanding any .include file "wildcards" such as /home/* in to /home/paul etc.

Step 2 is the time consuming process of actually getting the changed data off the disk and writing it to the output file (usually gzip-compressed, hence shown as .tgz above). The odd complication here is the data is split in to two streams using the tee program and the 2nd copy is fed to the MD5 checksum program. This allows reliable testing of stored data for errors, and by doing it before it goes to disk it is both faster and can test for errors during writing.

Step 3 is done after the archive is written, and that includes copying the messages to the date-time directory and copying back the incremental status file.

Finally, step 4 is the writing of the type.mode.txt file that has the listing of stored files. This serves two functions:

Each "type" of backup is run in sequence, it is simpler that way and normally faster as you can write sequentially to the backup device (often a slow external USB disk, etc).


Notes About the Script Operation

Preliminary Steps

The first thing the back-up script performs is the sync command to ensure the file systems are flushed to disk promptly. The rational here is the users has initiated a shut-down which is why this script is being run, and thus is likely to power off without checking for completion. This step buys a little extra margin for clean file system state if they do.

Then the script initialises the default values for the configurable settings, then loads the user settings from /etc/pbackup/pbackup.conf  which, if OK, will override the defaults.

The script gets the current date/time as this will be used for creating 'unique' and sortable directory names for holding all backups performed in this one request (i.e. you could have the script running several backup types on shut-down for home, email, etc). While this only has 1 second resolution, it is still sufficient for all practical usage of the script.

Locking Approach

Before proceeding the script looks for another instance of itself running. It works by compating the PID list of all processes with its own name with its own PID, if they match exactly there is only one running.


(c) Paul Crawford, 31st Jul 2014